Youth UpRising is a community center on East Oakland’s MacArthur Boulevard — an oasis for children and young adults in an area afflicted with poverty, unemployment and nearly daily shootings. They come here after school to escape the violence and, more important, to develop job skills and participate in the organization’s wide array of arts and education programs. One of those programs, an industry-backed pilot called Project A-Game, teaches kids how to make video games.
In a back room, a handful of kids are squished around computers working on their game, which is called “Mr. Platformer.” It sounds and looks like an old Nintendo game. Think Mario Brothers from the ’80s, but it wasn’t made decades ago. These five kids built it using modern game-making software.
Morris Jackson is mixing the sounds for “Mr. Platformer” — things like the digital chime of a coin being picked up, a laser being shot, and that unmistakable warble of a power-up.
“I signed up because I love video games, always did,” he says, “I have been playing since I was a few months old.”
Well, I don’t know if it actually qualifies as playing, but Morris Jackson’s family used to at least put the controller in his hands and let him push the buttons. Now he’s 15 and wants to be a professional DJ. But if that doesn’t pan out, he says he might try and do sound design for video games.
“Mr. Platformer’ isn’t like the realistic shooting games Morris plays at home. It’s old school. You have to navigate through 2-D levels and avoid pixelated monsters. It’s the kind of game that Glen McKnight, the class instructor, fell in love with 20 years ago.
“These kids grew up on games,” he says, “kind of like I did, and that’s kind of why I am in the industry.”
McKnight works for a small game studio, and he has been hired on here as an instructor to impart his game-building know-how. Video games, he says, could be a bridge to the tech world for these kids.
“It’s tough for a lot of our parents to realize that games (their kids) are addictively playing every day actually have the potential for a career,” McKnight says.
Introducing new career ideas
Project A-Game is funded by a grant from the California Endowment and the Entertainment Software Association, a trade organization for the gaming industry. The program doesn’t place kids directly into tech jobs, but it does expose them to video game career opportunities they have probably never thought about — things like sound engineering and designing game levels.
Darius Reed, for example, didn’t sign up because he loves technology. He likes to draw.
“Darius, he’s really an artist,” McKnight says. “He had no affinity for the technical stuff, that’s not what he was interested in, but he’s seen how his characters come alive inside of levels.”
Reed used Photoshop to draw the game’s hero — a white boxy character with a little top hat and a skinny red tie. “Since we are just going for something simple,” he says, “I just made him look like a mister, you know like somebody who is going to work, like a guy who works in the office.”
An office job in the tech industry isn’t something these kids thought much about before this class. Morris, the aspiring DJ, says he had never even talked with anyone in the tech industry. His instructor, McKnight, is the first person he has ever met with a tech job.
Census numbers show that Latinos and African-Americans have been consistently underrepresented in science and technology jobs, holding between 6 percent and 7 percent nationally. A San Jose Mercury News analysis confirms a similar percentage for Bay Area tech jobs, even though Latinos and African-Americans account for almost a third of the region’s population.
Arturo Arechiga says the goal is to try and find ways to change that percentage. Arechiga directs Project A-Game at Youth UpRising. He says many kids who come to the community center are big consumers of video games, so “why not have them also be creators?”
Project A-Game, which is also being run in Sacramento under the sponsorship of the Salvation Army, has funding for a little more than a year. Then Youth UpRising plans to continue the program with private donors. As for “Mr. Platformer”? For now it can only be played in the backrooms of Youth UpRising.