Last month, a game jam co-hosted by the ESA Foundation and Amazon Games immersed D.C.-area students in the world of video game design and revealed how much they have to offer the industry.

By Rich Shea

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A team of students presents its video game concept to competitors and the judges’ panel at the end of the game jam.

Just ask any high school or college student — getting up early on a Saturday morning isn’t something they’d normally do, especially if they’re not sure what a “hackathon” is, or if they’ve never tried to create a video game before. But that’s exactly what a room full of high school and college students did.

And not long after they started work on the challenge they’d been given, an Amazon Games expert brought in to mentor the participants during the Washington, D.C., event couldn’t believe how well things were going.

“We were seeing something tangible 15 minutes from when we started, which is a ridiculously short period of time,” said Royal O’Brien, Amazon Games’ Tech Evangelist. “And a couple hours in, we can already see what they’re doing — these landscapes in these worlds and the games they’re building.”

Last month, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) Foundation and Amazon Games co-hosted their second hackathon in less than a year. What made the event unique — and more of a “game jam” then a “hack” — was utilizing Amazon’s game engine, Lumberyard, and Script Canvas to create the building blocks for new, future-focused video games. The students then had to “sell” their games to a panel of judges, the same experts who’d trained them.

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The hackathon took place in The Alley, Verizon’s 5G, state-of-the-art workspace in northwest D.C., which was donated to the ESA Foundation for the event. The foundation is the philanthropic arm of the video game industry and focuses on building a diverse workforce by supporting minority and women students aspiring to make games.

The day began with a visit from Lual Mayen, a former Sudanese refugee who, while living in a camp in Uganda, created video games as a teenager and is now CEO of a D.C.-based company developing a game titled Salaam, which recreates the experience of being refugee. Mayen shared his experiences and answered questions during a Q&A, which was followed by a tutorial delivered by the Amazon experts and a six-hour game jam session.

Hailing from various backgrounds, and displaying a wide range of skill levels, the students divided into teams of four and had to decide what role each member would play, so as to collaborate efficiently and effectively. “They had to learn not only new technical skills, but 21st century workforce skills as well,” said Anastasia Staten, ESA Foundation’s Executive Director.

Kayla Harwell, a Howard University sophomore majoring in computer science (CS), was particularly excited to be working outside of the box. CS students, she explained, usually go into software development after graduating. “But I want to broaden my horizons,” she added, “so I’m looking into game development and seeing if that’s a path I want to take.”

Nyhriel Smith, an ESA Foundation scholar as well as a freshman and CS major at Howard, was thrilled to be paired with Amazon experts. “You never get the chance to work one-on-one with the people who actually develop the software,” she said. “And that’s such a cool experience — to get that sort of mentorship.”

As the game jam progressed, and the students dug into their projects, it became evident that they weren’t the only ones benefitting from the day’s activities.

“Personally,” said Kelly Hecker, Amazon Gameplay Engineer, “I’ve been super-excited to see the diversity of the participants, in terms of age, gender and race. I think it’s great to see so many people coming together from so many different backgrounds. And I’m really excited to see where these future game developers go and how they change the industry.”

Dani McKenzie, Principal Inclusion Manager at Amazon Games, admitted that one of her company’s goals in participating was to get the students “interested in game technology, the game industry and potentially to come work with us either as interns or as employees.”

But the bigger goal, one in which the ESA Foundation is heavily invested, is to help facilitate a more diverse video-game industry. “Right now,” McKenzie said, “if you look at the studies, something like 85 percent of game developers, outside of China, are white men. We need greater diversity in our game teams, the cognitive diversity, lived-experience diversity, to bring in different experiences and different ideas.”

After a dinner break, the exhausted, yet still energetic, students explained, team by team, the ideas behind their games, then shared them with the judges. The biggest theme of the evening was how climate change will affect the future of the planet and how humans, using limited resources, might survive.

During her team’s presentation, Nyhriel was candid about the many challenges she and her teammates faced during the jam. She even grabbed her own computer to prove that she’d “gotten the zombies to work.” And, indeed, up they popped on the big screen, an army of the undead crossing a desert landscape as a cowboy, the main character, sought to destroy them.

Later, Nyhriel said that one of the biggest lessons she learned from the jam was perseverance. “When you’re developing a game, you’re going to do damage and it’s going to crash and you’re not going to know what to do about it,” she explained. “Just stay calm and keep trying.”

When the presentations were finished, the judges conferred, then handed out the awards, roughly 10 in all, to teams and individuals. Nyhriel, it turns out, won the award for “craftiest,” and another female student, a high-schooler who’d arrived with no game-making experience but was instrumental in developing her team’s product, won “fastest learner.”

Nyrhiel’s team also earned honorable mention. But the grand prize went to Kayla’s team, for “Absent Future,” a game in which a post-apocalyptic world is ravaged by climate change. A few hours earlier, Kayla, who’s attended many hackathons, said that, by far, those hosted by the ESA Foundation and Amazon were the best. And as her team accepted its prize, she had tears in her eyes.

Staten, ESA Foundation’s Executive Director, said the collaborative effort has been so successful, they want to look at co-hosting game jams across the country. “We’d like to do it in communities historically underrepresented, where people who love video games but aren’t aware of their options can be encouraged to, one, study game design in college and, two, consider it as a career.”

Derek Sunshine, creative director in the Amazon Lumberyard Team, perhaps best summed up the day’s events when he said of the students, “I’m really excited to see the future of games, to see what they create once they become professionals. I’m looking forward to playing their games.”

Rich Shea is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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