The UVGA, which he started with aagamer.com's Roderick Woodruff and American Intercontinental University professor Joseph Saulter, works on a threefold path of exposure, education and enhancement to help its students get a leg up. Instead of attempting an "affirmative action" requirement for developers, the Academy tries to stuff the employment pipeline with a wider range of views. When the industry is more diverse, Armstrong says, "whatever they make is going to be a kick-ass game," and he points to The Sims as a balanced development team that made a great product. But he's also aware that the solution needs to be more than just supply-side manipulation; money needs to be spent on more than just bigger and better games. "I'm basically tired of repetition, lack of innovation, the stereotypes and the easy process." he complains.
So the second solution is encouragement for independent game publishing. Conservative estimates of next-gen console development costs reach $6 million per game and may exceed $15 million. Producers don't take risks with that kind of money - and if the current market is any indication, creating a game with a positive black lead is a serious risk; not part of the status quo. Hip hop itself often faces the accusation that it went from a thriving street-level art and social commentary to a commercialized marketing scheme. It's ironic that it has joined the games industry, which suffers from much of the same evaluation. The advantage of an independent publishing effort like Greg Costikyan's Manifesto Games is that it lowers the bar for entry, and encourages those that might not have ever thought that games could be a possibility for expression. In much the same way that turntables, beat-boxing, and remixing gave early hip hop a build-it- yourself aesthetic, a market for quirky and low-budget gaming can empower developers from all backgrounds.
At the 2005 National Book Festival, author Walter Dean Myers spoke on why he writes fiction about African- American youth in realistic situations: When he was growing up, he couldn't find himself in the books he read. More and more, today's kids game in addition to reading and television, and they're looking for images of themselves in the same way. If they can't find themselves - or if what they can find is distorted by a warped mirror of hip hop and other American cultures - it helps to perpetuate damages we'd like to think no longer exist. The technology of gaming has come a long way from when the amount of cartridge space or RAM limited the sprites, music, and other resources available to a game.
A paucity of positive black protagonists in gaming isn't just a dilemma for people with nothing better to do but critique the industry's low diversity. For a growing portion of the audience, it may be a very real part of their self-image and their lives. This lack of acknowledgment is holding shut a door through which many would-be gamers could enter. The industry owes it to itself, and American culture, to make sure it's wide open.
Thomas Wilburn is a journalist based in Washington, DC. Previously a political and cultural correspondent for the Washington Asia Press, he currently writes about music, games, culture, and their intersection at www.milezero.org.