Above: Gordon Bellamy of USC Games.

Image Credit: Games For Change

Games and fairness

GamesBeat: Was there also this aspect of how games are equitable? They’re fair, and people don’t care who you are when you play with them.

Bellamy: You think about Wave XR [where you can adopt an avatar and join in a virtual concert]. You go to play Street Fighter, it doesn’t necessarily know who you are. We’re going to pick the characters. We have a conflict, and we agree that that’s the rule set where we’re going to play. We might talk about the stakes, but we’re going to play the game.

Games are a conversation. The conversation can be, nowadays, because games are so connected, between you and me. There’s a lot of discourse about that. Online discourse, the conversation we’re going to have. There are also conversations with the game. That discourse could be physical. Is it free? Is it pay-to-win? How are we driving forward? It can be mechanics. Am I able to do what I’m thinking when I play this game, or am I frustrated? I’m trying to drive this car and it’s not doing what I want. And it can be thoughtful. As you navigate identities and challenges in the game, there’s this conversation you’re able to have, and reflection. This is how I solve this in this game world. That’s interesting. Maybe I’ll take some of that with me, or not, into the world.

The world benefits from that. Games for Change is exactly that. It’s about these games that evoke conversations, not only in the play, but in the way you live your life. I went to New York last year, and you see games that allow you to explore and learn and grow about not just topics, but about the relationship between things involved in the topic, in a powerful, meaningful way, because they are interactive.

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I’m thinking about the difference between watching a documentary and playing one, where you have to observe the interactions with some level of interactivity, or you have a stake in one side or the other — think about playing Civilization versus just reading history. Your understanding of the importance of populations, of building a city a certain size and needing some science to grow when you’re growing a city, versus just reading about it. It builds very different feelings of understanding. Things like diplomacy, when you’re playing the game, versus reading about it in a paper. There can be all sorts of factors that cause disagreement, and you have a great understanding for that through playing games.

To return to the topic, I don’t know if equitable — that’s a very powerful word. There’s at least an expectation of equity when you go into a game. I’d offer that when you don’t feel equity, you feel disconnected, or when you don’t feel agency.

GamesBeat: We picked up on your passion for games and opportunities for developers. What about the point where you started having more awareness about, say, gay gaming professionals? Other kinds of social issues you could bring into the game industry.

Bellamy: That’s the thing. Bringing yourself to it. Games as escape, versus games for change. In order to bring change, one of the choices you need to make is whether you bring yourself to it. I don’t mean to speak in a metaphor, but everyone has their experience that they have the opportunity to bring. You as a journalist have perfected that. I’m a parent, so I have insight into this. I’m a man of color. I have insight into this that I can choose to bring.

The same thing happens professionally, where with Pride, you come to find that this is additive, versus exceptional. For marginalized people, often it can be a challenge to be exceptional. If you’re the first X, Y, or Z, the implication is that’s not normal. It’s not in the middle. You should recognize what you’ve achieved. But that’s a very different tone from, your unique traits are additive to the outstanding person that you are. Part of my growth has been to find ways — to recognize and celebrate people’s uniqueness is additive to our game world. They’re assets. That diversity is an asset. It adds something to our space.

Obviously it’s been in the news this week because of the employment decision at the Supreme Court. In my real life, to have your ability to work be adjudicated–until this point in my career, 27 years in, what state I lived in — nothing to do with video games, except the degree to which you bring yourself to the work. It’s an interesting time.

GamesBeat: There are some very serious subjects here, and very serious projects you’re involved with. But you’re always doing it with a smile. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen an angry side of Gordon.

Bellamy: People will ask me about that. Are you authentically happy? Well, no. We’re in a pandemic. We’re 50 years old. We’re in a pandemic. When you look at the statistical curve — obviously there’s social unrest around my existence, around me. It’s super real. And also true, I’m on the phone with Dean Takahashi, one of the greatest journalists I’ve known in my life. I get one life, one go, and whatever I have done, the choices I’ve made, has gotten me here, where you’re taking the time to listen to my thoughts and feelings about doing good for people, about how games, to which I’ve given my life, move things forward. I can either lean into that or not. I’m going to lean into it. That’s meaningful to me.

Being an activist and a professional

GamesBeat: Do you ever struggle with how much of an activist you’d like to be in your professional life? Focusing on game work versus focusing on issues around it?

