Young people from Brazil’s favelas set out to conquer digital world
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In the perfect world, Luiz Augusto is a police officer. A hero who only does good. The character he has created is called Bigodinho, “Mustache,” in the computer game “Grand Theft Auto,” lives in the virtual city of Los Santos, chasing criminals and donating food to the needy. Bigodinho is something like Augusto’s alter ego, also visually. Augusto paid 300 Brazilian real, actual money, for Augusto’s afro hair style. It was important to him.
August, 24, enters his perfect world from a dusty office chair. Inside his shack, with its corrugated iron roof, there’s an old sofa, a refrigerator, a bed and a rusty fan. Augusto has removed the protective grille so that it cools better, but it still stands no chance against the heat. A light bulb dangles from the ceiling. There’s a six-pack of energy drinks on the floor. The view through the window is of the river into which the waste water from the Vigario Geral favela is discharged.
Luiz Augusto used to hang out with drug dealers. Today, he spends most of his time online, where he has developed a policeman character for gaming.
Augusto opens a laptop and enters a parallel reality, one that takes him out of the favela on the outskirts of Brazil’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro. Out of poverty, away from the streets and away from the drug dealers he used to hang out with. Sometimes, he sits here for 10 hours, usually, though, it’s more like 14 or 15 a day. He records his sessions as he plays, moderates game forums and chats with people all over the world. He earns a bit of money for doing so from the platform Trovo.live.
Augusto is a streamer, the gaming scene’s version of an influencer. He has around 850 followers – which may not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep him afloat financially.
It’s important to Luiz Augusto that his online avatar looks the same as he does. He even paid 300 real (46 euros) for his digital Afro hairstyle.
The tech industry generates revenues in the billions, and there’s lots of money to be made in business sectors like gaming, cryptocurrencies and the rights to digital art. But the virtual world is also a very white place, one to which people from the favelas seldom have access. That’s starting to change though. In part because social organizations have discovered the field, but also because some trailblazers have tapped into this world, accelerated not least by the isolation during the pandemic. The trailblazers have recognized the virtual world as a space where they can find recognition and also make money, while at the same time escaping their harsh reality – and changing it at the same time.
A street in the Vigario Geral favela
The Vigario Geral favela is a claustrophobic place, hemmed in between a river and a train line flanked by walls. Driving in, you first have to slalom around concrete bollards that serve as roadblocks. On one corner, young men from the drug trade stand guard, armed with machine guns, cartridge belts strapped around their bare torsos.
In 2010, Afro Music moved into a multistory building a few streets away. The social enterprise used to train guitarists and drummers and send rap bands around the world. But at some point, they ran out of sponsor money. In 2017, Ricardo Chantilly, a tanned music executive from Rio, joined the enterprise to try to turn things around. He traveled to Seattle, where he attended a gaming competition – and realized that among the 15,000 attendees, there were virtually no black players. Women were also absent from the picture. The competition was offering $25 million in prize money. Chantilly decided this wasn’t the time to be making music. “It’s the hour of gaming.” So, he founded Afro Games.
The building with the clenched fist on the roof can be seen from far away. It’s home to the social enterprise Afro Games.
Foto: Kristin Bethge
During a tour of the building, Chantilly shows off the air-conditioned room where computers and monitors are lined up in rows, complete with comfortable office chairs outfitted with red neck pads. There are 20 work stations here. “The equipment costs about 2,400 euros per station,” he says. “No one in the favela can afford that.” Afro Games is financed entirely by private investors – firms like airlines, software companies and beverage producers.
Afro Games began offering classes in mid-2019. Since then, 100 students starting at the age of 13, including 20 women and girls, have been learning to either program or game – it’s their choice – and also English. Among the students learning the game “League of Legends,” teachers and outside experts ultimately chose the top six talents. Chantilly then pays them the national minimum wage of around 170 euros per month to continue their training, in the hopes that they can become professional gamers. The plan is for them to soon begin entering competitions, and they are allowed to keep whatever prize money they win.
Music executive Ricardo Chantilly is the founder of Afro Games.
On this particular morning, these “electronic athletes” are taking part in offline physical fitness training on the top floor of the building to prevent tension. After all, they sit in front of computers for several hours each day. One of them is Gabriela Evellyn Ferreira, 20, a black-clad woman with curly hair who excelled at math in school. She lives behind what people here call the “Gaza border,” meaning she is from the neighboring favela. Until just a few years ago, gangs from the two favelas waged an armed drug war against each other. The route Ferreira takes to school leads past walls and electricity pylons littered with bullet holes.
When she talks about gaming, she refers to it as “her work.” And she loves it. “I dive into this fantasy, and it’s completely different from my reality,” she says. “I feel needed and important.” Her boyfriend introduced her to the place. They had been playing together in so-called LAN houses, the name here for internet cafés that offer gaming. Her boyfriend, though, didn’t make it onto the pro team as Ferreira did. “I never would have thought that this might become my profession,” Ferreira says. “I make money doing something that makes me happy.” She wants to be a role model and encourage other girls.
Gabriela Evellyn Ferreira, who was good at math in school, succeeded in landing a slot on Afro Games’ professional team.
