Behind the Movement to Create More Black Video Game Characters
Edward Leonard, 13, of Bloomfield, Connecticut, has a message for the video game industry: “I would like to see more black leads.”
Edward has been playing video games since he was 4 years old and rarely sees himself portrayed on screen. “I think a lot of game studios don’t think about making a black protagonist,” he said. “But black people play video games. Many of us do. So they should show us in them.
Latoya Peterson understands this feeling all too well. She founded a creative games studio, Glow Up Games, with game designer Mitu Khandaker to provide a platform where underrepresented audiences can see themselves in the games they play.
Glow Up Games built a gaming experience around the hit HBO show “Insecure,” and its star, Issa Rae, was a consultant for the game’s creation. Despite the show’s success, the game was still challenging for sale because it features a black woman as the main character, Ms Peterson said. “The popular understanding in the games industry was that if you came from a game company and you had a good pitch deck, you could just fundraise. was not how it was going to happen for us.
“We were told there was no data to back it up,” Ms Peterson said, regarding Black, Indigenous and Colored players. “They told us they don’t know how many BIPOC people are playing, especially how many black women are playing.
“Nobody cared,” Ms Peterson continued. “Funding is the hardest part. You spend so much time justifying your existence to people who have no idea about your life, and it’s demoralizing. I really hated this process.
African Americans made up 14% of the population in 2018, according to Nielsen, which measures audience analytics. But 73% of African Americans ages 13 and older identified themselves as gamers, compared to 66% of the overall population, the company said. Additionally, 90% of African Americans lived in a household that owns a smartphone.
From a psychological standpoint, claims that a video game featuring a black lead character can’t sell are baseless, according to Katryna Starks, a media psychologist and game design teacher.
“In my research, I asked participants to play various games, one with a white female protagonist and one with a black female protagonist, and the results were very similar,” Dr. Starks said. “People cared about the adventure in the game, and there was no negative connotation when it came to the races of the characters.”
Representation becomes even more crucial when children start playing video games, Dr. Starks added. Relationships with video game characters have a cognitive social impact on gamers and can reinforce a sense of identity and social support.
“The absence of black characters in games is a very serious problem,” Dr. Starks said. “Black kids don’t see themselves as heroes, they don’t see themselves solving problems and wearing the capes. We deserve to feel that these game worlds were made for us too and that we belong there.
In addition to a lack of funding, black creators in the gaming industry also face an overwhelming lack of opportunity. The video game industry in the United States generates more than 428,000 jobs nationwide, according to a leading trade association. But only 2% of gaming industry professionals are black, according to a recent report.
Neil Jones is one such gaming professional. For many black developers, Jones said, networks operated by their white counterparts keep them out of major game studio roles.
“I was quitting the gaming industry because I really couldn’t find an opportunity,” Jones said. “I spent almost 10 years applying for jobs. The game industry has always had a type, and I didn’t fit the mold of what they thought a game developer looked like. So I decided to create a game by myself.
When Mr Jones found a publisher and released his game, ‘Never Yield’, he thanked the black gaming community for helping to create an opportunity for him by supporting his work. “There are so many black gaming groups looking for black people in the industry. They always supported me and rallied around me, and it made me feel like the game could be something.
AM Darke, assistant professor of digital arts and new media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says the lack of black voices in the industry has led to what she describes as the trivialization of blackness in virtual spaces.
“I was working on a VR project, and since I wasn’t a 3D modeler myself, I was using a character designer,” Professor Darke said. She started looking for hairstyles in various 3D marketplaces and soon realized that searches for “black hair” did not yield positive results.
“I realized I had to figure out how a non-black person would think of me,” she said. “What search terms would make a black body visible to them?” Crafting her search terms around this framework, Professor Darke received results filled with offensive and stereotypical images.
This experience led Professor Darke to begin The Afro Hair Open Source Library, a 3D model database for black hair styles and textures. Its scholarship has provided funds for black artists to submit a variety of black hairstyles, which helps shape depictions of blackness for any game designer who wants to use them.
The representation gap reflects how white studio executives perceive what it’s like to be black, Professor Darke said.
The industry must not only hire black professionals, but also fight workplace hostility in order to retain them, said Shana T Bryant, a senior producer and 19-year game industry veteran.
“We’re attracting more black people — albeit still in very small numbers — to the front of the recruiting funnels who are being hired,” she said. “But they also come out of the funnel at some point very early in their careers.”
“The same hostility in the workplace that pushes black professionals out of the tech career pipeline also serves to push us out of adjacent spaces, such as professional conferences, networking events, social calendars, etc.,” a added Ms. Bryant. “Much of success in technology is about inclusion, and when access is denied, it leads to further marginalization and eventual exit from the industry.”
It will also take some time to see the impact of the 2020 racial justice protests, she said: “A quality big-budget game takes five to seven years to develop.”
“We may not see that in the gaming industry for a while,” Ms. Bryant said.
An immediate way to remove barriers for black professionals and gamers in the industry is to make gaming conferences more inclusive, Bryant suggested. The best power brokers in the industry attend major conferences and share vital information on building a career in games. However, most conferences can cost thousands of dollars to attend. Many participants are funded by their employers, which may further disadvantage black industry professionals who are not tied to a major studio.
“I play a game when I go to the Game Developers Conference every year: I count the number of black women I see there,” Ms. Bryant said. “It’s still very low. I’ve been counting since 2007, and I just hope the year there are so many that I lose count.
J. Nailah Avery writes about black history, culture, and travel. She is currently working on her first book.
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