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Gaming while black: Casual racism to cautious optimism

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NPR's Planet Money reported last year on a culture shift in 1984 that drove many women away from pursuing computer science degrees. Computers were more readily available at stores that catered to men and advertisements pushed the narrative that these new-fangled home devices were made for men. Pop culture followed suit, depicting men as computer geeks in movies, books and journalism.

One thing that Planet Money found notable about computer ads in the 1980s was that they featured "just men, all men." Another aspect the ads shared was that they overwhelmingly starred a specific type of man: white.



Information about race in the gaming industry is hard to come by. The Entertainment Software Association doesn't address race in its Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry report, though it offers a fellowship program designed to encourage minority students to get involved in gaming. Most reputable diversity studies hinge on the breakdown of men and women in gaming, a hot issue in the current conversation – and a relevant one, considering the ESA estimates that women compose 48 percent of the consumer gaming market.

There is less conversation about the racial diversity – or homogeny – of game developers. The IGDA offers one of the most relevant summaries of race and ethnicity in gaming with the IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey 2014, which collected responses from 2,202 developers worldwide between March 17 and April 28.

The IGDA found that 79 percent of respondents identified as white, while 2.5 percent identified as black. From a diversity standpoint, these numbers are better than the 2005 results, which found 83 percent of respondents identified as white and 2 percent identified as black. In nine years, the number of black developers in the gaming industry rose by just .5 percentage points. Compared to the numbers for women developers – 11.5 percent in 2005 and 22 percent in 2014 – this growth is particularly insubstantial.

"The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices," Treachery in Beatdown City developer Shawn Alexander Allen told me. "We don't see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators. I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible."


Allen handled publishing aspects, marketing and minor game development duties at Rockstar Games from 2007 to 2012. He now owns his own studio, Nuchallenger, where he writes and designs. Nuchallenger's About section includes the following line: "The goal is to eventually build into a company that can help train, employ and empower those who do not have voices in the games industry."

Allen is biracial, black and white. He said he'd never experienced "outright harassment," but he described scenes from his time in the industry that contained elements of harassment, or at least subtle forms of racism. Last year at E3, for example, someone asked him, "What are you?"

"I have been the victim of disparaging remarks about my racial heritage, I've had to check numerous people for overuse of racial slurs even in context of them being relevant toward cutscenes in games, and I have heard of terrible interactions between higher-ups and other people where there was clearly race-driven lack of respect," he said. "I don't feel safe diving in too specifically for fear of reprisal from these abusers, should they stumble on this article, because the abuses are very specific instances from very specific people."

The stories Allen could tell probably wouldn't surprise Dr. Kishonna Gray. Dr. Gray is an Assistant Professor at Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies, and the founder and director of EKU's Critical Gaming Lab, a hub for researching the immersive online environments within console gaming. She studies gaming and harassment from the player's point of view.

"Most gamers of color have isolated themselves into private parties, private chats, or just don't engage verbally at all," Dr. Gray said. "And that's sad because they can't take full advantage of the gaming experience that they paid for. So what's happening is a virtual ghettoization of minority gamers. [...] Because a person's identity is automatically revealed when a person speaks, they are targeted. I call it linguistic profiling. As soon as someone hears how you sound, they engage in this practice. They hear how you sound and react based on that. So a lot of black gamers are called derogatory terms because of how they sound. They don't have to do anything but sound black."

Developer Dain Saint has directly experienced at least one instance of linguistic profiling while gaming. Saint's parents emigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1980s, and he's now co-founder of Auditorium studio Cipher Prime and a driving force behind the independent development scene in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I asked him if he felt there were issues of racial inequality in the gaming industry.

"I'd love to say no, but the frequency with which I'm called a nigger by people while playing Counter-Strike begs to differ," he said. "It's worth noting that every slur thrown out on voice chat – 'nigger,' 'faggot,' 'pussy,' 'dyke' – is really code for 'different', in the same way that 'relatable' when spoken by a marketer is shorthand for 'straight, white and male.' But I don't think it's unique to the game industry at all. The racial issues we deal with are endemic in our society; just so happens the gaming industry is a part of society as well."

Dr. Gray's research agrees with that last bit.

