Skill Trees and Super Mario Bros. 2

Anyone who has played a video game in the last 10 years has undoubtedly come across a skill tree. Using the experience gathered along a journey, players can pump up their character with various specialties, creating a cascading branchwork of perks that make each step forward a bit easier or, at the very least, a bit more interesting.

Jules Porter’s skill tree is one to note.

Instead of spending all of her skill points on a single path, Porter decided to diversify by getting  an aeronautics degree, a theology degree from her time in seminary, a dual J.D./M.B.A. degree, and some decidedly sharp coding skills. She was also in the United States Marine Corps.

If Porter were a video character, she’d be god tier for sure.

Princess Toadstool from “Super Mario Bros. 2.” (Nintendo)

But the branch to Porter’s current endeavor as founder and president of Seraph 7 Studios, a game development company, started growing far before any of the degrees came into view. Like many gamers, her exposure to video games started with a red-capped plumber. But it wasn’t Mario, really, who captured her interest.

“Super Mario Bros. 2 was actually my favorite for a while because it had Princess Toadstool in it,” she said. “I could actually play as a female character.”

That small bit of representation — just a collection of a couple dozen pixels — was an important starting point; a tiny glimpse of seeing yourself in something you love. (That and “Mortal Kombat” tournaments with her two younger brothers and group of cousins, of course.)

But it would be years before Porter would be able to put that initial spark to work. She attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee before joining the U.S. Marine Corp., where she finished an aeronautics degree inspired by Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel in space.

Then, Porter looked to an even higher plane, attending seminary and obtaining a degree in theology (seeding some ideas for video games to come).

But it was a pair of deaths that prompted Porter to make the journey back to Minnesota (where she grew up) to begin her law career. The first was her grandmother.

“She thought that I loved to argue and that I was good at it,” Porter said. “She thought that I had a lot of passion for helping people. I think that’s very true.”

The second was Trayvon Martin.

“I just kind of realized, ‘Hey, my brother just graduated from Yale, but he likes to walk around and wear hoodies,’” she said. “So, nobody is going to say, ‘Is this a Yale graduate or not?’ They’re just going to see a young black man in a hoodie and have all sorts of assumptions.”

That small bit of representation — just a collection of a couple dozen pixels — was an important starting point; a tiny glimpse of seeing yourself in something you love.

So, Porter returned to Minnesota (from Atlanta, where she lived at the time) and enrolled in the J.D./M.B.A. program at the University of St. Thomas.

“There was nothing I could do to protect [my brother],” she said. “So I was like, I need to learn the law so I can protect him.”

Porter made her way through the program but started to notice what she felt were limitations along the way. An attorney could help people, but usually just one at a time. Meaningful, yes, but limiting nonetheless.

And that’s when that little spark of video game passion was brought to the surface like Princess Toadstool plucking a turnip from the ground.

Digital Diversity and Sneaky Social Messages

Aveline de Grandpré stalks the streets in “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.” (Ubisoft)

In “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation” (made by Ubisoft, a game development studio with teams across the globe) players take the role of Aveline de Grandpré, a woman of African and French ancestry. She’s a strong representation of a person of color… until players are forced to dress as a slave to complete a mission.

“Alright, Ubisoft,” Porter, a huge fan of the “Assassin’s Creed” series, said. “If you’re a black person, you don’t want to dress as a slave in your game. In your fantasy.”

This is just one example of a much larger problem in games. Although it has gotten better in recent years, the number of positive representations of people of color is still low. When a person of color is featured, it has typically been in a stereotypical — if not outright offensive — way. Porter was never a stranger to this fact, but it really came into focus when she was playing games with her nephew one day.

“It’s tough to imagine yourself being better than what the media shows all the time,” she said, referencing the many negative portrayals of people of color. “[People] lose a lot of positive self-image they had as kids and the question is why?”

“It’s tough to imagine yourself being better than what the media shows all the time.” — Jules Porter

By this time, Porter’s skill tree had already been filled out with aeronautics and theology, but another branch had been steadily growing as well — coding. She was becoming more fluent with computer languages such as HTML and C++, and it was time to apply those skills to a real issue.

While at St. Thomas, Porter entered her idea of a game development company focused on featuring people of color as heroes — now known as Seraph 7 Studios — in the Fowler Business Concept Challenge and the St. Thomas Business Plan Competition. She won $26,000 between the two. There was clearly some traction behind the idea.

FINNOVATION Lab, and its CEO, Connie Rutledge, agreed. In September 2019, Porter and Seraph 7 Studios was accepted to FINNOVATION Lab Fellowship Program’s Cohort 2.

“Ideas like Jules’ Seraph 7 Studios help us continue our mission of being a force for good,” Rutledge said. “Her work is a great example of using business to address social inequality.”

With the backing of FINN Lab as an extra push (fellows receive a number of benefits to encourage a deep dive into the entrepreneurial waters), Porter took on Seraph 7 Studios as a full-time gig. The program’s network of mentors and subject experts has been a boost for her drive, turning what was more of a solitary endeavor into a community-driven one.

“I’m not so alone,” Porter said. “There are so many people I can connect with and who can help me in big or small ways.”

With a grip on the ins and outs of C++, Porter is able to navigate the foundation of her game code — Epic Games’ Unreal Engine. But her experience at FINN Lab (which comes to a close at the end of May) has taught her more about something that is often just as complicated as hundreds of lines of code — marketing and sales.

