By Mariah McBride
Picture yourself as the main character in a video game–not the sidekick, but the main protagonist. Can you see it? Is the image clear, or has your perception been blurred by the lack of diversity in video game characters?
Earlier this year, Jewel Ifeguni, a sophomore in Computer Science, founded YouMatter Studio. As the CEO, she decided she wanted to create a video game with diverse characters. The inspiration for the video game came from none other than Ifeguni’s little sister.
“She loves games but the thing that bothered me was all the games she was playing I couldn’t see her in them,” Ifeguni explained. “It got me thinking that’s a problem I had before … maybe I can change this for my children and hopefully affect my sister too.”
Ifeguni continued on to explain her goals for the studio. “YouMatter’s mission is to mirror today’s diversity for tomorrow’s future through gaming, so we want games to reflect today’s society more than games have for kids.” Currently, the studio is developing its first video game for children. The game does not have a name yet, but the studio team has finished designing the game’s first out of ten levels. Expected to be complete by 2018, the game follows three kids that are zapped into a comic book and become superheroes. What really makes this project special, however, are its characters.
“They’re more or less unlikely protagonists. We have an African-American girl, a South Asian boy, and a girl from a Latin community who’s also in a wheelchair, so they all work together in this virtual world and learn life lessons,” Ifeguni shared.
In addition to creating the game, the team is also competing in The Cozad New Venture Competition, which is a competition between startup companies on the U of I campus – or as the CEO of YouMatter calls it, “The University of Illinois version of Shark Tank.”
Winning the first round for best pitch was Ifeguni’s favorite memory with YouMatter so far because her creation received some much deserved validation. For the second round of competition, the group submitted a PowerPoint about the details of YouMatter. The team is hoping to make it to the third round. In the end, the winner will receive up to $200,000 for funding their startup.
So how did the studio find members? Ifeguni used Facebook. “I spammed everyone,” she said, laughing. It was easy for her to find other developers because of her Computer Science connections, but artists were a little trickier. Therefore, she reached out to her friend Naambia Mitchell, an art education major, and Mitchell became the head of art for the project.
“I’ve always been interested in coding and game design, but I’d never had a real experience,” Mitchell said. “ I thought I could take this opportunity and learn how to code … also, I love the message [Jewel] was trying to bring with it. I one hundred percent agree with her about the whole ‘I don’t really see myself in games. I don’t see myself in media.’ And it’s very hard for people of color to embrace themselves when they don’t see themselves in popular media.”
YouMatter now has 24 members, which is fairly big for a startup company. They are broken up into four subgroups: the executives/leaders, the business staff, the developers and the artists. Furthermore, Ifeguni said the studio is open to anyone who is passionate and committed to the company mission and that your major doesn’t have to relate to coding, art or business in order to join. The group meets twice a month, and one of the meetings allows certain members to receive academic credit for their entrepreneurship class, TEC401.
This startup has been a challenging task for Ifeguni and her team, but she has learned to trust others, balance YouMatter and schoolwork, and mix friendship with business.
So what does the YouMatter team want others to learn from their work? “I want people to be able to see themselves in these characters even if they are white … any race or ability status,” said Mitchell. As for Ifeguni, she wants students to know they should never lose sight of their goals. “Overall, if you have a dream, go for it. All it takes is an idea, research, and a team.”
All images courtesy of YouMatter