Students and staff in UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab create games for commercial release as they challenge tech industry’s status quo.

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A day in the lab

On a Friday morning, students filter into UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab before their weekly check-in meeting.

Rows of computers, covered in Post-it notes and stickers, compete for desk space with toys and snacks: stuffed Pokémon, jelly beans, a foam Batman figurine, peanut-butter pretzels, a tiny basketball.

It may look like you’d expect a game studio to look, but it doesn’t act like one.

Aina Braxton, ’12, the lab’s assistant director, kicks off the meeting by asking everyone to gather in a circle to share their names and gender pronouns.

“Aina. She, her.”

“Jason. They, them.”

“Malik. He, him.”

Braxton and Executive Director Jason Pace remind newcomers that it’s part of their culture to start every meeting this way. They’ve normalized it, Braxton says, “because we don’t want to make assumptions about you or your identity.”

Working to address the lack of diversity in video games and tech, Pace and Braxton bring difference to the forefront of all they do. With a small core of professional staff, the lab’s team of more than 40 students from a variety of backgrounds takes on everything from art, design, music composition and programming to production, project management and marketing.

“Jason has industry-level experience and standards for the work we do,” lead designer Emmett Scout says of Pace, who uses the pronouns they, their and them. “They won’t let us get away with anything less than that.”

Along the way are constant opportunities to recognize their diversity, to learn about different backgrounds and cultures and, ultimately, to become better communicators.

Behind the mission

For Pace, who came out as gay at age 16, the DFL is a chance to combine social justice with a deep background in tech and gaming.

Much of Pace’s two decades of software development experience was spent at Microsoft, helping direct and produce everything from casual games to the Xbox flagship title “Halo.” And while Pace loved the creative challenge, the work environment was far from ideal.

“Video game studios are still very much a cisgender (when a person’s gender identity conforms to the gender he or she was assigned at birth  –  the opposite of transgender), white, straight male world,” Pace says. And it’s not often a very tolerant world, either. One need go no further than video game forums, chatrooms or comment boards to see offensive slurs tossed around casually  –  or, worse, to see targeted hate campaigns.

More broadly, the tech industry is often criticized for its dearth of diversity. Employment is skewed in favor of whites and men, and against other groups.

So when Pace joined UW Bothell in 2012, the first step was hiring Braxton, a UW Bothell graduate who was committed to equity and social justice. Together, the two have focused their efforts on countering bias and toxic work culture.

They have baked into the identity of the DFL what they call “radical diversity”: the intentional focus on maximizing and bringing to the forefront difference on a team of people with different backgrounds, abilities and academic focuses.

In planned topic discussions or spontaneous conversations, some students might speak about the racism or sexism they’ve experienced. Some might speak about neurological differences, or neurodiversity. For example, Pace, who has ADHD, has drastically different communication needs than people with Asperger’s.

And some students, like Scout, who came out in the lab, talk about gender identity:

“After four years of working in a space where my identity as a queer person, as a trans person, was not a negative, I feel way more comfortable with who I am,” he says. “Here, we’re not just accommodating different folks. We’re valuing their differences and looking for how they can be beneficial to everyone.”

Teaching, learning and creating

All of the Digital Future Lab’s games start as research prototypes led by the DFL and Professor of Computing and Software Systems Kelvin Sung. Sung’s program gives introductory computer science students the opportunity to learn basic programming concepts by building casual games.

Successful prototypes make their way into the co-curricular commercial pipeline of the DFL, opening up educational opportunities across all disciplines –  from computer science and communication to social justice and art.

One such game is “Ghostlight Manor.” Recently released for PC/Mac and available for download on Steam, the game is the product of over three years of work by scores of students, from its humble beginnings as an educational prototype to a highly polished version for the public.

But for Pace, it’s all about the diversity of perspectives that have fed into the game’s creation.

“The best thing about watching “Ghostlight Manor” proceed along development is the people who have been able to influence the creative direction,” Pace says.

Learn more about this story from the University of Washington.