Arts interview

Inspiring a new generation of justice-centered video game designers

Interview with Games for Justice youth summer program founder Husain Rizvi ’22

Quotes are lightly edited. Interview took place July 2021.

Although many people criticize video games associated with violence, founder of the Games for Justice youth summer program Husain Rizvi ’22 thinks that this is not where we should be focusing 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 make a person act upon violent things.” Instead, Rizvi underscores the dark underbelly of the gaming industry: “A lot of game studios are essentially like frats on steroids where it’s really male-centric. They think they’re catering to a cis straight white male gamer, and so to reflect that, the studios themselves almost become that. It becomes dangerous for people of color and women and nonbinary folks, with lots of sexual harassment cases happening in game industry, like at [Riot Games].”

Rizvi believes that the products created reflect this toxic work culture. “A lot of games have prejudiced portrayals of folks. You don't really see Black or Brown video game characters, and when you do, they're often essentially mobsters — think Grand Theft Auto.” Additionally, Rizvi points out that many games promote colonialism, since they “rely on conquering a new place with many resources.”

This frustration with the corrupt and unsafe game studio environment motivated Rizvi to create Games for Justice. Founded in 2020, the summer program teaches Boston area high schoolers of color principles of game design and digital art while also providing monetary compensation for the students. The program aims to emphasize how collective care and social justice are key to creating safe, justice-centered art studios.

Rizvi’s curriculum was in part inspired by a class they took at MIT, “Games and Social Justice,” taught by Scot Osterweil. “I remember this time where he let me skip class for the Henry Kissinger protest in 2019 led on campus, and I will forever respect him for that … [Regarding class, Osterweil] called out and analyzed games where, even if they're trying to do social justice things, a lot of these games are made by white people who inadvertently affirm racist messaging, even when they’re well-meaning.”

Games for Justice culminates with student groups sharing the games they designed. During the 2020 session, one group conceptualized a game about the school-to-prison pipeline by illuminating how schools are structurally designed in ways that resemble a prison. “It was actually so fascinating because some of these things I had never even thought of before. For this game, you made decisions like, are you going to have bells ringing to signify when class is over? You could select a yes or no, and if you choose yes, it gives you a short explanation on how that resembles how prisons run, like how bells are used to control the movement of people inside prisons … These are literally 16-year-olds making this game. They are amazing.” Another group made a dialogue-based game on two-party political systems, exploring “how to be a grassroots organizer to try and defeat the two-party system that isn’t really doing anything for anyone.”

During the 2021 program, the staff also made their own game casting light on fetishization and racism in dating. “We did a quick game jam to see what we could make in six hours and got the youth to do the voice acting for it. … There are a bunch of different profiles on the game dating app, where a user can see how each profile is reacted to differently. When you play as a white cisgender man, nothing really happens to you, but playing as a Brown trans woman or a Black nonbinary femme person, your experiences are so different.”

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

After a successful staff search, the virtual summer 2021 session began with four hours of daily programming through Zoom. Educational content consisted of discussions on a social justice topic, a game design tutorial, or learning about the intersection between these two fields. “A tutorial might be where we're learning a piece of software, like Unity. The games and social justice piece could be the intersection of games and racism; we learned about how different games might perpetuate this and how we can make a game that actually works to dismantle racism.”

“[Making a game for social justice] is a lot more than just showing an image of a person having to make choices in their life and pointing out how hard their life is, because that is just upholding one image of what it means to be a Black or Brown person rather than allowing for more representation or power. I don't want a Brown face in a game that has no Brown people behind it. I want to write that game.”

While Rizvi did not grow up playing video games often, nor did they have any notion that they would end up founding a summer program during their time at MIT, they centered their campus pursuits on social justice from the get-go. It was their experience in a transformative youth program during high school that inspired such passion for community-level organizing. When Rizvi was 17, they became involved with a summer program within The City School that aims to empower youth to become effective leaders for social justice.

When transitioning from a public middle school to a private, whiter high school, Rizvi was confronted with much racism from their peers. “Part of my radicalization came from a place of survival in that space because I needed to fight for myself; because otherwise, I have to believe all these things that these racist people at my high school were telling me.” It was one of the other students of color who was coping with similar challenges who told Rizvi about The City School.

“The City School helped me understand more of the framing around not just what it means to experience those microaggressions, but how to organize specifically as a South Asian person, how to organize against anti-Blackness and with multi-racial organizing in mind. How do you make sure that you're not just fighting for your rights, but also for the rights of other Black and Brown people?” Rizvi says the program also emphasized the power that youth have to share valuable perspectives that are often underheard.

Rizvi entered college eager to explore the capacity for social justice at a technical school like MIT. As a freshman, Rizvi joined a plethora of student advocacy groups, where they met many people who held similar justice-oriented visions for the Institute. However, “the more I interacted with the MIT community, the more I realized that all the coolest people at MIT are essentially the ones with the least amount of power. I remember I was helping protest and organize against Subramanian Swamy, an Islamophobic, homophobic right-wing speaker who had come to MIT from India. We met with the administration, 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 will read you some of his quotes and then you can tell me whether you want that to be on campus or not.’ The [invited speaker quoted] said horrific things.” According to Rizvi, the administration heard this and acknowledged the horrors of these statements, but concluded that, “at least Americans will get to know how bad he is.”

“I literally took a minute. I told them I would rather have no one in America know who he is than uphold the work that he’s doing in India by essentially contributing to the brutal violence towards Muslims and intense homophobia in India. [The administrator] had nothing to say because what are you saying to that? We left that meeting knowing nothing was going to happen.”

Rizvi became exasperated with their work at MIT. Despite endless toil, there was little output. “After sophomore year, I was like, you know what? I don't really want to do stuff at MIT. I'm going to do stuff with my community and use MIT's resources and try to redistribute them.” And that's exactly what Rizvi has done through Games for Justice.

When reflecting on the Games for Justice mission of collective care, Rizvi posits the question, “How do most people think about care with respect to themselves? It's often framed as self-care. What can I do for myself? I can watch a movie. I can binge a show. I can eat something really good — all of these individual actions. But what people might not realize is that I am not solely responsible for my care. There's a community of people that are committed to caring for me, and I'm committed to caring for them. Collective care is the idea that when someone feels uncared for, hurt, or has things going on, you’re not dealing with that alone. We’re going to deal with it together as a group, so we don't feel alone and isolated.”

As for the future of Games for Justice, Rizvi reflects, “I actually feel like I'm at this point where I'm really happy with closing the chapter for Games for Justice for now and doing other jobs to deepen my organizing experience within Boston. If I feel like revisiting in the future, I certainly will, but for now I want to go beyond my background in summer programming.”

“I was initially worried, what if it doesn't go on forever? But it doesn't have to. It just has to provide people with a beautiful experience while it’s alive.”

Rizvi thanks The City School and Professor Dana Cunningham for helping make Games for Justice a reality. “Without those two folks, I don't even know how I would be here or what I would be doing right now. They're my main folks. They're my bottom line.”