Inclusion is important for all media, but we mostly hear about it when film and television are involved. What about the gaming industry? When I think about games that I played as a child, none of the characters looked like me; and half of them were animal-like. I can only imagine a game where the hero looks like me. Even now, most heroes in games are still represented by the majority, and even if you do get to design your character, plenty of games are lacking on the diversity front. That is not to say that there has been no progress as of late, but we still have a long way to go in terms of inclusion. Things like this, although they may seem like small details in everyone’s daily lives, add up to create inherent biases. Today, there are game developers in Georgia trying to change the narrative one game at a time.
Oz Magazine got to sit down with the founder of Subsume Media, Dedren Snead, whose mission is to make sure no child is left behind. Subsume designs Ed Tech (educational games) for kids and as a company, they know that representation matters in and out of the virtual world. It is important to see your culture being portrayed in a positive manner in any media.
“There was a study in 2018 [that showed that] it’s exponentially different for White characters [compared to] Black characters in children’s literature. It’s the idea of being able to see yourself…This is how young kids see and view themselves. How they build self-esteem. How they value not only themselves, but their families and the culture in their neighborhoods. Because they never see themselves represented in a positive format, then it’s hard to bring that type of self-worth or self-value into their adult life,” Snead told Oz.
Subsume’s mission and focus is “to be inclusive in the tech and creative career space…to be a technology platform that intersects technology, creativity, and fellowship for people in inclusive communities. People that are marginalized and underrepresented through technology, through access, and through agency…we are also looking at marginalized voices in the BIPOC+ community as well. With an emphasis on how they intersect, ally, or collaborate in Black spaces.” Putting games into the world that show other cultures and ethnicities brings about positive change and slowly works to resolve the issue of inherent biases.
Although Atlanta’s Subsume as a company is less than five years old, Snead’s experience in the mainstream gaming industry has led him to chase after something that would make a bigger difference in the lives of others, and for him, that is Ed Tech, as he refers to it. Because of the pandemic, more Ed Tech is being utilized in schools and at home. It is a way to get kids more excited about learning during such a strange time in all of our lives. Towards the beginning of the pandemic, Subsume developed a game for Atlanta Public Schools called Mathlanta, a role playing game on PC that gives children the opportunity to solve different math problems throughout the greater Atlanta area. In the game, Atlanta has issues that have to be solved by completing math problems and getting past the drones, robots, and crazy situations the city is being put through. Not only does it help with their math skills but also with the awareness of what surrounds them in the city. Another plus is that this game allows children to create characters that look like them and allows them to experience something positive with a character in that light.
Snead emphasized that “if we don’t have representation in media and technology that has a focus and an emphasis in representing marginalized voices, backgrounds, and cultures in the most pronounced ways, then we are creating biases…we have to make it so that kids will appreciate it on both fronts. Particularly for younger children, they have a digital sense of self more than any generation before them. They live and breathe and speak [technology], it’s just a generalized language [for them]… At that point, if they never see themselves represented, but [only see] the default that is always represented, then it’s the idea of teaching kids inherently that these differences are to be understood. It’s an unwritten language. So it may not be directly racist, but it’s exclusion brings concerns. When you look at role playing games and games in that sense, we look at how many choices you have to really customize ethnicity, the darker the skin tone, the more non-eurocentric you are. There are less of those. Because the presumption is, that is not your audience, or that’s not who the stories are about because most stories are based from a heteronormative eurocentric male perspective, so again, they look at those marginalized voices as foreign or as scenery or that’s just how entertainment has been built. That’s just that inherent bias.”
With that being said, it’s no secret that it is challenging to be a minority in an industry that is still majority White. Snead recognizes the pushback that he faces when people realize he is not who they expect to be the owner of a media and game development company. He finds it is important to have diversity in these virtual worlds but also in the real world too, and that is why he leads as an example for kids to understand that it’s possible to be somebody and that nothing is off limits for their future.
“A lot of those particular problems [inherent biases] still persist, so we find the need for diversity in games. The need for diversity and the need for inclusion and gender equality across not only different representation, but management [and] ownership. All those things seem to still be opportunities as we put the most advanced technology towards these programs and processes,” Snead explained. It’s about access, and Snead wants to make sure that not only does he provide someone to look up to in founding the company, but he also lives in and around the neighborhood that he is wanting to serve and support. To help kids “envision and see where they can be. It breaks down the stigma that these cultures don’t participate in these types of things, and it simply builds up the skill set that would be extremely marketable no matter what your major opportunity is to learn more in the future.”
Snead envisions Ed Tech’s future to be a big one. One in which we no longer label it as Ed Tech, but instead, it is a compliment to our school’s curriculums. Gaming can be educational and fun at the same time, so he wants to demystify that trope. He feels that the current K-12 curriculum is becoming outdated and now that we see it is possible for children to go to school online where they were still able to learn, the future of school, in his eyes, will be for the purpose of socialization and not just learning, with a little bit of Ed Tech on the side.
MORE LEARNING, MORE EXCITEMENT
It’s a family affair at Atlanta’s Games That Work, with father and son team Dov and Jesse Jacobson. With a passion to educate children through “games that work”, as Dov likes to call educational games, he explains that, “You play them and they work. They work in that they do something. They do a job.” Dov had years of experience working for a mainstream gaming company before switching to educational games, deciding that he wanted his work to have more meaning. From these games they developed, they have found tangible evidence of increased understanding and also of positive behavioral changes in its users.
