By centering on creators of color, events like Game Devs of Color Expo provide a needed breath of fresh air in the game space.
I’ve been lucky to travel all over the country for various reasons, but I’d never managed to make it to New York City. I always imagined that it’d be too large, too crowded for me; I’m from the Midwest and like my trees and somewhat-open spaces. But when I found out about Game Devs of Color Expo, I bought my ticket and booked my flight.
I’ve been a game journalist since 2009, covered an entire host of events big and small. From local events like St. Louis’ Pixelpop Festival to national showstoppers like E3, I’ve seen a lot in the decade I’ve covered games. What I didn’t see a lot of, though, were people who looked like me.
When I first got started, I was pretty used to being the only black person in the room. In recent years, the game space has blossomed: a wider indie game scene, more accessible game development tools, and new ways to enter the media space have all meant creators of all kinds have new opportunities to make what they love. Of course, these democratized tools mean that more creators of color now exist, making amazing games, YouTube channels, livestreams, and more. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to find us, though.
It’s still common to see all-white speaker panels for events like video game events like PAX, and it’s even more likely at tabletop/analog game events. Front pages on streaming platforms are full of white creators (unless it’s something like Black History Month). In my experience, representation around race doesn’t seem to be moving at the same speed as other factors like gender or sexuality. And let’s be clear: this isn’t a competition or criticism of providing spaces for other marginalized groups. Our ability as an industry to create stronger, interesting and nuanced games and discussion comes from creating spaces where minority groups feel welcome, safe, and can find community. It’s a part of why Game Devs of Color Expo in particular is so important.
Though the game space is diversifying, the industry itself is (particularly the people in it with money and influence) overwhelmingly white. This means that, even when there are other PoC in the game space, the tone, the discussion, the climate of the room frequently feels set to “white.” This effect often magnifies at the “diversity panel:” a half-hour to hour-long discussion where PoC talk about how it’s important to bring diversity to the game space, which most people nod along with. Then, catharsis achieved, the audience leaves to explore the rest of the multiple-day event.
When I was first getting started speaking at events, people would reach out to me to speak on their diversity panels, but not much else. It’s an experience many of us have had around the industry: tokenization. “Please come, explain racism, have free badge.” (The free attendance badge doesn’t even always happen).
Game Devs of Color Expo explicitly counters these habits.
Game Devs of Color Expo is run by PoC in the gaming space working in a variety of roles. It hosts panels and talks made up entirely of people of color, each talking about the work they’ve done, the projects they care about, their passions. Certainly, the struggles of being a person of color in the industry come up in discussion, but those challenges are a facet, not the focus. Talks move beyond the 101-level “why is diversity important” style.
GDoCE features a full show floor of games created by people of color. Video games, analog, experiential, it all has a place. Even as a journalist who tries to keep an eye out for games made by people of color, I always discover new titles I had no idea about at the event. It’s a space for hyper-polished indies and student projects alike, established designers as well as neophytes.
Beyond that, GDoCE as a convention works to standards much larger, more financed events should be looking towards. Each panel and talk is livestreamed and archived, including live, on-site closed-captioning. Gender neutral bathrooms are clearly marked, and attendees can denote their pronouns and chosen name on their badges. Attendees can also opt-out of being used in photographs or media by wearing a different lanyard. The Code of Conduct is upheld by green-shirted volunteers who are readily available. Speakers are not only provided free attendance, but also compensated for their time and expertise. The show sells tickets on a sliding-scale based on financial need. These are just some of the ways GDoCE practices intersectionality, addressing issues reaching beyond a single marginalized group.
Comparatively, larger events like the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco have only recently experimented with speaker compensation, and still keeps many of its talks in the “GDC Vault” (though they seem to release them to the public more frequently than in the past). Events like E3 and PAX say that by attending the show, you consent to being in any media by default. Though pronoun indicators are increasingly common at gaming events, many times they’re supplied by special groups like I Need Diverse Games or GaymerX at their booths instead of readily accessible, visible, and provided by the event itself. And none of this speaks to the cost of attendance: industry-events like GDC and DICE can cost attendees thousands of dollars for full access.
For all I feel this show does for the industry, it also means a lot to me personally. I get to be surrounded by a host of other professionals of color, everyone expressing themselves in ways they feel comfortable. The culture, the attitude feels relaxed, like coming to a reunion. Some of this is probably because I’m used to being one of the only PoC in white spaces: I went to school in majority-white classes, was raised in a majority-white church, attended a majority-white college. Hell, I live in Portland, Oregon (which is really white). And though I loved my college, love the city I live in and the friends I’ve made, that doesn’t change my thankfulness for spaces like GDoCE.
This year I’ll be part of the expo, moderating a panel: Forging Your Path in Games. These panelists: Andrien Gbinigie, Aziza Brown, Dietrich Squinkifer, and Juan Vaca, have all done great work to make a space for themselves in the games industry, and I’m happy to help them tell their stories. There’s a lot of content packed into that one Saturday, including many other great panels, microtalks, and fantastic games to play. It’s an experience that hopefully will recharge not only participants, but also attendees as well.
In 2019, attacks against the “other” are ramping up around the world. Governments running on platforms of fear and scarcity attack people they deem outsiders, stoking violence and intolerance. When we create spaces for those on the margins to thrive, everyone benefits from the creativity and energy in those spaces. People of color drive massive innovations in industries of all kinds, and gaming is no exception. Spaces like Game Devs of Color Expo are just one way to push back against that hate, showing what’s possible when we’re all given a chance to feel safe and succeed.
Learn more about the Game Devs of Color Expo on its homepage. You can attend the event this Saturday, July 27th, at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, NY starting at 11a.