Playmakers

Want to design video games? SMU's Guildhall can show you how, if you're willing to work like a dog.

"Go by and say hi to my wife for me," Murray says as two level designers from other teams zip laptops into cases and leave the darkened room. He and his three other level designers remain. In two other rooms, programmers and artists slave away.

Well, truth be told, it's not exactly slaving. Sure, there's lots of work to do, but Jon Skinner's supervising the room--it's an SMU policy--and pumping emo and Rage Against the Machine through the speakers attached to the front wall. (Not a policy.) He also bought beer, which is sitting in the parking lot for anyone who wants it. (Definitely not a policy.) There's a giant bag of Cheetos, too, if you're hungry.

"Best club in town," Hunter Woodlee says, as Skinner turns up the music. Woodlee's the level designer who still, at nearly 1 a.m., hasn't finished the slave ship. But he's chewing gum to mask the beer on his breath and dancing to the music.

Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy, above, waits for the day a publisher will accept his game idea. Drew Murray, below, waits for the day he's done with the Guildhall.
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest
Steve Satterwhite
Derrick Levy (center, far back) and his team in a rare moment of rest

"How's that ship coming, Hunter?" Murray says, two desks away. The room, including Skinner, goes "Oooh."

But there's no malice in the question. Fact is, though he spends 80 hours a week with the guy and isn't a drinker, most Friday nights Murray waits till Katy's asleep and then calls Woodlee to see if he or anyone else wants to grab a beer, simply because the people on his team "are some of my best friends," he says.

And why are they? Simple.

They're metamorphosing, going through the same second term together.


Worldwide sales of video games, at roughly $20 billion, now exceed movie box-office revenues, but it's the film industry that's welcomed onto campus, and has been for more than a generation. Try to find any institute offering a gaming degree even five years ago.

It's tough to decide which industry is less socially conscious, says Henry Jenkins, director of comparative media studies at MIT. In their pursuit of larger revenues, each industry increasingly avers risk, expressing a societal or political awareness only as it benefits a bottom line, and seldom even then.

Yet hearing this does not deter Derrick Levy. Nothing will. It took him 20 years just to find a way into the gaming industry. If it takes 20 more to see his game published, so be it. "We need to show other aspects of black culture," he says.

To make the game Levy has in mind, in which the hero is an African-American boy who ages as the game progresses and ultimately, Levy hopes, does his community good, the protagonist must first be given the choice of doing bad.

"I don't want to be pedantic. Because that game would be boring, and kids today are told enough as it is what they should and shouldn't do," Levy says.

So it's not Sims for the African-American set. Instead, Levy's game would be more like the gangster role-playing Grand Theft Auto series, only with a conscience. The hero would perform missions for people in various standing of the law. Maybe beat down some cops. Maybe even blow up things for fun.

"I'll allow that choice, but what I'm going to do, what I think I have a responsibility to do, is to be fairly honest about what the dilemmas of that choice are," Levy says.

As the kid ages, each choice is weighed with more serious consequences. It decides his fate, and the fate of the neighborhood.

"I don't want to make this a game of Do the Right Thing," Levy says. The player can deal coke if he wants. But if he buys, say, a grocery store with his drug money and staffs it with disenfranchised neighbors, well...

Levy wants the player to see the gray in life. "The goal of the game is to have the kid succeed...Fighting crime. Fighting negative elements," he says.

But putting it on shelves won't be easy. There's no precedent for this. Blacks, to the extent they're in games, are either thuggish and destructive or athletic and banal. "It's a stereotyped view of the African-American community," Levy says.

So the first step is to get into the industry. Tell his co-workers of his dream. Learn how a game is successfully made. Wait.

And wait. Wait for the savings in his account to build; Levy figures he'll need about $1 million to produce a prototype, which is a playable, smaller version of the game. Wait until he finds enough co-workers willing to make the prototype. Wait until he finds an employer who'll take suggestions from a person who's never made a game, or, more likely, wait until he finds other game publishers--probably small ones--willing to listen to his idea. Then wait until one accepts it.

What's surprising is that Levy's not one for social activism. He's wanted to program video games since he assembled his family's first computer at age 12, and even into his late 20s programming was all he hoped to do. Never cared if the game was fair to the culture it displayed. Never cared about making a game that could change the industry's outlook toward a people, including his own.

But on October 12, 2002, on the Indonesian island of Bali in the town of Kuta, a white Mitsubishi van carrying a bomb exploded outside the Sari Club bar. Levy and his friends were one block away, on vacation. More than 200 people would die in the terrorist attack.

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