"Gaming culture is a direct reflection of our society," she said. "The only reason racism and sexism run rampant in gaming is because racism and sexism run rampant in society. But in physical spaces, mostly, it's not overt. It's subtle. It's covert. So, yes, these issues manifest in a similar manner in gaming, but I contend that they present themselves worse. It's not subtle. It's in-your-face racism. A black person may not be called a nigger to their face, but they can almost guarantee it will happen in virtuality."

These virtual worlds tend to reflect the white male majority found in their development and audience, meaning representation of black characters in games is also anemic. A 2002 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56 percent of human characters depicted in games were white, and 22 percent were black – but 87 percent of all human heroes in games were white. The seven top-selling games specifically designed for children starred only white human characters, the report read. A separate study from University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams in 2011 studied 150 games across all platforms and ratings, and found that 10.7 percent of characters were black, though they were mainly athletes and gangsters.

In Joystiq's own Top 10 of 2014 list, none of the default, box-art characters are black – except maybe Shovel Knight and the Dragon Age: Inquisition cover character, both of whom are wrapped in full-body armor. One of Valiant Hearts' four human protagonists is black, though he's not featured in the box art, and both Sunset Overdrive and Dragon Age: Inquisition feature robust character customization options.

"The issues facing black players are the same issues that have been facing black people for decades – misrepresentation, stereotyping and latent prejudice," Saint said. "When Jason Richardson won Philly Geek of the Year, he talked about the fact that black nerds are often introduced as 'the whitest black dude I know' – as if it was impossible to be both black and nerdy (no disrespect to Weird Al). So I think there's this kind of unspoken rule that once you're 'accepted' into nerddom, the experiences that led you there become irrelevant. That kind of whitewashing prevents a lot of black stories from being told, and it's hard for the community at large to pay attention to issues they aren't even aware of."

The IGDA's 2014 report asked respondents, "Do you feel there is equal treatment and opportunity for all in the game industry?" Just 28 percent of responding developers selected "Yes." Forty-seven percent said, "No," the game industry did not offer developers equal treatment and opportunity. The IGDA notes that one black developer "was shocked that a colleague used the 'N' word at work without repercussions."

"There's a sort of polite silence with regard to dealing with anything even remotely related to racial representation and hiring practices that might change the complexion of video games' pool of professionals," said Evan Narcisse, a reporter at Kotaku and previous contributor to Time. "People seem to think that Racism with a capital 'R' is this big problem that they can't offer any solutions to, partially because they're afraid of screwing up in public. That's the most benign sort of neglect. The more troubling kind is when apathy and inaction comes as a result of someone somewhere deciding that creating or recruiting black faces for their game or business isn't enough of a money-making proposition."

The low number of black developers in gaming might make sense if the market for video games was equally skewed, but it isn't. In 2008, the Pew Research Internet Project reported that 51 percent of black, non-Hispanic Americans played video games, the same ratio as reported for white, non-Hispanic Americans. In 2011, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that black players between the ages of 8 and 18 played games for 30 minutes longer than their white counterparts. The interest is there.

"Isolation and exclusion are the biggest issues facing black players and developers," Dr. Gray said. "It's a weird phenomenon. Women and racial minorities, particularly blacks, constitute a huge portion of consumers of video games. But the gaming industry doesn't reflect that. The fact that the gaming industry (developers) is predominately white (secondarily Asian) and male is problematic. They aren't doing a bad job. I buy these games. I play them all the time. But could they be better? Absolutely."

Tale of Tales co-founder Auriea Harvey's newest game, Sunset, stars a black woman in a fictional South American city in 1972 – a mix of protagonist, environment and era not often seen in mainstream games. Including things from the fringe is part of Harvey's and studio co-founder Michael Samyn's game-design aesthetic. One of the founding principles of Tale of Tales was to create something for players that felt there wasn't any content out there for them – even though Harvey, a black woman, said that she'd never experienced racially charged harassment as a developer or player.

Some players have reacted with hostility toward Tale of Tales' game designs over the years, Harvey said. Including only women or a black child in a game in the 2000s was sometimes viewed as "odd," it seemed. Harvey said that the confused, aggressive reactions to diverse casts of The Path and The Graveyard freaked her out more than anything.