While Ferreira may have found backing from an organization that supports her career, there are also examples of people breaking through without any external help. Young people from the favela are founding their own tech companies, conquering a domain from which they had previously been excluded.
People like Gean Guilherme Santos Lopes, 21, who lives in a different favela in Rio de Janeiro. St. Amaro is located in the middle of a town on a hillside, a mess of stairs, colorful little houses and powerlines. Santos Lopes turns into a narrow, dark alley and unlocks a door. “This is where I do my work,” he says. He’s been renting the tiled room, his “studio,” for around five months for about 80 euros a month. He had trouble concentrating at home, with an extended family, a baby and a dog all squeezed into tight quarters.
Santos Lopes, who has dyed purple hair and wears white flip-flops, studies product design at the Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. He had access to a computer as a child because his father worked as a computer technician in the Brazilian military. That gave him something of a leg up. He taught himself 3D technology with the help of open-source instructions from the web.
Gean Guilherme Santos Lopes earns money with his crypto art that he then uses to support the needy in his community.
Foto: Kristin Bethge
As a child, Santos Lopes often couldn’t go to school because gangs and police were shooting at each other outside. Their bullets sometimes even pierced the walls of the house where he lived with his family. Bullets, machine guns and shattering windows are recurring motifs in his art. Everything is quiet now, Lopes says, “but war could break out here at any moment.”
He boots up his computer and checks the rates of various cryptocurrencies. “Until recently, I had no idea about any of this stuff,” he says. He spent a lot of time at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier this year, he stumbled across the term “crypto art.” He researched it. And he found it hard to believe what he was reading about: non-fungible tokens (NFTs) – essentially digital, protected and limited objects that can be sold for a lot of money. “I thought: Wow! This is my chance to get a piece of the pie,” he says.
As a child, Santos Lopes often couldn’t go to school because gangs and police shot at each other outside. His art is also a way of processing things.
Foto: Kristin Bethge
He began programming digital artwork and making it available for purchase as NFTs. At the same time, he founded the organization Social Crypto Art because he also wanted to do something for the community, where the situation had become even more precarious due to the pandemic. He created an NFT called “Hungry” – a spinning 1 real coin, with a bird feeding its baby a worm on the flipside. Santos Lopes gave the work away for free in exchange for donations, which he used to buy groceries and toiletries for needy people in St. Amaro – and candy for their children. With another 3D painting called “Paulinho’s Shack,” he helped rebuild the crumbling home of a 73-year-old favela resident.
The St. Amaro favela is located in Rio de Janeiro. Many lost their jobs here as a result of the crisis sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
Foto: Kristin Bethge
But even the perfect world has its pitfalls. In gaming, for example, the competition is cut-throat. Chantilly of Afro Games is, naturally, fully aware of that reality. “Of course, we could also offer theater courses here,” he says, “but what is going to happen to people afterwards? What can they do afterwards?”
Not everyone can become a professional gamer or programmer, that’s clear. But he sees it this way: If a young person from the favela were to apply to a hotel, for example, and he or she couldn’t speak English or turn on a computer, that person would end up as hotel porter. “But if someone can say: I can speak English and I know how to use a computer, then that person gets placed in the hotel reception.”
Luiz Augosto, the streamer from the Vigario Geral favela, also didn’t quite make it onto the Afro Games professional team. “But we didn’t want to give up on him,” says Chantilly. “We knew where he would end up.”
Streamer Luiz Augusto didn’t get onto Afro Games’ professional team, but the social enterprise hired him anyway.
He is delighted when Augusto walks into the entrance to Afro Games, wearing ripped jeans, plastic sandals, with deep circles under his eyes.
“How long did you play this time?”
“Until five in the morning,” Augusto says, laughing.
Augusto says he used to be “completely nuts,” hanging out with the wrong crowd. Many of his friends are dead, he says. Some were shot by police because they were involved in selling drugs or simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I don’t like going out anymore,” he says.
Afro Games teaches 100 students either programming or how to play “League of Legends.”
Chantilly ultimately hired him as a steamer, paying him 400 reals a month to play and host for the Afro Games’ channel. Together with the income from the platform, Augusto says he makes around the minimum wage each month. He is even able to provide his mother and grandmother with some financial help.
Earlier, as a 10 or 12-year-old boy, Augusto would sell sweets to motorists in the chic beach districts of Rio de Janeiro, like Copacabana or Ipanema, or he would juggle during red lights at intersections. And he wasn’t always treated well, he says.
He has many reasons, he says, for preferring to spend 15 hours on the web each day.
Luiz Augusto would rather spend 15 hours online than out on the streets.
He is accepted there. He has contact with people from all over the world who see him as being one of them, who take an interest in him, who tease him about a pink mug with Disney princesses on it that he nicked from his seven-year-old cousin. He has created a character in Bigodinho, a cop, but also a good one – one who not only shoots, but who will also talk to people. It’s a world that Augusto can shape. One in which he isn’t just left to drift.
“That’s why I prefer this other world,” he says, with tears welling up in his eyes. “It’s fairer.”