Taking diversity to the next level

Students and staff in UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab are not only creating professional-quality video games for commercial release, they’re also addressing the lack of diversity in the technology industry.

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A day in the lab

On a Friday morning, students filter into UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab (DFL) before their weekly check-in meeting.

Adorning the cozy room’s walls are project timelines, a software architecture flowchart, and graphic novel illustrations of a red- and purple-tinted alien world. Rows of computers, covered in Post-it notes and stickers, compete for space with toys and snacks: stuffed Pokémon, jelly beans, a foam Batman figurine, peanut-butter pretzels, a tiny basketball.

It may look like you’d expect a
game studio to look, but it doesn’t act like one.

Aina Braxton

Assistant Director
DIGITAL FUTURE LAB

Aina Braxton, ’12, the lab’s assistant director, kicks off the meeting by asking everyone to gather in a circle to share their names and gender pronouns.

“Aina. She, her.”

“Jason. They, them.”

“Malik. He, him.”

Braxton and Executive Director Jason Pace remind newcomers that it’s part of their culture to start every meeting this way. They’ve normalized it, Braxton says, “because we don’t want to make assumptions about you or your identity.”

Jason Pace

Executive Director
DIGITAL FUTURE LAB

Working to address the lack of diversity in video games and tech, Pace and Braxton bring difference to the forefront of all they do.

With a small core of professional staff, the lab’s team of more than 40 students from a variety of backgrounds takes on everything from art, design, music composition and programming to production, project management and marketing. Along the way are constant opportunities to recognize their diversity, to learn about different backgrounds and cultures and, ultimately, to become better communicators.

The day’s check-in doesn’t last long, though: The agenda is packed.

Two developers have created a new build for Hug the Line, a tower-defense-style game in which the user helps benevolent creatures navigate a treacherous maze. Then it’s on to critiquing new features for Corrupted, a space-age puzzle game.

In Pace’s opinion, the team needs to develop a unifying thread that runs throughout the game’s individual levels. Right now, it’s not quite there.

“Jason has industry-level experience and standards for the work we do,” lead designer Emmett Scout says of Pace, who uses the pronouns they, their and them. “They won’t let us get away with anything less than that.”

Behind the mission

For Pace, who came out as gay at age 16, the DFL is a chance to combine the activism of their youth with a deep background in tech and gaming.

Much of Pace’s two decades of software development experience was spent at Microsoft, helping direct and produce everything from casual games to the Xbox flagship title Halo. And while Pace loved the creative challenge, the work environment was far from ideal.

“Video game studios are still very much a cisgender, white, straight male world,” Pace says. And it’s not often a very tolerant world, either. One need go no further than video game forums, chatrooms or comment boards to see offensive slurs tossed around casually — or, worse, to see targeted hate campaigns.

More broadly, the tech industry is often criticized for its dearth of diversity. Employment is skewed in favor of whites and men, and against other groups.

So when Pace joined UW Bothell in 2012, they wanted to change that. The first step was hiring Braxton, a UW Bothell graduate who was committed to equity and social justice. Together, the two have focused their efforts on countering bias and toxic work culture. They have baked into the identity of the DFL what they call “radical diversity”: the intentional focus on maximizing and foregrounding difference on a team of people with different backgrounds, abilities and academic focuses.

In planned topic discussions or spontaneous conversations, some students might speak about the racism or sexism they’ve experienced. Some might speak about neurological differences, or neurodiversity. For example, Pace, who has ADHD, likes to talk about how they have drastically different communication needs than people with Asperger’s.

And some students, like Scout, who came out in the lab, talk about gender identity:

“After four years of working in a space where my identity as a queer person, as a trans person, was not a negative, I feel way more comfortable with who I am,” he says.

“Here, we’re not just accommodating different folks. We’re valuing their differences and looking for how they can be beneficial to everyone.”

Ghostlight Manor goes commercial

In September, a handful of students and staff from the DFL had the opportunity to showcase their first commercial release, Ghostlight Manor — a game that is inspired by classic monster movies and arcade strategy games — at an open house hosted at Microsoft. Scores of game enthusiasts wandered among rows of computers, chatting with representatives from over 50 developers from around the world that were publishing their games on Xbox and Windows 10 devices.

Braxton watched as a woman gave Ghostlight Manor a try. A phalanx of unknown monsters, masked in white, advanced down the screen in serpentine fashion. The only defense was Lightbot, whose beams of light first revealed the monsters — ghosts, demons, vampires — and then scared them away.

“Oh my gosh!” said the woman. She had just unmasked a pair of zombies, and they were mad.

Braxton smiled. “Just to see how shiny and glitzy our product has become, and to see it standing up next to all these other titles, makes me really proud,” she said.

The full PC/Mac version, just released, is available for full download on Steam.

