This Christmas, the BGI is doing something special, to introduce underprivileged children to the possibilities of the games industry.
The charity that runs the National Videogame Museum (NVM) in Sheffield is launching a Christmas appeal to offer free museum visits to families in order for them to play games and learn how they’re made, as part of their new strategy of ‘transforming lives with games.’
The team at the BGI and the NVM are big believers in this mission, and have launched a host of programmes aiming to reach out to disadvantaged communities through games – from working with Sheffield’s refugee communities to create games art based on their local folklore, to an LGBTQ+ young producers club, to training teachers in deprived areas on how to use games in the classroom, to a programme training women and LGBTQ+ people of colour how to make games using Crayta.
On top of all that, the BGI is one of the co-founders of Games Careers Week – an online festival that encourages people from every background to discover careers in the UK games industry (more on that later!)
They’re certainly busy people. Which is why we were delighted that they had the time to sit down with us this month, to talk about the appeal, how COVID has changed attitudes towards games and games careers, and how they intend to transform the lives of others with games. One thing that struck us with the appeal is that it could encourage young people on low incomes to consider careers in the games industry. While there’s some great work out there reaching out to people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community, there’s a relative lack of outreach to those who are simply less well off – resulting in an industry that often feels remarkably middle class.
“We’re launching this appeal to help us give the gift of play to families from deprived areas to visit the museum for free,” says BGI CEO Rick Gibson. “And as you established, our definition of underrepresented communities has to include those low incomes. It’s going to be a tough winter for all of us, but even harder for those on low incomes. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to bring hundreds of children into the museum to play games, and learn how they’re made.
“We’ll be working with community groups to offer a voucher scheme whereby, if the appeal is successful, thousands of vouchers will go out to those communities, who will be able to come into the museum and enjoy the museum. And we know that it works when they visit. We’ve seen it firsthand with schoolkids from some of the poorest areas in the country. When they visit the museum and take our games development workshops, we’ve shocked their teachers by reaching the children who were the most disengaged from learning. And all of them engage, most of them want to do it again, and a good proportion of them start talking about games careers.”
“We believe that video games transform people’s lives,” adds BGI Chair Claire Boissiere. “It’s as simple as that, really. We’re really, really passionate about video games, they have a unique new role to play within our society, they’re reshaping the world.
“As a team, we’ve been going on a small journey ourselves to figure out what our new strategy is, we’re really excited about making that a reality. We just want to shout about it to the world. Through the museum, through our collection of games, through our award-winning programmes…. We really want to take people on a journey. We want to engage people through play. We want to take creative experiences and make them accessible.
“Once people are engaged in play, and they’re having fun and collaborating, then you’ve really created a really rich environment for people to start learning. And that’s when you really can transform people’s lives, and they actually learn something new. We think that we’ve got the perfect kind of ecosystem, with the museum and the charity, to make that a reality.”
It couldn’t be a better time for the BGI to use that ecosystem to help those in disadvantaged communities. While Christmas and the Holiday season can often be challenging, this year is going to be particularly difficult.
“Something that we’ve really realised over the last 18 months is that the pandemic has changed everything,” Boissiere continues. “It increased the educational disadvantage, it deepened economic hardship throughout the country. And some of the hardest hit people were the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Those kinds of communities have been really been hard hit and they’ve become isolated. There’s a real danger that they’ll get left behind by the pandemic.
“In particular, the educational gap has widened, I mean, massively. And that means that we’re going to be seeing the impact of this for many years to come. But I also think the pandemic has shown that games have been an inspiration and a comfort to literally billions of people, and we’ve done some really exciting work in that area. Games have made a big difference. and something we’ve really noticed is that games now perform a new role in society. That’s really exciting, and that’s a large part of what our new strategy is about.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
The National Videogame Museum is well placed to discuss the hardships of the pandemic. While much of the games industry has benefitted (at least economically) from the past 18 months, the museum was forced to close its doors at the outbreak of the pandemic – leaving its future in jeopardy. However, thanks to support from across the industry the museum has come bouncing back, and is ready to use its hard-earned lessons to further help those in need.
“The pandemic had a massive impact on the charity,” notes Gibson. “We survived because the sector and our community magnificently stood up to save the museum in the spring.
“And then we won our first tranche of public funding from the Arts Council, which has been a goal for us for a long time. So that got us through the second and the third lockdowns, and then finally, we were part of last year’s amazing Jingle Jam. We really couldn’t be more grateful for
“During COVID, we started to refocus our programmes towards social impact, helping underrepresented people play, collaborate and learn. And over the last year, we’ve welcomed nearly the same number of people through our doors as we did before the pandemic, despite still being COVID secure.