Bellamy: Even more so when the issues are me. I’ll make assumptions about your life, but sometimes I’ll read your stories and think, “You’re talking about me.” Not covering something as a journalist, but literally talking about me. And I think, “How can I contribute the most? What can I do?” It’s like an RTS. You can’t be every unit in the RTS. You can’t be at the mall, making dinner, and mentoring your kid, and writing 10 articles. You have to pick.

That’s an ongoing opportunity that I have, an ongoing responsibility to continue to be in a discourse. When you ask me this question, I pause to reflect. I don’t have a time machine to go backwards, but looking forward — I have this challenge with Pride. We did a Pride event, 20 hours of content, like I said. But we started on Juneteenth. I’m black, so there’s a balance to be struck when it comes to content that we put out there. We of course needed to have black voices and time for black voices to speak and express in their talks. We need to have time for trans voices, through our lens, to speak.

Something that’s helped me a lot with GGP has been finding — I call it a lane. Our lane is education, employment, expertise, entrepreneurship. That’s our lane, the things that help people move forward. Education. We’re doing things to elevate that next generation, like Tracy Fullerton and all these people before me. Employment. We’re helping them connect with opportunities to work in this craft with others. Expertise. We’re shining a light on people. What can I do, specifically, for people from diverse and marginalized populations? Show their expertise. Show them as the experts they are. Everyone already knows that they’re marginalized. What we don’t know is that they’re experts. That’s a real discourse that needs to be had. Why is diversity important? I understand that being diverse is additive, but are you also basically additive? These stories need to be told, about outstanding people. And then entrepreneurship. Ultimately, people owning their time. This is what’s going to go down and this is who you’re going to afford opportunities to. That leaves the world better.

Finding purpose in that lane — not that I don’t love other lanes, other things people are doing in such a great way, but giving myself the chance to iterate and grow and serve in a lane. That helps me. I feel like there are other people who are amazing in other lanes. That’s awesome. I’d love to learn from that.

Above: Gordon Bellamy, Asra Rasheed, and Justin Hefter at GamesBeat 2015’s diversity panel.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Teaching a new generation

GamesBeat: Judging by where you are now, guiding young people to care seems to be one of the things that satisfies you about teaching.

Bellamy: About teaching — this isn’t an age thing, because learning isn’t a chronological thing. It’s a temperament. We’re always learning. It’s for people who are learning to include themselves, their own time and worth, as one of the things they consider as they learn. That’s going to enable them to do even more growth. The metaphor I often use, the students are these fantastic plants. We’re the stake in the ground that helps them grow in the right direction. We’re just trying to help them — at very early stages you can grow in all sorts of directions, whatever they want to be.

One thing we talk about a lot in class, a lot of the roles and opportunities and jobs they’ll have five or 10 years from now don’t exist today. A lot of people that we have come in to talk, the thing they’re doing now didn’t exist five or 10 years ago. But what always does exist is that temperament for learning, for supporting each other, for networking. The importance of people in what you’re doing.

One of the great things about USC and their program is the engines change. You don’t go to USC to learn Unity. You go to learn how to use a game engine so that you can be a developer. If that turns out to be Unity, Unreal, or an engine you create, you’re supposed to learn how to work with engines, which is an important point.

For this new generation, one of the bigger challenges is how to manage certain pillars. Design, monetization, player customization of experience, and community.

The point being, if you want to understand games and what they can be to people, that’s one border. Monetization and understanding, for young people who don’t always want to pay up front for games — they didn’t grow up going to GameStop and paying $60. They have new models that make more sense to them as far as how they transact. Learning about that. Player customization. You play Fortnite. The mechanics are important, but the customization, the dance, your look, and the expectation that people now have about that agency. I’ve read articles where people say, “In this game, I can’t be who I want to be. Why don’t they take the time to make the art for that?” Representation and choice. Can I choose what that is? It’s not necessarily always mirroring who you are. But representation in the sense of that freedom. Back when we started Madden, way back when, you couldn’t play as all the teams. You just had the playoff teams. If I love the Browns, this game doesn’t even have the team I want to pick before I press A, B, or C. It’s even more relevant today.

And then of course community. The discourse around games, in journalism and Reddit and Twitch and YouTube and Facebook, that discourse is part of the reality of games now. Preparing young people, and old people and medium people — preparing people who want to learn, whoever they may be, to address those forums is super meaningful.