Teaching, learning — and creating

All of the Digital Future Lab’s games start as research prototypes led by the DFL and Professor of Computing and Software Systems (CSS) Kelvin Sung. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant and support from Google and Microsoft, Sung’s program gives introductory computer science students the opportunity to learn basic programming concepts by building casual games.

Successful prototypes like Ghostlight Manor make their way into the co-curricular commercial pipeline of the DFL, opening up educational opportunities across all disciplines — from computer science and communication to social justice and art. Students can get involved through credit capstones and independent study projects, or even a course taught by Pace, who is core faculty in Interactive Media Design (IMD), and affiliate faculty in CSS and Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences (IAS).

Other students dip their toes into the world of game creation as game testers or junior designers or developers. Only a few students, though, hold paid senior internships, something Pace and Braxton wish to change.

“Unpaid internships aren’t sustainable,” says Braxton. “To create a truly equitable workplace, we need paid internships for more students — not just those who can afford to work without pay.”

Help make a difference

When you support a student program like the Digital Future Lab, you can help students get hands-on, career-shaping experiences that prepare them for the workforce.

Now Playing:

The DFL is most definitely a multiplayer lab. From QA testers just dipping their toes into the gaming world to full-time staff, nobody goes it alone. Meet a few members of the DFL’s highly collaborative team.

  • Aina

    Aina Braxton Staff // Lead Producer, Assistant Director

    The biggest challenge I enjoyed tackling at the DFL was coming in with no background knowledge of the parts and pieces that went into software development. I learned to rely heavily on research, humility and my own creative instincts.

  • Emmett

    Emmett Scout Senior // Major: Interactive Media and Social Justice

    I’m a much better designer for having shared studio space with so many different kinds of brains, skills and disciplines.

  • Jason

    Jason Pace Staff // Executive Director

    The DFL has ignited my passion to make tech industry careers accessible to a more diverse workforce.

  • Joscelyn

    Joscelyn Kim Senior // Major: Computer Science and Software Engineering

    The DFL has given me the chance to work in a professional environment and experience the challenges of game development. I’ve gained confidence in my programming skills through working with and learning from other developers.

  • Lamiya

    Lamiya Kazi Junior // Intended Major: Electrical Engineering

    The biggest challenge I’ve faced at the DFL would have to be crunch week. It can be pretty stressful, but it highlights how well our team works together through thick and thin.

  • Malik

    Malik BseikriSenior // Major: Information Systems and Finance

    The DFL has taught me a ton about communication styles, but I’ve also learned how to be more cognizant of the environment I am in, and to react and communicate accordingly.

  • Morgan

    Morgan Thomas Sophomore //
    Intended Major: Undecided

    I’ve learned how to use a whole host of art programs since joining! I started off only knowing how to use basic 2-D art programs, and now I know a small variety of both 2-D and 3-D software.

  • Nathan

    Nathan Evers Staff // Lead Artist

    Seeing young professionals of all disciplines, ethnicity, backgrounds and identities engage passionately in interactive media production is hugely encouraging for the future of our industry.

Creating a game at the DFL

The game Ghostlight Manor is the product of over three years of work by scores of students, from its humble beginnings as an educational prototype to a highly polished version for the public.

“The best thing about watching the game proceed along development is the people who have been able to influence the creative direction.”—Digital Future Lab Executive Director Jason Pace

  • July 2013: Early days

    Emmett Scout and Jason Pace begin working with UW Bothell Professor of Computing and Software Systems Kelvin Sung and a number of his undergraduate computer science students. Together, they design and prototype a casual game called Ghostlight. For the next two years, they develop it into a polished game for mobile devices and desktop computers, called Ghostlight Manor.

  • April 2014: Prototype

    The prototyping team, now including Aina Braxton and other DFL interns, delivers the first proof-of-concept playable Ghostlight demo for Windows PC. There is no sound, no tutorials and only placeholder graphics.

    Video
  • October 2014: Prototype 2.0

    Emoticons

    The first full production team, about a dozen interns, works over the summer and through the beginning of fall quarter to deliver version one of the Ghostlight educational prototype for Windows PC. This version includes a tutorial system, custom art, music and sound, and five playable levels.

    Video
  • October 2015: Game goes mobile

    Immediately after releasing the educational prototype, the DFL begins work toward releasing Ghostlight, now called Ghostlight Manor, as their first commercial release, for mobile devices. The team grows to about 25 interns; they design a 50-level progression with a dozen unique game modes and six unique game environments.

    Video
  • Fall 2016: Developing a richer game experience for desktop

    After releasing the mobile version of Ghostlight Manor, the DFL decides to prep the game for PC/Mac and raise the quality bar even higher. The team working on the game grows to about 30 interns; in addition to reworking most of the game, they add a robust user research and play testing team that focuses on accessibility, balance — and the “fun factor.”

    Video