Blacks play more video games, but little diversity behind the scenes

The gaming industry has grown tremendously over the last decade thanks to a growth of new products and development of multiple platforms.

Business is booming, says a spokeswoman from the Game Developers Conference. The biggest annual US convention for game developers now attracts 20,000; double the attendees who turned out a decade ago.

For those working within the multi-billion dollar industry, the rewards are great. Programmers can earn around $85,000 per year or more. Their salaries increased by $5,000 from 2009 to 2010, according the 10th annual Game Developer Salary Survey published earlier this year.

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For potential employees there are a wide range of well-paid jobs to consider, such as design, production, programming, audio and business.

Universities, colleges and trade schools are cashing in on the popularity of video games as well, with a rise in the number of degrees and certificates in video game design available to those savvy enough to join the lucrative and highly competitive field.

According to research from the Entertainment Software Association, American colleges and universities will offer 343 programs in game design, development and programming, during the 2011-2012 academic year.

Westwood College, for example, offers a bachelor’s degree program in graphic design, with a focus on “game art,” along with a bachelor’s degree program in technology, with a focus on gaming software development.

“Anyone can play a video game,” says Kristina Yarrington of Westwood College. “The real challenge is having a role in creating one. Through the creation of a student portfolio, 3D animations and game characters, our students learn everything they need to know to begin a career as video game artists.”

Gaming has become increasingly attractive because it has so many segments and diverse platforms, from smart phones and video games to popular game consoles such as Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii.

Today’s gamers include millions of Americans of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, three-quarters of all U.S. households play games, according to the Entertainment Industry Software Association.

What makes gaming so addictive is it is “entertaining, interactive, stimulating and gives people the ability to explore fantasy worlds, especially with the latest technological advances,” says a spokeswoman from the Game Developers Conference.

Blacks more likely to be game consumers

Studies indicate blacks, Hispanics and those in lower socioeconomic groups play, spend more time, and buy more video games than other groups.

According to The Kaiser Family Foundation, African American youth between the ages of 8 and 18 play games 30 minutes more per day than white youth, while Hispanics play an average of 10 minutes more.

“Aside from DVR playback, marketers might want to note that African Americans exhibit higher usage levels for watching live TV, DVD playback, and video game usage,” says the 2011 African American Consumer Report.

African Americans are among the biggest consumers of gaming products but are they behind the scenes making the money?

“When I go to video game events such as GDC and E3, I can literally count on my fingers how many blacks I saw that week at the show/conference,” says video game journalist Tyrell Jackson in an online blog. “However when I go to GameStop or any retailer selling video games, there are always blacks of all ages and gender showing interest in video games.”

Lack of diversity extends to characters

A recent study by University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams also found an overwhelming lack of diversity in video game characters.

Williams compared the ethnic diversity of 150 games across nine platforms and all ratings. His main findings showed fewer than 3 percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic. Native Americans and biracial characters were non-existent. African Americans enjoyed a rate of 10.74 percent, but they were mostly athletes and gangsters.

“I don’t see anything insidious at play,” says Williams. “It’s more direct than that – people make media about their own experience, so the games are a reflection of the game makers, who are not a representative sample of the population.”

Some would argue that while so many African Americans religiously play video games, they cannot see themselves getting into an industry that is predominately white. Others point to institutional bias and inequality of opportunity in the gaming and tech industries.

The vast majority of executives at the leading Silicon Valley tech firms are white men. Women and Asians have made some progress, but African-American and Latino tech leaders are rare. About 1% of entrepreneurs who received venture capital in the first half of last year are black, according to a study by research firm CB Insights.

A CNN documentary to be aired on Sunday: “Black in America: The New Promised Land: Silicon Valley” – explores the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley, home to many of the world’s largest technology corporations, including Apple, Google and Yahoo.

Whatever the reasons for under-representation, there should be more diversity, because everyone has the right to contribute to an industry which has so many career paths and highly-sought after jobs.