Everyone from the police to lawmakers and even academic researchers have tried and failed to find a way to reduce the negative impacts sideshows have in Oakland. The unruly crowds, screeching noise from burning tires, and the increasing presence of weapons at these events have made them difficult to tame. 

But a group of young people from the East Bay have used their imagination to consider a different solution: What if sideshows were a legal spectator sport? 

Four years ago, developers from the Oakland-based Gameheads training and mentorship program decided to do just that, making a game about sideshows that honors Oakland’s rebel culture, is fun to play, but doesn’t run afoul of the law.

“We knew it was a very taboo idea,” said Daryn Cook, one of the game’s developers. “But we weren’t supporting the idea through the game of going out there and doing [a sideshow] yourself.”

The HighSidin’ game imagines what a legal sideshow could look like in real life. Players perform driving stunts inside a giant circular barrier that protects spectators and the general public from the careening cars. The more complicated the spiraling patterns a player can drive, the higher their score. The game has a bass-heavy soundtrack reminiscent of East Bay hyphy artists like E-40. Each match is part of an imagined National Sideshow League, putting the activity on the same level as NASCAR or Formula 1 racing.

“HighSidin’” is slang. It can mean showing off by skidding and burning rubber in a fast car. “High Siding” is also the technical term for when a motorcycle or car wheel loses traction and flips over to regain its balance, creating a dangerous situation for drivers and anyone around them. 

The game was released in 2019 on the independent game site Itch.io, which allowed people to pay what they wanted for it. Many chose to support the project with a donation. 

While it hasn’t gained a huge following, the HighSidin’ game is important in the way that it addresses sideshows as a nuanced phenomenon instead of simply a public nuisance. Many Oaklanders feel that sideshows are important culturally, especially in Black and Latino communities. Sideshows, after all, began in the 1980s in deep East Oakland as gatherings of Black and brown youth showing off their cars, socializing, and eventually pulling off some stunts in a parking lot to entertain each other. Others have traced them back to the Chicano Lowrider scene that spread to East Oakland in the 1970s, especially around San Antonio Park and East 14th Street, where young people congregated to show off their rides and spend time with each other.

Finding pride and culture in a controversial event

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Darryn Cook was part of a group of seven people during the Gameheads cohort in 2019 that came up with HighSidin’. An East Oakland native who went to Washington High School in Fremont, Cook said one of their goals was to make something that represented their life experience and culture. The game’s first iteration placed a sideshow next to an Oakland highway, in the middle of a Fourth of July party, with fireworks from the Oakland Coliseum and other East Oakland neighborhoods. 

“There are not a lot of references to the Bay Area in video games [outside] of the Golden Gate Bridge,” Cook said. 

Trevor Cardoza, another developer, said the cultural notes in the game and its sequel, Hyphy Edition, were inspired by games like Friday Night Funkin’, a rapping game, and the Tony Hawk skateboard series, which features virtual versions of real-life skate parks. There are other culturally significant aspects from Oakland reflected in HighSidin’ and Hyphy Edition, like snippets of dialogue from spectators you might hear at a real sideshow like, “Do your thang!”

“A lot of other games that try to be culturally significant, at least from my perspective, don’t do it well,” Cardoza told us. The 24-year-old grew up in Richmond and currently attends a computer development graduate degree program in Boston.

Cardoza said he found out about Gameheads at a college dance six years ago. He was studying marine biology then but seeing other people who looked like him in the games industry made him realize he could have a totally different career. 

“I played video games but had no real interest in making them until I joined the program,” Cardozo said. “I saw the sense of community. I was like, ‘Wow, it actually can happen. You can just go and make games.’ It seemed so farfetched to me initially.”

Cook heard about the program from an Uber driver who was also a teacher.

“I’ve always been a big fan of games. I’ve always been the kid to like, stay up late and play video games all the time, so it was always just a natural thing to get into the industry,” he said. 

Cook, also 24, said he had friends growing up who had expressed a desire to experience the exhilaration of driving fast and turning wheelies without wanting to get in trouble. 

“We wish we could go to the tracks but there’s no local tracks besides Sonoma or out in Sacramento,” he said. The “tracks” are references to the Sonoma and Sacramento raceways, which host professional motorsports events. “And even then, they restrict to what you can do up there,” he said. 

Sideshows have become chaotic and sometimes violent in recent years. But some feel they forge a sense of community between participants and are a passionate outgrowth of youth culture, including a healthy sense of rebelliousness. 

For example, Oakland filmmaker and musician Boots Riley incorporated a sideshow at the beginning of his recent Amazon Prime series I’m a Virgo as a way to exemplify the main character’s emotional, joyous release from his confined life inside a house his whole life.

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Cook said he’s always been interested in taking on controversial subjects. One of his first games, Paradox Pairings, was inspired by his experience inside social media comment sections, where people say outlandish and offensive things to get a rise out of others. That game forced people playing it to consider how extreme statements can lead to intolerance. 

“For me, [game development] is about identity and about representation,” Cook said. “The people who live here or who are the consumers of games need to have a voice in them. And that’s what kept me inside Gameheads—the ability to find like-minded people.”