“And of course, we also ran Games Careers Week, which we co -founded with our friends over at Into Games and Grads in Games. Nearly 40,000 people joined over 120 organisations, games companies, the studios, publishers, universities, schools, nonprofits, to talk about games careers for diverse people. And our learning programme has won two awards during lockdown, including one with you guys, the IRL awards. And we’ve seen schools flocking back to the Museum to learn about games and how they’re made.
“I think the important thing to say is when we talk about games, transforming lives, we’re not grandly saying that it’s all the BGI and the National Video Games Museum’s programmes transforming lives. It’s games everywhere. One of the best examples of that is Animal Crossing, in which millions of people around the world broke out of their lockdowns to socialise online.”
Animal Crossing certainly stands out as one of the few bright spots from the early days of the pandemic – certainly a more wholesome one than Tiger King, anyway. New Horizons felt as if it released at the perfect moment: providing a much needed escape and opportunity to socialise as millions of lives around the world were upended seemingly overnight. Its importance wasn’t lost on the BGI either, as programme manager Claire Mead explains:
“As Rick mentioned, the Animal Crossing diaries is our recent big collecting project, which we’re currently showcasing as an online exhibition, documenting experiences of players of Animal Crossing New Horizons during the pandemic. It was a great way of getting people excited and involved around contributing to our collection with their experiences of pandemic gaming.
“We focus on having different perspectives and diverse histories in games from race and gender to indeed class, and I’m very happy that was brought up because that’s something we’ve wanted to explore for a long time within our curatorial team. It’s about putting people back in games history. I think it is worth bearing in mind that diverse voices have always been present within games. We’re not really seeking to bring in more diverse audiences, but to show that that diversity was always inherent to games history, it’s just been unfortunately sometimes erased over the years.”
While it’s true that there have always been diverse voices in games, it nonetheless tracks that celebrating the diversity we already have will hopefully lead to bringing more diverse people. That’s particularly true of young people today, who, partially due to the pandemic, have grown up in a world much more open to the business of video games than ever before.
THE INDUSTRY OF TOMORROW
And the National Videogame Museum is on the frontlines there, getting to meet kids who may grow up to be the game developers of tomorrow. Have they seen an increased desire to learn about games, post-COVID?
“There’s a lot of coverage about the economic impacts of games,” notes Gibson. “And that economic impact is really valid. But there’s also the social and educational impact of games.
“We definitely saw more demand during during lockdown for our educational materials, we had 10,000 families download our materials to run workshops at home or take our online courses on YouTube, to help their kids when lockdown was at its tightest and you couldn’t even barely leave the house – We all remember those dark days in the in the spring.
“That was when parents started to reach out to us, and we won awards for that. Because, I think it was within about 10 days of lockdown, we were live streaming our first workshop about how to make games art out to families.
“And on the career side we saw a massive uptick in the number of people taking our careers course on how to start your career in video games on the FutureLearn platform, which is where we’re telling young people how they can start their careers. We followed the progress of four young developers as they started to think about games as a career and how they got started and how they built their portfolios, how they prepared for their interviews, how they won their jobs, and then how they started on their careers and what they liked. We’re definitely seeing more demand from the public.”
While this is all great news – and any good news from the past 18 months is always welcome – but it’s hard not to wonder why it took a global pandemic for the industry to fully get across the message that young people, especially diverse young people, can find a career in games – and a profitable one at that (provided you don’t go into journalism anyway).
So with all this experience behind them now, what advice does the BGI have for the industry, in order to help bring in much-needed diversity into our workforce?
“I completely take your point about ‘why does it take a pandemic…?’” says Gibson, “but in fact, what we found when we were looking at all the different schemes out there is that there is loads of amazing work. What wasn’t happening is that it wasn’t joined up, and it was quite difficult to navigate.
“So if you are a, say, a young British Pakistani woman interested in starting a career in games, where do you go? You might find your way through to Digital Schoolhouse, or maybe a TIGA-accredited course, or maybe our online courses. But we hadn’t sat down and said, ‘actually, we need to signpost this so that that person doesn’t get dissuaded at various points on their pathway towards starting a games career.’
“And so we got everybody in a room – and this wasn’t just the BGI’s idea, it was Into Games and Grads in Games, we all came up with the same idea at the same time. We really need to get everyone together to start collaborating, because no one organisation is the answer, it’s only by working together. And so Games Careers Week was what came out of that.
“I mean, we came up with the idea in December of last year, and it was live in front of nearly 40,000 people three months later. We had 32 different events. 120 different organisations involved in conferences, ask me anythings, career surgeries, Discord channels… you name it, the industry just completely piled on board. It was a fantastic thing to do.
“So I would say, to games companies, if you want to get more involved in encouraging diversity in the workforce, and actually persuading the great British public that there is a fantastic career for everybody – usually on their doorsteps, because we’re right across the country – I would say get involved with Games Careers Week!”