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Black game developers: Diversity push is lots of talk, little progress

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I first learned about Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, one of Silicon Valley’s greatest gaming pioneers, a few years ago. Back in the 1970s, he and his team ushered in one of the earliest versions of consoles that utilized game cartridges — the same technology Nintendo would find infinitely more success producing for its debut home video game console a decade later.

Lawson’s cartridge technology revolutionized the gaming industry despite his console’s commercial failure, with many gamers celebrating his legacy as one of Silicon Valley’s few Black engineers at the time. His life’s work has often been cited as evidence that times have changed for the better for people of color in tech and gaming. However, despite strides that have opened doors for other gamers and creators of color, the industry still faces significant disparity with regard to representation.

The International Game Developers Association, the nonprofit whose annual and semiannual reports provide snapshots of the industry’s demographics, reported in 2005 that just 2 percent of their respondents identified as Black. The 2021 report showed, 16 years later, that number has only grown to 4 percent. The issue isn’t isolated to games, either; the technology sector has long been criticized for its continued lack of diversity despite ample lip service to inclusion initiatives.

The conversation about diversity reached a critical peak during the summer of 2020, when video game studios, publishers and content creators rallied behind the justice movement for George Floyd after he was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. The incident, captured on video, sparked debates and policy changes, and turned the spotlight toward conversations that had been brewing for decades.

As the trends and hashtags swelled, so too did the calls for action from protesters, activists and even consumers. Gamers took to social media to highlight how pervasive hostile and racist sentiments still exist in the video game industry — evidence of the vestiges of GamerGate and other damaging inflection points that transformed to match the times.

From 2020: Video game companies vow to fight racism in their communities, but offer few details

Since then, conversations about greater accountability in games haven’t stopped despite waning public attention. Developers and creators of color are still seeking support on a level commensurate with the gestures of solidarity expressed over a year ago. Gamers, industry veterans and indie developers of color have continually called for sustainable solutions to address disparities in the field, this push cresting whenever the exhausting cycle renews: Tragedy strikes, a sudden surge of promises and commitments follow, little to no progress ensues, then silence falls once more.

On the flip side, some Black developers say the open dialogue has substantially strengthened their bond with colleagues. Others note an added sense of visibility that’s equipped everyone involved in these conversations with the necessary language to vocalize concerns and better work toward solutions. Morgan Gray, executive producer at developer Crystal Dynamics, has been making games for two decades and said the industry has transformed drastically in that time.

“One of the great things about the gaming industry is that, by and large, everyone making games also plays them,” he said in an email interview. “This creates a bond among us as we all have something culturally in common there.”

For Gray, the overlap comes in the form of geek and nerd culture colliding, drawing on the interests of folks from various walks of life and allowing them to engage in genuine conversations about their favorite art.

“That isn’t to say we can’t use more people represented in game development, but it is to say that the youth of this industry, and shared common touchpoints, have certainly made it a better place to be than some traditional industries,” he said.

In the world of gaming and content creation, however, increased visibility often comes with heavy costs for members of various marginalized communities, such as battling online trolls, shouldering the responsibility of reflecting authentic Black experiences in their work and reckoning with Black trauma.

In August, Twitch content creators from marginalized backgrounds pushed for reform, begging the streaming platform to take a stand against the influx of “hate raids” plaguing their communities. The hashtag #TwitchDoBetter became the rallying cry for women, people of color and queer people on the platform beset by coordinated campaigns from online trolls. On Sept. 1, Twitch members organized #ADayOffTwitch to stand in solidarity with those targeted.

Neil “Aerial Knight” Jones, an indie developer whose penchant for stylish 3-D art comes alive in his current project “Never Yield,” said one of the challenges he’s faced is accessing a space where people genuinely listen to his concerns as a developer of color.

“One of the hardest things to deal with is talking about the real struggles Black game developers have, knowing that people are going to dismiss you,” he explained. Jones referenced instances where he was essentially told to “be better.” However, when visiting the portfolio of the 3-D artist from Detroit, it’s clear “better” is all he has done.

What comes as doubly frustrating for Jones is that when these issues are brought to light, they inadvertently court trolls that dogpile on the conversation. Jones has written for VICE, Polygon, PC Magazine and dozens of other high-profile media outlets, but his features don’t always garner a warm reception.

“I did an interview once and the comments on the article were mostly just people saying that I made my story up to sell my game,” Jones said.

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Sadly, these stories of content creators facing bigotry online aren’t new, and speak to the larger conversation around diversity’s place in the industry. In a 2022 Games Developer Conference survey, nearly a quarter of developers said their studios had not focused any resources on diversity or inclusion initiatives within the last year. Relegating these initiatives to the sidelines can have lasting repercussions, signaling not only to other developers but to consumers who play their games that they shouldn’t be concerned about this lack of representation. Game development and consumption are not isolated from one another. Ignoring issues around representation in one part of the gaming ecosystem, be it developers or consumers, can reverberate to the other. And if a game ends up becoming a hit, Gray explained, that damage is amplified tenfold.

