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.

Finding The Spike Lee Of Video Games

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.


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.