Game Changer

6/21/24 Podcast

Jamal chats with Ernesto Escobar, Executive Director of the Game Design, Development and Innovation Master's Program, and founder of Fanaticus XR. They explore the positive impact of video games, debunk misconceptions, and discuss the importance of diversity and inclusivity in gaming.

episode art with game controller icon
Game Changer



Jamal Michel: This is Rate of Change, a podcast from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, dedicated to the ingenious ways that engineers are solving society’s toughest problems. I’m Jamal Michel.

Ernesto Escobar isn’t just a video game nerd. He’s the new Executive Director of the Game Design Development and Innovation Master’s Program here at Duke University.

In his role, he overlooks the entire program, from working alongside faculty to recruiting students. Ernesto is also the founder and CEO of Fanaticus XR, a game and software development studio. In his role there, Ernesto oversees the design of all games and software. For Rate of Change, we sat down with Ernesto to talk about the good video games can actually do, and the work still to be done.

Ernesto, thanks so much for joining me. We are a couple of gaming nerds and I wanted to pick your brain about some gaming stuff here at Duke, but actually not just at Duke, a little beyond that. We’ve actually spoken at length about video games and video game culture and being minorities in games and in the gaming industry.

You and I really got to talking about how things impact folks in the margins, not just players, but also students, people who consume games or even people who just view games on the outside looking in, right? There are a lot of misconceptions and preconceived notions that people have about games.

Some folks don’t even think games do much besides rot your brain. And that’s one of the prevailing arguments that tends to be also refuted because games have proven really inspirational and provide a social good. What do you think people get wrong about video games in regard to that, in regard to its impact?

Ernesto Escobar: Yeah, I think part of the problem is that people don’t realize that video games are a medium, you know just like music and TV—just because you have some bad songs, it doesn’t mean that music is bad, but for some reason, people make that assumption for games, right? They see a violent game and then say video games are violent, right?

When it’s much more diverse, just like music, just like other mediums. There is such a diversity of the types of games that you can find. So, I think the first thing that people get wrong is assuming that all games are equal when they’re not. And then the uses of games are extremely broad, you know, for education.

And it’s not just a medium, but also a tool for achieving different things. Some games actually could make you smarter. And some games are now—like the FDA just approved the first video game to treat ADHD. Yeah, it was just approved. So, I’ve seen the commercials on the stuff. So now it’s used as clinically proven medical device. So, I think we’re in a new era and hopefully people will start hearing more about it.

Game Design at Duke

Explore our Master of Engineering (MEng) degree in Game Design, Development & Innovation

Jamal Michel: Where have you seen this done successfully? You know, like what are some games that come to mind that make you think, “Oh, hey, I remember either playing this or seeing people play this and it being like really impactful or, or, or positive”?

Ernesto Escobar: There are, I think, different categories of doing that, right? So, there are some—I think there are, what I would call the big games, the AAA games that try to address some of this stuff, or at least show you a different perspective, like The Walking Dead and kind of like having a male protagonist and kind of like facing things through the eyes of color. Sometimes the studios are very intentional about it, which is great, but a lot of times, big studios are just thinking about making money so those type of things don’t come always on, I would say like big AAA games.

You don’t always have those themes. So, you kind of have like the big games category that do it sometimes superficially. Sometimes they don’t. Then you have smaller experimental games that are trying to prove a point. And like, that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

So, there’s a game, for example, it’s a very simple game for To Kill a Mockingbird, to kind of show such a well-known and well regarded, crucial piece of literature, right?

And then to bring it to a new medium to have a new generation, maybe explore that. So, you kind of have some games like that that are like very specific, but unfortunately they don’t have the same reach than the big games, right? So, I think these are two categories. I think both of them can do it well.

They do it differently, but there are, I think, examples of big games and little games trying to address different social issues.

Jamal Michel: You know, to your point about the reach of larger studios; Sometimes that—unfortunately oftentimes it’s almost worked to the detriment of the studio or of the game itself.

Especially if the game is just trying to be inclusive, that the response is “keep politics out of games” like, “try to be historically accurate.” Even though there are all manner of like random things happening in games that aren’t historically or realistically accurate, but the response I’ve seen is “keep politics out of games, keep politics out of games.”

