UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab aims to make the tech industry more diverse.

 

The tech industry recently has made headlines for unenviable reasons.

Uber fired more than 20 employees, and its CEO, Travis Kalanick, resigned following an investigation into reports of sexual harassment at the ride-sharing technology company. The 10-page Google Manifesto, written by a male software engineer at Google, pointed to biological differences between men and women as reasons for gender disparity in the tech industry. And eBay’s first chief diversity officer completed his first year last summer; the position was created after the tech giant, which employs nearly 13,000 people worldwide, reported its leadership team was 65 percent Caucasian, 29 Asian, 3 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent African American.

coding at UW Bothell’s Digital Future Lab

Anemic diversity demographics and sexual harassment issues are top of mind for students and staff at the University of Washington Bothell’s Digital Future Lab. On its surface, the lab looks like the mash-up of a small gaming company and the world of academia. But its purpose goes far beyond creating the next viral app. The lab is trying to change the tech industry by preparing students of different races, ethnicities, gender identities, as well as physical and cognitive abilities, for careers in the tech industry.

“Our mission is to give exceptional professional development opportunities to a group of students who might not otherwise have access to them,” said Digital Future Lab founder and executive director Jason Pace, who runs the lab with assistant director Aina Braxton. Of the 50 students that populate Digital Future Lab’s program at any given time, more than half are people with diverse ethnicities, and half identify as women.

“Our mission is to give exceptional professional development opportunities to a group of students who might not otherwise have access to them”

Pace was hired by UW Bothell in 2012 to launch what’s become one of the only commercial undergraduate interactive media studios in the country, and arrived on campus after a 16-year tenure at Microsoft; Pace’s last five years there were spent as a creative director and lead producer of Microsoft’s Halo franchise.

Digital Future Lab’s first game, Ghostlight Manor, has sold a few thousand copies in more than a dozen countries since it was released last year, according to Pace. It was a feat achieved without much marketing. Approximately 100 students spent nearly four years producing Ghostlight Manor. In addition to earning college credit, the students can also earn royalties for each game sold. Also, the lab donated 10,000 copies of the game to Stack-Up.org, a charitable organization that distributes games to United States troops serving around the world.

UW Bothell Digital Future Lab

UW Bothell Digital Future Lab founder and executive director Jason Pace and assistant director Aina Braxton teach software development to an ethnically diverse population of students.

In September, Pace and his students debuted an early iteration of a nonviolent tower defense game called Hug The Line, a 3D game tentatively scheduled for release in 2019.

But Digital Future Lab does more than just design games. “The vast majority of our students take what they learn in the Digital Future Lab and apply it to nongame careers,” added Pace. “Students are here to learn software development, and games are just a really good way to teach it.”

Pace discussed four key ways Digital Future Lab is improving the tech industry’s diversity profile.

A Subtle Message

Ghostlight Manor isn’t a public service announcement wrapped in the guise of a video game. The title sits side-by-side with other strategic puzzle games in app stores.

“In the game itself, no one is explicitly talking about social issues in the narrative,” said Pace. “But because we are this incredibly diverse group with such a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, all the choices we’re making support that goal. Hopefully, that gives us more mainstream penetration into the market than if we were considered a game that was specifically highlighting diversity.”

student at UW Bothell Digital Future Lab

Success Comes in Many Forms

“My marker of success is how many students from diverse backgrounds I can get into the jobs that they love and will help affect change in the tech industry,” explained Pace.

That’s not to say commercial success is antithetical to Digital Future Lab’s purpose. But whether Ghostlight Manor becomes the next Angry Birds is not the priority.

“Of course, I want (our products) to be out there, even if we distribute them for free. But if these students who come from diverse backgrounds and are not necessarily hired into tech in large numbers can start getting jobs at Google, Facebook, tech startups, and other companies that allow them to pursue their dreams, and they wouldn’t have otherwise if they hadn’t worked on our game, that’s a wild success.”

Rethinking Tech Diversity

According to Pace, it’s not enough to focus on external markers such as, say, women or individuals of diverse ethnicity when talking about more diversity in tech. The problem is more about the industry’s infrastructure.

“We force them to go through the same training and preparation experience that nondiverse people go through,” Pace explained. “If you require all your diverse candidates to graduate from Stanford, for example, you’re not really going to get robust diversity at the end of that exercise. Talent is everywhere, but we only know how to judge a certain kind of talent that tends to come out of exclusive four-year programs. In order to make real, measurable, meaningful progress, we’ve got to expand what the talent bar is.”

The Future of Digital Future Lab

Pace would like to see more interaction between academia and the tech industry. One idea is to open a satellite studio where students could work on new games being developed by major game studios.

“It’s that magic space where the industry group that really needs diversity awareness and equity education, and gets that from a group of students who are incredibly diverse and well-skilled in how to build teams around this,” said Pace. “Then the students can work on really meaty, live challenges that aren’t confined to the lab.”