Despite Anime Avatar Twitter’s claims to the contrary, gaming has one of the most diverse fanbases of any medium. A study by Pew research found that Black teens play more video games than their white peers, at 83 percent and 71 percent respectively. Despite making up a large portion of the player base, more often than not, players are usually controlling some white dude voiced by Troy Baker, and the representation behind the scenes really isn’t much better
The ESA Foundation is working to change that.
Since its inception in 2007, the ESA Foundation selects a group of students every year to receive its Computer and Video Game Arts and Sciences Scholarship. The scholarship is intended to help students from underrepresented communities obtain an education in game development, as well as provide a pathway towards landing a job in the industry. The Foundation also has scholarships for LGBTQ+ gamers and athletes who want to pursue a career in esports.
“One of things I’m very proud about being attached to the foundation is our scholarship fund. It has been around for 13 years and we have been able to support almost 400 students and share their stories and [help them] follow their dreams of entering the industry,” Anastasia Staten, executive director of the ESA Foundation, told The Root. Staten stressed how the Foundation wants to make sure students are aware from a young age of just how many opportunities exist for them within the industry.
“You can do anything you want to do in this industry,” Maurice Hendricks, one of the recipients of this year’s scholarship, said. “I feel like game development is really special because you can create a world that you can’t do in any other art form. You can create it, manipulate it and interact with it at the same time.” Hendricks cites the classic Need for Speed: Underground as one of the major games that inspired him to go into game design. After expressing interest, his father got him some books and taught him how to design websites. Maurice then decided to apply that knowledge towards designing video games.
The scholarship has been a major benefit to Hendricks as he has three siblings and his parents can only contribute so much to his tuition. “The scholarship allows me to go to school without having to work full-time or something like that. That gives me time to focus on building my games, establishing myself in the industry and perfecting my craft,” Maurice said.
Hendricks would ultimately like to run his own game development company. His goal is to create story-driven games that feature a diverse cast of characters. He wants to imbue a positive message within his games and create worlds where players piece out the lore through contextual clues.
“I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Geneva Heyward, another of this year’s scholars, said. “Last year, I was able to go to E3 for the first time. It was really cool being able to network and being able to see what it’s like to showcase at this big event. I always know about E3 but I didn’t know how the show floor looks and how there’s actually indie developers there trying to showcase their games.”
Heyward is a student and game designer currently working on the Insecure mobile game with Glow Up Games. They started interning at the studio in October of last year and their time with the company has been very educational. “My experience there has been really cool. In my head I’m saying ‘this is my first game dev job,’ because I’m working in a studio [and] I’m trying to meet deadlines,” they said. “It’s been a really great experience working there and all the people working on the game are great.”
Some of Heyward’s earliest inspirations were Paper Mario and Pokemon. They have a desire to create games that blend genre lines. The game they’re currently working on, Skate & Date, is a perfect reflection of that desire. The game, a charming blend of visual novels and rhythm games, casts you in the role of Maggie, a teenage girl who’s lead jammer for the Rockin Rollergirls roller derby team. Maggie has a crush on Patricia, a member of a rival team, and the only way you can impress her is with your roller derby skills.
Both students have said that the bonds they’ve forged with their fellow scholars has been one of the best parts of the scholarship. “It’s...really cool being able to interact with the different scholars and get to know them. We have a little ESA Foundation Discord where we share resources and things like that,” Geneva said.
“I’ve made friends from just other scholars and that’s future teammates you could work on a project with. We build each other up at the same time as we’re on the come up... It builds that network,” Hendricks said.
“I think for students that really want to think about this or explore this, there are a lot of non formal programs that don’t cost any money that they can participate in,” Staten said. She recommended the programs After-School All-Stars and Girls Make Games, as both provide courses that teach the basics of game development. She added that the application period for the next round of scholarships will open between the end of this year and the beginning of next. Students and parents can register for the ESA Foundation’s newsletter to be the first to know when applications go live.
For those just starting out in game development, Maurice had some pretty concise advice. “Just practice,” he said. “Practice, practice. Just focus on what you’re good at and try to learn skills that summarize that skillset you have.” Geneva’s advice is to make sure you’re not too hard on yourself as you’re starting out.
“Balance working with taking care of yourself because it’s hard, sometimes, developing games,” they said. “Rejections shouldn’t be a message that you’re not good enough. You put in hard work, you’re learning, you’re trying your best and I think that really matters. Reminding yourself that you’re trying your best.”
All three were quick to express just how many opportunities there currently are within game development. “The industry is opening up,” Hendricks said. “This is the perfect time to try and get into it.”