ATLANTA — In the popular video game "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," players assume the lead character of Carl Johnson, a down-on-his-luck criminal who roams city streets, stealing cars and helping gang members knock off rivals in drive-by shootings.
"CJ," as he's known by his pals, is black — and to some in the video game industry, that's a problem.
A growing number of people in the booming industry believe there should be more black and Hispanic heroes and heroines instead of hoods and hoodlums.
"Not everybody goes outside with bling-bling and listens to rap music all day," says Amil Tomlin, a black 15-year-old from Baltimore who plays hours of video games each day.
Among those trying to paint a different racial picture is Mario Armstrong, who hosts a weekly National Public Radio program on technology. He and two fellow black colleagues have started the Urban Video Game Academy, a virtual programming boot camp for minorities.
"It's been said that a bunch of nerdy white guys are creating these games," Armstrong said. "The problem with a bunch of white guys creating the games is that the story isn't being created with balance."
Roughly 80 percent of video game programmers are white, according to preliminary results of an International Game Developers Association survey of some 6,000 in the industry. About four percent of designers are Hispanic, and less than three percent are black.
The institute, formed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in May, is holding summer workshops in Atlanta, Baltimore and Washington D.C. to give minority students like Tomlin an opportunity to learn the basics of making video games.
Organizers hope this early exposure will inspire a new generation to make minority video game characters that go beyond typecast racial roles.
"I'd love to hear what other stories exist in the world besides the stereotypical ones. There are good people in the ghetto. There are role models," said academy co-founder John Saulter, who runs Entertainment Arts Research, one of the industry's few black-owned video gaming companies.
A five-week Baltimore program began June 27, with 50 high school students getting a tour of Maryland's tech-friendly Hunt Valley and a visit in the fall with Sid Meier, an industry pioneer.
In Atlanta, more than 200 applicants applied for roughly 20 spots in a two-week program set to begin in early August. Another camp in Washington, D.C. spearheaded by Roderick Woodruff, who runs a minority gaming Web site, begins later.
Organizers say they aren't surprised interest is so high. A March study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that black youths between 8 and 18 years old played video and computer games roughly 90 minutes a day — almost 30 minutes more than white youths. And Hispanics play about 10 minutes more per day than whites.
"If you've got kids who can sit in front of a game for eight hours, then they have the cognitive thought process to learn how to build the game," Saulter said.
Some in the industry believe race in games is a serious issue that has been ignored for too long. "For a long time, we've talked in the game industry about gender diversity as the one problem on the radar, but the racial split is worse," said Ian Bogost, a Georgia Tech game design professor who recently published a book on video game criticism.
Jason Della Rocca, IGDA's executive director, said the industry must confront a cycle that threatens its creativity: Educated, young white males create games for other educated, young white males.
"Games are an expressive medium. They are an art form, just like movies, theater and literature," Della Rocca said. "We're seeing, to a large extent, that the games that are being designed unconsciously include the biases, opinions and reflections of their creators."
In a way, he said, stubborness to diversify runs counter to the industry's tolerant roots. "We like to think that game design is a higher calling and that no one really cares what your skin color is or your sexual orientation," Della Rocca said. "But that doesn't seem to manifest itself in terms of a more diversified workplace."
Reaching out to minorities might also make financial sense. "Look at the Sims, the best-selling game of all-time. The development team was very gender-balanced," Della Rocca said.
Imagine, he pondered, what an ethnically diverse team could create.
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