By Kevin Truong
Originally printed in the San Francisco Business Times.

In the basement level of the Kapor Center of Social Innovation in Uptown Oakland, teenagers stare at laptops with big smiles and tired eyes. On their screens are the products of the Oakland Game Jam, a two-day event where students are given the task of conceiving, designing and developing a playable video game.

The Game Jam is part of the larger Oakland Video Game Fest last weekend put on by Gameheads, an Oakland nonprofit that seeks to diversify the video game industry by giving students training in game development and connecting them with professionals in the industry.

Gameheads Executive Director Damon Packwood founded the organization to train students in technology skills, but in a way that comes naturally to them. The organization operates out of United Roots, an arts and multimedia center in Oakland and helps three dozen students a year.

“I’m excited about what we could potentially create when communities are able to take their cultural values and use technology as a tool to express them.” Packwood said. “Implicit in this idea of diversifying the tech industry is seeing what will be created once you actually diversify the industry.”

He pointed to a video game that his students created called LUCiD as one prime example. In the game, a Muslim woman and a black man are brought together by the death of a mutual friend and must journey through the five stages of grief in tandem.

“I asked them, ‘Who gave you the idea for this game?’” Packwood said. “I was absolutely floored.”

LUCiD went on to win the ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship and a member of the development team went to Washington to present the game to lawmakers.

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Gameheads also acts as a window into an industry that may feel out of reach to some students.

“A lot of our role is simply opening up the possibility of working in video games to students who haven’t had that initial exposure,” said Crystal Silva, art director of Big Fish Games and a Gameheads mentor. “They need the opportunities, they need the resources, but it’s also about exposing them and seeing whether it’s something they care about and really want.”

Gameheads participant and Oakland Technical High School junior Rogelio Lara said he was possibly interested in video game development as a career, but the real-world training at Gameheads gave him the tools to actually pursue it.

“It definitely opens our eyes to the real gaming life because we have people showing us the game industry and how it actually works.” Lara said. “I remember one time we talked about how there was a lack of diversity in the gaming industry and I was little bit shocked. There’s not a lot of Latinos or blacks to represent themselves and how they feel through games and so I feel a sense of responsibility to go out and tell people ‘I’m a Latino, I’m proud and I’m willing to show that this is what I made.'”

The issue of diversity is one that has plagued the tech industry and has become visible as public pressure is put on companies to make fundamental changes in hiring practices. Tech giants like Google and Facebook have taken to releasing annual reports with employee demographic information and hiring executives tasked with increasing diversity at their companies.

In the East Bay, Oakland in particular has seen an influx of technology jobs and companies spilling over from Silicon Valley and San Francisco. As the city changes to accommodate the new industry, companies like Google Inc.(NASDAQ: GOOG) and Salesforce.com Inc.(NYSE: CRM) have established partnerships to help train local students in technology.

Studies have shown a majority of Oakland residents support the growth of tech companies in the city. A poll commissioned by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce found that 67 percent of respondents in favor of attracting tech companies in Oakland and 74 percent agreed that more tech companies in Oakland would benefit the economy by creating jobs and tax revenue.

However as Uber Technologies Inc. prepares to open its new office in Oakland, discussion is ramping up about how these companies can support disadvantaged communities.

An open letter from a number Oakland community groups called on Uber to make a commitment to improving the economic condition of Oakland’s residents by creating specific programs to open up opportunity to local residents.

“First, we recommend a set of basic agreements in the areas of jobs, education, infrastructure, entrepreneurship, housing, community engagement and research. There’s a strong consensus on several areas that can bring prosperity to Oakland’s current and future residents and there is no need to completely ‘reinvent the wheel,’” the letter states.

Alfonso Hooker, an IT consultant and Gameheads mentor, agreed. He said employers specifically need to explain what specific skills sets are necessary so that nonprofits can train students to meet company needs.

“You can fundamentally change the relationship between the community and the businesses,” said Hooker. “It doesn’t have to be an adversarial. They just have to change the way they engage.”