Video game companies can help to overcome the "digital divide" that prevents disadvantaged families from accessing technology. Last week, Digital Schoolhouse programme director Shahneila Saeed made a simple suggestion to the UK industry: "Instead of recycling your machines, can you donate them instead?"
Speaking at the GamesIndustry.biz Best Places to Work Awards, Saeed tackled a number of issues related to a lack of diversity in games companies. One of the major underlying issues, she said, is "financial inclusion" -- in an industry built around cutting-edge technology, access to that technology is an insurmountable hurdle for too many young people.
"We know there are kids that can't afford the tech at home," she said, explaining that the COVID-19 pandemic had magnified the issue of access to technology for all students.
"You've got four children in one home having to do online remote learning using a parent's smartphone device, and they have a 90 minute slot to use that device to get what they need," Saeed continued. "Those children were disadvantaged."
"If they can't use the tech today, will they create it tomorrow?"
Saeed added: "You might think 'that's why school is so important, because they have access to that tech and those resources at school.' But the truth is that a lot of schools that are based in regions where a large proportion of the population comes from disadvantaged backgrounds, are also under-funded and under-resourced.
"If they don't have [the resources] at school either, then when are they going to be able to use it, when are they going to enjoy it, and how are they going to realise they might want a career in it? If they can't use the tech today, will they create it tomorrow?"
Digital Schoolhouse, which is run by the UK trade body UKIE, has attempted to get around this "digital divide" by employing learning techniques that don't rely on technology. Saeed offered the example of a recent collaboration with Middlesex University, on a six-week game design course for disadvantaged children. Knowing that any one student would have access to a smartphone at most -- which was required to watch the stream -- the course was "completely unplugged -- as in teaching video games design just using pen and paper."
"There's a lot you can do with it, but it's only part of the journey -- it can only take you part of the way," Saeed said of these offline techniques, which can include using Lego and even magic tricks to illustrate key principles and ideas. "If you're going to enter the tech industry... at some point you have to use a machine, and develop your skills within that environment. Whether it's access to the Adobe Creative Suite, or Unreal, or Unity, or Construct, you need a decent PC to run this for you -- at least at mid-range."
Even mid-range computers are absent from a large number of schools in the UK. Saeed described visiting primary schools that had "half a dozen" low-end PCs for the entire student body -- this situation is far from uncommon, and a school with even one computer newer than five years-old is doing far better than most.
"The school I worked in was quite affluent," Saeed said. "So I was using machines that were about three years old, with decent specifications, when Microsoft released Kodu as an environment [for game development]. I was really excited, because I thought it was a great way to teach programming and game design, but we ditched it as a resource in less than a term because the lag was so great. The software was unusable."
"The machines we use in our offices and studios have to be the latest, so we're constantly upgrading"
There is a common assumption, Saeed continued, that the absence of better computer hardware in schools is evidence of outmoded thinking -- a systemic reluctance to embrace that we know "live in a digital world." In reality, though, it's an outcome of tight budgets being stretched too thin, where the need for upgraded computers -- "they still work, but the teachers are complaining that it takes ten minutes to logo on" -- must be weighed against the need to fix a leaking roof or replace torn carpets.
"I want to use this opportunity to make a plea, to all of you out there," Saeed said to the Best Places to Work audience. "Instead of recycling your machines, can you donate them instead, please?
"[The games industry] is creating technology for tomorrow. The machines we use in our offices and studios have to be the latest, so we're constantly upgrading. I believe it's a cycle of about every three years... that's about the average. And every time you upgrade, you're upgrading to another high spec PC."
Saeed recalled an esports tournament organised by Digital Schoolhouse, which brought together a number of schools to compete in an Overwatch tournament. A survey revealed that half of the schools involved didn't have a single computer that met the minimum spec for Blizzard's hero shooter. If Saeed hadn't "begged and borrowed" hardware donations from UK games companies, the tournament wouldn't have gone ahead.
"These were [the games companies'] old machines being sent for recycling. Instead of doing that, they sent them to our schools. The thank you letters from those schools said that these were the most powerful machines that the school now had. It unlocked the opportunity to not just take part in the tournament, but to also unleash a whole raft of new lessons.
"There's a huge digital divide here in this country... Some of it is systemic change that's going to take longer, but at the small level what we can do -- as an organisation, as a company -- is look at what we're about to send to recycling, and see if there's a school in the local community or a family that we can donate it to instead."