During his company’s beginnings, Dov Jacobson was approached with the idea of making an educational game about Sue the Dinosaur. “Their idea of what education was is to take a classroom experience and put it on the screen. You instruct and you test and you assess and that is not what we thought [when it comes to] the way a game should teach,” Dov said. Instead of being quizzed about the dinosaur, Dov created a game where the kids were playing with the facts and not just memorizing facts to pass a quiz or a test.
“You learn all these different species, you aren’t memorizing them, you’re doing them. And that was a turning point for our studio. We weren’t educators learning games, we were game makers learning how to educate. And we weren’t trying to reproduce the classroom at all. They used to tell us that, you know educational games are great, they are learning because they are having fun. And that’s not right. They are having fun because they are learning. There is nothing that feels better than learning something new, especially if you’re doing stuff! We’ve been doing that for the last 16 years…,” Dov said.
Jesse Jacobson says that it is the “self guided discovery of learning that is truly enjoyable.” When children are playing games like this, they enjoy the challenge because they eventually are rewarded for their hard work. Dov continues, “You run into a problem in the game and you have to solve it! You reach out to find the information so that you can solve the problem rather than someone saying here’s the information, learn it. You want it so you can get to the next level and get past this challenge. It works great and people learn from it.” They make games for kids and adults to learn and change certain behavior and habits.
Speaking with Dov and Jesse, I hear their voices brighten when they mention one of the most popular games they developed called Brush Up. Clearly they have a passion for this game as it teaches children such an important hygienic practice. Brushing properly comes in the form of something called the modified brass technique, the way that we should all be brushing our teeth, but didn’t get to have Brush Up show us the correct way when we were growing up! They have found that it has changed the behaviors of children and their brushing habits as well. Dov Jacobson explains how Brush Up works, “there’s a sensor in the camera, so we put the kid in the game and the kid can watch himself and it ends up that the kid is determining how well he is doing. How well he brushes and how well he watches what he is doing. It works and they can’t cheat, and they win prizes, and every day there are new prizes. The kid is in the game next to our Budd, the superstar monster, and behind them is their mirror and the kid can see themselves in the mirror and sees themselves in the game. Budd is brushing and they brush together. It’s a great model.”
Little did they know, not only was the game changing brushing habits at home with kids, but it was also making life easier for parents during teeth brushing time. Dov receives emails upon emails of parents thanking him for making their routines just a little bit easier by resolving fights and making bedtime a little more fun.
The journey to getting Brush Up to where it is now was never easy. With technology ever changing, there were things that needed to be considered on top of the fact that game based learning typically needs grants and funding from outside sources. So, when the Wii was first released in the mid-late 2000s, Dov came up with the idea to make a toothbrush out of the WiiMote for Brush Up. In doing so, he brought the idea to Washington, D.C. and pitched it to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “To get a grant from the NIH you have to be pretty established. You have to know science, so it took three years. Coming back to them every year with an incredible amount of paperwork and they would say, ‘yeah this is good but you need to… where is your child spatial psychologist?’ Child spatial psychologist? We’re game people,” Dov said.
Dov continues, explaining that they needed to find “an expert in the use of tools by really young children, perfect. Those three years were great. Anytime they said do this and we did it, the team became much better. The game never would’ve worked so well without the child psychologist, without the dental researchers, and the dental hygienist team. They knew what they were doing. So around 2012 or 2013, we started to be able to test it [the game] and in 2015 we came out with a version that didn’t have a toothbrush.” Games That Work ran into more problems along the way with the development of the toothbrush, so Procter & Gamble asked if a brushless version was possible, and that is the version that gained popularity for kids learning how to brush their teeth the correct way.
The Jacobsons have noticed a big difference in the educational gaming industry going from seeing only 40 people at a conference to a few hundred, so they know it’s growing and hope that eventually game based learning will be a supplement to today’s curriculum.
”I think game based learning will supplement with textbooks. Textbooks have a lot of facts in them, to some degree, maybe a methodology, like math and science especially. Game based learning isn’t designed to replace the accumulation of facts in your brain, it’s designed to change your behavior, change your understanding, change your attitude. So, I view it much more like supplementing a classroom conversation about the possible causes of something like WWII. Something where you want to take the facts that you have learned and assimilate it into the facts that you have learned about the world. Where you can supplement textbooks and grow into the curriculum,” Jesse added.
Although people were not fully prepared, it seems that the pandemic planted the seed for game based learning to become more acceptable and adopted by the mainstream. It is also a way for children to learn without feeling bogged down with facts needed for standardized testing or any kind of testing that brings on anxiety for a lot of children.
Educational games are the future. As someone who used to play a variety of video games, I am excited to see inclusion become the normal thing. As someone who is around young children in the childcare industry, I know that there is something about educational games that help children comprehend better. They understand what they are actually doing and they continue to take that new knowledge with them into their daily lives. Screen time is something that many parents are very cautious about and we know that everyone learns differently, so why not make their screen time educational and fun without them feeling like it is a boring way to play. There is no reason to exclude the two from each other. Educational games are fun and I think it’s time that we erase that stigma and just play!