FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. Ed Gordon is away.
(Soundbite of background activity)
CHIDEYA: I'm standing here with Mario Armstrong--he is NEWS & NOTES tech expert--in front of a sign in the Los Angeles Convention Center that says, `Welcome to the Electronic Entertainment Expo.' So what is this thing?
MARIO ARMSTRONG reporting:
This is the moment, Farai. This is--the industry waits for this moment every single year to make all of the announcements of what the whole electronics industry is putting out as it relates to entertainment. So is your Microsoft Xbox. This is cell phones. This is Sony PlayStation, Nintendo GameCube. Anybody that makes video games or is affiliated with the video game industry is here.
CHIDEYA: So how does the video game industry compare to, say, film?
ARMSTRONG: Video games used to modeled after movie blockbusters. Now you're seeing the reverse. Movies are being modeled after very blockbuster video games. So it's a $38 billion industry just in the US alone.
CHIDEYA: Let's talk very briefly about a few of the things that are hot. What's the hottest product, you think, this year?
ARMSTRONG: It's a tough battle. I mean, you know, I love video games. I play them. You know, I remember when I got my Atari as a kid and my mom said to me, `I just bought the last one off the shelf,' you know. She was sure to let me know that she did that. The competition is in the console market. Who is really going to emerge as the leader? So back in those days in the '70s, it was Atari. Now we have Microsoft Xbox vs. Sony PlayStation 3 vs. Nintendo's new system called Revolution. And so me, my winner this year is the Xbox 360.
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CHIDEYA: What makes it so special?
ARMSTRONG: Oh, first of all, sleek design. Very nice. The first console they created, I really think, that's for hard-core gamers. Farai, what they're doing now is they are taking the gaming experience and made it the family lifestyle experience.
CHIDEYA: Let's talk about some of the games that are featuring African-American characters or marketed to African-Americans.
ARMSTRONG: Some of the games that I'm seeing that are really kind of over the top with their marketing to certain audiences are games like Grand Theft Auto that are made by Rock Star Games. But then you have--sports genres seem to even be geared towards African-Americans, and in my opinion, not in the right way. NBA Street, Volume 3--this is pickup ball in the back alleys of New York City. You have basketball players wearing gold chains hanging down to their knees. I don't know anyone that's playing basketball wearing all this jewelry. So it's bling-bling meets, you know, the back alley of New York to play basketball. And then the same thing is happening for NFL Street, Volume 2, which is--both of those titles are made by Electronic Arts.
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Unidentified Voice: EA sports, it's in the game. EA sports, it's in the game.
CHIDEYA: But is there anybody here who's really unexpected?
ARMSTRONG: Unexpected. You know, it's funny you asked that question because I think a lot of people don't know that 39 percent of gamers are women, and the average age of a video game buyer is 36 years old. The average age of a video game player--get this--is 30 years old. A lot of people think this is teen stuff, so who comes to mind that's really kind of unique and different is America's Army. The Army is here.
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ARMSTRONG: What are they doing here? Well, they have one of the most popular video games out called America's Army. Over five million people have registered to play this game, and it's all about learning basic training. It's all about sending your platoons. You're trying to become a Green Beret.
CHIDEYA: This is basically something that we're going to have to keep an eye on, because whatever happens here is going to make it into people's homes.
CHIDEYA: Thanks, Mario, for the preview of the E3 Expo.
Our next stop, Twist Restaurant in Los Angeles and a meeting of executives of color in the video game industry. Mario Armstrong joins me again, as well as Nichol Bradford of Vivendi Universal Games, and Joe Saulter, the CEO of Entertainment Arts Research. Thank you all for joining me.
ARMSTRONG: Thank you.
Mr. JOE SAULTER (CEO, Entertainment Arts Research): You're welcome. Thank you.
ARMSTRONG: Very glad to be here.
CHIDEYA: Let me just get to the point here. You know, in popular games like Grand Theft Auto, black folks are all over the screen, but they are doing things that look like ghetto pathology. Is this just another case of the media focusing on the negative side of black life--Nichol?
Ms. NICHOL BRADFORD (Vivendi Universal Games): Grand Theft Auto is only one type of video game. And there are a variety of images that are in it. It only represents one genre and one type of game. Games like Grand Theft Auto should exist--it's entertainment, they're very popular, it's a great game. The problem comes when that's the only representation. And so that's what we are all proactively working on, getting more diversity into games so that there's a wider representation, so it's not one image alone.
CHIDEYA: Well, Joe, let me go to you. You are working on developing new games. So do you have any thought about how black folks should be depicted, or is that kind of in the far back of all the considerations you have?
Mr. SAULTER: One of the main things that you got to look at is that we're early in the game industry. So if I were to, say, look at the film industry and look at the early film industry and see somebody like Stepin Fetchit in there, I would say that that character led way to Bill Robinson and into your Halle Berrys, your Denzel Washingtons. So we're early in a area and not enough African-Americans in the arena to play the game--you're going to have the stereotypes. What we're trying to do is bring you to the area where we may start with a stereotypical character, but that character will develop and move into a different area. We're looking for role-model characters beside--like, I always tell my students is--there are good people in the ghetto, too; there are role models in the ghetto, too.
