African Americans and the video game industry
Friday 11 April 2008 - 11:41:24
A 2005 video game industry demographics survey by the International Game Developers Association found that only 2% of game developers across all disciplines are black. Contrast that with the national demographics of the countries that participated in the survey (Australia, Canada, United States, and United Kingdom) who have a combined 9% black population (aggregated from each country's population and demographics data on Wikipedia).

Nielsen Entertainment also did a study on the demographics of video game players in 2005 and found that African Americans are spending more money to purchase games and more time to play them compared to your average gamer.

So why the disparity when it comes to developers in the industry?

This week MTV's Multiplayer blog has a lengthy and fascinating look into the world of black professionals working in the video game industry. The five-part series interviewed several black game industry professionals to get their first-hand experiences and opinions on the state of race in the industry.

Some highlights from the series are after the jump.

Full blog series at MTV's Multiplayer

Day 1: N'Gai Croal (General Technology Editor at Newsweek)

On possible parallels between the music and game industry:
[The music industry] was an industry that was born from creating something from nothing. In neighborhoods where arts education programs were getting gutted and neighborhoods that were blighted, you had people who said, “With two turntables and a microphone I can make a difference, I can make the world listen.” You built an entire movement. I mean, there’s hip-hop in Cuba, there’s hip-hop in Poland, there’s hip-hop in the Soviet Union; there are people all around who are moved by that. And so you say to yourself, if more black people had access to the means of production in video games, if more women had access to the means of production in video games, if more anyone — what would you see?


On the character Cole Train from Gears of War:
That wasn’t the only way the character could have been portrayed in that situation — when you sort of think of a movie like Die Hard and the character of Theo, the geeky, smart, caustic guy who gets knocked out at the end. I’m not saying that’s what “Gears of War” should have had; I’m saying people don’t realize how colonized their minds are by stereotypes.


On stereotypes in games:
Games are capable of more than people are doing with them. I think that’s what they have to look to and say, “How much longer are we going to rely on the bald space marine? Or how much longer are we going to rely on the Elven female warrior whose armor barely covers her breasts? Is that all we can do with this medium or is there more that can be done?” I think some people just don’t push themselves hard enough.

I think the audience isn’t demanding much change. They like the games they’re playing. They’re by and large comfortable with the amounts of stereotypes in their games.


On making gamers aware of stereotypes in games:
I think a lot of audiences, a lot of gamers, are happy with the games they play. I think there’s a kind of defensiveness seen from gamers when they feel their hobby, their pastime, is being attacked.


On the Resident Evil 5 trailer:
I looked at the “Resident Evil 5″ trailer and I was like, “Wow, clearly no one black worked on this game.”... The point isn’t that you can’t have black zombies. There was a lot of imagery in that trailer that dovetailed with classic racist imagery.

The perspective of the trailer is not even someone who’s coming to help the people. It’s like they’re all dangerous; they all need to be killed. It’s not even like one cute African — or Haitian or Caribbean — child could be saved. They’re all dangerous men, women and children. They all have to be killed.

The portrayal of Africa, or the Caribbean, since we don’t know where it’s being set, as sort of this dark, dangerous continent filled with people who only want to do you harm goes back a long, long way. And based on the images put up on the trailer, what else are you supposed to take from it? Especially if you’re not familiar with the franchise?

The point is not that Capcom can’t or shouldn’t make a zombie game set in what appears to be an impoverished country where the majority of residents are black. I’m not saying that. But what I am saying is that if I was Capcom, I wouldn’t have suggested to put out that trailer. I would have said, “You know what, this has tremendous capacity for being misunderstood."

This imagery has a history. It has a history and you can’t pretend otherwise. That imagery still has a history that has to be engaged, that has to be understood.


Day 2: Morgan Gray (Senior Producer at Crystal Dynamics)

On teaching kids a path into the game industry:
I just don’t think the information is getting out there, probably specifically to the black youth in terms of what can be done. Or like, “Hey, you know you frickin’ love ‘Soul Calibur.’ You know how that this algebra stuff that you hate now in class applies to you working on cool games like this?”


On the diversity of video game characters:
I am sick of playing the average white dude character. I’m just done with it. And I’m sick of playing a black stereotype. “Crackdown” made me smile. He’s a cop. I mean, he’s all future urban but he’s a cop and he’s black, and even though you can select from like 16 different characters they picked the black dude as their one [to represent the game]. He never talked, he never had a real characterization to him, so I was like “thumbs up.” But as a player I want to have more experiences other than the futuristic super soldier white guy to the unlikely hero white guy.