But some of the most successful and popular games are almost strictly political. You know, I think of like Metal Gear Solid. I even think about Grand Theft Auto—overtly violent game, but a lot of politics and race and whatnot involved in it. What does that make you think about when you see the response to something like “keep politics out of games”?

Ernesto Escobar: Oh, it’s so hard, right? I mean, it’s hard to please everybody. And sometimes I think games do it wrong. Like if you’re doing it as a token of trying to be inclusive and they just like put a token instead of being genuinely interested in doing it. And I think people do feel that, right? I think the players and audiences are smart. So, I think studios have to remember that. And like I said, once again, media in general has to kind of remember that audiences are smart.

And then you need to have a champion inside of the company who really cares about this. I think that champion would make it their goal to portray the story or portray the character or portray the things that face the character in an accurate way.

And it has to be somebody that has gone through those things, right? So, you need to have the diversity inside of the company. So then that story is genuine and it’s not coming from a place of misinformation.

Jamal Michel: Correct and it will help set the tone and change the culture. If you’ve got a champion like that.

And speaking of champions, you are the director of Duke’s new graduate program in game design, development, and innovation. How do you get to Duke? You know, when people think of games, they don’t necessarily think of Duke, but you’re looking to really break apart that stereotype and, you know, blaze a really inspirational path here.

Ernesto Escobar: Yeah, thank you. I’m very thankful of this opportunity of being at Duke. I’m excited. I think all the people are excited too. Not very many, let’s say elite universities are working with video games yet. So, it’s a good place to be. That being said, there’s a lot of education that needs to be done internally and externally.

About like, what are video games? I think a lot of people here at Duke still don’t know what video games are. So, I’m very excited about this opportunity and I think we can do some great things for the games industry, through our scholarship and through the games that we build and through the people that we graduate too.  

Jamal Michel: And North Carolina is becoming more popular because of the studios that are out here. What do you hope to accomplish through the program?

What are you hoping students that come through this program get from it? And what are you hoping to do with game design?

Ernesto Escobar: I have my own small studio. So, I’m coming to this role with a very practical vision. I want students not to get a degree in game design and development. I don’t—I would say I don’t care about the paper, right?

What I want is for the students to become highly skilled designers and developers. I want employers to feel that when they’re hiring our students, they’re not hiring somebody fresh out of college. I want them to feel like they’re hiring an experienced developer that is coming kind of from working at a small studio to a new studio, like I want them to have that level of expertise.

I want students to be very conscientious about social, you know, issues and also about the alternative uses of video games beyond entertainment. And something that is very important is about inclusivity and that has very different flavors.

Sometimes we just think about kind of from the racial point of view, but also we have issues of gender and identity, as well as accessibility, right? So, accessibility is another thing that always gets talked about, which is very important—this game is of all abilities, and we need to create games for all of those abilities as well.

Jamal Michel: Right. And being thoughtful like that really does help again, not just the industry, but the culture, like the Game Awards now, I’m not sure when it was introduced, but the Game Awards now has the award for like, I think best accessibility options.

And games are really, or at least developers and studios are really looking to be as inclusive as possible, because like you said, games should be accessed by folks of all abilities, all backgrounds, all identities. And I think a lot of that came to the forefront, the summer of 2020, when George Floyd is killed and we get this incredible inflection point and indictment on all the racial injustices across the country, but also everyone checking some of their favorite corporations, TV shows, even video game companies for inclusion and just trying to be more thoughtful. What are you doing to be more thoughtful?

And we saw so many initiatives. We saw so many D. E. I. plans of action and almost four years on. A lot of those initiatives have been slashed. A lot of the game developers have gone silent and have sort of fallen back in line with game culture. How can gamers, game designers, any of the participants in this space, how can they begin to turn this around and reignite those conversations?

Ernesto Escobar: Yeah, that’s a great, such a great question. The problem with those initiatives is that they were an initiative that came from kind of like pressures from the outside, right? I think that’s why they died. That’s why, you know, you’re gonna once again, sometimes do things as a token of, “hey, I’m doing it” but that’s about it.

