Making Connections: A Game-Designing College Student is Helping to Form Communities
ESA Foundation scholarship winner Geneva Heyward wants to showcase marginalized people in video games as dynamic characters — and is encouraging others to do the same.
By Rich Shea
Solar Sprout, a video game that won a grand prize in the Games for Change Student Challenge in 2018, says a lot about its creator, 19-year-old Geneva Heyward. In the role of Johnnie — a robot who, via solar power, is given extra energy to perform good deeds — players fly through city streets helping residents with emotional and practical problems, in part by connecting them with each other.
“The theme was ‘connected cities,’” Geneva says of last year’s challenge, hosted by Games for Change, or G4C, a nonprofit leveraging games for social good.
At the time, Geneva — who identifies as gender non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them — was a high school senior. Today, they’re a New York University student majoring in game design. They are also the recipient, for the second year in a row, of an ESA Foundation scholarship, which is awarded to women and minority college students to help facilitate a video game industry that reflects the country’s diversity. The foundation, which sponsors the annual Games for Change Festival, awarded 35 scholarships nationwide for the 2019–20 academic year.
“I’m so thankful to have received this scholarship again,” Geneva says. “It means I’ll be able to focus more on going to game-industry events and on furthering my career development.”
While Geneva, who was recently featured in a CBS News report on video games, currently lives on NYU’s campus, their home is the Corona neighborhood of Queens, New York. Their parents, two younger siblings and a grandmother live there, in an apartment featuring windows similar to those in the Solar Sprout game. Playing games has been part of Geneva’s life since the age of 3. “There’s a picture of me,” they say, “playing on Disney Channel’s website on my dad’s computer.”
Those games, mixed with an interest in the arts, led Geneva to enroll in NYU’s Future Game Designers, a program for high-schoolers, and then qualify for the School of Interactive Arts (SIA). “It’s part of the Urban Arts Partnership, which offers arts programs to Title 1 schools,” they explain. “It’s more programming-heavy, which I needed to create games. I’m still at SIA, but I teach there now. I went from student to teacher last year in June, and it’s been great.”
It’s also been productive. Geneva has created more than 10 games thus far, including Solar Sprout and Green Hero, an environmentally-conscious game that won them another prize, in the Unity category (named for the engine on which it was built), in the 2017 National STEM Video Game Challenge, of which the ESA Foundation is a co-founder.
This past summer was a busy one for Geneva. They showcased Skate & Date, a roller-derby rhythm game, at the Game Devs of Color Expo, “and I ended up being nominated for the Humble Bundle Developer of Color Award!,” Geneva says. “And I got to talk on a panel at the event.” A week later, they showcased the game at SAAM Arcade, an annual gamers event at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.
Another game, Rebel Runner, was commissioned by the Play NYC gaming convention for the Graffiti Games initiative, which this year featured LGBTQ+ developers in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Geneva also co-created How Do You Know?, an educational narrative-puzzle game about abusive relationships, for the Jennifer Ann’s Group Gaslighting Game Design Challenge.
Game creation, for Geneva, is, in part, an act of self-expression. And as an African-American member of the LGBTQ+ community, they are making efforts to enrich an industry in which “there’s not enough inclusivity and diversity,” they say. That’s why Geneva is a big fan of the ESA Foundation’s mission as well as the generosity of the companies donating to the Foundation’s annual scholarship fund. “I think it’s great, because they’re giving back and trying to get more people into the industry,” they say.
Geneva’s doing the same. Aside from building a portfolio of games, they use their teaching post at SIA to encourage high-schoolers to follow in their footsteps. “Last year,” Geneva explains, “I was saying to all the seniors, ‘Come on, guys, you have to apply to colleges.’ I had a whole spreadsheet. And the ones who wanted to do early decision at NYU all got in. I’m like, ‘Oh, whew. Awesome.’”
For now, Geneva doesn’t have a long-term plan in mind. They simply want to do good work, both academically and in game-design, and take advantage of the networking opportunities the ESA Foundation scholarship has afforded them. “As long as I get myself out there,” Geneva says, “and interact with others in the game community, I’ll be OK.”
Rich Shea is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.