Reflecting on a Year of Stories Told by Black Creators

A year of interviews with Black game developers.
A year of interviews with Black game developers. / Photo by DBLTAP

2020 was a summer of rage. Three high-profile killings of Black people — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd — led to a flood of protests demanding justice. I marched at some of those protests, but it was hard to escape the feeling of helplessness. We could chant for hours, some of us could get maced and arrested, and we could come back to do it all again. But the power to create real change lay elsewhere. I'm a cis, straight, white man. As steeped in privilege as I am, this felt like a failure to meet the moment. (Of course, the ambition to do more than protest is in itself a symptom of privilege, but I digress.)

Because I couldn't directly affect policy changes, I decided to focus on the community I was already a part of: gaming. Black game developers make up just a tiny fraction of the industry, in large part because of both direct and structural discrimination. Black Americans, for example, are more likely to grow up in communities without the resources to learn coding or game design, and may even lack the cash to buy a console and games. Those things aren't cheap. Even those Black designers that force their way into the industry are more often met with suspicion and skepticism, if not outright racism, than praise. Their resumes are ignored, their projects passed over.

It struck me as particularly offensive that, after working harder than anyone else in the industry, they were met so coldly. The least I could do as a journalist in games was to give them some of the attention they deserved. I pitched this series because I wanted to make a space for developers and writers and artists to speak about the issues they faced, and about the projects that animated them. In the best case scenario, those two things would intertwine, but no matter what it would be about listening to Black people and amplifying their voices.

Photo courtesy of Veritable Joy Studios

I started by speaking to three members of the development team working on dating simulator/visual novel ValiDate. In many ways this interview remains unique in the series. It's the only time I spoke to three people on a team at once, which led to a lot of playful banter even as we occasionally addressed pretty serious topics. Dani, the head of Veritable Joy Studios, expressed mixed feelings about all the new attention Black developers and Black-led projects were getting. On the one hand, they were happy for the attention. On the other, it hurt to see it take such horrific violence for that attention to manifest.

"We just got very lucky with our timing and how people seem to care more about Black things, now more than ever," Dani told me.

The game's composer, Kevin, shared similar feelings.

"Yeah, you know, arbitrary disclaimer that it sucks that it took a bunch of compounded tragedies to make people want to take an interest in Black art, but we are not complaining about the spotlight," he said.

Those mixed feelings ran through several of the early interviews, including when I talked to Khalil and Ahmed Abdullah, the brothers behind underwater action adventure Swimsanity!. The two of them were sanguine about the experience, safe in the knowledge that their game deserved this attention and that, if anything, it was overdue. But they were also wary of this newfound attention for Black-made games dying out over time.

"For us, as long as you're not seeing it as a trend and just trying to go with the wave, then we're really supportive of it. And any time we get opportunities to put a spotlight on developers of color and people in the industry, we should," Ahmed said.

"I think people need to make sure that they are continuing to challenge these different companies and entities, that this isn't just a phase. This is making sure that you are paying attention to all avenues of diversity in everything that you do, and not just something you do for a month, because you'll find yourself up on the news or something," Khalil added.

These early interviews were more explicitly political, and more explicitly tied to current events. They also showed not everyone was on the same page in the struggle against police brutality and white supremacy. Eddie Winback, the developer behind combat farmer Cede, expressed reservations about Black Lives Matter as a movement even as he recognized the necessity of the struggle around it.

"It puts us in a super weak spot. Like we are inferior. Like we need to prove something. I don't align with that energy," he said. To Winback, "Black Lives Matter" had become a slogan for people who never followed through in materially supporting Black people.

"There's a difference between someone who talks and someone who acts. You see someone's lifestyle and you know, 'Wow, this person, they actually love Black people.' No one can say they don't; look at what they're doing in their everyday life. And then there's people who, who talk, and talk, and talk, and talk, and talk, but they’re not living what they’re speaking."

As time passed, the immediate urgency of the Black Lives Matter protests burned off, but that summer had permanently changed the dialogue in the U.S. Increasingly my conversations with developers revolved around their personal experiences and their games rather than questions of societal ills — though the topics are more closely linked than one might at first assume.

Photo courtesy of Studio Zevere

As an example: She Dreams Elsewhere, Davionne Gooden's Earthbound-style RPG, is entirely focused on the emotional turmoil of its protagonist, Thalia. Explicit racism never enters the story. But at the same time, Thalia's being a Black woman carries political heft. Not only is it important to have diverse protagonists from a representational standpoint — to show people from marginalized backgrounds that their stories matter — but it's also important to give air to the grounded, everyday stories of those people. When I asked if he felt a pressure to produce art that directly addressed the current political climate, Gooden compared his game to Issa Rae's TV show "Insecure."

"The last season that just came out was coming out as the initial George Floyd protests were going on," he said, "and [Rae] was just thinking like 'Yo, should we even be releasing this right now? Is this even appropriate?' But it was like, no, it really helps to just see the actual, everyday Black experience instead of seeing our pain. It was just nice, and almost therapeutic to see that — just some Black joy, and the everyday of it all. It's definitely a nice change of pace from real life, let me put it that way."