They need to come from a place of genuine interest. To come from a place of genuine interest, usually it needs to come from someone inside that generally cares about those things, right? So, that’s why we need to increase the diversity inside the industry. So then do you have people who really care about telling the stories in a good way and not letting things, you know, die after a couple of years, because they’re passionate about it.

They’re all going to keep it alive. They’re going to be the champion, like we were talking about earlier. But there is a big issue with lack of representation inside all the tech world. I see the game industry just being, you know, a part of the tech world and just like the tech world is very poorly represented.

So, we need to increase that. And to me, there’s studies and research and a lot of information about this is that we need to capture this adversity early.

We need to go to middle school and work all the way through—right now I’m in a master’s program, right? So the pool of people that could even come to my master’s it’s a lot less diverse because it has passed through a couple filters before, where we’ve lost a lot of people.

So, we have to go all the way down and just be very intentional with kind of the younger generation and make sure that, in middle school, going into high school, students don’t make this decision based on incorrect assumptions, right? That they don’t belong or that they couldn’t do it, because that’s why they kind of decide, like, “Oh, I’m really bad at math, so I can really go into anything technical”, which is not true. Most of the time they haven’t had a good mentor or the right tools or support systems or just even people that they can look up, you know, I want to be like that person and kind of have it as a goal.

So, we need to work on different programs. I’m hoping with our masters that we can do a lot of outreach to middle schools and high schools locally and bring them to campus. And us going there as well and showing them stuff and hopefully get them excited and show them that it’s possible for them to be part of it.

Ernesto Escobar of Duke University

I think the first thing that people get wrong is assuming that all games are equal when they’re not. The uses of games are extremely broad for education. And it’s not just a medium, but also a tool for achieving different things. Some games actually could make you smarter.

Ernesto Escobar

Jamal Michel: What’s it been like for you in the industry and in this space? Have you had mentors like that? Have you had spaces you can turn to, like these professional relationships built?

And how has that transformed over the years for you?

Ernesto Escobar: Yeah, I have had many great mentors. I would start by saying that. I’ve been, I think both fortunate, but also intentional. I think you need a little bit of both, right? You need to be fortunate that people are going to give you the time that you need, but also you need to be intentional in seeking those mentorships because they’re not always just going to come to you.

So, you have to seek them out. I haven’t had a lot of mentors. I’m originally from Chile, so I’m Hispanic. I haven’t had a lot of mentors that have been from, you know, Latin America in general. That doesn’t mean that they are not there, but there’s a lot fewer of us. So, I’ve had different mentors.

So, I’m hoping to become a good mentor for, you know, people in the future.

Jamal Michel: You know, I wonder where we go from here as gamers and game designers, right, to sort of shake up and break apart the status quo. What we can also do with this medium to show skeptics that there’s a lot of good that can be done with something like a video game, right?

And that it’s not so reductive, that it’s not just a thing that rots your brain, you know, and, and you just move on from it. But that it’s a considerable medium that deserves its attention. How can we do that collectively?

Ernesto Escobar: It’s going to take time. We’d have to take many steps towards our goal.

There are some other things that we can do as an industry. Many of the big studios are going for  proven formulas that they know they can sell a lot of games. They’re not taking as many risks, right? To show different stories or to have different game mechanics, they’re gonna stick with some of the stuff that only appeals to a certain demographic.

It makes them a lot of money, which is what they’re looking for, unfortunately. But I think there needs to be more risk taking from part of big studios. Publishers who support indie developers or smaller studios also need to take more risks and support—actually, I should correct myself because sometimes there aren’t even big risks.

There are audiences that want this type of content, right? So, it’s not that they need to take a risk to see if anyone is interested. No. There are audiences that are interested in different types of games.

Jamal Michel: Ernesto, I really appreciated talking to you today about video games and the ways video games can really promote positivity.

But also I just like talking about video games with you. So, I really appreciate that. And I look forward to what you do with the program and what you do here at Duke.

Ernesto Escobar: Yes. I hope that this is one of many future conversations about this topic here at Duke and beyond. So, thank you for having me.

Keep Listening

Explore all seasons of the Rate of Change podcast, dedicated to the ingenious ways engineers are solving society’s toughest problems.