Not that Tale of Tales' aesthetic has changed because of these reactions. Sunset is partly an homage to real-world people who have struggled with racism, Harvey said, citing Nina Simone and Angela Davis – "intelligent women who felt racism in their daily lives."

"Just because I sit here and say I haven't felt overt racism or harassment doesn't mean I don't know what it is and that I haven't experienced it elsewhere in my life, or that my mother didn't grow up in a world where there were colored drinking fountains," Harvey said. "This is stuff that happened and stuff that we think is relevant still today, on a lot of levels. And I think many people are very aware of this, a lot of gamers are very aware of this stuff in their daily lives. Games are a way of processing, a way of playing through an experience that is maybe more intense than you've ever felt it – you're sort of living in that avatar's skin. I guess, in a way, we're trying to put them in a skin they're maybe not used to, or maybe they would be interested to inhabit."

Sunset raised $67,636 on Kickstarter, $40,000 over its goal, so the interest might indeed be there.

Harvey found an outlet to tackle issues of representation head-on, but many black developers and players I spoke to for this piece commented on the resistance they regularly encountered regarding conversations about race in gaming. Freelance gaming and media writer Sidney Fussell summarized the pushback as follows:

"I've been writing about blackness and games for about two years now and a huge majority of the negative feedback I get boils down to this: Race doesn't belong in video games. White commenters tell me racism in games isn't a problem. Only attention-starved reverse racists, dragging it up for clicks from white-guilt-addled gamers, still want to talk about racism. This is the burden of being a black gamer: I love games, but if I want to talk about them critically, my motives are questioned, my social ties are strained and suddenly I'm a member of the 'PC Police' who wants to go around ruining everyone's fun."

Fussell continued, "I know that there's a space for black gamers who don't want to write and research extensively about blackness in games. And that's cool. Not everyone needs to be Langston Hughes. But what is it about the intersection of race and videogames – similarly, gender and videogames, etc. – that threatens these gamers?"

On the flip side, Fussell said that some people tokenized black or brown voices, seeking input from non-white people only at certain times. "In gaming culture, social evolution is only a concern when it fits neatly into the marketing schedule," he said.

When asked what one thing he would change in the industry, Saint echoed Fussell's thoughts on tokenization: "I would love to not be needed to comment on the status of black players and developers in games. I don't know the last white guy that was asked his opinion on how his race is portrayed in games or treated in the industry, and if he was, I certainly don't know anyone that'd listen to him as The Representative. To be seen as an individual, instead of a member of The Other – that's what I'd change."

Dr. Gray's list of things to change in the industry was far longer than one item – "Seriously? One thing? OMG." – but she offered a thought experiment for the wider gaming fan.

"What I would urge for the gaming industry to do is to put on a different hat for a day," she said. "Imagine yourself as a woman or a person of color, or a woman of color. What do the games look like from that lens? Stereotypical. Sexist. Misogynist. Racist. Limited. Singular. I feel like they have adopted a template of what sells and just continue to replicate that. And that's a shame. In a medium where the options are limitless, they continue to restrict themselves to the same old narrative.

"I do know that indie games are challenging this. Seeing some of the games that are being produced outside of AAA is refreshing. This is the reason we need to diversify the industry. Other perspectives are cool. Different people bring different things to the table. And the industry should want to diversify. But I think privileged bodies see the word 'diversify' and automatically think that something will be taken from them. Entitlement culture. Some of them don't want to share the pie."

Auriea Harvey said that she sees the industry moving forward in a positive way, in terms of diversity. Last year, Harvey gave the keynote address at IndieCade and mentioned that she believed she was the first black person, especially the first black woman, to give a keynote at any gaming conference.

"I think that everyone's sick of yelling at each other now," Harvey said. She continued, "Let's just keep going. I think that everybody wants to keep going. I don't see the industry as a whole sitting there, sticking to their guns, saying, 'We did this on purpose. This is how it's always going to be.' I think that everyone is doing their best right now. We can hope for a lot more, but at the same time, I am cautiously optimistic."
[Images: Tale of Tales, Take-Two, Double Fine]

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