How these 20-something gamers are using the industry to help underprivileged students stay in school and launch careers - and by doing so, changing it.
This past Friday, student entrepreneurs from the City University of New York pitched their ventures to a panel of judges at the 2020 CUNY Startup Accelerator Demo Day. Once per year, 13 startups are selected to participate in a 10-week program focused on making the students’ ideas a reality. In addition to the rankings given by the judges, the public is able to vote for their favorite startups by investing fake currency using the Pre™ app.
The EGD Collective, a nonprofit gaming organization focused on making the industry a more accessible academic and career opportunity, took second place for Fan Favorite - following Enhance View, an app that’s leveraging AR technology to better connect college students with all the institutional resources available to them. The popularity of these two startups reveals a lot about the needs of the community surrounding CUNY.
The state of higher education in America is a growing concern for a large segment of the population. Public colleges and university systems are an important vehicle of upward mobility for the working class. However, students across the nation are struggling - and CUNY is no exception. Only 32% of CUNY students graduate in 4 years, and only 12% participate in a paid internship during their time in school. In the 2018 City University of New York #RealCollege survey, it was found that 68% of CUNY students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness. The national average for public universities is not much better, coming in at around 55%. 61% of CUNY students in Fall 2018 were the first in their family to attend college, but 89% of first-generation college students across America leave school without completing their degree. 1 in 10 students at public colleges attempt to receive mental health support - but wait times average 30 days or longer, if they have on-campus support at all. 58% of four-year colleges have on-site facilities, compared to a staggering 8% for community colleges. 1 in 5 are also parenting a child.
The games industry is growing at an astonishing rate. It was a $139 billion dollar business at the end of 2018 - that's larger than the worldwide box office, music streaming and album sales, the NFL, NBA, MLB, and the NHL combined, with some believing it will reach over $300 billion by 2025. However, it is extremely hard to break into - and for those who manage to its an industry notorious for widespread job instability, poor working conditions, and discrimination towards people of color, women, and LGBT+ individuals. Gaming communities themselves are also often seen as toxic and exclusionary places, and for good reason with a past including the likes of GamerGate. Although 45% of gamers are women, it is estimated that only 27% of professionals identify as women (and 3% are non-binary). The majority of professionals are overwhelmingly white, and even though you might see Asian players dominating in esports, it is estimated they only make up 10% of the industry. 49% of professionals report experiencing discrimination, and 64% report witnessing others being discriminated against. The games industry is also behind a massive paywall. Most games industry academic and training programs located in private universities and for-profit boot camps. Industry conferences, trade shows, and public-facing conventions also come with a hefty price tag for both attendees and exhibitors. In an industry where connections and technical skills are imperative, this acts as a further barrier of entry. These issues are so widespread that it's considered commonplace, and games workers refer to themselves as veterans after 5 years.
The first step to changing an industry and its communities is to get more diverse perspectives at the table. In order to do that, getting games education into public higher education will be paramount. For those that dare dream to turn their passion for gaming into a career, the EGD Collective supports both aspiring and early-career games professionals based out of public higher education institutions, most notably at its flagship chapter CUNY Hunter College, where the organization started as a student club.
EGD provides free events and educational programming for the gaming industry to remove the cost barrier, but also so students know what to expect and can be prepared to establish healthy work boundaries. Programs focus on the whole student, providing support systems to help them navigate through academic, financial, and emotional crises - ensuring that they can complete their education. EGD chapters also act as community centers where events are open to all regardless of their relationship to the industry - effectively lowering the barrier between students, professionals, and casual gamers alike and fostering an environment where negativity and toxicity are not seen as the norm.
It's working - in the past year alone, the EGD chapter at CUNY Hunter College served over 2400 people from both inside and outside the college, and ran over 100 free workshops. Over 130 Hunter College students utilized it's academic advising options, with over 80 of them discovering their major and career path as a direct result. Over 60 students took advantage of EGD's crisis support systems, and 24 students were saved from academic dismissal or dropping out. Now nearing the end of its fourth year, it is beginning to see it's first batches of upperclassmen and graduates - with 20 students self-reporting that they received a career opportunity as a direct result of their time in EGD.
EGD's reach has also grown exponentially, with students from 54 colleges represented in its Discord server from across the globe and the success of EGD's yearly gaming convention and conference in New York City, the Waffle Games - the only event of its scale that is completely free for all attendees and exhibitors in the world. The beginnings of emerging chapters at other public college campuses in New York, Pennsylvania, and Hawaii are also a testament to this growth. EGD's new chapter system for public colleges and universities is a unique form that allows organizations to still be student-led (with student chapter leaders even holding voting rights to the parent organization), but with extra permanent staff for crisis management, academics, and education.