by Jes­si­ca Con­ditt |

Casu­al racism to cau­tious optimism

angelaNPR’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.”

gta5-3Allen 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.”

boxart+halfThese 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.”

sunset-newheaderTale 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.”

BrokenAge1Dr. 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.”