“Ideas like Jules’ Seraph 7 Studios help us continue our mission of being a force for good. Her work is a great example of using business to address social inequality.” — Connie Rutledge

Porter is undoubtedly passionate about addressing social issues through Seraph 7 Studios’ games, but she knows others — especially gamers on the internet, where anonymity makes it very easy to be every disgusting flavor of bigoted —  might not be so eager to hop on that wavelength. Working with FINN Lab has helped her understand how to market and sell the idea of her games. Maybe not in a way that takes on the undesirable underbelly of game enthusiasts directly, but instead with a slightly stealthier approach.

“For some people, you have to trick them,” she said. “You have to be covert in order to teach them anything. If you tell them you’re trying to teach them something, they’re purposefully not going to learn that thing.”

This hasn’t been easy. “Tricking” someone, even with an altruistic purpose, is still something she’s trying to come to terms with.

“I’m a very authentic person, so it feels like I’m not being fully honest,” she said.

But her effort to learn and grow from the FINN Lab experience certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“We are incredibly proud of the effort Jules has put forth, and like all of the Cohort 2 fellows, she has gone above and beyond!” Rutledge said. “Her passion for social justice coupled with her sly sense of humor has made her an invaluable member of the cohort.”

Members of FINN Lab Cohort 2 (from left): La’Shante Grigsby (Flava Café), Mohamed Malim (Epimonia), Alysha Price (The Price Dynamic), Lyndsey Calvin (Identity Health), Shannon TL Kearns (Uprising Theatre Company), Judd Grutman (Vonzella), Jules Porter (Seraph 7 Studios), Katie Myhre (RED Market)

When talking to Porter, it doesn’t take long to get a sense of that “sly sense of humor.” But just a quick glance at her upcoming game might make it apparent even quicker.

Superheroes and Weaponized Walkers

Asar (The Golden Man) from “Ultimate Elder Battle Royale.” (Seraph 7 Studios)

While in the J.D./M.B.A. program at St. Thomas, Porter was working on a project called “Life Begins at 80.” During a research session on her older demographic, she came across images of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman aged well into their twilight years.

“[Wonder Woman] is like hundreds of years old, so she doesn’t really count,” Porter noted. “But if they aged naturally, they’d be 80 pushing 90 now. What would that look like? How hilarious would that be if they’re still out there trying to kick butt?”

That’s when “Ultimate Elder Battle Royale” (UEBR) was born.

Seraph 7 Studios describes the game as, “an over-the-top and humorous fighting and role-playing game that asks the question, ‘what happens if superheroes aged and were 86 years old, living in a nursing home, started an underground fight club, and were still fighting bad guys?”

Instead of opting for a traditional 2D fighting system like Capcom’s seminal “Street Fighter” series, UEBR takes inspiration from a more niche title — “Def Jam: Fight For NY.” Of course, you won’t be throwing down with Lil’ Kim or Method Man in UEBR; the game’s roster features hyper-stylized, fictional characters — each with a full backstory, identifiable visual design, and superpowers.

True to Seraph 7 Studios’ core values, each character is a person of color.

“But if [superheroes] aged naturally, they’d be 80 pushing 90 now. What would that look like? How hilarious would that be if they’re still out there trying to kick butt?” — Jules Porter

Manny (Keeper of the Serengeti) from “Ultimate Elder Battle Royale.” (Seraph 7 Studios)

One character, Manny (Keeper of the Serengeti), is albino and from Tanzania. The country has a high rate of albinism and is infamous for superstitions that has led to the mutilation and murder of some people born with the condition. Manny, however, is not a victim or stereotype. His skills in hand-to-hand combat have helped him best a goddess and giants, but he’s also a renown painter and sculpture.

To promote Manny’s reveal, Porter ran his teaser trailer in Tanzania, Fiji, Kenya, and South Africa. Within just a couple days of posting the video, Porter said it had amassed more than 100,000 views. She even had to use Google Translate to read some of the viewer messages that were left in Swahili.

Despite some of the serious backstories in UEBR, there’s a cheeky undercurrent that runs throughout the game. While engaging in superpowered battles, characters such as Manny, Ms. Billie (the Mississippi Supersonic), and Aesir (The Retired Rockstar) will use weaponized walkers and canes to get the best of their opponents. The levity is there for a reason.

“I think there’s sometimes a stereotype that the art black people bring to things like film always has to be heavy,” Porter said. “So I wanted to come with something that was fun, exciting, a bit novel, and also diverse.”

Even though her game features a roster of badass senior citizens, Porter doesn’t necessarily expect it to be a big hit with them — less than 10% of total sales. But she believes in the positive effects games can have on seniors such as the sharpening of cognitive abilities and the benefit of social engagement. Also, an AARP study in late 2019 clocked the number of people 50 and older who play video games at around 50.6 million. So, there’s definitely a market for the game.

But first, Porter has to finish it. She’s hoping to have a playable demo finished in time for a FINN Lab presentation night in mid-June, and then it’s a lot more crunch work before the full game makes it to the home console market.

Porter has an entire slate of games planned, so you won’t have to hold your breath for more Seraph 7 Studios content if UEBR is a success. Even with an impressive skill tree at her disposal — military discipline, knowledge of the law, spiritual growth, coding prowess — there’s one branch of it that has been growing her entire life.

Games.

“Gaming is something that people of all races play and enjoy,” Porter said. “This is a great mechanism for people to play through the shoes of another person.”