Black Professionals In Games: Nerjyzed's Brian Jackson On The 'Black College Football Experience,' Developing Urban-Only Titles

bjax_cover.jpgIn this week's special Multiplayer series, I spoke with different black professionals working in the game industry.

First, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal talked from a game journalist's point of view. Then "Tomb Raider" producer Morgan Gray shared his thoughts from the game development side at a major studio.

Today, Brian Jackson, creative design director at urban-focused upstart Nerjyzed Entertainment, gave me his perspective on working in the industry. I first met the industry veteran, who's worked at EA, Microsoft and Bethesda Softworks, at a GDC roundtable called "What Would a Black, Latin or Caribbean Game Really Look Like?"

When we spoke on the phone several weeks later, he talked about why he and his company decided to make "BCFX -- Black College Football: The Xperience":

"I feel that the other football games that were out there just put out a quality football game. As far as I could tell, they didn't want to go in any deeper than just a football game and the things that are associated with a football game, like managing stuff that's within the realm of playing the football game. With 'BCFX,' we actually made the halftime show into a mini-game. ... If you looked at the way that the schools in our game were portrayed in other video games, how they didn't really capture the essence and the spirit of black college football. ... At a HBCU game, when you're playing your rival, if you actually lose the game but your band is better then your rival's band, you actually feel as though you've won the game."

Read on to see learn more about Nerjyzed's vision, why Jackson doesn't like Jar-Jar Binks and how he almost created a hip-hop fighting game before any of the Def Jam titles.

Jackson, 38, graduated from Howard University, a historically black university, in 1992 with a degree in computer information systems. From there, he worked at GE Aerospace as a computer programmer doing testing and verification. In 1995, a friend got a message saying that Electronic Arts was looking for summer interns to test games. Using the e-mail address on the original e-mail, Jackson asked about any full-time positions available and after being flown out to EA, they made him an offer on the spot. As an assistant producer, he worked on the "Madden" and "NCAA March Madness" series. In 2001, he left EA to take a game design position at Microsoft, where he worked on "NBA Inside Drive" and "NFL Fever."

When the sports division at Microsoft went away, Jackson decided to leave, heading to Bethesda Softworks to work as a lead designer on "IHRA Drag Racing." After two years there, he got a call from a Howard University colleague about an entertainment upstart called Nerjyzed. The fledgling Baton Rouge-based company appealed to him because it was African-American-owned and focused on urban content. "And since I went to Howard University I've always wanted to work on a black college football game," Jackson told me, "and it just so happened that this was the first title that Nerjyzed was going to be doing."

Multiplayer: Can you tell me more about Nerjyzed?

nerjyzed-logo.jpgJackson: Nerjyzed was founded about five years ago. It was founded by a group of people who came together and saw the need for more African-American representation not only within the industry, but within games themselves. Our CEO was one of the original founders, Jackie Beauchamp; she's really been the person who's been the heart and soul of what Nerjyzed is. They really wanted to bring to the forefront some of the things that we do differently that don't necessarily include selling drugs or shooting people or anything like that. One thing we want to do is make sure that every game or every product that we put out has some sort of edu-tainment value. We want to make sure that we provide positive role models and positive content for the urban community.

We're not just video game company, we're a digital entertainment company. We're going to be doing things, not only video games, but also documentaries. With our game we also released a behind-the-scenes DVD that explains how we came about making the game, the history of the company and stuff like that. We also have in the works a DVD called "Historically Black," which describes the historical significance and the current relevance of historically black colleges and universities today. ... Now we're in the process of making sure that people know that Nerjyzed is not just a one-hit-wonder, and we're not just a video game company.

Multiplayer: Why did you decide to make "Black College Football: BCFX: The Xperience"? Why was that a choice for a first game?

Jackson: The HBCU experience is actually an experience. It's more than just a game because [for HBCUs], the halftime show is just as relevant as the game itself. What we noticed was that there was never a game that encompassed more than just the teams. There was never a game that had the teams, the halftime show and the overall experience that you could get when you go to the Bayou Classic or the Florida Classic.

