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Games For Change is honoring educator Gordon Bellamy with its prestigious Vanguard Award for his role as a game industry leader and LGBTQ+ champion.
Games For Change is a nonprofit that runs the game conference and festival, promoting the power of games for social impact. It takes place on July 14 to July 16, and Bellamy will be honored at the G4C Awards Ceremony 4:30 p.m. Pacific time on July 14. Humble Bundle will also receive the inaugural G4C Giving Award for its fundraising efforts for charities.
Bellamy is a visiting scholar at USC Games and the CEO of Gay Gaming Professionals. He’s a boisterous fellow that I used to run into frequently at game industry events (when they were still happening), and he always had a big smile and bubbly things to say. I’ve also found that he has a serious side, and that is one of the reasons he is getting the award.
Susanna Pollack, the president of Games for Change, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the group has a history of honoring academics who do research or other impactful things that benefit the whole industry. Bellamy has done those things as well as made a difference for people in underserved communities, she said.
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Bellamy has played key business and product leadership roles at Tencent, Electronic Arts, as a designer on Madden NFL Football (back in the 1990s), and at MTV. He has also served as executive director of both the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences and the International Game Developers Association.
“It is rewarding to honor Gordon Bellamy, who comes into the community with a different background and is equally as impactful as our other recipients,” she said. “I’ve been aware of Gordon and his presence in games for many years. He was a developer and worked on the corporate side, and he worked on the nonprofit side for AIAS and the IGDA and now with Gay Gaming Professionals. He is a unique individual who straddles so many of the stakeholders who are part of the Games For Change community.”
She added, “Everything he has done in his career has been driving inclusivity and accessibility within the games industry. That speaks well to the spirit of Games For Change. We see ourselves as a convener, as we’re all about bringing people together from different perspectives. That’s something Gordon has done, perhaps unintentionally. That’s just who he is. I hope his energy will be inspiring to others.”
At the award ceremony, Games for Change will also present Microsoft with the Industry Leadership award and unveil the winners for “best of” games as well as the “G4C People’s Choice” award, presented by Facebook Gaming.
Past winners of the Vanguard Award include Lindsay Grace of the University of Miami, Constance Steinkuehler of the University of California at Irvine, Katie Salen of the University of California at Irvine, and onetime Gamasutra blogger Mary Flanagan.
I spoke with Bellamy about his career and mission. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Congratulations on the award. It’s a meaningful one, for a whole career of caring about things. How do you feel about this one?
Gordon Bellamy: What an amazing list of people. Katie Salen. Lindsay Grace just won it this past year. These are all people that inspire, who are so meaningful in their giving to others, to afford opportunities for others. That’s what is unique about this award to me is that it’s about what you do to help other people get from point A to point B. The work of using your talent in service to others, in teaching and non-profits. It’s humbling.
When I look at the people who won this before, and what they’ve done in academic circles and what they’ve done in critical thinking about games, and in affording other people the opportunity to care about games in new ways, it’s a privilege to be even considered to be a nominee. It’s great to get the award, but even to have been on the same list — they’re all awesome, what they’re doing. I’m still busy, still trying to learn from them about how to best lift up our craft.
GamesBeat: I did wonder about one interesting point here. When you were young and starting this career in games, how focused were you on the career? At what point did you feel like you had more of a mission?
Bellamy: It’s funny. I was EA’s rookie of the year in 1994. I have a little trophy, a little baseball bat. Games have always been part of my identity. Because they provide a framework. You experience this now in the world, where everyone is looking for frameworks for equity, frameworks where the rules are the same. We’re having to navigate challenges in the same way, and then do the work, play the game. For as long as I can remember, games have always been a part of who I was. Not just something that I did.
It’s funny you mentioned the mission. Last week we had our Gay Gaming Professionals Pride event with about 20 hours of programming. We honored Danielle Bunten Berry [an early game designer at Electronic Arts who transitioned to being a woman] there. She’s part of my story because I actually lived with her in corporate housing when I went out to EA. The way I got my first gig was by cold calling. I called the people working on NHL hockey from my dorm room. The guy who picked up the phone was a guy named Jim Simmons, who turned out to be the wrong Jim Simmons, but the right one for me. He picked up the phone for me to get out there and take my tester test at EA. Point being, I got to reconnect with him now 27 years later, this past weekend. It gives you perspective. Whoa, this has been a minute.
As far as focus, when I got into games — the dream, of course, was EA Sports. Those games were so incredible, so evocative. I’d always loved sports games. You ever play electric football, the metal board that vibrates? I loved it. I had every team. I had like four sets of Cowboys, home and away. Every player on the Cowboys. I had the little stickers. I was deep into Strat-o-Matic. When Madden and those other games came out, or the one with the trackball in the arcade, that was what I wanted to do.
GamesBeat: So you were all about sports. Were you an athlete?
Bellamy: I’m pretty good at table tennis? But I covered sports. I wrote for the Harvard Crimson. I had a column called “In Gord We Trust.” I was always more into, back then, how people could enjoy sports between the games. Whether that be journalism, whether that be video games. Because football only happened on Sunday and Monday back then. What happens the rest of the week? Video games. That mattered to me. That brought me out there.
We made a studio, Z-Axis, that ended up being Activision Foster City, the first time, before the Sledgehammer days. Then I crossed over into the business side, which was about helping developers. I went to THQ. The same way that folks at EA helped me as a developer and helped us as a studio, the career became about giving that back. You see all the other gigs. It was THQ, Spike Video Game Awards, DICE Summit, IGDA, they’re really all the same thing. This vision of how we can afford developers the chance for more in life. Tencent, too. How do we help developers span the globe in a meaningful way?
