When he was growing up, Daniel Wilkins didn't go out much. He spent a lot of time at home, indoors and playing video games.
For a budding game developer, that's not such an unusual story. There are plenty of origin tales in gaming about young enthusiasts secluding themselves away from suburban sunshine and sports teams, to battle aliens and best beasties.
But Wilkins had other reasons to stay indoors.
Wilkins grew up in various Detroit neighborhoods, which he describes as being beset by lack of opportunity, poverty and crime. Now he — along with his creative partner and friend Neil Jones — are writing a game about their experiences.
"I stayed in Highland Park for about 10 years, very deep inside of Detroit," says Wilkins. "It’s a very dangerous neighborhood. But I tried to stay away from all the gang violence. It’s hard doing that. It’s affected the way I see things in the world today."
What's noteworthy about the game isn't merely that it's tackling the experience of growing up in a tough neighborhood. It's also seeking to celebrate the particular African-American culture its designers grew up with.
Video game makers (overwhelmingly white) often depict African-Americans in stereotypes, as muscular combat sidekicks, comic relief or criminals. But Clique is about living in modern America, and being black.
Wilkins has a bachelor’s degree in game production. He works as a manager in a GameStop. Jones also has a bachelor's degree in game design and worked with Warren Spector at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy in Texas. He currently works in a restaurant.
Both have tried to get jobs at game studios, without success. So they've launched their own development house called Dead Art Games and are working on their first game, Clique.
A Kickstarter campaign is currently underway, seeking $35,000, with the money going toward hiring extra help to get the game done. But Clique will go ahead, whether it reaches its target or not.
Clique is split into two sections. The first is a top-down fantasy exploration world in which a black alien character interacts with other alien characters, of different colors. The other characters treat the protagonist with suspicion. In a clear metaphor, the player must win the non-black characters over in order to progress.
"I feel like African-Americans are excluded from different experiences based on our skin color," says Wilkins. "The stereotype is the gangster type of person, doing violence and showing off.
"We wanted to design the character in a way where he feels alienated by all these groups around him. He wants to show people that he’s not the stereotype they’ve imagined him to be."
In the game, NPCs carry a negative perception of the main character before they ever meet. The onus is on the central character to change others' prejudices and errors.
"There are incidents that happen that personify the character in a bad way, incidents that he personally had no part in," says Wilkins. "All these different groups already have their perception of the character. When you enter these different worlds you’re trying to show these people that you aren’t what they think you are, what they’ve represented you to be."
These tasks include usual role-playing mechanics such as fetch quests, puzzles, mini games and dungeons. Only by turning around the perceptions of the NPCs, can the hero gain enough power to progress.
"As African-Americans, the team at Dead Art Games wanted to show our struggle in the world of today," says Wilkins. "Being judged by the color of our skin, we find ourselves going the extra mile just to prove that we are the same as the next person. That we just want to be accepted without prejudice."
The fantasy part of the game deals with the idea of racism and prejudice in general terms, as well as the injustice of constant negative perceptions. But there's also a a first-person non-fantasy section that tackles the developers' personal experiences of growing up.
This section of the game features a young woman who is seeking escape from the limits of her life, stuck in a depressed neighborhood. It's a story mode with dialog trees.
"She received this [fantasy] game for her birthday from her brother, and she’s trying to ignore all of her problems around her, like her neighborhood," says Wilkins. "She just wants to stay in her room and play the game."
"She lives in an area similar to Detroit where we grew up," he adds. "We wanted to show people the things that we saw growing up, through her eyes. We lived in Detroit for so long that I feel we can give a better representation of what we’ve seen in our day-to-day lives.
"I tried to stay away from the outside world through video games. I tried to stay inside and ignore those things. We wanted to represent that in a more dramatized way, through her."
"The girl in the game has no powers. She isn't really special in any way, but when playing her game she feels powerful," says Jones. "I had a really rough and lonely childhood as many black kids growing up in Detroit did. This character represents a lot of that. That fact that she escapes into her games and tries to ignore her problems is really close to me."
Another game currently in development, We Are Chicago, is also trying to tell a story of growing up in a violent neighborhood, through Telltale-style choose-your-own-adventure mechanics.
But there are very few games that bother to address individual African-American stories and experiences, or that place African-Americans in significant roles. This is a reflection of the tiny numbers of black creatives and leaders working in games. The game industry's racial breakdown is overwhelmingly white (76%) followed by East Asian (9%) according to the International Game Developers Association.
A 2015 report by the IGDA found that only three percent of people working in games in the U.S. are African-American, compared with 13 percent of the nation's population as a whole. A survey from 10 years earlier found 2.5 percent of game industry workers to be African-American.
"I love video games," says Wilkins. "I’ve been playing video games since I was four years old. But most of the games I’ve played have just been a stereotypical Caucasian guy with a giant gun or a giant sword on the front cover.Neil Jones
"People ask me, who do you think represents you in games? There aren’t very many options. When you do see African-American characters in a game, they’re usually represented in a very stereotypical way. You look at Dead Island, with the rap star character, or most of the Grand Theft Auto games."
Wilkins mentions a few attempts to place African-Americans in lead roles in games like The Walking Dead's Lee Everett, who begins the game handcuffed in the back of a police car. The forthcoming Mafia 3 stars a character called Lincoln Clay, who rules over a violent criminal empire.
More recent, positive representations of African-Americans in games include Michonne of the recent The Walking Dead miniseries and Angela, who starred in Tale of Tales’ Sunset. But these characters remain few and far between
"As far as video games are concerned, I want to change that," says Wilkins. "I want to show African-American characters in a better light, in different kinds of games, so people can see that there are better ways to show our culture and African-Americans in general."
Wilkins says it's important that Clique shows elements of the African-American culture he's grown up with, most especially in its real world sections, but also through the fantasy parts of the game.
"These are the things that we want to show the world," he says. "Especially hip-hop music, a style of storytelling, clothing style, dialect and art."
But the game has a lot more to share than African-American cultural references.
"We want to make a different type of game, one that shows more of our experiences," says Jones. "We're tired of the lack of diverse games. You never see a black woman or man on the cover of a game and the ones that are, are bad representations.
"We're adding the music and beats of our culture, our style, the way we talk, over all this game. These will be a new kind of characters that players aren't used to."