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Games for Change today announced the winners of its Special Awards, including the latest recipient of its Vanguard Award. This year, it’s honoring Grace Collins of Snowbright Studio for their work to bring the games industry to new spaces, including the Smithsonian and Department of Education, as well as their advocacy for LGBTQ+ voices, diversity and inclusion.
The Vanguard Award honors a person who, according to G4C founder Susanna Pollack, best exemplifies the organization’s values and is a leader in their field. Past winners include Take This’s Eve Crevoshay, AbleGamers’ Mark Bartlet and Gay Gaming Professionals’ Gordon Bellamy.
Collins led games-based education policy at the U.S. Department of Education, as well as the Federal Games Working Group across the executive branch under both the Obama and Trump administrations. They also created game projects at the Smithsonian. They are the founder of both Liminal Esports and Snowbright Studio and serve as the CEO of the latter. Snowbright creates cozy and heartwarming games and is LGBTBE certified.
Pollack told GamesBeat in an interview, “There’s this sense of breaking new ground that I think Grace has been able to do consistently wherever they’ve worked — and now as a game designer.”
GamesBeat got the chance to speak with Grace Collins about the award and their history with the industry. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Congratulations! How do you feel about receiving the Vanguard Award?
Grace Collins: It’s incredibly humbling. The first time that I applied to go to Games for Change was in 2015. I grabbed a couple of other feds and said, “I think that people would really like to hear about how we’re promoting socio-emotional learning in government.” Because it’s not something people think about when they think about government. I remember when the acceptance came in — I was pretty surprised but excited to go.
My friend Cody, who works at the Smithsonian, and I were sitting on a bench in Greenwich Village going over our presentation saying, “What’s it gonna be like standing up in front of all these other people who actually know how to make games and talking to them about the government?” To start there and to have the opportunity to share with folks all the things that have happened over the last 7-8 years is fantastic. Games for Change is a great opportunity for folks to get together — you see folks from education, from entertainment media, from press, from documentary films — all kinds of folks that come together to chat. It provides so many new vantage points for how interactive media is affecting folks.
To be a part of that, to be in that line of succession with all the other folks with all the other people who have received this award before is, like I said, incredibly humbling.
GamesBeat: I don’t think even hearing your titles gives one the full picture of your career and what you’ve done. How did you get here and what have you learned on the way?
Collins: To be honest, I forget some of it myself sometimes. I started in higher education in Michigan — teaching computer science, and I got this crazy idea at the time to bring games into the classroom to teach my students how to code, both video games and tabletop games. I started thinking to myself, “I wonder if there’s anyone else doing this out there?”
At the same time, I felt very strongly that I needed to get out to Washington DC and be part of the government because I didn’t like how the government headed and I felt like I could help if I was there. I applied to 100 federal jobs and finally landed this dream job at the Smithsonian where I got to do game development, build partnerships and lead policy.
Around that same time, I started making great friends at the Department of Education in the White House. We worked with some of the other federal agencies to create the first federal Climate Change Game Jam, to encourage folks to create games about learning about climate change and taking civic action. Prior to that, most of the games I was focused on were about learning and assessment. This one was about taking action and making an impact. It wasn’t enough for you to walk away saying, “Now I know where the snowy owl lives.” It was about how to help the owl.
That started the collaboration with the Department of Education. I led the games in education policy for the Department under President Obama and afterwards led games policy for the executive branch under President Trump. After a year, I decided to leave federal service and teach, because at that point I had taught university, middle school, after school. But I hadn’t taught in high school, and that’s what I wanted to do. I started a game center at Hathaway Brown in Cleveland and started the first esports team at an all-girls school.
I keep running into history that shouldn’t be history. These things should have already been done but haven’t. That was a fantastic experience. The students learned so much and we put on a tournament for schools in Cleveland. Around that time, I recognized that one of the big problems with games in education is that so often the impact is hidden. That’s why I pivoted over to Snowbright Studio, to make more progress on finding ways to elevate the impact of games for learners of all ages.
Since then, Snowbright’s been going full throttle. We’ve done research projects in collaboration with the federal government. We’ve released games, including Time Tales — which is the first educational game to feature a canonically non-binary character. Again, I was both excited and disappointed to find out that was the case. In the last two years, we’ve pivoted heavily into tabletop, where we’ve found a tremendous audience who’s very excited to hear LGBTQ+ stories through tabletop games and is very interested in this kind of cozy, heartwarming game space — the space where you’re not trying to be the best or slaughter as many minions as you can, but which gives you a chance to connect at the table.