Thalia's Blackness was incidental to her story in the same way that whiteness is treated as incidental in so many mainstream narratives. It's completely unrelated to the drama at hand. Neil "Aerial_Knight" Jones shared similar thoughts about not letting the stereotypes around Black narratives influence his personal vision.

"You want to make a game that represents you," he said. "So all my favorite things consist of rapping, Detroit, and hip-hop music, stuff like that. But the problem comes when there's more than one Black person in a space. Not saying that's the problem, I'm saying, creatively, everybody kind of expects us all to kind of make the same thing. And when we don't make that thing, or [create] in that box that people imagine us to be in, then they see us as pandering to outside forces. Which isn't true. So if I made, you know, a musical game about 'The Book of Mormon' or something like that, people would be like, 'Oh, that's not very Black-centric.' And I would reply with, 'I don't know what that means. I just made something that I like.'"

By this point in the series, community had emerged as a thread winding through nearly every interview I did. With so little structural support, many of these developers had no choice but to look for friends and peers in the space to help build one another up. Jarryd Huntley is the embodiment of that community spirit. He spoke about organizing the Cleveland Game Developers, participating in the Jamaican Game Dev Society, and helping peers and would-be peers alike to make their way in the gaming world — with or without the support of powers that be.

"If these big companies aren't going to do it, there's a lot of us in the industry that have resolved to doing everything we can to help out people who might think the game industry doesn't have a place for them, or people from different backgrounds that might not feel welcome," he said. "I feel some responsibility to helping out where I can, addressing issues and helping come up with solutions where I'm able to, and helping support those who need it."

Huntley said many of these developers keep in touch through peer networks, and though there aren't a ton of Black game developers — around 2% of the industry is Black — many lean on one another for support.

Photo courtesy of Stormy Nights Interactive

Some big companies have pledged to support Black developers with grants and funding, but not all have followed through. One group that has is Humble Bundle, which has put cash behind the games it's chosen to support. Breeze in the Clouds, the 2D action platformer from Stormy Nights Interactive, was selected in that cohort, and studio co-founder SrBilyon Harris told me the fund signaled what he hoped would be lasting change in the industry.

"I went to school for game development and whatnot, and just trying to survive getting through college, and seeing a lot of my peers — my school was predominantly Black, the college — and a lot of folks just couldn't make it through college simply for the financial side of that," he said. 

"That's something that you'll see for finding a project for a game or art and whatnot is like, there are a lot of folks out there who have a passion to be able to do something, but if they don't have the means, or the means are very difficult to acquire, it just halts their ambitions.

I do hope that more funds come out of it. But if not, I would hope that it would at least bring light to being able to see how you can bring opportunities to marginalized folks so that they can create their projects or get into certain industries where there, frankly, are barely any of us in it."

Even as pressure mounts for games companies to embrace diversity, their power brokers frequently resist change because of misunderstandings about how those games will sell. Glow Up Games CXO Latoya Peterson co-founded her company hoping to finally get a handle on the demographics in gaming, and to understand the player base beyond the narrow focus on young white men that has defined games marketing for decades.

"One of the big things too is that, how do you create a product for somebody you don't understand? That you don't know?" she said. "And it's not like that research money isn't going into other things. They spend tons of money on like, focus panels and focus groups. Like, 'Okay, what are young men interested in now? How are we doing on Twitch? What are the things you stream, what are the things you're watching?'

"We just think everybody should get that same treatment. 'Are you playing? Maybe we should know who you are, too.'"

In Peterson's view, the better we understand who plays games, the more clearly we can show those executives in charge of what goes on in the industry that diverse stories and creators aren't just a fad, or a charity case. They're what a huge and growing portion of the game-playing public wants — maybe even needs.

Photo courtesy of Taco Pizza Cat Games

For every one of these success stories there are hundreds of cases where promising Black creators fall out of the industry through pressures both direct and indirect. Many of the people I've interviewed have experienced the subtle racism of the off-color joke, and many more have fought through the structural racism of income inequality. Tristan Barona, the developer behind RPG Don't Give Up: A Cynical Tale and the upcoming deckbuilder KindFolx, had struggled and scraped through his entire game dev career before Humble Bundle picked his game to receive funding.

But it wasn't just about the funding. Being chosen was a tangible sign that he and his work belonged, in games and in the world.

When he got the word from Humble, he said, "It was like, is this really happening? Am I really going to get to work on a game on someone else's dime because they've seen my work and believe in it?"

Barona and I talked about why he made games, and he told me he couldn't help it. Even without the money that would make it easy, his passion pushed him to keep creating because it gave him a chance to leave a mark on the world, and to join a meaningful history.

"People will always remember Mario, and Zelda, and Nintendo, and Pong and Atari," he said. "That's just technological history. So I think it's amazing to be a part of that even if I'm not in the spotlight."

Things are slowly changing in the games industry. Diversity initiatives are sprouting, and some are flourishing. Diverse stories are becoming more and more common both within the mainstream and without, and Barona and his peers are already part of gaming's rich history. Hopefully, it won't be much longer until they've claimed the spotlight, too.