Finding The Spike Lee Of Video Games

Joseph Saulter, the African-American video game entrepreneur and educator, wants to see a gaming industry that reflects its customer base—not to mention the country.

Few industries are as disconnected from their customers as the video game industry. Gamers are disproportionately African-American or Hispanic, according to a survey by the Kaiser Foundation. Yet these are precisely the demographics that are underrepresented within the industry itself: both among the developers of games, only 2% of whom are black, and among the characters presented in the games they make. Most game protagonists are white males, and a USC survey revealed that a measly tenth of characters were black, and most of these were either athletes or gangsters.

Joseph Saulter wants to change all this. The entrepreneur behind Entertainment Arts Research, Inc., which Ebony Magazine recently singled out as one of the first black-owned publicly traded gaming companies, has made it his quest to make the gaming industry more reflective of its audience.

Now is a big moment for Saulter, whose company is set to release a major game in July (a parkour game for iOS, discussed below). Several other ambitious projects are in the works, including a game that takes place in Chicago’s South Side in the mid-20th century. "It’s a history of the black community, it’s a history of jazz, it’s a history of the arts and of the revolutions that went on in that period of time," Saulter says of the game, Bronzeville Etudes & Riffs, a project of artist Philip Mallory Jones, who based much of the material off of oral histories with his mother.

Fast Company caught up with Saulter to learn more about his vision of the future of video games, and what it will take to launch a "Spike Lee of video games"—a black game designer who’s also a household name.

FAST COMPANY: Only 2% of video game designers are African-American?

JOSEPH SAULTER: There are not enough African-Americans and Latin Americans designing and developing games. However, what I call the urbanization of the game industry is slowly emerging.

So you think the problem of video game characters being disproportionately white will be fixed when the developers themselves are more reflective of society?

If there were more African-American designers and developers, there would be a better representation of African-Americans in the games.

You say you've met many talented black students, particularly through your educational initiative, the Urban Video Game Academy. Is there just a problem ushering that talent into the industry?

I think there’s a lack of information. I think there’s a lack of understanding. I know with the Urban Video Game Academy, a lot of these kids are very familiar will audio tools: They know Pro Tools, Q Base, Logic Pro. The same zeroes and ones that give the ability to create sounds are the same zeroes and ones that could make 3-D animation. I’ve got kids I’m working with now who are fully fledged game developers; they’ve taken the last five years to learn programming.

Why do they come in knowing Pro Tools, but not programming languages?

In music they have role models. They have a Jay-Z out there who came from the heart of the ghetto. There are a lot of African-Americans who are very well positioned in the games arena, but there are few of them known to the rest of the community.

You’ve talked about enabling a Spike Lee of the gaming industry, a crossover artist who becomes a mainstream, household name. What’s going to get us there?

There are a number of chasms to get through. The main one is the finances. Spike Lee used his own money, he used credit cards, to get his first movie to come out. It costs a lot of money [to make a game]. People talk about coming out of a garage. But you can come out of a garage much easier with music than you can with game design.

And yet some iOS developers are doing just that.

I’m not saying it’s not possible. I have a "garage product" called FireWire Code 22. It’s a casual game, a parkour game. It’s slated for a July release on iOS.



Tell me more about the Urban Video Game Academy, your initiative aimed at high schoolers.

We go into high schools [to recruit]. We announce that the Urban Video Game Academy will be in the theater. Before the bell rings, the theater is filled up with kids. When we first announced the academy at E3 in 2005, we got calls from 120 schools around the country. We’ve taken baby steps, and we had a Harvard case study done on the academy. A lot of companies want to work with us, and we’re about to do a partnership with EA.

You cite census data about the growth of America's minority population. As America’s demographics change, is it ever more important for companies like EA to find talent in the black community?

Black children to me are like oil in the deepest part of the universe. You have to dig deep to get the oil. These kids have something so rich inside of them, but you have to dig deep. We have to be able to adjust to the demographics.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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14 Comments

  • Tanisha W

    I was listening to NPR the other night about blacks in Tech. I agree with their sentiment, that the black entrepreneurs we're looking for in Tech and in video games are already out there. They just need the funds and guidance from someone with experience and success in the industry.

