Why you should care
Women of color are building a network of support organizations to help aspiring gamers reach new heights.
Michelle Martin was a Zelda and Donkey Kong girl growing up in a Nintendo household, her parents the type to set the kids down with snacks and toys and then sneak to the living room to play video games all weekend. It wasn’t until later that the 33-year-old African American woman realized her childhood was uncommon. “I don’t think I knew anyone else who had parents who gamed,” the Baltimore County native says. Now, she’s working to make sure the next generation doesn’t feel that way.
Black women are among the least represented demographic in the $135 billion global gaming industry. They suffer from a double disadvantage — of race and gender. Only 1 percent of gaming industry professionals identify as African or African American, according to the latest International Game Developers Association Satisfaction Survey. Women of any race make up only 27 percent of the industry. It’s little surprise, then, that none of the world’s 20 top-earning female gamers are Black. But an emerging generation of millennial women of color is now beginning to carve out space for others like themselves. They’re building a network of support organizations that never existed before, aimed at facilitating, encouraging and training aspiring female gamers of color to reach new heights in the industry.
Thumbstick Mafia, formed in 2015, and Brown Girl Gamer Code, in 2017, have brought women together in popular streaming channels and forums (the former also has a podcast). INeedDiverseGames, a digital and social media platform promoting diversity in the gaming industry, launched in 2016 and has nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter and 1,000 followers on Twitch, the largest live-streaming platform for gamers. On Patreon, 365 patrons are together donating $1,900 monthly to keep the project going. Pastel PXLS, started in July of last year, features female gamers of color on Instagram and Twitter, with a special emphasis on anime. Meanwhile, Black Girl Gamers — launched in 2016 — hosts in-person events where aspiring female gamers can share experiences and undergo training sessions. It now has 4,700 members from across the world on Twitch.
We’re seeing a paradigm shift of what a gamer is.
Tanya DePass, founder, #INeedDiverseGames
These platforms are building on what used to be isolated efforts, such as Sugar Gamers, founded by Chicago-based gamer and entrepreneur Keisha Howard in 2009. It started off as a community for women, but quickly sharpened its focus on minority gamers, as Howard realized there was a huge gap in people of color seeing their stories reflected in the medium.
“There is all this talent and passion for this space, but not enough opportunity,” she recalls thinking. “And why shouldn’t there be, in this multibillion-dollar industry?”
The intimate talks, obligatory #VR experiences, projection mapping exhibits and random kittens... #VRTO might have been the perfect event for my extreme curiosity and introvert sensibilities! @VRToronto #VRTO2019 pic.twitter.com/d15WB7Jg01— Keisha Howard (@sugargamer) June 4, 2019
It’s not that Black female gamers haven’t been around — they have. But now they’re ready to snatch the space they’ve previously been denied. “Women of color, Black women, have always been here,” says Tanya DePass, the 46-year-old founder of INeedDiverseGames. Now, “we’re seeing a paradigm shift of what a gamer is.”
When Howard started Sugar Gamers, the goal wasn’t just to be a fun club or a safe space, “so we can all vent about the injustices facing our marginalized communities,” she says. Howard wanted to build a platform for Midwest gamers in an industry that centers around New York or Los Angeles. “Our community is hyperlocal. We have an open house every month. It’s a little bit more offline,” she says. Soon, she realized that if women of color wanted to be taken seriously, they couldn’t wait for others to build a more diverse world: They would have to create it.
With the hashtag motto #CreateNotComplain, Sugar Gamers started ProjectViolacea, a platform that lets users create their own stories, designing characters they identify with and plots that speak to their hopes and concerns. The game is mostly analog right now — a “biopunk, tabletop role-playing game,” Howard says, in a future where people have traded freedom for security. Players must decide whether to rebel, an act that could bring back free choice but would also reintroduce chaos to humanity. The idea was to create a game around modern anxieties, rather than “a Dungeons & Dragons game where people are orcs and elves,” Howard says.
Others are preparing the industry’s next generation of women of color — not just in playing games but in developing them. A part-time game developer herself, Martin and other streamers recently started Project Zero, teaching their followers to build games on the code-editing tool Unreal Engine. The games are simplistic for now. But with time, they hope to create games that show the financial potential for different genres catered to new audiences — and prove that women of color should make up more of the industry. “If we can build games and make money from it, then maybe somebody else will have to change,” Martin says.
— Black Girl Gamers (@blackgirlgamers) June 29, 2019
Charting a new course is tough in an industry where only games “where you murder people nonstop” seem to count, as DePass puts it (consider that at least five of the top 10 streamed games on Twitch in June are shooters). The major gaming platforms often appear tone-deaf. Last summer, Twitch shut down its Communities section because “they weren’t being used,” despite groups like Black Girl Gamers and the Cookout serving as important gathering places for people of color. The feature was replaced with a hashtag grouping system that meant minority gamers couldn’t filter out unwelcome guests. Black women deal with rampant racist and sexist comments merely by signing in.
Being a Black woman, Howard often sees her credentials questioned despite working in the industry for a decade. “There is power in diversity. But nobody gives a fuck unless I can substantiate it in a million different ways,” she says. So she started working in augmented and virtual reality gaming. “It’s a lot more motivating to work in a space that is so new rather than try to crack a space that has operated the same way for the last 40 years,” she says. For Howard and others like her, waiting another 40 years for change isn’t an option.