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Fear, Anxiety and Hope: What It Means to Be a Minority in Gaming

By Mihir Zaveri, Meron Tekie Menghistab, Gray Beltran and Alana CeliiOct. 16, 2019

The outline of Davionne Gooden’s new computer game may feel familiar: The main character must defeat villains to reach an ultimate goal.

But woven in are elements that set the game apart. The main character is stuck in a coma, and the villains are nightmares. Players confront issues of anxiety and depression. And, through an all-black cast, Mr. Gooden deliberately features the experiences of people typically absent from mainstream games.

“If you’re a white creator, you rarely think about that,” he said.

Gaming is a multibillion-dollar business, and one that has remained largely white and largely male.

Five years after “Gamergate” exposed the kind of toxicity that can lurk in a community where diverse perspectives are underrepresented, little seems to have changed for minorities and women in the industry. Today, people like Mr. Gooden still confront an industry that infrequently reflects who they are.

“You’ve got to take it one day, one year, one game at a time.”

Davionne Gooden

Creator of She Dreams Elsewhere

Three out of four people working in the gaming industry are men. Almost the same proportion identifies as white. And those numbers have hardly budged since 2015, according to surveys conducted by the nonprofit International Game Developers Association.

“If you’re a young person of color playing games, you don’t really see yourself represented,” said Mitu Khandaker, a professor at New York University’s game center. “That kind of instills in you this sense that maybe I don’t really belong.”

That lack of diversity in mainstream gaming — games made by the handful of large development companies — can be cyclical, turning people away from the industry, said Dr. Khandaker, who is also the chief executive of Glow Up Games, a research and development studio focused on diversity.

Women, for example, are rarely promoted to senior positions or made the heads of studios. Many gamers say toxic harassment online is still an everyday fear.

Some like Mr. Gooden, 21, see signs of hope. He started making games shortly after he got his first laptop in the fifth grade and discovered a game-developing program online. He never stopped. In Mr. Gooden’s role-playing game, She Dreams Elsewhere, the main character, Thalia Sullivan, navigates her own mind, battling nightmares as she tries to eventually figure out how she fell into a coma.

The most recent I.G.D.A. survey found that 81 percent of those in the industry feel that diversity in the workplace is either very important or somewhat important, up from 63 percent in 2015.

And developers have more outlets to get their games in the hands of players, including online platforms like Steam and crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, as well as gaming conferences and festivals.

“I’m an optimist,” Mr. Gooden said. “I hope that things will eventually be better as a whole.”

“I am just one or two steps removed from people who are like exploding in popularity in this very scary way.”


Creator of Robot Slow Dance

When “Gamergate” unfolded in 2014, the world was exposed to the toxic side of gaming. Spurred by a misogynistic post online from a game developer’s ex-boyfriend, mobs online publicly attacked female creators and players in a targeted harassment campaign. Women routinely received rape and death threats.

Dietrich Squinkifer, better known as Squinky, knew many of the victims.

Watching friends being targeted was scary, but not surprising for Squinky, who uses “they” and “them” pronouns. Squinky had tangled with the same culture before.

They began making games in the early 2000s. Squinky’s first job in the industry was with Telltale Games, a company based in San Rafael, Calif., known for The Walking Dead, a zombie apocalypse adventure game.

Squinky, 33, said that as their career progressed, they increasingly tried to advocate a better understanding of race, gender and sexuality in the industry. Colleagues saw Squinky as a troublemaker, and bosses were quick to reprimand.

They burned out of mainstream gaming.

Now, Squinky pursues independent, artistic projects, like Robot Slow Dance. It’s a game in which people use controllers to make two miniature foam and metal robots dance with each other.

“I think that’s part of the reason a lot of my focus in my work has gone more toward more experimentality, installation and performance art, following more of an art world tradition,” Squinky said. “I am to some degree scared of creating something that will get popular enough within the video game world community that it does receive that kind of backlash.”

The game itself is a commentary on social gender norms, which are nonexistent for robots. “They won’t make the same assumptions as humans,” Squinky said.

“I like that it’s a way for me to express myself, and kind of take control of any situation that I’ve had in my life.”