    Edit: Also, I'd rather see the black Shigeru Miyamoto of games, than the 'Spike Lee' of games.

  • Benjye Peters-Leonard

    I'd just like to develop the storylines for some of these games... Althought it would be nice to see a black development team...

  • Owners Illustrated

    What many seem to miss is that with global emerging markets including domestic inner cities which function like an emerging market the long term viability of console gaming is in flux. Vodafone the world #2 telecom company which also owns 45% of Verizon Wireless the #1 carrier in the US is shifting their investment resources to Africa because they earn more revenue in Africa than in Southern Europe and by 2015 900 million Africans will have mobile phones up from 740 million currently. The bigger question is how can developers in America reach a wider range of consumers who are less affluent, are more engaged in social media as per the latest Nielsen reports and seek images that are more reflective of their interests?  6 out of 7 people on the planet have a mobile device and the figures are growing rapidly. Having actually done national gaming tournament campaigns the actual consumption figures are divergent from popular opinion. Gamestop for example sells more Madden video games in Urban communities than otherwise.  A bigger reality is that by 2018 over 50% of Americans under 18 will be minorities so what does that reality mean to the viability of the industry if their aren't images reflective of the tastes of a majority of the future consumers? We are in an information age and it is about time industries adapt to the data rather than approach challenges with pre determined premises.

  • Bryan Denker

    Forget Spike Lee of the video game industry.  I want the Tyler Perry of the video game industry.

  • Mmelendez514

    This guy is blowing up smoke as far as being the "Spike Lee" of Video Games.

    JOSEPH SAULTER: There are not enough African-Americans and Latin
    Americans designing and developing games. However, what I call the
    urbanization of the game industry is slowly emerging.

    His logic implies that black and hispanic gamers NEED to be represented equally in gaming.

    Sales numbers tell different stories.

    Titles like Battlefield, Call of Duty, and Skyrim were produced by large scale teams trying to push the 3rd Generation in gaming forward and reach mass audiences.

    and it works... for now...

    Once the game market over saturates itself with mediocre content and plateaus, there will be a crash then a rise, similar to the market in '83.

    If he really wants to help these kids, get them into start up teams ASAP and have them self-teach the languages that will correspond to the platforms in the 4th or 5th generation.

    Why do these kids need to be taught how to code, when some of the best hackers and developers were mainly self taught?? Ken Levine wouldn't have create Bioshock if he didnt take the crappy QA jobs he started at and worked up.

    All of these "urban" schools have the exact same problem, some asshole is lecturing others on how to make a game when he hasn't made an impact in that specific community.

    If it was Shigeru Miyamoto, Randy Pitchford, Cliff B, Koji Kondo, et al showing the intricacies of game design and programming, then maybe we'd have something.

  • MattieB777

    I agree that there has to be a love for the work because it takes
    a lot of coding and re-coding and without a true passion, one can easily
    give up.  However, a bigger problem I found when attending the New
    Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, NJ was racism and apathy on the part of the professors. 

    Test grading was inconsistent and bias on the side of my white
    male classmates.  I was able to get a graded test from one classmate and made copies to show that the code he had written was identical to mine yet mine was marked incorrect.  When I brought this to the attention of the Dean and two of his assistants in a meeting, they were incensed, not at the
    inconsistency but rather they wanted the name of this student who allowed me to
    make the copy and I would not give his name!  The Dean claimed all grading was done by a committee of professors which was not true because I and others witnessed this professor marking papers alone outside and prior to class.

    There were other problems like the professors telling students at
    the beginning of class that at least 80% of them would fail; I had 3 classes
    where this happened - educational malpractice for sure.  It was like NJIT depended on student failure for revenue. 

    I subsequently dropped out and taught myself to program.  I now have several successful  (revenue producing) interactive sites online and have learned so much more than I could have at NJIT because another problem was that the method of teaching consisted of the professors reading power point slides and some didn’t like being interrupted for questions.  Any hands-on learning was in a lab with a
    teaching assistant who often had no teaching skills and would make up for that
    by coding the work for you. 

