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Behind the Movement to Create More Black Video Game Characters

Thirteen-year-old Edward Leonard of Bloomfield, Conn., 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 represented onscreen. “I think a lot of game studios don’t think about making a Black protagonist,” he said. “But Black people do play video games. A lot of us do. So they should show us in them.”

Latoya Peterson understands that sentiment all too well. She founded a creative game studio, Glow Up Games, with the game designer Mitu Khandaker in order to provide a platform where underrepresented audiences can see themselves in the games they play.

Glow Up Games built a game experience around the hit HBO show “Insecure,” and its star, Issa Rae, was a consultant on the game’s creation. Despite the show’s success, the game was still a hard sell because it features a Black woman as a main character, Ms. Peterson said. “The popular understanding in the games industry was that, if you came from a games company and you had a good pitch deck, you could just raise money. But we realized really quickly that was not how it was going to be for us.”

“We were told there was no data to justify it,” Ms. Peterson said, regarding gamers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. “They told us they don’t know how many BIPOC people are playing, particularly 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 anything concerning your life, and it’s demoralizing. I really hated that process.”

The video game “Insecure” is based on Issa Rae’s television show of the same name.Credit…Glow Up Games

African Americans made up 14 percent of the population in 2018, according to Nielsen, which measures audience analytics. But 73 percent of African Americans ages 13 and older identified as gamers, compared with 66 percent of the total population, the company said. In addition, 90 percent of African Americans lived in a household that owns a smartphone.

From a psychological perspective, the assertions that a video game featuring a Black main character can’t sell are unfounded, according to Katryna Starks, a media psychologist and game design teacher.

“In my research, I had participants 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 were no negative connotations with regard to the characters’ races.”

Representation becomes even more crucial when children start playing video games, Dr. Starks added. Relationships with characters in video games have a social cognitive impact on gamers and can strengthen a sense of identity and social support.

“The absence of Black characters in games is a very serious problem,” Dr. Starks said. “Black kids aren’t seeing themselves as the heroes, they aren’t seeing themselves solving the problems and wearing the capes. We deserve to feel that these gaming worlds were made for us to be in, 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 percent of professionals in the gaming industry are Black, a recent report found.

Neil Jones is one of those gaming professionals. For many Black developers, Mr. Jones said, the networks leveraged by their white counterparts keep them out of major game studio roles.

“I was giving up on the game industry because I really couldn’t find an opportunity,” Mr. Jones said. “I spent almost 10 years applying for jobs. The game industry has historically had a type, and I didn’t fit the mold of what they thought a game developer looked like. So I decided to make a game on my own.”

When Mr. Jones secured a publisher and released his game, “Never Yield,” he credited the Black gaming community for helping to create an opportunity for him by supporting his work. “There are so many Black gaming groups who look out for Black folks in the industry. They always supported me and rallied around me, and it made me feel like the game could be something.”

A.M. Darke, an assistant professor of digital arts and new media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, argues that the lack of Black voices in the industry has led to what she describes as the commoditization of Blackness in virtual spaces.

“I was working on a virtual reality project, and because I wasn’t a 3-D modeler myself, I was using a character creator,” Professor Darke said. She began looking for hairstyles in various 3-D marketplaces, and she soon realized that searches for “Black hair” were not garnering positive results.

“I realized that 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?” In crafting her search terms around this framework, Professor Darke received results full of offensive and stereotyped images.

This experience led Professor Darke to start The Open Source Afro Hair Library, a 3-D model database for Black hair styles and textures. Her fellowship provided funds for Black artists to submit a variety of Black hairstyles, which helps shape representations of Blackness for any game designer who wants to use them.

The gap in representation reflects the way white studio executives perceive what it is to be Black, Professor Darke said.

The industry needs to not only hire Black professionals, but also to address workplace hostility in order to retain them, said Shana T Bryant, a senior producer and 19-year gaming industry veteran.

“We’re getting more Black folks — though still very small numbers — into the front of the recruiting funnels who are getting hired,” she said. “But they’re also falling out of the funnel at some point very early on in their careers.”

“The same workplace hostility 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.,” Ms. Bryant added. “So much of success in tech is built on inclusion, and when access is withheld, it results in further marginalization and eventual departure from the industry altogether.”

It will also take some time to see the impact of 2020’s racial justice protests, she said: “A high-budget, quality game takes five to seven years to develop.”

“We may not see that reflected in the game industry for some time,” Ms. Bryant said.

One immediate way to remove barriers for Black industry professionals and gamers is to make gaming conferences more inclusive, Ms. Bryant suggested. Top power brokers in the industry attend major conferences and share vital information about building a career in games. However, most conferences can cost thousands of dollars to attend. Many participants are funded by their employers, which can put Black industry professionals who are not linked to a major studio at a further disadvantage.

“​​I play a game when I go to the Game Developers Conference every year: I count up the number of Black women I see there,” Ms. Bryant said. “It’s still very low. I’ve been counting since 2007, and I’m just hoping for the year where 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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