A trio of electronic gaming enthusiasts is playing on kids’ interest in video games to help at-risk urban students learn key math and science concepts–and possibly open doors into the lucrative game-design industry for them.

Announced at this year’s Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3), the Urban Video Game Academy (UVGA) is a free program that aims to reinforce core curricular subjects through instruction in video-game programming, while infusing greater diversity into the video-gaming industry.

UVGA started teaching its first group of 25 students on June 27 in Baltimore. Similar UVGA programs are set to take off this summer in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

UVGA is the brainchild of three colleagues with deep roots in the video gaming and media industries, as well as in the communities where the free program will be piloted.

Roderick Woodruff, based in Washington, D.C., is president and co-founder of AAGAMER.com, an online news and information web site developed for African-American video-game enthusiasts. Mario Armstrong is the technology correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) and host of Baltimore NPR affiliate programs “The Digital Spin” and “The Digital Café,” as well as a developer for community and business technology programs for the city of Baltimore. Joseph Sulter is the chairman of the Game Design and Development Department at American Intercontinental University in Atlanta and chair of the International Game Developers Association’s Diversity Advisory Committee.

Armstrong said the three started the program as much by coincidence as anything else. “We all know each other,” he explained. “[UVGA] started with the standard ‘let’s do lunch’ kind of networking protocol. From there, we discovered that Rod’s trying to launch a camp, I’m trying to launch a camp, and Joe’s trying to do a workshop with the kids.”

The colleagues agreed upon the benefits of collaborating, which led to the creation of the nonprofit Digital Arts and Technology Learning Center, which will support the UVGA project and serve as the springboard for the project’s expansion, as well as future endeavors.

UVGA comes on the heels of such studies as 2001’s “Fair Play: Violence, Gender, and Race in Video Games,” by the youth advocacy group Children NOW, which found a marked though arguably predictable lack of diversity in portrayals of women and characters of color in video games.

The study found that white characters were the only human characters in most young children’s games. Nearly all of the heroes in the games were white, and female characters accounted for only 16 percent of humans depicted. The study found that half of all female characters were most likely to be portrayed as props or bystanders; 86 percent of all African-American female characters depicted in games were victims of violence; African-American and Latino male characters were typically athletes; and Asian or Pacific Islander characters were portrayed as wrestlers. In addition, it found there were no Latina characters portrayed in any video games as of 2001.

UVGA co-founders Roderick Woodruff, left, and Mario Armstrong engage a youngster in a bit of virtual competition at the camp in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Urban Video Game Academy)

Further supporting the need for such a program, a 2005 demographic study carried out by Nielsen Media Research found that African-American and Hispanic male audiences actually purchase and play more video games than the white male audiences toward which the gaming industry traditionally has marketed its wares.

“At my time at Harvard, I studied the digital divide with an attempt to understand why minorities lagged,” said prospective UVGA instructor Angel Inokon.

Inokon, a master’s degree candidate at Stanford University for Learning Design and Technology and former worker with the Africare “Digital Villages” program, was still in contract negotiations with the group as of press time but agreed to discuss video gaming with eSchool News via eMail.

“I read reports that claimed that the inability to use a computer in the 21st century would be like being unable to read or write,” Inokon said. “Statements like that scared me, because I had census population study data that showed a real and significant gap in computer ownership and use. In the end, it boils down to access and awareness. Games have created the marketing for computer skills, now let’s capitalize on that and get the minority community moving.”

For-profit camps like UVGA already exist, but they are prohibitively expensive even for many middle-class students, not to mention the urban working-class students the group has targeted. “These camps are great models,” said Woodruff, “but [they] were conceived as profit models to households and kids who can afford it.”

Armstrong agreed: “We’re doing pretty well, and I would have serious second thoughts before I paid [the minimum figure of] $809 to send my kids to a two-week-long camp.”

Armstrong said the business model for UVGA, by contrast, is definitely grassroots: “Self-funded is the key word. All three of us have dug into our bank accounts, put in some money ourselves.”

That approach has left the group with a great deal of autonomy.

“We’ve found that we can bend and mold it, because we’re not doing it with money from a grant or corporation–money that would come with limitations,” Armstrong said. “The other thing, though, that’s been a phenomenon is our ability to leverage resources that will be given to us: in-kind donations.”

As an example of these in-kind donations, the five-week-long UVGA camp’s maiden voyage is under way as part of the summer knowledge-retention program at the Baltimore Freedom Academy (BFA). Armstrong said he managed to get the technology-driven high school to provide the space, software, and hardware for the pilot.

“The only feedback we got when we asked was, ‘Sure,'” he said.

Because of summer scheduling conflicts, BFA officials could not be reached before press time.

Current gaming research suggests that the lack of diversity in video-game narratives can be traced back to a lack of diversity in the developing industry itself, which is overwhelmingly white and male. The UVGA camp will serve to introduce the technology and its language to possible minority candidates for the video-game programming profession. But UVGA’s real goal is to help curb the dropout rate for at-risk students by using video-game programming as a way to reinforce core curricular concepts for students.

“The games are just a hook: a carny outside saying there’s a two-headed lady inside,” said Woodruff. “We can’t have a $38 billion industry, see the minority use numbers on that product, then see the numbers of how many kids are failing [high school] in urban areas and not borrow from that industry to help kids learn and retain [key concepts].”

“Gaming is where it’s at,” Inokon agreed. “The UVGA has touched on the pulse-point of what is hot and relevant to kids today and is using that to inject them with a hunger for learning and a palate for things technical.”

Woodruff added, “We have identified where the parallels are for standard curriculum learning. We want to achieve that ‘aha’ moment with the students. We want to be able to at least reinforce with students a particular component of math or physics, once she or he understands how it works in the gaming world.”

Students will be doing work in Flash, Photoshop, Maya, and other programming and design languages. “At the surface, these kids are going to be learning video-game production,” Woodruff said. But “we [also] want to underline the process of teamwork and help build new pathways to learning the same subject matter that’s being taught in schools.”



Children NOW’s “Fair Play: Violence, Gender, and Race in Video Games”

Nielsen Media Research

Baltimore Freedom Academy