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Black developers speak out on stereotypes in gaming

Yesterday at GDC 2015, professor and game designer Derek Manns and Dennis Mathews of Revelation Interactive Studios held a roundtable discussion on black stereotypes in gaming. Early in the talk, Manns clarified that they wanted to discuss to talk about characters in games, but also stereotypes about black developers and gamers.

Manns also said that it was important for this to be a roundtable rather than a talk, because other people in the industry needed to share their experiences as well.

"Blacks in gaming should not just be about developing positive characters," Manns said, "but also about what can be created by diversity in development."

Manns noted that while the industry has seen some improvement in the last decade in its distribution of demographics, the percentage of black developers has increased a measly .5 percent — from 2 to 2.5 percent of all developers. Those stats come from the IGDA, which Mathews said is the only organization in gaming that is actively gathering analytics on demographics.

"stereotypes tie into publisher decisions of what should be put into games"

Taking over the roundtable, Mathews said that they've held a diversity talk through the IGDA every year. This year's attendance — a very diverse group of around 50 or so —was the largest audience they've ever had.

Mathews said one of the sources of stereotypes in gaming comes early in the process, stemming from the very concept of a "target audience." Developers attempt to pinpoint who will be playing their game and, in doing so, turn to stereotypes, even unknowingly.

"Those stereotypes tie into publisher decisions of what games get picked up and what should be put into games," Mathews said.

As the roundtable opened up to audience participation, they started with stereotypes of what black people play. Manns brought up the notion that black people are primarily interested in sports games, like the Madden and NBA 2K series.

One audience member brought up the fact that the fighting game community is very diverse. Another audience member identifying himself as a developer working on a fighting game revealed that, according to his statistics, some 60 percent of people who play fighting games in the U.S. are African American.

"It's not just about the genre," said one audience participant. "It's about what you get out of it." He went on to say that many African Americans bought RPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age when he worked at GameStop years ago; we just don't hear about it as much because those don't inspire big public events such as fighting game tournaments.

Street Fighter X Tekken Vega Raven screenshot 1280

Another attendee noted that one of the reasons stereotypes in gaming and a lack of black developers may exist is because of early console and PC distribution.

"First iterations of PCs and consoles like the PlayStation were missed in poorer, urban communities," he said. "The developers inspired by those first iterations were white. They're the ones making games now, and it shows in what they create."

Mathews moved the conversation on to the question of what diversity is as a whole. He noted that issues dealing with African Americans are a narrow slice of diversity. "Diversity includes women, transgender, accessibility, disability," he said.

Mathews summed up the biggest reason why diversity is needed in one phrase: "People don't know what they don't know." He explained that often developers who aren't black don't even realize when they're drawing on stereotypes because they don't have any black coworkers to call it out.

"Hiring is done via word of mouth," Mathews said. "It's people you know you work well with, which often means people who are like you, which often means people who are the same race."

"Can you trust yourself to create something about a type of person you're not familiar with?"

For the last portion of the roundtable, the group moved onto a complex discussion of whether developers should try to create characters of other races, genders and cultures if they might not know or understand those races, genders and cultures themselves.

"Can you trust yourself to create something about a type of person you're not familiar with?" one audience participant asked. She conceded that it's possible, but you have to commit to doing the right research.

"You have the ability to create something that's outside your culture," another audience member said. "You just need to understand that it's not your culture. We spend too much time trying to analyze if you're authentic to an experience. Don't be scared of trying something new and getting rejected."

Others argued that said research should include specifically reaching out to and talking to people. "It's not enough that you're researching on the internet," said one participant.

Another audience member shared an anecdote of his experience playing through the first Dead Space, where the main character was wearing a helmet for most of the game. "I wanted Isaac to be black so bad that I just assumed he was until he took off his helmet," he said. "It doesn't change the game, but it would have made it more special to me."

Assassin's Creed Freedom Cry screenshot 1400

Someone else in the audience agreed. He told a story about talking with a major triple-A developer about how much he liked the Freedom Cry downloadable add-on for Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. "But it's just more of the same," the developer said.

"It might have been the exact same game, but it was a completely different game for me," the audience member said. "I was a black guy saving other black guys from slavery."

One audience member pointed to The Walking Dead's Lee as a great black character specifically because he's both African American and an "everyman" character. "Blackness is not a monolith," he said.

Finishing with a discussion on how the industry can better address these issues, Manns said that more opportunities need to be given to black developers, especially by platform operators like Microsoft and Sony.

"Give us a deal for one game," Manns said. "I have plenty of friends in this industry who are black developers and very talented, but I don't have the money to pay them."

"There's no critical mass"

Some members of the crowd seemed hopeful that a "paradigm shift" in the industry is about to happen, especially with recent announcements about so game development engines like Source and Unreal being available for free.

Others were cautious. "There's no critical mass," said one audience participant. "There's no line that says, 'Hey, we're good.' It's a constant gradient. As things grow, you have to keep pushing forward."

Another audience member noted that change needs to start on an individual level, particularly with hiring managers. "If you're a hiring manager, come to events like this, and if someone says something that impresses you, introduce yourself and exchange cards," she said. "You have to realize that you yourself have a bias to hang out with people like you and hire people like you, so you have to actively fight against that bias."

As the roundtable ended, Manns and Mathews highlight Blacks in Gaming, an organization in its first year of existence that is seeking talented people to fill leadership positions. They also promised more panels throughout the week further discussing the issues facing African American portrayals and representation in gaming.