The number of Black video game developers is small, but strong
In many ways, it all started with Jerry Lawson.
The trailblazing engineer helped lead the team that developed the first home video gaming system with interchangeable cartridges, which opened up a whole new world of playing games at home in the 1970s.
The move paved the way for future systems like Atari and Super Nintendo, and by the time Lawson died in 2011, his legacy was imprinted on the video game industry.
It was rare to see Black engineers working in tech decades ago, but Lawson wasn't alone. Ed Smith was another Black engineer who reimagined consoles in the early days of at-home gaming, working on the very first hybrid video game/personal computer, called The Imagination Machine.
These two pioneers showed that Black people have a place in the multibillion-dollar video game industry. And yet, while the industry employs hundreds of thousands of people around the world, Black people are in the minority. Of the respondents to a 2021 survey from the International Game Developers Association, only 5% were Black while close to 80% were white — suggesting the enormous gap that exists in the industry.
Surveys from past years show that the number of developers who are Black has grown – albeit slowly – and particularly in the indie video game space.
We talk to five people who are forging their own path, and bringing their unique experience to the world of video games.
Xalavier Nelson Jr.
The first video game he ever played: Nelson says that there is photographic evidence of the first video game he ever played. "One of the earliest pictures that exists of me is of me sitting on my dad's lap holding an unplugged controller while he was holding a plugged-in controller, and me thinking that he was playing with me. I think it might have been something like Crash Bandicoot. But I know the first conscious memory of a video game that I've had was on the Dreamcast back in the '90s."
Games Nelson is currently playing:
The video games journalist to developer pipeline: "When I was 12 years old, I was reading an article about Duke Nukem Forever, a kind of infamously panned video game, and it mentioned that game journalists got games for free," he said. "That is the only job that makes sense for a child in this world."
Nelson was intrigued by this and concocted a bold plan. "So thanks to the power of the internet, at 12 years old, I pretended to be an adult and I got my first job." For six years, Nelson wrote for well known industry outlets like PC Gamer and Polygon. Before he was even old enough to vote, he had gained a lot of insight into the video game industry and not all of it was good. The industry showed itself to be grueling and draining, and Nelson decided he no longer wanted to be associated with it. But he says that he wanted to at least try to make a video game himself before closing that chapter of his life.
"The problem is, I loved it," he said. "I found a deep joy and satisfaction in the process of making a video game."
The first video game he created: Nelson created an interactive fiction adventure game called All Hail the Spider God. "You would click on highlighted words and some of them led to unexpected choices or descriptions. The narrative was about choosing indirectly what type of person you become through the circumstances of the surreal world that you exist within." Nelson would go on to work on games like Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator, a virtual stock ticker and auction interface where the player buys and sells human organs, and An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, which is exactly what it sounds like. Nelson's joy for developing video games led him to start up his own studio in 2019 called Strange Scaffold.
Challenges within the industry as a Black developer: "I think the problem that the games industry faces with Black people is twofold," Nelson said. "The first is giving people their first opportunity, because they haven't done it already. The inability to create space for people to start their journey in the first place is a terminal illness which is currently strangling the games industry." Nelson said the industry is struggling to hire developers at a senior level because juniors weren't being trained in years past.
"The second major factor is that once people are in, what you're looking at for all the people who are Black who have survived, is that they're survivors. They have existed in toxic environments. They are flowers in the desert. If you bring in a group of 10 people and one survives and becomes a standout, it is not an acclamation of your recruitment efforts, it is an indictment that this one star exists because you failed to preserve the other nine."
His favorite part of being a video game developer: "My favorite part of working on games these days is direction. It is really hard to have a focused direction for a project with precision that also actively incorporates collaborators and creates processes and inherent contexts where the human beings that work on the project also feel recognized, seen, and able to live healthy lives while building a game. But walking on that tightrope and doing that with intentionality and responsibility is what makes me feel alive. So, every day I get to wake up and feel like I was doing exactly what I was built to do."
