Inspiring a new generation of justice-centered video game designers

Interview with Hossein Razavi, Founder of Games for Justice Summer Youth Program

Quotes are edited slightly. The interview was conducted in July 2021.

Although many people criticize video games associated with violence, Hossein Razavi, founder of the Games for Justice Summer Youth Program, believes that this is not where we should focus our attention. “I think many people consume a lot of violent content on a daily basis, but it takes a specific set of situations to get a person to act on violent things.” Instead, Rizvi emphasizes the dark side of the game industry: “A lot of game studios are basically like Braves on steroids where they are really male-centric. They think they are serving white male gamers from the CIS, and in order to reverse that, they have become almost the same studios.It becomes dangerous for people of color, women and non-binary people, with a lot of cases of sexual harassment happening in the game industry, such as in [Riot Games]. “

Rizvi believes that the products created reflect this toxic work culture. “A lot of games have mischaracterized people. You don’t really see black or brown video game characters, and when you do, they’re often basically gangsters — think Grand Theft Auto.” Additionally, Rizvi notes that many Some of the games promote colonialism, because they “rely on the occupation of a new place with many resources”.

This frustration with the corrupt and insecure game studio environment spurred Rizvi to create Games for Justice. Founded in 2020, the summer program teaches high school students in the Boston area the principles of color for game design and digital art while providing students with cash compensation. The program aims to emphasize that collective care and social justice are key to creating safe art studios that focus on justice.

Razavi’s curriculum was inspired in part by a class they took at MIT, “Games and Social Justice,” taught by Scott Ostrowell. “I remember this time where I was allowed to skip Henry Kissinger’s protest class in 2019 on campus, and I will forever respect him for that… [Regarding class, Osterweil] Games have been called and analyzed where, even if they are trying to do things related to social justice, a lot of these games are made by white people who inadvertently emphasize racist messages, even when they are well-intentioned.”

Games for Justice culminate with student groups participating in the games they designed. During the 2020 session, one group conceptualized a game around the pipeline from school to prison by highlighting how schools are structurally designed in prison-like ways. “It was actually very cool because I hadn’t thought about some of these things before. For this game, I made decisions like, are you going to have bells ringing to signify that class is over? You can choose yes or no and if you choose yes, it will give you a short explanation On how prisons operate, like how bells are used to control the movement of people inside prisons… Made this game. They are amazing.” Another group made a dialogue-based game about two-party political systems, exploring “how to be a grassroots organizer to try to defeat a two-party system that does nothing for anyone”.

During the 2021 program, the staff also brought to light a game of fetishism and racism in dating. “We did a quick jam game to see what we could make in six hours and have guys do the voice acting for it. … There are a bunch of different profiles on the dating app for the game, where the user can see how each profile reacts differently. When You play as a white man, nothing really happens to you, but playing as a non-binary brunette or black woman, your experiences are very different.”

As the founder of the program, Rizvi co-wrote the entire curriculum along with fellow MIT student Greg Peterson ’22, all while managing the entire course load. Later, it was up to Rizvi to find both funding and staffing. “Hiring the staff was probably the scariest part of the process, even more so than applying for the grant, because I had to play the boss, hiring people my age. It just felt so weird.”

After a successful search for staff, the virtual summer 2021 session began with four hours of daily programming through Zoom. The educational content consists of discussions on the topic of social justice, a tutorial for game design, or learning about the intersection between these two areas. “The tutorial could be where we learn part of the program, like Unity. Games and the piece of social justice can be the intersection of games and racism; we learned how different games can perpetuate this and how we can make a game that really dismantles racism.”

“[Making a game for social justice] It is much more than just showing a picture of someone having to make decisions in their life and pointing out how hard their life is, because that’s just supporting one picture of what it means to be a black or brown person rather than allowing that more representation or power. I don’t want a brown face in a game where there are no brown people behind. I want to Type That game.”

While Rizvi didn’t grow up playing video games often, and they had no idea they’d end up starting a summer program during their time at MIT, they focused their campus endeavors on social justice from the start. It was their experience in the Transformative Youth Program during high school that inspired this passion for organizing at the community level. When Razavi was seventeen years old, they became involved in a summer program within a city school aimed at empowering young people to become effective leaders for social justice.

When transitioning from a public middle school to a whiter private high school, Razavi encountered a lot of racism from their peers. Part of a radical came from a place to survive in that place because I needed to fight for myself; Because otherwise, I have to believe all these things those racists in my high school told me.” It was another student of color who was dealing with similar challenges who told Rizvi about the city school.

“The City School helped me understand more framing about not just what it means to experience those micro-aggressions, but how to organize specifically as a South Asian person, and how to organize against anti-blackness and with multiethnic organizing in mind. How to make sure you’re not just fighting for Your rights, but also for the rights of black people and other brown people?” Razavi says that the program also emphasized the power that young people have to share valuable and often-heard perspectives.

Razavi attended college eager to explore the potential for social justice at a technical school like MIT. As a new student, Rizvi joined a large number of student advocacy groups, where they met many people with similar visions of justice for the Institute. However, “The more I interact with the MIT community, the more I realize that all the coolest people at MIT are basically the ones with the least amount of power. I remember helping protest and organize against Subramanian Swami, a right-wing anti-Islam and anti-gay speaker. Came to MIT from India.We met management, which kind of destroyed my hope for change at MIT….I can’t imagine the audacity I had as a freshman. [To the administrator,] I was like, “I’m going to read you some of his quotes and then you can tell me if you want it to be on campus or not.” The [invited speaker quoted] He said horrific things.” According to Razavi, the administration heard this and acknowledged the awfulness of these statements, but concluded that “at least the Americans will recognize how bad he is.”

“It literally took a minute. I told them I’d rather no one in America know who he is than support the work he’s doing in India by fundamentally contributing to the brutal anti-Muslim violence and extreme homophobia in India.” [The administrator] He has nothing to say because what do you say in that? We left that meeting knowing nothing would happen.”

Razavi became angry about their work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite the endless toil, there was little production. “After sophomore year, I was like, ‘Do you know what? I don’t really want to do things at MIT. I’m going to do things with my community and use MIT resources and try to redistribute them.'” And that’s exactly what Rizvi did with Games for Justice.

When considering the mission of justice games for group care, Razavi asks the question: “How do most people think of care in relation to themselves? It is often framed as self-care. What can I do? For myself? I can watch a movie. I can binge on the show. I can eat something really good – all these individual actions. But what people may not realize is that I am not the only one responsible for my care. There is a community of people who are committed to my care, and I am committed to taking care of them. Group care is the idea that when someone feels uninterested, hurt, or things happen, you don’t deal with it alone. We will handle it together as a group, so we don’t feel lonely and isolated.”

Regarding the future of Games for Justice, Rizvi says, “I already feel that I am at this point where I am really happy to be closing the Games for Justice chapter at the moment and taking on other jobs to deepen my organizational experience in Boston. If I want to come back to visit in the future, I will definitely do so , but for now I want to move beyond my background in summer programming.”

“I was worried at first, what if it doesn’t last forever? But it is not necessary. It should provide people with a beautiful experience while they are alive.”

Rizvi thanks City School and Professor Dana Cunningham for helping make Games for Justice a reality. “Without these two people, I don’t even know how I would be here or what I would do now. They are my main parents. They are my net worth.”