“When good games that are actually fun to play slip up, that can be an issue,” he said. “And generally, it’s because someone didn’t follow the adage ‘write what you know,’ and either tried to represent something they didn’t have familiarity with, or just copy-pasted some surface-level crap from other bad choices others have made.”

That practice of “writing what you know” is a necessary part of the conversation on representation, because developers of color still find themselves out of the writers room of studios leading the charge.

“Marvel’s Avengers” narrative consultant and “Rise of the Black Panther” author Evan Narcisse recalled how during a recording session for a project focusing on characters from marginalized communities, he said voice actors got choked up as their characters were engaging in dialogue about their lived experiences as people of color. That’s the result writers like Narcisse want — that the words land and a deeper sense of humanity comes through. However, shouldering the responsibility for that kind of engagement is hard work when you’re one of the few writers of color in the room.

“I get on as a consultant for most of my video game projects, which means I don’t have hiring power and I’m not in a position of creative control,” he explained. “I can make other people aware of what it’s like to experience things from my perspective but I’m not in that room in a permanent way.”

In these instances, Narcisse said he’s a “ronin” in the classic sense, a drifter. His search for permanence highlights the range of experiences creators of color in the video game industry navigate. It echoes the same concerns of other developers seeking more sustainable support that goes beyond public statements and corporate promises.

Without a support system on the inside — one that acts as the connective tissue for new and veteran creators — the likelihood that these same communities will receive financial support dwindles. Pointing to the lack of funding for underrepresented projects and developers, Derrick Fields, associate professor at Northwestern University and developer of the indie strategy game “Onsen Master,” called it a particularly vexing experience. Reliably, public support for marginalized communities surges only after a violent tragedy or blatant injustice, but results in no significant reform.

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“Studios only showing support during Black History Month or changing social media icons for a day has already shown itself to be performative, in most cases,” Fields said over Twitter. “Other spaces have begun to do the work by supporting creators of color with jobs, resources, or funding, but it needs to be reflected in AAA spaces as well.”

Black indie developers became the centerpiece for many games media outlets following Floyd’s murder in an effort to draw more attention to their work. Fields noted the upward trend, and hopes the move toward greater representation in the industry finds sustainable momentum.

“I’m in a place now where I’ve been able to connect with others who are interested in building the same type of experiences — ones that include new stories, gameplay and, of course, representation,” Fields said. That network of creators of color supporting one another has been long-standing, with Discord servers and online groups founded well before the inflection point of summer 2020 but are still in need of support.

Since the onset of the pandemic, video game conferences and trade events have been relegated online, but that hasn’t stopped young gamers from doing what Crystal Dynamics executive Gray did at the start of his career. He was adamant about connecting with other developers of color at these events, introducing himself and engaging in conversation that would help establish more than just rapport but a lasting connection, and this networking has remained a priority throughout his two decades in the industry.

“When I was starting out, I made a point to talk to people about what they did and how they got into gaming. I was a sponge,” said Gray, describing how he broke into the industry. “People generally like to talk about what they are into, so the response was always positive. I also made a point to network at industry events like GDC or PAX.”

Even when studios support diversity and inclusion initiatives, there’s the question of how to best address issues that White developers don’t regularly face, such as the drain of trying to bring authentic Black experiences to games and the associated trauma of that process. Other creators in the industry, like Narcisse, highlighted the struggle of doing your job in the face of Black trauma, as was the case with the murder of Trayvon Martin back in 2012.

“I was at my desk at Kotaku one day at work and Ta-Nehisi Coates had done an interview with [Trayvon’s] mother and I had read it and was just sitting at my desk emotional, and a co-worker had asked what was wrong — it was just hard to absorb,” Narcisse said in a Zoom interview.

George Floyd’s America: Examining systemic racism and racial injustice in the post-civil rights era

Black trauma captured on video is a cornerstone of secondhand Black trauma, experienced by those bombarded by images of people of color brutalized in different spaces. For Narcisse, complications arise when creators and game designers must shift gears and get back to working on projects premised on Black characters and characters from marginalized communities. The responsibility weighs heavy.

“It’s never too far from my mind,” he said. “You want to do right by the communities you come from and also the ones that you know have been pushed to the margins.”

Still, there are those in the industry who feel that institutional standards have become increasingly entrenched and unquestioned, cultivated further by gamers, developers and the industry at large with little accountability. Veterans, like Crystal Dynamics’s Gray, provide a nourishing hope, though: That change is certainly going to come for independent creators, gamers from the margins and drifters who occupy the intersectional and nuanced spaces in between.

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