Here’s Your Change is a game set in a small store in a low income Oakland neighborhood. It’s a first-person game structured like Papers, Please, which its designer Rogelio Lara cites as a key inspiration.
The player stands behind the shop’s counter and serves a series of customers, all of whom bring small stories of struggle and frustration. Some of the customers are friendly, others less so. As the game progresses, the store’s clientele begins to shift, reflecting a rapid gentrification of the neighborhood.
It’s a short, nicely illustrated game that tells a powerful story. Lara created Here’s Your Change with help from other students at an educational initiative called Gameheads in Oakland, California. The game was recently demonstrated at the Intentional Play Summit in San Jose, and at Gameheads’ own annual showcase.
Gameheads is an initiative designed to build a pipeline into game development for low-income students and people of color. It attracts around 100 African American, Asian American and Latino students from Oakland and its environs. They meet a few evenings a week at a downtown youth impact hub, as well as weekends and during school breaks.
The students work on their own projects, but pitch in to help one another, most especially when their particular strengths — coding, level design or art — are required.
Lara is a first-year student at CSU, East Bay, with ambitions to work in game development. He’s been with Gameheads for the last four years. He wanted to write a game about gentrification after noticing how much the neighborhood he grew up in was changing.
“Usually, gentrification is explained through statistics,” he says. “But when people play this, they really see what’s happening.”
Although Lara led the design of Here’s Your Change, it’s been a team effort. “We actually have a person on our team who’s a cashier. We talked to him about the realistic situations or conversations that arise,” he says.
Lara and his team are working to release a final version of Here’s Your Change by the end of the year, and are looking at various publishing platforms.
Damon Packwood is executive director at Gameheads, a position he’s held since he founded the organization in 2015. At the time, he was teaching young people how to create websites.
“They were bored,” he recalls. “They spent a lot of their time watching video games on YouTube or playing games on their phones.”
Packwood had written about video games as educational tools, and had studied them while working as a researcher at California State University. He decided to put his knowledge to good effect.
“I bribed the students,” he says. “I said I’d teach them about game design and development, if they did their work.”
The team responded by creating a game about grief. They submitted it to a government-sponsored contest, and won.
From there, he created Gameheads, with a focus on encouraging low income students of color to engage in game design. The program has successfully linked up with California universities and with game industry professionals, as well as companies such as Electronic Arts, and is seeking to create a pipeline that allows students to progress through higher education and into careers.
He says that the program attracts students from a variety of minority and low income groups including “about 30 percent” girls and young women. “There’s nobody else doing it at the scale we’re doing it right now,” he says, adding that he’s investigating ways to expand the program into other parts of the country.
Gameheads recruits volunteer mentors from the game industry. Narrative designer Emily Grace Buck is one.
“They paired me up with a student who’s working on a game about the experience of interacting with social media. I thought it was really cool,” she says. “He wanted to improve its narrative structure so we spoke for about an hour-and-a-half about the game’s narrative structure and he came back with a substantially more cohesive game.”
A Black Game
Gameheads demonstrated 11 games at its annual showcase in August, including Here’s Your Change. They included fun arcade and shooter games, as well as others with more personal messages.
Behind the Mask explores the fears of people from the LGBTQ community through the eyes of a magical being who is forced to wear a mask that makes her see things the way her parents do. Honeydew View is a visual novel about the emotional challenges of high school.
Offbeat is a turn-based role-playing game written by Chun Tat Chan. It’s about a young Asian-American man who wants to escape the pressures of the “model minority myth.”
“At the end of high school, I knew that I had a knack for programming,” Chan says, explaining how he got into creating games. “But I didn’t know which field I wanted to invest my time in. I thought that being a software engineer is something nice and safe, but I felt it lacked the creative expression that I wanted.
“One day I got an email mentioning Gameheads which was the only game development program available in my community. I quickly understood that this organization is unique and special. By two weeks into the program, I was already completely absorbed into the curriculum and felt that game development was the path I want to take for my career.”
He used his skills to create a game that represents his views on life and identity. “My team and I wanted to create a video game that helps break stereotypes [about Asian-Americans] by illustrating our team’s idiosyncratic humor in weird obscure things. We hoped that by displaying these behaviors in the game, it would help reduce the amount of prejudice that Asian Americans face in current society as well as show that it’s normal and okay to be quirky.”
Lara says the program understands the needs of its members. “It’s not those type of programs that just throw you in with the sharks and tell you, hey, go and create something. They teach you design and coding and all this other stuff and eventually you’ll feel competent enough to make a game.”
“We’re teaching game design and development differently than in traditional education,” says Packwood. “We’re working with students of color and students that come from low income communities. They didn’t respond to traditional approaches very well. They have a different perspective on video games. The language the students use to talk about video games is very different.
“So we had to customize our curriculum, to incorporate elements from cultural studies and black cinema. We asked them, what does a black video game look like? Why are we so uncomfortable asking that question?
“In the beginning it was really difficult for our students to articulate the kind of things that they wanted to create. It was almost as if they needed permission to make the games that they wanted to make.”
For more information on Gameheads go to https://gameheadsoakland.org/.