Growing up, Tré Lannon led a relatively rootless existence. He, his sister and his mother, a tax manager by trade, chased jobs from New York to Virginia to Colorado, finally ending up in Arkansas. He hasn’t seen his father, who’s incarcerated for dealing drugs, since he was 3. So video games became a refuge for the now 20-year-old University of Southern California junior, who’s one of 35 college students awarded the 2019–20 ESA Foundation Computer and Video Game Arts Scholarship. Games also enabled Tré to stake a claim. A natural techie, he found that he could express himself, and tell stories, via game design.
Q: What first brought you to video games?
A: They were a good distraction. They were a way for me to have fun and make the most of the situation I was in at the time. I probably started when I was 6.
Q: And your father was incarcerated?
A: He still is, for dealing drugs. And, actually, I’ve known a lot of people who come from single-parent households. It’s hard to grow up without a father figure — not only financially but emotionally, because even if you have a strong parent, like my mother, she’s trying to support you and your family while also teaching the characteristics of being a good person. That’s not easy, and maybe you have something to prove, or feel you have to be better than others.
Q: So in high school, you took the next step, by getting into game design?
A: I had engineering abilities, and I was in a program that was specifically for computers. And I already loved games. But, to be honest, I didn’t really know what making a game was all about till my first year of college. I did build my own computer. The way my friends from different places I’d lived in connected was by playing games online, like League of Legends. When I was 14, I had an old laptop that didn’t work well. So I bought parts to build a new desktop and used it to play every game I wanted.
Q: Why did you choose USC?
A: Like a lot of ambitious high school seniors who want to go to the best schools for what they’re trying to pursue, I Googled the best game design schools and noticed USC was on most of the lists. From there, I looked deeper into the program to find out more information and found that it was the right fit for me. The location and the course rigor were excellent, so I thought this would be the perfect place.
Q: Are there specific classes or experiences at USC that stand out?
A: The Makers of Entertaining Games Association is probably the biggest club on our campus, and they do a lot of events, like game jams, things I like to get involved in. It’s kind of like a hackathon. You get together with a team, and you work together to create a game based on a theme, usually within a certain time constraint — 24 hours, 48 hours. That’s something I really enjoy.
Even more challenging was Advanced Game Projects, a program where teams, big or small, spend an entire year developing a game. It’s for seniors; it’s a capstone project. But at one point, I found out a team needed additional tech help, to finish the game. I ended up helping put together “End of the Line,” a story-driven game focused more on story than the game-play element of it. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world.
Q: This is actually your second ESA Foundation scholarship. You got the first one going into your freshman year. How does it feel to win again?
A: It’s wonderful. It’s nice to have that financial security, to know someone believes in me and my academic and technical abilities. Tuition is expensive here, so the funds will go toward that. And I know, from the first year I won, that there are opportunities to make connections with other scholars and people in the industry and go to events, like E3. So I’m looking forward to taking advantage of those opportunities.
Q: In what ways have you changed since you were a freshman?
A: I’m a lot more experienced in actually making video games than when I first started. These past two years, I’ve learned a lot not only about game development but design. And working mostly in the software domain and being at USC, I’ve learned about the industry itself. My perspective has changed too — in terms of where I am and where I want to be. And what it’ll take to get there.
Q: What kinds of video games do you see yourself developing?
A: I think I want to make games that inspire people or that are really thought-provoking. There are lots of games that people get attached to whether it be for the characters, the game play or the setting, and people really enjoy the time they play them. They’re the types of games people talk about after they finish them because they’ve made an impact. Those are the types of games I want to make.
Q: Where would you like to work after graduation?
A: I’d like to work where they’re making the kinds of games I just described. Insomniac Games is a really cool place I’d love to be. They make “Spider-Man,” which I like. I’d also like to work at a PlayStation-exclusive company, like Santa Monica Studio. They make “God of War.”
Q: What’s your feeling about the ESA Foundation and what it does?
A: Aside from helping us out financially, which is a big deal, they provide all kinds of opportunities — working with companies and individuals, allowing us to go to many different events. And of course it helps women and minorities get a foot in the door of the video game industry. It’s important to have people of different backgrounds sharing their perspectives. I think that adds to the games being created; it makes the outcome of the game better and makes it appeal to more people.
Rich Shea is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.