On customization of player avatars:
Yeah, if there’s zero fictional impact, why not? Why not as a default, why not as an option? And I’m not knocking Valve. Because they have a black scientist and his biracial daughter. That’s another thing — we need to see more biracial stuff. I have to give props to “Bioshock” for its little hidden gem at the end of that. It made me spit out my coffee playing the game in the morning. I called my wife into the room and said, “Look, it’s us!” [laughs] But yeah, from a player’s standpoint, I’d like to see more options. I would like to have more chance for expression. Like “Mass Effect,” I was Morgan Shepard, one of a couple million Shepards that existed. It was cool that I got to make him a little brown.

I think what bugs people is when “I can’t find an avatar” or “I’m being presented an avatar that I can’t relate to.”


On the importance of having diverse game developers:
It broadens the information pool at the developers’ disposal, and I think it ends up as a better end product especially since we’re not in a place like Hollywood where we can do a lot of focus tests because generally, we can’t focus test until our game is in decent shape. At which point publishers generally want to rip it from our hands and put it on the shelf.


On the character Cole Train from Gears of War:
They go really far to do a lot of fictional justifications for this culture that they’ve built, and they go right back to this urban stereotype for the black character. I’m not knocking Epic; the game was fun and gorgeous. But it’s just a lack of thought, right? All it does is reinforce dumb stereotypes and it sort of reinforces casual racism.

Once you say you’re in the future and you’re in this alien world, is this really how this person is going to talk? When can we have the black guy that walks on to the screen that doesn’t sound like the black guy?


On the portrayal of African American characters in video games:
So “GTA III,” — a Mafioso stereotype with a huge amount of cinema fiction to support that. It’s sort of a cultural joke. We all know that Italians aren’t like that but we know Mafioso gangsters are. Do we remove race from it? No, they’re just gangsters. “Vice City” is just ’80s “Miami Vice.” So even with the Cubanos and Latinos we know all Cubanos aren’t like that. “San Andreas” gets scary because it’s basically what people think black people are.

So far ”San Andreas” is the only “Grand Theft Auto” that I didn’t beat because if I have to hear one more N-word drop out of someone’s mouth knowing it was penned by a bunch of white cats — I’m like I’m done here. I can’t play this; I’m feeling filthy.


On the Resident Evil 5 trailer:
Yeah! Absolutely not racist. Zombies in Haiti? Hmm. I think they’re gonna be brown. If we were going to do a zombie game in China: wow, a lot of Chinese zombies. I think it’s just the “Here’s the bunch of people that are primitive,” which is actually the elephant in the room, and the racist perceptions. … But it takes place in Haiti, home of the zombie, right? No one complained — where was the outcry for the poor Spanish villagers in “Resident Evil 4“? I don’t really see it on this one. I think Cole Train bothers me more.


On black characters in Japanese games:
Their take on black folks in games has generally been poor. It’s either been here’s this ’70s pimp, here’s ultra hip-hop dude, or here’s a straight-up thug. F---ing Barret in “Final Fantasy VII” — they put a gun on the guy’s arm. It’s just like, “Yeah, black guy with built-in gun.” Okay, that’s really, really weird. So it’s generally been s--- characterizations that are way racist or way just hokey racist.

And there’s like zero, zero black women in these games. I don’t know how black people breed in these worlds, but I’m assuming they’d be getting progressively lighter over time because there’s no black women there.


On other ways of putting race in games:
Robert Heinlein did something with “Starship Troopers” — the book, don’t talk about the movie — but the book, it was genius. So you read this whole book and you read this whole story. You go with this character from high school to boot camp to wars. You get this character, you fall in love. In the last three pages, he says one line that made me completely re-evaluate the book and value the book even more. He said, “It’s nice to speak in my native Tagalog.” And I’m like, “This dude is Filipino?” He just didn’t make a big deal out of it. I just assumed it was a white guy in the future. And that kind of thing, can we not make a big deal about it? And games still seem to make a big deal out of it.


Day 3: Brian Jackson (Creative Design Director at Nerjyzed Entertainment)

On the vision of Nerjyzed Entertainment:
[The founders] really wanted to bring to the forefront some of the things that we do differently that don’t necessarily include selling drugs or shooting people or anything like that. One thing we want to do is make sure that every game or every product that we put out has some sort of edu-tainment value. We want to make sure that we provide positive role models and positive content for the urban community.


On the reason for making Black College Football: The Xperience:
The Historically Black College/University experience is actually an experience. It’s more than just a game because [for HBCUs], the halftime show is just as relevant as the game itself. What we noticed was that there was never a game that encompassed more than just the teams. There was never a game that had the teams, the halftime show and the overall experience that you could get when you go to the Bayou Classic or the Florida Classic.