The first video game she ever played: "The first game that I played that's like a really memorable experience for me would have to be Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. I grew up playing games of all kinds, so not just video games but also board games, and gaming has always been a part of my life."
Learning how to code: "When I was 10, I actually started to learn how to program so I could make my own dress-up dolls, and eventually I learned that you could make games as well. I had a tutorial for the dress-up doll program that I was able to read, it was updated in like 1999 and I think I looked at it in like the year 2000."
Small met others interested in programming and video games through online forums. "We did collaborate, which was really fun. So I got to learn how to make art for these dress-up doll games that we were creating, and we would kind of trade art back and forth and figure out how to build everybody's work into one cohesive experience, which was really fun."
Games Small is currently playing:
The first video game she created: Small's first video game was inspired by growing up in the Bronx. The game is called Train Jumper. "It was all about running to catch the train and kicking people out of the way. The point was to get there within 30 seconds. That was so fun because it was what I always wished that I could do in real life, but you know, you can't exactly bump into people and shove them on your way to the train because that's very rude. But I just loved being able to get my frustration out in the form of this game."
Making a bigger impact through her games: One of the other games Small has developed is called SweetXheart. Players act as Kara, a 19-year-old girl from the Bronx who attends an art college and interns at a tech company – very similar to Small's life in her early 20s. Players go to work, school and interact with people in Kara's life. It's a slice of life game that showcases what life can be like for a Black woman. "There was parts in this game about harassment because being a black woman in New York City, you experience a fair amount of street harassment. A man actually told me that he was not going to harass women or catcall women anymore after playing the game."
Organizing the Game Devs of Color Expo: Co-founded by Small and Chris Algoo in 2016, the Game Devs of Color Expo is a space for developers of color to meet one another and showcase their work. Several events have been held over the years, some in partnership with major gaming companies like Xbox, Nintendo and Oculus. Besides bringing developers of color together, Small says the expo helps to break down the barriers that people of color may face when trying to get into the industry. "We are actively giving people money to make their video games." Since 2019, the Game Devs of Color Expo has given more than $360,000 to game developers of color.
Advice she has for those who want to get into the video game industry: "Find your people, because your community is going to be the thing that gives you energy to keep going, and your community is going to be what inspires you and helps you to keep pushing to learn and grow."
The first video game they ever played: "Because my dad had a lot of computers lying around, he let me go on them and play games on Disney. We haven't been able to find this photo, but there's a photo of me when I was like three playing the Lilo & Stitch sandwich stacker game." Heyward says that their parents are big nerds and have been playing games for as long as they can remember. "My mom got us a GameCube when I was young because I have a sibling who's one year younger and we played a lot together. I have two other siblings as well, so games have been just a thing me and my family have used all the time."
Games Heyward is currently playing:
Figuring out how to make video games: As a high schooler, Heyward applied for a free NYU arts program that had classes in video game design that students could attend on the weekend. "I didn't really think I'd get into it, but I got it. There is when I learned that you didn't have to have a goofy amount of money to make games at home. You didn't have to have all the expensive programs and there were free ones." Heyward had already thought about perhaps becoming an animator, but now they realized being a video game developer could be in the cards. "Creating games was something that I just knew I wasn't gonna get tired of like how I did with animation."
Bringing ideas to life in the form of video games: "I got to work on this game called ValiDate, which is a game about people in Jersey City dating and trying to navigate through their mid 20s." Heyward focused on the programming aspect of the game. "I think the writers did a really great job, and I think we need more video games with Black and queer people and trans people in them." One of the more recent projects Heyward worked on is called Treachery in Beatdown City – which they say combines politics with a good ole' fashioned "beat 'em up" style of game. "You are trying to rescue the president who's been kidnapped by ninjas. You're going through New York and running into all of these weird people who are being racists and homophobes – awful people – but you get to beat them up!" Heyward says the game includes cutscenes with those characters who end up apologizing for their behavior.
