Video Games, Untapped Talent, and Understanding your Audience

I ran across an insightful blog post on the DML Central website recently. It discusses the ways in which Betsy DiSalvo, a researcher from the Georgia Institute’s School of Interactive Technology, sought to figure out a particular problem, which was: why did young African American men’s love of electronic games not translate into a love of learning about computers and programming? The answer to that question wasn’t as straightforward as one would think. With other groups (such as Whites and Asians), love of video games led to them moving into computer related fields of study. While young African American men enjoyed games it was the underlying subject matter that was the issue. Namely, subjects such as science and computer programming weren’t “cool.” The perception amongst their peers was that this is something one didn’t do or was encouraged. Being perceived as smart wasn’t socially rewarding.

Exploring this question and finding solutions to the underlying issues led to the research which would spawn the Glitch Game Testers. A job program now in its third year, it gives young African American men an opportunity to work with companies, such as EA Games and Game Tap, performing quality assurance testing on video games. While performing this work they also take computer science courses with college professors.

I would encourage readers to check out the post, written by Whitney Burke. I embedded the video interview with Betsy DiSilva below. In it, she talks about the evolution of the Glitch Game Testers program, as well as the insight she gained from her research.

Two things struck me about Betsy DiSalvo and the program. The first was her sense of curiosity. It makes sense-as a researcher she should be, right?. Yet her subject matter focus-young men of color-wasn’t dictated by the parameters of a grant she received, nor a pre-existing program she joined. Through her previous work with young women and gaming she realized that there wasn’t much information on this group and she decided to focus on them. This lead to the eventual formation of the Glitch Game Testers.

The second thing was what was accomplished as a result of this exploration. Through the program Betsy and team did something that should make Human Resource and other business leaders take note:

  • Created a diverse talent pool. Through the Glitch Game Testers program over 86% of the participants have gone onto college and are taking computer related courses. Their practical and conceptual experiences should make these students that much more attractive to recruiters and organizations in technology circles. 
  • Increased engagement amongst a group that was seen as unengaged. It was interesting to hear her talk about how, through trial and error, they discovered how to get the young men motivated. In their minds learning wasn’t cool, so by “disguising” it as game play it became socially acceptable. Also of importance was the decision to make this a paid program. It demonstrated to the young men that their work had value. It also encouraged them to remain with the program, as cost (e.g., for transportation) presented itself as a real barrier to participation. As a result, attendance in the program remained high throughout and their attitudes toward computer programming changed as well. Games were no longer just what they played. They had an increased understanding of the hard work and skill set it took to create them.
  • Created jobs. The program participants are performing real work as well as learning job skills. They work full time in the summer and part time during the school year. This is to be celebrated, especially in light of the most recent unemployment figures for American youth. For African American youth (ages 16-19) it’s at 39.6%, compared to the national average of 6.5 for the same age group (November 2011 figures).
There have been quite a number of recent discussions regarding the lack of diversity in the technology industry (click here and here for some examples), as well as the overall perception of skill shortages in the modern workforce. It’s my hope that more people like Betsy DiSilva will come forward with insightful and creative solutions to these issues. 

In a business context, I encourage organizational leaders to continually question the effectiveness of their talent management programs. Beyond issues of diversity and inclusiveness, it’s important to understand why certain groups choose not to engage with them. Having this insight will allow organizations to make more informed decisions about how to best serve them. As you can see from Betsy DiSalvo’s work asking enough of the right questions can lead to innovative solutions.

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