Emma Kidwell

Creator of Half

Emma Kidwell’s father is white. Her mother is Japanese. But growing up in the overwhelmingly white, rural suburb of Walkersville, Md., she felt detached from her Japanese identity.

Making games would help her reconnect.

She became interested in gaming as a child, watching her brothers play games on Xbox and PlayStation. About three years ago in college, Ms. Kidwell tried building games for a narrative design class.

Through games, Ms. Kidwell, 25, found she could tell stories about her personal life. She made one about the awkwardness of buying condoms at a store; she made another about watching her grandmother grapple with dementia.

In January, her grandfather in Japan died, rekindling Ms. Kidwell’s childhood uneasiness about her biracial identity. So she made the interactive, web-based game Half.

The narrative game takes the player through a series of Ms. Kidwell’s memories. She wrote about feelings of wanting to look more Japanese, about how her mother stopped talking to her in Japanese and about how she was mistaken for being Chinese.

“Since then, I haven’t felt the same really weird self-consciousness,” she said.

“I want to show other people, similar to me, that they can create stuff like that – that there’s a space for it.”

Joyce Lin

Creator of Queering Spacetime

In Joyce Lin’s new tabletop card game, players role-play as girls with crushes on each other. One might become Avery, who is Japanese and Scottish and pansexual, or Ioh, a Korean tomboy.

Draw another card, and Avery and Ioh might meet at a gas station at 1 a.m., with one needing a ride.

Together, players craft a date: Will Ioh give Avery a ride? What is the best way the early morning can unfold, based on each character’s personality traits?

Ms. Lin, 21, said the game, Queering Spacetime, is an attempt to put forth a positive representation of queer relationships, often overlooked in games and media.

“Usually, in dating sims, you have to impress a character,” she said, referring to simulation games. “It’s sort of one-sided.”

Ms. Lin, who recently came out, said her game exemplified “the queer form of resistance” — building safe spaces together as a shield against all that is harmful in the world.

“There’s this culture that you’re supposed to be good at gaming. For me, games are not about that.”

Julian Cordero

Julian Cordero, 22, loves soccer but hates its competitive culture. So, when he made a game about the sport, it wasn’t about playing a match.

The game, which he made with his development partner, Sebastián Valbuena, 28, is called Despelote and is set in their hometown, Quito, Ecuador.

In first person, the player kicks a soccer ball around city parks, meeting people along the way.

“Ultimately, the game for us is a game about soccer, but it’s not about the competitive aspect,” Mr. Cordero said. “It’s quite the opposite. It’s about the human aspect, and the relationships that sort of develop through kicking a ball around.”

With Despelote, Mr. Cordero is trying to use soccer to reject the competitiveness of gaming, which he believes engenders the misogyny and consumerism that have been endemic to the culture.

Mr. Cordero wants people to know that he likes making and playing games, but he’s not a gamer.

“I wouldn’t really call myself that,” he said.

“I saw there was a whole thing, a whole scene I had never seen before.”

Aziza Brown

Aziza Brown is proud to call herself a gamer.

Ms. Brown, the founder and chief executive of Dynamik Focus, an e-sports and content creation team, said coverage of the industry erroneously dwelled on toxicity and “Gamergate” when discussing the lack of diversity.

Other, less sinister reasons lurk behind the demographics, she said, and they can be fixed.

Some people of color may be less likely to have access to the expensive, high-speed internet connections necessary to play at a competitive level, she said. There’s also what Ms. Brown called an “information deficit” — not knowing which tournaments or clubs to go to or whom to meet in the community.

Ms. Brown, 39, points to her own experience as representative of how things can change.

Growing up in New York, she played many video games, particularly fighting games like Street Fighter. She played in some tournaments but then went to college at Stony Brook University and studied engineering.

When she returned, she set out to find a robust gaming community: tournaments, clubs, friends.

Through Dynamik Focus, she now tries to help others find their support groups. Ms. Brown was, for example, one of hundreds who attended an annual conference for developers of color in Harlem over the summer.

“I had a talk with a woman in gaming, where I was like, please come to the offline communities, come to other places, because once the anonymous barrier is gone, you can see the person to their face, you can confront them, that behavior stops,” she said.

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