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March 3, 2021 52 min
“Video games are an amazing covert teaching mechanism,” says Jules Porter, founder of Seraph 7 Studios, a Minneapolis-based videogame development studio on a mission to fight racism and build empathy by creating diverse characters and games that show the BIPOC community in a positive light. The epiphany hit as she toured Rome for the first time and realized she knew her way around because she had learned the city through a video game. Porter was a law student at the time, a path she decided to pursue following a troubling string of shootings of Black teenagers by white police officers. “I just felt so powerless,” Porter says. She listened to a Tedx Talk given by Dr. Artika Tyner, a University of St. Thomas law professor who said: “Law is the language of power.” And that solidified Porter’s decision to enroll. But midway through, Porter began to question whether it was enough. “The law can provide consequences, it can help set policy. But the issue, if a person doesn’t even see us as human, there’s something in the heart that the law can’t reach. How do we build empathy from the inside out?” Porter’s answer: video games. “Eighty percent of Black youths play video games, but only 3 percent of the protagonists look like us and they’re not even good guys. It’s so rare to find positive Black characters,” Porter says, pointing out that the number of BIPOC individuals and women who work as gaming programmers is negligible. “The decision makers are white men…in order for us to change the narrative and put more positive images out there, we need BIPOC folks to be part of the creative side.” Porter started sketching out game ideas while finishing law school. For a while, she clerked for a judge by day, and worked on her startup by night. Being accepted to the Finnovation Lab accelerator allowed her to finally focus on the business. Additional mentorship and funding comes from the American Express x iFund Women of Color 100 for 100 program. Porter’s first console video game, due out later this year, is called Elder Battle Royale and features an even split of male and female characters from diverse backgrounds. The characters are also seniors who fight enemies with weaponized walkers. There’s another side to Seraph 7 Studios. Porter wants to raise up a more diverse generation of coders by teaching BIPOC students to code. “There’s a lot of untapped opportunity.” The early attention Porter has received for her efforts, coupled with a string of grants and awards, could create undue pressure for a first time founder. But Porter says she feels driven, and optimistic. She thinks often of a favorite Oprah Winfrey quote: “Don’t focus on being successful; focus on being substantial and the success will come.” Following our conversation with Porter, we go Back to the Classroom with AnnMarie Thomas, professor of entrepreneurship at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business and director of the UST Playful Learning Lab where she's observed firsthand how much kids absorb through play. “We know that kids are engaged differently in their learning when they’re having fun, seeing people who look like them,” Porter says. Thomas also points out how Porter’s eclectic interests—gaming, law, travel, theology—led to her idea for Seraph 7. “The secret to new ideas: they don’t come from just business classes; they come from all aspects of life. Ideas are everywhere,” says Thomas, pointing out that a liberal arts college like St. Thomas was able to support Porter as her interests and focus evolved. “Ideas are everywhere. Put yourself in situations for lifelong learning. Jules brings one heck of a toolbox to everything she does.”
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