Multiplayer: Was a sports game the first idea that came about?

Jackson: Yes, but we're not only going to be a sports video game company. That was just the first one because that's the one that made the most sense. If you looked at the way that the schools in our game were portrayed in other video games, how they didn't really capture the essence and the spirit of black college football. We want to make sure that the first game we came out with touched on something that was very near and dear to our hearts.

When you go to the Bayou Classic, you see the difference in that game in comparison to just a regular football game. You see the fans and the excitement. There's an emotional tie you have, not only to the football team, but also to the band. When you go to some of the games, a lot of people will be out tailgating and not even watching the football game itself. As soon as the countdown to the halftime show comes, the stadium will be filled.

bcfx-halftimeshow-281.jpgAt other footballs games at halftime, that's when most people go to the bathroom or buy food. At a HBCU game, that's where the most important thing is [during halftime]. When you're playing your rival, if you actually lose the game but your band is better then your rival's band, you actually feel as though you've won the game. Your band is the showcase of your entire school because your band represents your school.

I feel that the other football games that were out there just put out a quality football game. As far as I could tell, they didn't want to go in any deeper than just a football game and the things that are associated with a football game, like managing stuff that's within the realm of playing the football game. With "BCFX," we actually made the halftime show into a mini-game. You can actually reward your team for doing well with the halftime show. So that immerses the user into "Okay, if I do well in the halftime show, then I'll get a bonus for my team." Because they'll get the crowd into it, and they'll get the momentum on your side.

Multiplayer: What do you say to critics who say this game is alienating others by singling out black people?

Jackson: The whole concept about the game being racist is really a fallacy. The NCAA recognizes a black national champion, and right now our game is featured in the College Football Hall of Fame because they're having an exhibit on black college football. We didn't create the term "HBCU" or "black college football" -- those were things that were already in place, and we just made a game to represent what that element was.

Multiplayer: Why do you think there are so many African-Americans that play games but it doesn't seem like there are that many working in game development?

bcfx-01-281.jpgJackson: It's interesting that you bring that up because one thing that I did notice when we were on our road tour, and even after our road tour, we went to different high schools and middle schools to show of the game and tell people about the company. We found out that kids didn't know that you could have a career in video games. They play the games all day, but it never dawned on them that there were companies that pay people to play video games all day. Whenever we were on our promotional tour or talking to young kids at schools or football games, we would tell them that if you stay in school, you can have a career in video games. If you just want to play video games, you can become a tester. If you want to create video games, you can become a programmer or designer. If you want to market or PR games, you can do that. Even if you want to be in accounting or finance, you can work for a company that does video games. It was very surprising to see that as many kids as we talked to, they just didn't realize that there could be a career in video games.

Back in 1995 when I first worked for EA, I went to E3 that they had in L.A. every year. One of the things I realized my first year was that there was only a handful of African-Americans there. With the lack of the younger African-Americans knowing they can have a career in it and the lack of the adult African-American in the industry -- there's very few African-Americans in the industry. You could tell from the roundtable that we were at. Microsoft actually has a "blacks in gaming" event every year at GDC, and I'll say there was probably between 30 and 50 people there.

Now, if you look at the number of companies, the number of people that are actually in the industry, and even if you triple the number or people that were at that event, that's still a very small amount of African-Americans. So until there are other companies like Nerjyzed that will put out product that features exclusively urban content, you're not going to get as many companies stepping out to make games like that.

Multiplayer: Do you think that the reason African-American kids didn't realize there were careers in gaming is just because there's no visibility at all in video games?

Jackson: Yes, I would agree whole-heartedly on that. Not only that, but if you pick up a video game magazine like Game Developer -- which a lot of African-Americans don't read -- if you look at the pictures and they show post-mortems of the development companies that they feature in there, there's not that many African-Americans that you'll see. So you'll never even think, "Wow I can do that, too."