In teaching, I’ll share with you what brought me to USC. I had a lunch with Tracy Fullerton. Hall of Famer. She’s so amazing at affording our next generation the chance to be as good as they can be. I focused on three things. I want young people to be able to find jobs. I want them to be able to own their time, their own business, their entrepreneurship. And I still have a dream, which is, imagine a Rhodes Scholar program around games, where the best and brightest from around the world coming to USC. We could attack issues such as hunger or pandemics.
Imagine if there was a game now that would help people understand social distancing in a positive way. Not a judging way, a negative reinforcement way, but just something we could play, like Animal Crossing. Something people like doing, in order to allow people to be included in the discourse.
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.
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.
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.
Games For Change
GamesBeat: I think of games like Life is Strange 2, where you get a story spoonfed to you that you cannot deviate from. There are slightly different variations on the ending, but the choices that you make that are big ones for the characters — these are made by the storytellers, by the game designers. They make the big decisions. The only thing you get a choice in is who you’re attracted to in the game. You can choose to be sexually attracted to the male friend or the female friend. That was an interesting and different take on where we’re going to allow the gamer to make choices.
Bellamy: You can think about The Sims. There’s a game where — I mean the old-school Sims. That was something where you could really explore the traits and what it’s like to live as someone. My husband and I made us in The Sims, in our house. Our characters were doing what we do. I’d be on the screen as I played the game. Going back to the four pillars, that player customization of experience — it’s super interesting to see how that’s being explored and what that makes you think about. Whether it be — when you raised the question, you said, “You shoot all kinds of people. What does that make you feel about representation?” I think that’s what I heard was the question. Okay, fair? That’s a certain kind of progress.
GamesBeat: I think of some of these games as progress. We’ve made progress in the video game industry just as society has changed. That narrative can be challenged. But to see progress in diversity reflected in video games is, to me, a satisfying thing. And I think it’s because of the work of people like you that these things exist now. The gamers of today and the gamers of tomorrow can benefit from the kind of work that you’ve done. That must feel good. Inspiring people to create these kinds of things.
Bellamy: Not only inspiring people, but I think a lot of the work is in connecting people to afford them the opportunities. A lot of our work is in putting people in places to be their best selves, wherever that may be. That can be a lot of the work. Even the teaching — back when I was young, in school, we used to learn states and capitals. Lansing, Michigan. I could do that all day. We didn’t learn as much about what the capital does, why it’s important to your life. Why is Sacramento so important? How does it affect you every day?
That’s a lot of the work we do now in teaching.
GamesBeat: What more change do you want to see? What kind of progress?
Bellamy: Going all the way back, games are discussions. More discussions need to be had between people who are the same, or people who think they are the same, and people who think they are different. My hope is that — I’ll use the word, but — for game makers, I want to democratize their ability to create these discussions, and also for people to be able to discover and experience these discussions. It motivates me.
I feel, more than ever, across the things which may divide us, or that are bringing us together in large groups, that games are a powerful part of that discourse. Especially games for change, however you define positive change.
GamesBeat: They inspire the conversations that lead to change.
Bellamy: Absolutely. They are part of the change. Games are a place where that agreement or disagreement happens. Games are something where it’s already being more democratized in that we can play games — when I was a kid you couldn’t play games with people in another country, just by turning it on. You could play games with people at the arcade, or if people came to your house. You could play games on the internet, but only if you set it up at the same time. Now we can play games on our mobile devices, which we all have, with people all around the world, and have a discourse that gives value to people.
Your expectations of what someone else is, who they are, they change via games and the connectivity that only games have, with a shared interaction to drive the result. It’s different than watching the same movie. Playing a game together is something that can truly help people value and understand each other and respect each other more than when they started.
Democratizing that, so there are more voices — that’s one of the challenges. Who’s making these games? There’s a number of points of friction that we try to reduce through education, through professional development. Why do we do webinars? To reduce the friction of discovery, of people talking to professionals in their craft.
At an academic level, we’re working with people who’ve devoted their lives — they’re 17, 18, 19 years old. They’re saying, “My life is games. This is my core skill.” This is their main thing. There’s a great responsibility and opportunity to strengthen them, to move the friction out of their way, so their voices can be heard and discovered, and so that their conversations can be had. That’s meaningful.
When I look back on my career — if I have a slight impact, that’s amazing. But I remember even our first team on Madden. Our first intern team we brought in. Many of them stayed with the game for 20 years, 25 years. It’s the same thing to me. Back then, it was more like the Bill Belichick coaching tree. We had Kraig Kujawa, who went on to do Blitz. Brian Jackson went up to Microsoft. Jeremy Strauser and Dan Baker went to Tiburon to do college and pro. Or me, back then, that was my lens. Football. How can we propagate into the world?
Today, there’s this amazing generation of people of all walks of life. Some of them come from an academic path. Some of them come from an identity path. But all of them want to learn more and want to have these conversations. The change that I want to make is for them to have the freedom to create more of these conversations. When it gets down to it, it’s going to be about these conversations that were driven by play.
We took a while to get here, but that’s where my heart is. Giving more people an opportunity, a place at the table, to drive these discussions, to give them a voice, is what it’s about. That’s how we’ll look back on what success — at least to me.
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