We continue to do research, including on digital wellness for teens. But if you look at our public-facing work, it’s focused on tabletop. I’ve also been on the board of directors for the Game Manufacturers Association (GAMA) for the past two years, serving both as president and vice-president currently and helping the tabletop industry recognize the power of diversity and inclusion.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me what the award means to you and how you’ve tried to support positive change in the industry?
Collins: A continuing thread throughout my career is to show up as who I am and try to do the best I can, recognizing that presence in a room is sometimes a radical act. I grew up in the country and it wasn’t always a safe environment. A lesson I learned is that the unspoken becomes unspeakable. If you don’t show up as your authentic self, if you don’t talk about who you are, why you’re doing what you’re doing, where you’re coming from, then it becomes taboo to do that.
I recognize that it’s my responsibility to be present and be who I am. I tried to do that with government. I’m doing that with Snowbright. We’re unabashedly queer and trans. That’s not negotiable and shouldn’t be hidden. At the most basic level, I hope the impact we provide is just being present and an example so that, when other folks ask, “Can I do that?” they can say, “Oh yeah, I can, because somebody else already did it.”
The fact that there was never a learning game with a canonically non-binary character in it is absurd. Think about all the non-binary computer science students — our game was a compsci learning game — who have literally never seen themselves do computer science. It’s demoralizing. Role-modeling in particular in middle school years is one of the biggest indicators for later success in STEM. Grades 5-8 are pivotal moments where you must show young girls examples and role models from the field to show them there’s a community waiting for them. Otherwise, they will fall out of STEM and they won’t participate in game science or development. We know it in our hearts for non-binary students too — we just don’t acknowledge it. There are a lot of queer, trans and gender-nonconforming kids who don’t see themselves, so they don’t pursue that field.
GamesBeat: You mentioned earlier that one of the problems with games in education is that the effects are hidden. Could you tell me what you mean by that?
Collins: We understand that you have to do an assessment for any type of media in classrooms. We need to know the impact of anything we bring into the classroom. Teachers know that. Administrators know that. When you bring in a book, you test it on the kinds of content that comes out of it. When you bring in a video clip, a documentary or even a movie, there’s a comprehensive assessment to come out of it afterwards.
For games, for some reason, they treat them like a different animal. Historically they haven’t assessed them the same way, because the type of learning that comes out of games is different. Either they’ll try to make the game like a book — which doesn’t work so well — or they’ll just give up and say, “I don’t know, maybe they learned something.” But we know, being in games, that there’s a tremendous amount of learning in playing games. You can’t look at somebody on-stage at Madison Square Garden competing at high-level esports and say they haven’t learned leadership or determination or perseverance. And yet we don’t give games credit for any of that. We can’t quantify it, so it gets marked down as an extracurricular.
There is so much learning for some students in that space that’s just gone. It’s heartbreaking when you talk to some of these students who say, “I’m bad at school. I don’t belong here.” You look at them, and they’ve organized a team, merchandise, fundraising, strategy, tournament organizing — and that’s just from the esports part of it. That’s to say nothing of single-player games and the narrative experiences, the deep socio-emotional experience. All of that is lost. We don’t know what the impact is, and that means some students are getting left behind, and that should be fixed.
GamesBeat: Aside from Snowbright, what do you think is next for you going forward?
Collins: Snowbright is publishing games at a pretty furious pace right now, and many of our games win awards as well. They’re entertainment-focused games as well, but at their heart they have something meaningful you can learn from. Science, socio-emotional learning, grief and emotional coping strategies — those are all kind of baked into them. We’re continuing to publish those games and our magazine, Cozy Companion, which elevates diverse voices in the tabletop industry.
I think where we’d like to be ultimately is to be the Annapurna Interactive of tabletop games. What we really like to do is give new voices a platform to tell their stories through the medium of games. We’re looking for partners to help us make that happen. As we develop our internal projects, we’re looking for ways to expand so we can invite more folks in and help them tell stories that don’t quite fit with the mainstream but still should be told.
Personally, I’m hoping to continue to work with youth, to help them discover their voice. That was an opportunity that I didn’t have when I was a kid. I want to work with nonprofits and partner with an academic institution to provide more spaces for kids to create — particularly to explore marginalized gender identity stories through games and interactive media.
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