On why African Americans play games, but don't enter the industry:
We found out that kids didn’t know that you could have a career in video games. They play the games all day, but it never dawned on them that there were companies that pay people to play video games all day.


On the numbers of African Americans currently in the industry:
There’s very few African-Americans in the industry. You could tell from the roundtable that we were at. Microsoft actually has a “blacks in gaming” event every year at GDC, and I’ll say there was probably between 30 and 50 people there.


On the visibility of African Americans in the game industry:
If you pick up a video game magazine like Game Developer — which a lot of African-Americans don’t read — if you look at the pictures and they show post-mortems of the development companies that they feature in there, there’s not that many African-Americans that you’ll see. So you’ll never even think, “Wow I can do that, too.”


On the portrayal of African American characters in games:
The younger generation, if all they constantly see is minorities being portrayed in that role, that’s all they’re going to know. That’s why I have a problem with it. If there are games that show minorities in a positive light and if there are games that are in not such a positive light, as long as there’s a balance, I’m okay with that.


Day 4: Felice Standifer (Producer at Sony Computer Entertainment of America)

On gender issues vs. race issues in the game industry:
I would say gender [has affected my career] more so than race. I think sometimes [people] aren’t sure if you really play games or if you really know what you’re doing. So I wouldn’t say race, I would say gender because you still run into those kinds of people that can be surprised or “What kind of games do you play?”


On why there are so few African Americans in the game industry:
I think it’s not encouraged because you still have people who think that it’s not a real job. I think a lot of people don’t know how to get into the industry and don’t look at all the different areas in the game industry that you could work in.


On the importance of having diverse game developers:
There are cases where people are not necessarily trying to be offensive, but they’re pulling their ideas from their own knowledge and that does not necessarily mean it’s always correct. And so sometimes it’s good to have those second eyes or those other opinions or just someone to say, “Hey you may not realize it, but that could be offensive to this particular race or culture.”


On the success of controversial games:
You have to ask who’s actually purchasing the game. Why is it so successful? Because if you’re purchasing it, and it’s selling, it gives the people making the game a feeling that it’s okay because people are buying this game.


On the negative portrayal of African American characters in games:
With every race there are negative aspects and there are positives. But I would not take a stand to point out every negative about [a particular race]. And I don’t think those games have issues just with race, there’s killing to prostitution, etcetera. And I have heard people say it shows America in a bad light as a whole.


On gearing games towards African Americans:
I don’t think games should be geared necessarily towards African-Americans because once again you could isolate another audience. It’s just if you’re going to see representation of African-Americans you try to do it in the best light.


Day 5: Shana Bryant (Manager of Compliance QA at Midway San Diego)

On race being a challenge in achieving her career goals:
In college [Computer Science] courses, I was typically one of maybe four black students, and I was certainly the only black female. In the industry, the makeup is pretty much the same. It’s intimidating at times. I’m one of a handful, but I don’t let these things hold me back.


On advice for coping with those challenges:
When people say I can’t do something, I do my best to prove them wrong, especially when their biases are based on silly things like color or gender. And that’s the same advice I’d give to others. There’s no “coping” in this industry. It’s competitive by nature, and you really have to love it if you are to truly thrive.


On counting the number of black women at GDC:
The grand total was six, including myself, and I hear that [the Game Developers Conference] had an attendance of over 18,000 this year.


On the lack of African Americans in the game industry:
I think a lot of folks are just now starting to see it as a career choice. Young people are starting to realize that game development is something you can make a real living at. It’s not like running off to join the circus. There are curriculums that are centered specifically around it, and the industry is looking for talent above all else.


On the importance of having diverse game developers:
I constantly see article after article about how the games industry is starting to run into the same problem as the movie industry – making the same thing year after year. We need a new influx of talent and creativity to help us create that new genre or capture a new audience.


On the portrayal of African American characters in games:
I think the lack of diversity in game design/development teams is pretty apparent when you consider the way in which black people are typically featured. If and when we do appear, we are often uniformly portrayed as acting a certain way or speaking a certain way. There’s typically some criminal element in the game’s storyline, or they’re just over-the-top obnoxious characters. Oh, and they’ve probably had an arm sawed off and replaced with a gun.


On inclusive game design:
It’s something as simple as including ethnic characteristics in a character creation engine instead of just offering a palette swap or allowing someone to create a female player in a sports title. In a lot of cases, there’s very little overhead, and the payoff is noticeable... Game companies don’t always have to actively target a particular demographic; they just have to be aware that that group is also part of their consumer base during design and development.



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