Game on! Video Games Are a Multibillion-Dollar Industry Where Few African Americans Manage to Get at the Controls. Some Insiders Are Taking Aim at This Sector's Invisible Hurdle

Article excerpt

AS A BOY, MIKE CHUBB WAS INTRIGUED BY COMPUTER--generated special effects. Whether watching Star Wars, Terminator 2, or playing video games such as Virtua Fighter, Chubb marveled at how computers could digitally breathe life into characters and scenery. "I was blown away by these movies and games, so I wanted and needed to know how they did what they did," says Chubb, 27, a 3-D artist for Sony Online Entertainment, the makers of the blockbuster franchises EverQuest and PlanetSide.

His tools of the trade: a pumped-up PC with plenty of memory and a high-end graphics card used to render high-resolution images; Photoshop, the standby program for graphic artists; and Maya, software used to render and animate three-dimensional images.

Chubb does prop modeling, a process whereby he creates the actual objects in a game such as tables and chairs or entire rooms. He also adds texture and color to those objects or environments. When a game calls for special effects such as a torch fire, explosion, spell effect, or muzzle flash, he simply lets his imagination run wild, generating ideas for how he thinks the effect should look. Then, he works with the game's programmers to figure out the best approach to achieve each effect.

A graduate of Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg, Chubb landed his first industry job at a startup company called Past Tree. It didn't take the then 21-year-old artist long to scale the ladder. Just six months after he was hired, Chubb was promoted to the position of art director.

But as with many startups, Past Tree began to experience financial difficulties and, ultimately, folded. Chubb scheduled an interview with Sony. Two weeks later he was hired as an artist. Chubb has worked on two games since joining SOE, PlanetSide and Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade. His first project was PlanetSide, an online multiplayer game involving thousands of players that wage war across the face of a planet from their own computers.

Chubb is one of the relatively few African Americans who have sought out and achieved successful careers in the video game industry. Think it's all child's play? Well, think again. When Atari released the Atari 2600 in the late 1970s, the company sold more than 30 million of the consoles and created an industry that's still growing. Fast-forward three decades and it's now a $10 billion industry in the U.S. alone.

There are lucrative careers in designing, programming, and marketing these games, but sadly, it's yet another booming sector overlooked by African Americans. In fact, there are so few African Americans working in the video game industry that there is no official statistic that records their placement in this field.

"I think one of the reasons why there aren't very many African Americans is because we just don't know about it as an industry in which you can work," says Nichol Bradford, senior global brand manager for Vivendi Universal Games, marketer of video games linked to major film properties like Van Helsing, Fight Club, and Scarface in North America, Asia, and Europe.

The pay scale for each position varies depending on your level of experience. But according to a 2003 salary survey conducted by Game Developer Magazine, programmers, who are responsible for writing the complicated code that drives the games, earn anywhere from $58,000 to $110,000 per year. Producers, who lead and manage the creative teams behind the games, make between $44,000 and $122,000 annually. Artists bring in anywhere from $40,000 to $75,000. Designers, the people credited for the game's fun factor, gross $41,000 to $92,000 each year. Audio personnel make between $45,000 and $77,000. And QAs, or game testers, take home anywhere from $32,000 to $56,000 yearly.

But these positions require the skills and education necessary to secure jobs in the field. Although not entirely institutionalized, certain positions, such as programming, do require a specific level of education. …