Riot Games and Annenberg Foundation bring classes on making video games to L.A. schools


About 1,000 middle and high school students in Los Angeles are expected to design video games this school year that expose players to the importance of kindness, wildlife conservation or news literacy.

The best student gamemakers could earn scholarships and other prizes. It’s all part of one of the first initiatives from the Annenberg Foundation that ropes in the Los Angeles tech community.

With the gaming effort, it recruited Riot Games, the Los Angeles company behind the hit computer game “League of Legends,” to host participants on upcoming field trips.

Twenty-two teachers spread across subjects from social studies to computer science — half of them women — received training last week on designing video games and tools to produce them. The teachers applied for the opportunity, certifying that their schools had computers powerful enough to operate gamemaking software provided by organizers.

The teachers will pass on their new knowledge to almost 600 students over 20 weeks or so, program leaders estimate. Chatsworth Charter High, South Gate Middle and Girls Academic Leadership Academy are among the participating schools. The goal is for 75% of students at such schools to submit games for judging.

But the gamemaking competition is open to all Los Angeles Unified students, and estimates suggest an additional 400 may submit entries on their own.

Games for Change, a New York City nonprofit, has held similar competitions in New York City, Pittsburgh, Dallas and Houston during the last two years. The idea is to get students thinking about timely topics, such as criminal justice or climate change, while giving them a taste of working in science or technology.

Highlights have included “Puppy Dash,” an animal welfare-themed game that followed a dog’s perilous journey through New York City, and a choose-your-adventure game about a student trying to avoid falling into a pathway to incarceration.

This year’s students must somehow incorporate into their games one of three subjects: Saving cougars or other threatened animals, avoiding the distraction of fake news or using kindness to brighten the world. Submissions are due in April, with a month of judging to follow.

“We believe you can leverage entertainment for social good,” said Games for Change President Susanna Pollack.

Award winners by school-level and category are expected to be celebrated at the end of the school year at an exhibition in Los Angeles and a festival in New York City.

Games for Change arrived in Los Angeles by way of the Annenberg Foundation, a stalwart in Los Angeles philanthropy that vowed three years ago to partner with more “21st century” brands.

"The tech boom in Los Angeles is impossible to ignore,” Annenberg Foundation Chairman Wallis Annenberg said.

The foundation is working with Snap Foundation, the recently created philanthropic arm of Snapchat’s parent company, to assist with arts education in Los Angeles. It’s brought in leaders of the giving arms of tech companies from the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston to share lessons with local peers. And it’s training the region’s nonprofits on how to work with Los Angeles’ plentiful online media start-ups.

“We want to bring groups together and bring about systemic change,” said Cinny Kennard, the Annenberg Foundation’s executive director.

Riot Games said it has set five dates from October to February to bring in individual classes for a two-hour course on developing a fair and interesting game. The experience, which the company calls Urf Academy, also includes an hourlong lunch and a discussion with Riot Games employees. The effort draws upon once-a-month sessions the company has previously hosted for aspiring game designers.

Two Bit Circus, a Los Angeles company developing mixed-reality amusement attractions, said it plans to host students for field trips too. In addition, Pollack expects game-design students at USC, UCLA and UC Irvine to mentor participants.

Though Games for Change hasn’t seen a student creation go viral, figuring out how gaming experts can help students polish and distribute games is a big goal for the first time this year, Pollack said.

“That’s something we hope to build on, particularly in Los Angeles because there’s so much focus on building relationships with the tech community,” she said. “We see opportunity for students to keep working on their game with feedback from the professional games industry.”

For now, Games for Change is evaluating its program based on participation numbers and whether teachers are able to build game design into their curriculum for the long term. The organization’s funding sources include the National Endowment for the Arts, the Carnegie Foundation and the philanthropic arms of Best Buy and American Express.

Video game streaming start-up Maestro wins over investors

Maestro Interactive Inc., which describes itself as a Culver City tech company, has raised about $5.8 million from 22 investors, according to a securities disclosure.

Founded about five years ago, the start-up develops software aimed at online broadcasters in the video game and music industries. The streaming tool allows broadcasters to solicit feedback from online viewers, measure viewership and plug-in ads. Maestro’s website lists Coachella and Pokemon as customers.

Elsewhere on the web

  • Los Angeles is seeking to a hire a chief procurement officer — an unusual position at the city-level — in an effort to make it easier for start-ups to sell their products and services to the city, according to Statescoop.
  • Insta360, a Chinese camera company that does marketing out of Los Angeles, has launched a $300, 360-degree camera, according to Venturebeat.
  • Scopus Ventures is seeking to raise $25 million to become Los Angeles’ newest venture capital firm, according to Socaltech.

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Coming up

UCLA hosts a showcase event for its start-up development program at 6 p.m. Sept. 7 at the Carnesale Commons. Participants in the summer-long offering include carpooling and tutoring apps and healthcare hardware designers.

Twitter: @peard33