When I first got into the industry, I went to college, I had a degree in computer information systems and I was working for GE as a programmer, I was an avid gamer at that point. It hadn't even dawned on me that I could do programming for games. Part of that is also because a lot of the companies that make video games are on the west coast. You won't see a lot that are in the south or northeast. If you don't grow in the Bay area, Texas or maybe the Chicago area, you might not know that you can go work for a video game company.

Multiplayer: Do you think that the diversity within the content of video games themselves would be facilitated by the diversity in game development?

Jackson: Yes. I believe that one hundred percent. The more women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, non-Anglo-Saxons that get within the entertainment realm -- you're seeing a lot of that even within the realm of hip-hop. At first, hip-hop was just about music, graffiti, DJing and MCing. Now you're seeing some of the hip-hop artists being able to actually do more then just that side of entertainment. They can actually do movies and stuff like that. They're owning their own movie development companies. Take Master P, for example who has put out 25 to 50 movies and the majority of them have been straight to DVD. But still, he's branching out and getting that experience. Now he can bring other people in to do things of that nature as well.

Multiplayer: What do you think of the way African-Americans have been presented in games, for exmaple "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" or the Def Jam games?

Jackson: It's interesting that you bring up the Def Jam series. When I was at EA, they were looking for another game they could make using their "Knockout Kings" boxing engine. They call it "Fight Night" now, but originally it was called "Knockout Kings." I came up with this idea that you could have a game called "Hip-Hop Kings." You could picture KRS-One versus MC Shan, Kool Moe Dee versus LL Cool J -- stuff like that. It would have been a straight boxing game, it wouldn't have been a fighting game the way it was currently. That was something that I brought up back in 1998. EA, I don't think, was ready to do a game like that.

"I came up with a game called 'Hip-Hop Kings' ...back in 1998. EA, I don't think, was ready to do a game like that."

After I left EA and I was at Microsoft, I was flipping through a magazine and I saw and advertisement for the original Def Jam game. I called a friend of mine that's now working at Nike and said, "Didn't we have this idea back in '98? Now they're doing it!" He even said, "Man, I know we pitched it, but EA just wasn't ready for it then." Now it makes sense for them to do it because they're in with Def Jam on the music side. So the game makes sense for them to do it now.

I have no problems with fighting games and games like "Grand Theft Auto." It's just like any other video game: if you take it in moderation and understand the concept of what they're trying to do, you can assess that as an adult. A video game is a video game. Playing "Grand Theft Auto" is not going to make me go out and shoot somebody.

The difference is when people try to associate it with the younger generation. The younger generation, if all they constantly see is minorities being portrayed in that role, that's all they're going to know. That's why I have a problem with it. If there are games that show minorities in a positive light and if there are games that are in not such a positive light, as long as there's a balance, I'm okay with that. And as long as the parents of these kids are taking the time and saying, "You're a 10 year-old, there's no reason why you should be playing a game that's 'T-13', there's no reason you should be playing a game that's 'mature.'" That falls back on the parents.

I don't fault Take-Two for making "Grand Theft Auto." I don't fault them at all. The American society today is all about sex, drugs and money. That's the whole premise of "Grand Theft Auto." I don't fault them as a company for doing it; I would rather the parents police their kids if they play it.

Multiplayer: You're talking about the series in general, but CJ in "San Andreas" -- do you think that says something to people about African-Americans?

Jackson: That's just an extreme example. There wasn't really a big stir about it when Star Wars did it -- when Star Wars did Jar-Jar Binks and you could pretty much tell his voice was supposed to be an African-American-sounding character. And he was very illiterate, he made dumb decisions, he was the goof or clown, and no one really made a big deal about it.

Multiplayer: I think because appearance-wise they could just brush it off with, "He's an alien." But CJ from "Grand Theft Auto" was clearly...

