Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz this week, USC Interactive Media & Games' Professor Jim Huntley explains how the school's Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund -- established in partnership with Take-Two Interactive -- came about.
"It was during the racial justice protests that rocked the nation, and really the world, last year," Huntley recalls. "I experienced and marched in some of those protests, and was really blown away by the amount of diversity I saw in the crowd. It kind of triggered me to really start buckling down and figure out, 'Is there something we can do in our neck of the woods with USC Games that can make a difference from a racial justice perspective?'"
Huntley says he spent the summer working with USC Games program chair Danny Bilson, got approval from the dean, and has been talking to partners about it ever since. He says Take-Two was quick to get on board.
"Not only were they the first ones to take a chance on us, the gift was substantial, and they're treating it like we're treating it," Huntley says. "It's the first step of a very long process of trying to slowly affect the lack of equity of Black and Indigenous voices in the gaming industry."
The person honored by the endowment is evidence of that lack of equity. In the 1970s, Lawson invented the interchangeable ROM cartridges used in one of the earliest gaming consoles, the Fairchild Channel F, but it has only been in recent years that his contributions to the industry have been recognized more widely.
"It's the first step of a very long process of trying to slowly affect the lack of equity of Black and Indigenous voices in the gaming industry"
"I had worked at THQ a couple of years before I'd even heard the man's name, and I was flabbergasted that there was a Black engineer/inventor that really planted the seed for the industry we all enjoy now that I'd never heard of before," Huntley says. "I'd been playing video games since the Atari 2600 as a kid, and to go all those years without ever hearing the name Jerry Lawson when actually he was the contemporary of [Apple co-founders Steve] Jobs and [Steve] Wozniak, was mind-blowing to me.
"To me, this was a great opportunity to honor the man and make sure more people knew his name and his involvement in making sure we have the gaming industry we have today."
The principal amount of the endowment will be invested, and the interest on that will be spent on student support beginning in the fall of 2022.
"The understanding of that and the power of that is what drove me to build the framework last summer," Huntley says. "It's going to outlast me or most of us here. If we do it right, it's going to be something that exists as long as USC and the stock market do."
While Huntley expects to only be able to help a small number of students partly defray the costs of their education -- an academic year at USC including room and board can run about $82,000 -- that's just a first step. Huntley is eager to find additional partners, and USC Games plans to expand the initiative to "support other aspects of diversity and equity," including support for Black and Indigenous faculty and funding projects to address issues affecting marginalized groups.
For Huntley, the need for programs like this has been evident for some time.
"I worked at THQ as part of my career and one thing I noticed in the industry was I was the only Black person in the room in most of the C-suite meetings we had throughout my time there, and that hasn't really changed," he says.
"We're seeing that the percentage of African-American or Indigenous-identifying game professionals working in the industry consistently has hovered around 3-4% for at least a decade if not longer. That number hasn't changed or moved up at all. So we see that's where the greatest need is and where we can help is to make sure those students get exposed to our number one games program and have an inroad into the industry."
When asked why that number has stagnated, Huntley specifies that it "isn't so much a nefarious thing."
"The feeling that you're not alone or one of a handful of people in your space, is really empowering. It tends to reduce the amount of stress that comes with being the only one in the room"
"I think a lot of it is generational and passed on," he says. "The gaming industry started predominantly white and male. And as we're seeing with most job search opportunities, your network is what determines whether or not you get access to potential roles within the industry. If you're not included in that network, it's going to be harder for you to break in and be referred for potential job opportunities in the industry."
Fostering networking for Black and Indigenous people in the industry is also essential for retaining them, growing their numbers, and progressing their careers, Huntley believes.
"Making sure those students have opportunities, that they are fostered and nurtured from the get-go," he says. "[Not] putting these students coming from diverse backgrounds into the same pool as everybody else when they get to these large corporations. Getting them acclimated to the culture, as well as making sure they're connected to other people like themselves."
Companies benefit from building infrastructure to support people from diverse backgrounds, he says, noting the advantages of something like a Black employee resource group and hiring managers to connect new hires with them "to make sure you got a cultural onboarding as well as a human resource onboarding."
Huntley says he's seen how powerful that connection can be on campus at USC.
"We've got lots of different schools across the university, but when we see our Black students and alumni connect with each other between schools, even the level of camaraderie, the feeling that you're not alone or one of a handful of people in your space, is really empowering," he says. "It tends to reduce the amount of stress that comes with being the only one in the room."