    All said, with colleges allowed to operate like NJIT, I understand
    why other countries are beating the US in the science and math arena.

  • Gerald Irish

    Eh, I'm not so sure I agree with a lot of this guy's premises.  

    There aren't many black/hispanic programmers because there's no programming Jay-Z?  So by that logic, the reason white males got into games is because there were white male superstar game developers.  No, the reason people get into video games is because they love video games.  Not because they want to emulate an entertainment superstar, of which there are none in the video game world.  

    It costs a lot of money to make a game?  It depends on what you're talking about.  Obviously a triple A game like Call of Duty or Bioshock Infinite costs 10's of millions of dollars.  However, to make a mobile or indie game, all you need is a computer, skills, and time.  I guess if you look at it as time = money, then yeah, but really the start up costs of making a game needn't be large at all.

    There are free vector, raster, and 3d graphics programs out there and plenty of resources to learn how to use them.  The big hurdle to making games is gaining programming skills.  A motivated individual can self-teach, but for the most part one is gonna need professional instruction to get the programming chops to successfully make a game

    I think the video game industry would certainly benefit from more diversity.  More women and minorities will probably help broaden the appeal of games, not to mention the fact that the more talented people in the industry, the better.  I think bringing awareness to kids in high school that they learn to program and make games themselves and that it's not 'just for geeks', will help start getting underrepresented demographics more into games.

  • atrinc

    I'm surprised you arguing against the effect role models, positive and negative, have on young people.

  • Gerald Irish

    Not arguing that role models don't have an effect.  I'm saying that black and hispanic youth don't need a videogame version of Jay-Z to get them into games.  What they need is access to good computer science and computer graphics education.

    I would further argue that this whole attitude of 'minority kids won't do anything unless they have a minority role model' is crippling.  It's a self limiting belief that unless other people like them are doing an activity that somehow that activity is not for them.  Kids need to see themselves as human beings capable of whatever they want to work hard for.  If everyone sat on their hands waiting for a black role model before they did something there never would've been a Jackie Robinson, Tuskegee Airmen or Barack Obama.
    Obviously it's helpful to have direct contact with people in an industry so you can see what it takes to get into that industry.  But I wouldn't be so hung up on the idea of a minority role model, that's a very small part of the equation.

  • Gabbi

    I disagree.  I think seeing people who look like you doing things you hope to one day do plays a huge part in how much you think your dream can become a reality.  ESPECIALLY in the world of video games/online, where the white straight young male perspective is the overwhelmingly dominant one.  People who think representation doesn't matter are usually the people who are already represented.  

  • Iwkyle

    When you compare an automobile to the size and weight of the gas tank you may consider the gas tank insignificant. Those of us that have drivers licenses and cars know without gas the car does not drive. The gas is the superstar, for electric vehicles the btattery is the star, for product marketing a role model is a STAR! Money is a main driver of stars. I know there is an argument that talent is the main driver; however, it would be misplaced in a capitalistic society. A wise person once stated, "I guess if you look at it as time = money, then yeah". Moeny is the decideing factor; computers, internet, etc, cost MONEY, even to make games using those purported free computer skills you acquire with your time.  

  • Norman Parrish

    In response to  . The issues you mentioned that kids are facing are valid. However, if our youth can find time to actually sit and play video games, they most certainly can make time to learn (for FREE) to code/create the games they want to play. (http://www.codecademy.com)

  • David Saintloth

    I agree with you Gerald that the philosophy of needing a role model is not the answer, it is about having the time and resources to learn to code but that's the crux of it. Most people of color exist in economic and social demographic strata that are simply not the same as their white counterparts. They can't afford to sit down for 12 hours of the day in their room, learning to write code...they have actual *survival* issues that need attending to. Parents that are either not present or hostile to their efforts, siblings...half siblings...cousins...it's a different planet of pressures that they  on the average need to fight through just to get the mind time to sit down and be left alone and go to town.

    The desparity that exists is one that results as a consequence of past racism that is perniciously keeping people of color from engaging in the same professions as their white (by age) counterparts.