Jackson: Yeah, I understand that. But once again I also go back to if it's a 10 year-old playing the game, he shouldn't be playing the game. If it's a 15 year-old playing the game he should know better. His parents should have explained to him that it's just a video game.

Multiplayer: Just for my clarification and understanding -- you're saying you're okay with the way CJ was represented in "Grand Theft Auto," but it's up to the parents, or a person's upbringing, to understand that real-life violence is wrong and not all African-Americans are running around doing what CJ's doing?

Jackson: Well, I wouldn't say I'm okay with it! What I have a problem with is African-Americans being portrayed in a negative light in any form of media. If it's the news -- when Katrina hit down here in Louisiana it was "African-Americans were looting, white-Americans were just trying to survive." It's things like that. If they're given a fair shake, then I'm with seeing the way they're portrayed because that's what actually happened.

In video games, there isn't a balance of "this is what this African -American does and this is what this African-American does." It seems that there are always the African-Americans that are portrayed -- especially CJ in "Grand Theft Auto" -- this is what he does, this is how he is and this is a reflection of all African-Americans. When it's portrayed as this is a reflection of all African-Americans then that's where I have my biggest problem.

"When ['GTA' is] portrayed as... a reflection of all African-Americans then that's where I have my biggest problem."

In certain areas like north Philadelphia or south central L.A., there are things that actually happen like that in real life. If I'm going to be blind to that, then I too am wrong in being blind to that side of it. But, if that's the only way they're being portrayed -- and they are portrayed that this is the way all African-Americans are -- then that's what I have a problem with.

If it's a younger person playing the game that doesn't have any knowledge of how African-Americans are in general, and that's the only image they are always being portrayed as -- if they're watching music videos and all they're seeing is African-American women shaking their booties, then they're going to have that picture of that's all an African-American woman is. When it's presented in that way, and they're fed the only image that they know of how that particular individual, gender or race is, then I have a problem with that. But "Grand Theft Auto" being played by a 30 year-old that's been around per se, and can tell the difference that this is just a character in a video game that symbolizes where this person is and where this person is living, then it's a little different.

Multiplayer: So you're saying it depends on who's playing it and how they interpret it.

Jackson: Exactly. I have nothing against the game itself. I'm not an advocate of the game, and I don't have any malcontent towards the company that actually made the game. The problem I have is that if the actual game itself is being target towards the younger generation. Which clearly it wasn't because the ESRB stepped in. As long as the parents are policing the games that their kids are playing, then I really don't have a problem with that particular game.

Multiplayer: You're obviously already working on games for African-Americans, but what kind of games in general would you like to see for African-Americans across the board?

Jackson: Me personally, being that I've done a whole lot of sports games and when I was at Bethesda Softworks I got a chance to work on "Oblivion" which was an RPG -- to me it's not really about a genre. It's about what the game can provide to the African-American community. That's probably the biggest reason I came to Nerjyzed. When I found out that every game we come out with is going to have some sort of edu-tainment value. If we can lure the kids in with an emotional, evoking, fun video game, we can teach them at the same time. They can learn different things about the African-American community. They can learn about the different things that happened over the last 2,000 years. That would be something that I want to bring with Nerjyzed to the forefront. It's not really about the specific genre of the game, it's what we can bring to the community is what I'm trying to express.

Multiplayer: What's next for Nerjyzed?

bcfx-band-281.jpgJackson: Well, we haven't announced what our new product line is but I can say this: there will be some more games in the future that are of the sports genre. "BCFX" was successful and as a company we do plan on continuing that product line whether it's this year or the next year. We also have some other titles that are non-sports related but are heavily competitive. And every game that Nerjyzed puts out will have an urban flair to it, but it will be fun for anyone who picks up the controller.

Got thoughts on Brian’s interview? Let us know. You can also read previous interviews with Newsweek’s N’Gai Croal and Crystal Dynamics' Morgan Gray. Check back tomorrow for an interview with Sony producer Felice Standifer.