I was talking to a programmer the other day and I said, `I need a African-American character,' 3D animation. He says, `Oh, gold teeth and, you know, chain and everything?' I said, `No.' I say, `There are other characters that we can depict in the game industry.' We just have to get to the point where we do that.
CHIDEYA: But here's my question. It seems easier, at least on the surface, to sell the stereotype, than to sell something that's a little more nuanced. Are you worried that if you try to do something more nuanced, your business is going to fail?
Mr. SAULTER: Yeah, what we're doing is we're coming in the game where the game starts. I'm not trying to play in a different league. I'm here for a lifetime. I'm here for a career in the industry. And I know I have to start somewhere. So I may start one place, and I'm ending up with a Christian game--you know what I'm saying?--called The Seventh Day when I've started with a game called Chaotic Fools. But I'm moving towards that direction, moving towards a direction where we can take those things that are bad and change them into positives. You know, like I say, I want a Denzel Washington character in my game.
CHIDEYA: Mario, let me go to you. As you're listening to two folks who are in the industry talk, what do you see in the future? You know, obviously, people are gathered in town for E3. Is enlightenment going to sell?
ARMSTRONG: You know, that's a great question because I'm hopeful that it will. We'll probably continue to see some of the same things that we've seen in the past. However, I'm hopeful that this will create new opportunities to say new stories. And that's why diversity is needed, so that the scripts can change; so that there's diversity in the story line, and therefore may have some diverse outcomes that may have positive representation.
CHIDEYA: Well, Mario, I want you to just break things down for me a little bit. How important are black consumers to the health of this huge multibillion-dollar industry? And how many black people do we think are actually working in the industry right now?
ARMSTRONG: Well, you know, that's a great question. I mean, it's very important to the health of the industry. And I think the industry recognizes that, you know, African-Americans are buying a lot of these games.
One of the other points that I wanted to bring up and raise that we didn't get a chance to touch on, but goes back to your former question about nuances--one of the other things here at E3 was the Education Arcade, and it's not talked about. But it's about the serious games. It's about games that are created for health care; games that are created possibly for the military; games that are created for social and economic change. So there is this other part of the industry that's not in the entertainment industry but certainly in the video game development industry.
CHIDEYA: Let's follow up a little bit on that. I believe that you and Joe are involved in a project to try to bring video gaming to students. Tell me a little bit more about that, Mario, and then jump in, Joe.
ARMSTRONG: Yeah. Actually, it's low-income, it's inner-city students that we're trying to bring this opportunity to. It's called the Urban Video Game Academy. There's three of us that put this idea together. It's launching in June in Baltimore and in Atlanta. And the whole idea here, Farai, is to, A, demystify math, science and engineering and computer science as tracks that they can actually pursue in; and B, create the bridge, if you will, to allow students the opportunity to have the ability to see their dreams be realized through video game development. It's the best way to get them to relate to why academic achievement is important in school today.
Mr. SAULTER: What I'd like to say is that when you're looking at the Atlanta school system, you're looking at about a 51-percent dropout rate; you're looking at a slated, over the next five years, about a 65-percent dropout rate. I have four grandchildren in that school system right now, and I would be remiss if I didn't try to do something to help these people. I've been an educator for the last almost 20 years now, going from K through 12 and into the university level. And what we're doing with the Urban Game Academy is we are bringing in or bringing to students who I know can work. These students have been working very hard. If you can sit in front of a computer for eight hours and play San Andreas, then I can teach you how to sit in front of a computer and pull a polygon.
CHIDEYA: My mother was a teacher--she's now retired--and I remember once going on a little field trip as a chaperone with some of her kids. And there was this kid who, in the middle of winter, didn't have a coat, but he had a stack of video game cartridges. What is it about this industry that people find so hypnotic, for better and for worse? Joe?
Mr. SAULTER: I'm a professional musician. I've been playing jazz drums for the last 30 years. I get a certain sensation when I play the drums that has allowed me to rehearse for many, many years and master a certain instrument. When I sit down and I play a game, for some reason it hits that same spot in my head that I lose control of time.
CHIDEYA: Nichol, I'm going to end with you. What about women in the industry? It's seen from the outside as a very male industry. You're not a man. How are women doing?
Ms. BRADFORD: The industry is 97 percent male--that's a fact--but there are women all across the industry in very, very important roles who are holding up the candle for women in the video game industry. So there's examples of women in positions of power at all of the major studios and all of the major publishers.
CHIDEYA: That was Nichol Bradford. She's the senior global brand manager at Vivendi Universal Games. We were also talking with Joe Saulter, CEO of Entertainment Arts Research, and Mario Armstrong, our own tech expert for NEWS & NOTES. Thank you all for joining us.
ARMSTRONG: Thanks so much for having us.
Ms. BRADFORD: Thank you.
Mr. SAULTER: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.
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