How to Get Inner-City Kids Into Tech?
Alumnus Damon Packwood is gaining national attention for turning them into ‘Gameheads’
In his nearly 20-year-long work with teens and young adults, alumnus Damon Packwood (MA ’14, Multimedia Studies) has always had an important rule:
“Pay attention to what your students are doing when they’re not doing what you told them to,” he says.
In Packwood’s case, when he started teaching tech to young people in Oakland, he would repeatedly turn around to find his students playing video games on their phones. “I really just wanted to get their attention,” he says. So, on a lark, he offered a one-hour session during the students’ lunch break to talk to them about the prospect of making websites for video games.
They weren’t impressed.
“It went OK,” he says. “But they just kept bugging me, week after week, saying that what they really wanted to learn was how to make the actual video games. Eventually I offered another one-hour lesson, which turned into Friday night classes, and then the six hours on Saturdays we do now.”
Formally, the weekend intensives (and afterschool/summer courses) are offered under Packwood’s own blossoming social-enterprise-nonprofit, Gameheads, which is rapidly changing the conversation around how to increase diversity in tech — and gaining national attention.
“One thing that’s really important to me, which is directly connected to my time at Cal State East Bay, is how do we use technology to change the world?” Packwood explains. “And how do we work with the students so they know that? So they know that it’s about more than just getting a job — it’s about change. That’s why our students are more entrepreneurial-minded at the end of [the program].”
In 2014, kids from Gameheads completed their first video games, building them from the ground up, based on themes of personal impact. The games were submitted to compete for Electronic Software Association LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowships, which include $1,000 in prize money, paid admission to E3 — the world’s premier trade show for computer, video and mobile games and related products — and the opportunity to send one representative from each team to show their game at the White House.
That first year, Gameheads walked away with one fellowship, and in 2016, Packwood reports his team dominated the competition by earning four of the 20 available spots.
Quyen-Vi Nguyen, an Oakland native and Packwood’s student, served as art and story designer for one of the winning teams. Nguyen helped to create a multiplayer adventure game focused on fear of the unknown, which she says serves as a metaphor for teenage mental health issues.
“The insecurity and depression and anxiety that we teenagers feel — a lot of people neglect those feelings and pass it off as just a phase,” Nguyen says. “It highlights an issue that we have as a community.”
According to Ian Pollock, associate professor of multimedia studies and a mentor to Packwood at Cal State East Bay, themes like the one Nguyen and her team explored are legitimizing gaming as a contemporary art form — not an afterschool hobby.
“People are talking about these games like [they used to talk about] ‘Gone with the Wind’ or ‘Star Wars’ — games are the literature of this generation,” Pollock says. “They’re getting their aspirational ideas from games, which isn’t a new insight. It’s been going on for some time, but it’s also evolving into a form of research. What can we try to build in a video game and then try out in real life? Game narratives are what’s shaping [young people’s] ideas and dreams and hopes and fears for the future. And it will have a very real impact on our world in the years to come.”
Nguyen agrees that Gameheads has opened up new possibilities for her. “When I started, I was really insecure and I didn’t know very much about games. But the process of going through it, learning to code — I have so much more confidence now. I’ve always been driven to go to college, but Gameheads opened up pathways for me that I wouldn’t have thought about before. I know now I could have a career in tech.”
It’s the type of transformation fortifying Packwood’s belief that Oakland is ground zero of a national movement — and his graduate degree from Cal State East Bay has pushed him to the forefront of the conversation.
“Cal State East Bay’s multimedia program has a very different perspective on technology that resonated with me, and that I think resonates with the community,” he says. “They don’t just look at tech from a computer science perspective ... [Cal State East Bay] talks about tech as a cultural shift that’s happening. That was a big, big change in my perspective.”
In addition to organizing and hosting Gameheads’ first Oakland Video Game Fest, announcing an expansion of the program for middle-schoolers that will more than double the nonprofit’s reach (from 80 to 200 students) and tentative talks to expand Gameheads into other cities, Packwood is winning some personal accolades, too.
In September 2016, he competed with more than 2,000 international applicants for a fellowship from the global nonprofit Echoing Green and was named one of 54 recipients in the category of Black Male Achievement. The fellowship includes support for Gameheads for the next two years in the form of an $80,000 stipend, health care and access to an impressive network of thought leaders and innovators (past fellows include the founders of Teach for America and The Global Fund Network). As well, in October 2016, Packwood shared the Gameheads model at the White House Conference on STEM Education, which he attended alongside representatives from Google, NASA, Fortune 500 companies and the Obama administration to strategize solutions to engaging more young people of color in the tech revolution.
“Oakland was heavily represented [at the White House], which proves that we’re leading the way in the diversity in tech movement,” Packwood says. “I’m very passionate about working with this particular demographic. At the heart of us wanting to diversify the tech industry is asking, once everyone is represented, what will it create? What will each representative bring from their culture into the 21st century?”
To learn more about Gameheads, visit gameheadsoakland.org.
Gaming on Campus
Each quarter, Cal State East Bay students can try their hand at a weekend-long game jam on the Hayward campus hosted by Ian Pollock, coordinator of the graduate program in Multimedia Studies, and students of the Multimedia Club. Featuring a lead-up week of skill-building sessions, a kick-off mixer, keynote speaker and the chance to work with industry mentors, students build teams around like-minded ideas and problem-solve their way to a functioning game by the end of 36 hours. At the end of the weekend, each team will present their game to the public. Game Jam is open to all students and is a noncompetitive event based on ideation, innovation and creating prototypes. The spring game jam is scheduled for May 12-14 and is themed “Minority Reports: A Futures Thinking and Forecasting Game Jam.”
For more information visit the Game Jam website.