On a bright Saturday at IndieCade in Culver City, game developer Shawn Alexander Allen's panel on race and video games began with a shift that would highlight his own points about discussing race and the games industry.
Originally titled "Let's Do Something About It: A Discussion About Race in Game Development," Allen and his co-panelists shifted to a ground-up discussion of race and racism's presence in video games. Allen is formerly of Rockstar Games and most recently founder of Nuchallenger
, the label for his game Treachery in Beatdown City
Allen called out the institutional nature of racism, and explained how not opening up your social or professional circles can contribute to institutional racism. For Allen, the discussion at IndieCade and beyond had to be more than just "action for the future," and instead trace how far racism extends into the lives of game developers.
It starts with isolation
For developers like Catt Small, an indie developer and UX designer at Soundcloud, it’s an experience that begins with isolation. "Being from New York I've had a lot of opportunities to be around a lot of diverse people, and then I started working in technology, and I realized that... I was the only black woman that was actually in a technical role, which was kind of terrifying."
Being at Soundcloud, Smalls wondered why her own company couldn't reflect the diversity she grew up with, even with its focus on hiring people from all over the world.
"Being from New York I've had a lot of opportunities to be around a lot of diverse people, and then I started working in technology, and I realized that... I was the only black woman that was actually in a technical role, which was kind of terrifying."
It's a sentiment echoed by Ashley Alicea
, a Puerto Rican designer who realized the power of eliminating that isolation could change the shape of game development in her home country.
"So I decided to go to Puerto Rico to visit my family, and while I was there I decided to check out the IGDA," she said. "When I went, there was a small group of developers, around 10, and that was super-amazing for me to see because I was so used to being the only Puerto Rican in anything I did in games." Staying in Puerto Rico to help the local IGDA chapter grow, Alicea was able to connect developers from her country with other developer from across the globe, and saw how their presence began to help unite isolated Hispanic developers across the Americas.
Support shaping change
For TJ Thomas, the indie developer behind Joylancer
, the tools game developers use also have an impact on diversity.
As a self-taught developer, Thomas sees how standard industry tools impacts low-income developers from minority backgrounds. When Unity didn't have 2D support, he and other developers who didn't have a 3D background were stonewalled by traditional developers when they went looking for support.
But as he and game designer Fatima Zenine Villanueva
discussed, this can be solved by creating support networks and safe spaces for people with less experience to fail and experiment. "Code Liberation
is great because they supported women," said Villanueva, "and they created a safe space, and if you have a space, you don't have to worry about being judged because you don't know how to code, or being pressured about not knowing something."
As the discussion shifted to organizations that support different forms of diversity, writer Latoya Peterson
began exploring the interlocking ways that different forms of structural oppression impact marginalized developers. Discussing Georgia Institute of Technology assistant professor Betsy DiSalvo's research
, she pointed out that stating African-American players favored consoles as a matter of racial culture was a mistake, because that assumption doesn't factor in the concept of class, and how cheap console gaming is to other forms of gaming. Allen pointed out that in games and tech, discussions of diversity will still happen with a panel full of caucasians.
"It's not even particularly a games situation, it's not even a tech situation, it's just cultural in general. And to tackle the issue in games, you need to tackle the issue in general."
"We have so few people of color in games," said Allen. "We need to bring those people in, and people who are in, they need to start rewiring their brain. They need to start realizing that. It's not even particularly a games situation, it's not even a tech situation, it's just cultural in general. And to tackle the issue in games, you need to tackle the issue in general.”
Villanueva agreed. "We need to avoid generalization in diversity, we can't just say 'this is diversity,' and there's only one part of diversity. When the word diversity presents itself, I ask 'What kind of diversity?' The solution to keep diversity from trampling one another is to recognize each form of diversity and work for progress."
After discussing the extended ways these forms of oppression manifest themselves, from college expenses to the legions of private institutions deciding who works in what media, Allen began moving toward the kind of solutions to racism in gaming. One fact was clear -- there isn't a silver bullet, but there are many paths.
"Curating safe spaces is important," he said. "If you make an event that's smaller, and if you say you’re trying to include X people, it’s not excluding anyone, you’re just going to see more people. If you just say it’s open to everyone, like PAX, all the tickets go to white dudes with beards who just want to play Warhammer 40K
for a week.”
The second suggestion was to recognize that diversity was first and foremost about talent. "The power of diversity is important for their talents, not just their diverse voices," Allen said. "There are these fallacies that [active diversification] lets lazy people in. These people have talents...[but they] don’t even feel they should apply [for certain jobs] because someone from a big corporation school will get the job."
And finally, as Peterson pointed out, there is the opportunity in games themselves to create narratives that show that diverse stories exist. "There was this game, Age of Empires
, and there was an expansion pack called Age of Conquerors
," Peterson said. "And so one of the things I liked about Age of Empires
, that I didn't get from history books, that I didn't get from documentaries, was that you could actually play both sides of a conflict. So I could play Spanish Conquistadors or I could play as Tenochtitlan. And going to museums, or looking at artifacts, is not the same thing as trying to figure out how to keep Conquistadors out of your [stuff]. And I feel like games have the potential of showing that there are other narratives.”