Games as a Way to Power Urban Renewal

SuperData’s Associate Research Director, Elena Fedina, shares her main takeaways after serving as judge for the NYS Game Dev Challenge!


Last week I had a pleasure to serve as a judge at the NYS Game Dev Challenge. It is an annual competition that began in 2017, and it is organized by Rochester Institute of Technology, one of three digital game hubs of New York state (the other two being New York University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). However, before I dive into the amazing work of the participants, the location this event took place deserves some attention as well.

Former glory

Upon arrival, my first interaction with a Rochesterian was in a cab from the airport. Almost immediately the driver told me that he’s looking to move out of the city. I mean, I can’t blame him: the last thing I expected to encounter in upstate New York in the middle of April was piles of snow. But on top of harsh climate a recurring complaint I heard from local residents was the lack of opportunities and interesting jobs.

Rochester used to be known as the home of major companies like Xerox and Bausch & Lomb.  However, many of these big companies like Western Union and Xerox moved their headquarters to other cities, taking valuable jobs with them. Meanwhile, the ones that chose to stay, like Kodak, are shrinking their workforce through layoffs. The long-term impact of this corporate exodus continues to hurt Rochester, and a recent economic report showed a decline of 0.5% in employment. The good thing is that local authorities recognize the need for a change. However there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what that change needs to be.

Potential in change

One of the main attractions in Rochester is The Strong, a museum that played host to the NYS Game Dev Challenge. It originally opened as a museum of manufactured goods, but quickly saw a decline in visitors. How often do you really need to look at a vase or a bowl, really? The museum leadership saw this challenge as a potential for something new, and today The Strong is also the ‘museum of play’. Its goal is to explore how people play, how they interact with games and each other. They have a huge collection of actual toys as well as gaming consoles and devices on display (and many more in their archives), and even a room full of pinball and arcade machines. This pivot worked – now there are people of all ages visiting the museum daily – a great example how a creative shift in direction benefited the museum and the community.

Games and potential for growth

One of main colleges of the city of Rochester, RIT, has grown to one of three game hubs in the state. As a university with a game development program, RIT has been campaigning for more opportunities for local game developers. The NYSGDC is the result of their efforts, which has been recognized by Empire State Development, an organization that is developing and helping to implement the economic strategy for the state of New York. This recognition is an important step in not just bringing more skilled workers back to the area, but also in legitimizing games as an economic-driving industry.

After all, what better city would there be to embrace these challenges than the home city of the company that shaped our knowledge and understanding of the modern photo industry?

Last Thursday gave me a glimpse into what that future could be. Six incredibly talented teams were awarded prizes to help them fund the development of their games. The winner of the  ‘student’ category was the team of RIT students that developed a game inspired by the city of Rochester. Called Crazy Platez, the game is a take on a local delicacy known as a ‘garbage plate’. The player is challenged to deliver these as quickly as possible before running out of gas. Aesthetician Labs, the team behind Crazy Platez, took home a $12,000 prize intended to help them complete and market the game.

The fact that New York state is slowly (but hopefully – surely) becoming more accepting of the games industry as a viable career path by providing support for events like NYSGDC is incredibly important since it sets the example for other states.

Considering the breakneck speed at which industries are advancing, the traditional path of building a career over decades at the same company is no longer viable for many. The games industry can and should be considered as an attractive alternative. Local game studios provide long-term employment, attract skilled people, and help bring a much-needed economic stimulus to cities that have fallen behind.