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It's game on at Philadelphia's second annual Grassroots Gaming Conference

The scene at 8static
The scene at 8static - Jeff Fusco
At the Philadelphia Game Lab's second annual Grassroots Gaming Conference, held in mid-October, Schell Games' Heidi McDonald noted the hypocrisy of a 90-percent-male industry making games for an audience of gamers that is 45 percent female.

"We need women making games," she said. "Men are making games where girls are a mother bird with an egg to raise. It's totally antiquated."

Game Lab's Nathan Solomon hopes to shift that paradigm, creating a pipeline to connect talented students to jobs in the city's burgeoning homegrown gaming economy. And he wants the participants in that pipeline to reflect the demographics of Philadelphia as a whole.

Amidst the buzz of the conference, Solomon announced that the Game Lab had received a $384,000 grant from Discovered and Developed in PA (D2PA), a state-run initiative to promote innovative entrepreneurship, technology transfer and business outreach. The funds will help build a year-long mentorship program in which college students and recent graduates are paid to develop games under the tutelage of industry professionals.

"We proposed a simple and direct solution to a problem: How do we keep top technology students in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania?" said Solomon. "The purpose is to create skilled people in Philadelphia, so that if an existing game developer or a participant in our program wants to start something here, there's a pool of people here who participated in the program and now have a professional background."

A year-and-a-half ago, Solomon approached Lisa Worden, the Southeastern PA representative of the state's Department of Community & Economic Development, with a few ideas; Worden gravitated towards his proposal for a mentorship program. Solomon, a former VP of Business Development at Electronics Boutique, then gained support from companies like Electronic Arts to build a proposal that aligned with D2PA's goals.

Game Lab began hiring students for the program on November 1; $340,000 of the $384,000 will go toward paying student participants, who will also earn 10 percent of the revenue from any games they sell. The remaining funds will go toward modest mentor fees and operating costs. The grant should sustain the initiative through its first two years.

Solomon is quick to point out the program addresses a job market that is short on candidates with relevant, entry-level experience. "Companies want to find smart kids with one year experience in the game industry, but really it's easier to find somebody with 10 years experience," he says. "They get that year through our program."

Marketing companies also want to hire developers -- they increasingly incorporate gaming elements into their strategies. Hidden City's Lee Tusman demonstrated the concept during a panel on civic engagement; he's creating a game modeled after Oregon Trail to publicize Neighborhood Bike Works. Rather than replacing a sick ox, Tusman's narrative will ask users to repair a spontaneous flat tire while cruising around Philly on a fixed-gear bike.

The program's selection process will highlight the Game Lab's inclusive vision, imposing a limit of two students per university and recruiting female and minority developers. 

"A university we've spoken with has reported a lot of interest from women," says Solomon. He was inspired by organizations like Tech Girlz and Girl Develop It to design project groups separated by gender -- this provides women with a reprieve from the homosocial environments that often alienate them in STEM fields. "We think we're going to get a group that represents humanity, rather than what the gaming industry currently looks like."

At the conference, McDonald, who clinched a job with Pittsburgh-based Schell Games after submitting an unsolicited sketch and narrative flowchart for the game Pixie Hollow, stressed that the interdisciplinary requirements of game-making mean there's room for all talents in the industry. For the musically inclined, there's audio engineering. For those with an aptitude for art, there's concept character and user-interface development.  

The 16-year-old founders of unfunded upstart Gamechee are hard at work confronting this paradigm. Central High School students Judie Thai and Arman Space, and Lincoln High School's Alexander Jones are developing a 2-D puzzle game called Tamara & Zulu, in which a female protagonist saves her male "damsel in distress." 

At the conference, STEM educators stressed project-based learning and the power of game development to inspire students in underserved neighborhoods. Space taught himself programming on a dare from his ninth-grade teacher and has gone on to become the assistant head programmer for Central's RoboLancers robotics team. Thai turned to YouTube videos and summer classes at Moore College of Art & Design to learn JavaScript.

Warren Longmire, Thai's teacher at Moore, and Colin Angevine of Friends' Central School agree it's important to start project-based learning at a young age. "I can get physical students to make robots, and I can get computer science students to program them," says Angevine.

"What we see in the most useful learners is inherently developed through projects," adds Solomon. He now has the opportunity to prove the method can make for a richer gaming industry in Philadelphia.

CARY BETAGOLE is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose fascination with using civic engagement technology to build community is expressed through a web platform he cofounded, Possible City (possiblecity.co), which reimagines uses for vacant space in our city.
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