The makers of HighSidin’ recently expanded their vision for representation with the release of the next version of the game, about Oakland-style competitive street dancing. 

In HighSidin’: Hyphy Edition, players choose dance combinations to score points, including East Bay dance staples such as the Smeeze and the Thizzle. The game is a music rhythm challenge in the style of Guitar Hero, where players smash a button to hit a note. 

Hyphy Edition was an opportunity for the developers to learn how to incorporate different types of technology into the game. For example, animations of the dancers were made by videotaping real dancers, creating a rotoscoping animation of the moves, and adding those animations into a timing mechanism that gives players points when they’re executed in tune with the beat.

Inspiring and supporting local black and brown game makers

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HighSidin’ and its sequel wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Gameheads non-profit training and mentorship program. 

Started by Damon Packwood to help people from low-income and underrepresented communities of color get into the gaming industry, the program works with 15-to-25-year-olds to learn about art, writing, programming, and game theory. 

Each Fall, Gameheads accepts applications from students and there is no experience with programming or game design necessary. The only requirement is, according to Cardoza, “grit and the willingness to learn.” 

“We’re not exactly looking for people who know what they’re doing,” Cardoza said. “We want people who understand that this is a legitimate career path and is something that can be taken seriously.”

There is no cost to participate in the program once you are accepted. Gameheads often provides students with materials to get started including laptops and monitors. 

Gameheads game-makers are encouraged to participate in career development opportunities, such as the recent California 100 Youth Futures Summit in Sacramento, CA. Source: Gameheads YouTube page

Classes usually take place on the weekends to accommodate students in school or who work part-time. Training often takes up to 5-8 hours a day. 

“Everybody in the program has the ability to provide input on what they like or don’t, including other ideas,” Darryn Cook said. 

Gameheads eventually connects the budding developers to funders to help them continue to build their games.

In the summer, the program gets more intense, with participants working on their games together at least four times a week. 

Various Gameheads games, including Hyphy Edition, have received funding from companies like Humble Bundle. 

As an independent game distributor, Humble Bundle, has also partnered with Gameheads to release some of its games. The bundle has gained notoriety for being part of an inexpensive gaming package that offers freelance game developers who usually don’t have the ability to publish to big platforms the opportunity to make a little money. Humble Bundle is also known for donating game profits to charities such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation

Three years ago, the Humble parent company created a fund specifically to help Black game developers. 

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Last week, Gameheads completed its ninth development cycle with 17 different projects, each usually consisting of about 5-8 developers designing, coding, and testing games. Hundreds of people participated in the event at the group’s Jack London Square studio and through a live YouTube stream. Cardozo and Cook said this year’s batch of projects were ingenious and fun. One was a kitchen simulator game that used a waffle maker as a controller.

“We had food trucks, performances, it was a whole block party. It was pretty great. And it’s a culmination of everything that people have been working on, training for, and building for a long time,” Cardoza said.

Many overlapping circular tire burn marks on a road between two yellow lines.
Skidmarks are a common sight all over Oakland’s roads, a sign of the thousands of sideshows that happen each year. Credit: Florence Middleton

In an Oaklandside investigation earlier this year, we found that in the last three years, more than 2,000 sideshows were reported at 712 intersections all over the city. Many people in Oakland are fed up with them, especially those who live near intersections where they constantly occur. 

We reached out to people most impacted by sideshows about what they thought about the HighSidin’ game. Most said they understood that for many who attend them, it is an outlet for excitement where more constructive and safer avenues do not exist. They also said they understand they have connections to culture, especially through music, that could be celebrated. However, many believed the premise of the game is impossible in reality. 

Ryan Lester, who saw many sideshows when he lived in East Oakland, told The Oaklandside that while he is a proponent of ideas that help with harm reduction, there is “no way” an insurance company would provide coverage for legal sideshows featuring “untrained drivers attempt dangerous stunts in front of large crowds.” He also said it would be financially unfeasible for people who want to do this at race tracks

“Sonoma Raceway has open track days that cost $600 per driver per day,” Lester said. “The driver must have a valid competition license and a car that is compliant with certain track racing safety standards. Also, regular car insurance doesn’t cover tracks, so in addition to the event and venue insurance that would have to be secured, drivers would have to take out supplemental insurance for themselves and their cars.”

Such an event would also probably force drivers to pay for further safety modifications like roll cages, fire extinguishers, and fire-resistant clothing and materials.  

“Most of the thrill of participating in a sideshow is the fact that it’s illicit, it’s underground, it’s dangerous,” Lester said. 

The developers of HighSidin’ told us they still think real-life legal sideshows could be made into a safe recreational activity. 

Cook said that while a legal version would be more restricted, there are other sports like BMX that incorporate the constant presence of danger into the development of real skill. 

In the meantime, the developers’ work on the game has allowed them to get opportunities they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to have. Cook worked for industry giant Ubisoft in San Francisco in an internship last year and Cardoza is already working at Crystal Dynamics while he finishes up his graduate program. Both expect to have a long career in the industry.

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.