Being young and Black and trying to get into the video game industry: "I feel like on the more indie side [of games] there's a lot more diversity and collaborating with people online. The game industry ... it is diverse but the problem is that the people who get the most money are just the cishet, white dudes." Heyward says that they do a lot of networking to make connections in the industry and it makes them realize they aren't alone.
Advice for prospective Black video game developers: "There are scholarships, there are lots of programs that usually offer lessons for free. I know there's Code Coven, I know Black Voices in Gaming is a thing, I know the Game Devs of Color Expo is a thing. You do not have to go through everything alone. There are communities out there that can help." Heyward also points out that while they did get a degree in game design from NYU, they say a degree isn't the only way to get into the industry. "What matters is your experience and your knowledge working on games. Your portfolio can speak for itself."
The first video game he ever played: "I was three years old when I first started playing video games, and that's because my dad is really into video games. So when we were growing up, he had a Super Nintendo that we were able to play. Some of the earliest games that I do remember playing were games like Super Mario World and Donkey Kong Country."
Games McGregor is currently playing:
Deciding to make video games a part of his life: McGregor remembers when he was in elementary school that he came across an article in a magazine about a young girl who had started her own bakery business. McGregor thought to himself maybe he could do that but with video games. "My dad is also a computer scientist, so I went to my dad and I was like, do you think that you could possibly teach me how to make video games?" From there, McGregor says his dad taught both him and his brother how to code when they were kids. That set the stage for McGregor, and his brother, eventually growing up to be video game developers.
The first video game he created: McGregor says there were a lot of video game projects he would start working on, but wouldn't finish. It was in college that he decided to make a video game for a media arts club he was part of. "I finished a really quick, small prototype of a twin stick shooter. If you're familiar with Geometry Wars, or I'd normally say it's like Asteroids except you can move and shoot using the two sticks unlike a controller." Making that game was a lot of fun for McGregor, so he decided to turn the prototype into a complete game. "It's only going to take me two weeks! " McGregor remembers thinking to himself at the time. "It took me two months, but I actually got to the end of the finish line and I released Glitch In The System. That really just changed the game, it just opened so many different doors and motivated me to be like, oh, this is what it's like to actually finish a game." After that, over the course of two years, McGregor finished eight different video game projects.
Being "the only": In college, McGregor noticed he tended to be the only Black person in his computer science classes. "Because I live in Minnesota, I have this expectation of being like, oh yeah, of course I'm just gonna be the only Black person around." That was the norm for McGregor. "It wasn't until I went to more industry events where I started to see other Black people." That, McGregor said, isn't something he realized he needed. "When you are immersed in an environment where you're no longer the minority person, that is something that it feels like you're breathing a sigh of relief. You're able to talk about things and relate to people."
Putting the Black in gaming: "The games that you create don't have to be extremely super pro Black, something where it's like, 'Oh, this is clearly just made for Black people,'" McGregor says. "I'm known for a game about a dot." That game is called HyperDot, it's an action arcade type of game where the player is trying to dodge everything coming at them. While it may be a game about shapes, McGregor says that there are some cultural references in the game. "I like '80s and '90s hip hop. So there's actually a couple of references to Eric B. & Rakim. There's a level [in HyperDot] called 'Know The Ledge' and if you lose in that level, you'll get an achievement that says you didn't know the ledge, referencing one of their songs. There's just a lot of subtle hints."
Neil Jones (aka Aerial Knight)
The first video game he ever played: Jones' grandma, who raised him, is the one who got him into video games. "My favorite thing was after she would get done, you know, working and cooking and all that stuff, she would just want to play Bejeweled. I would sit there and watch her and then she would give me the controller, and I'd try to beat her score. And we'd go back and forth."
Games Jones is currently playing:
Getting into video game development: "In high school they really forced you to kind of pick your entire future and I didn't know. I fell for those commercials that said, 'Hey, you wanna make video games, kid?' That's the only thing I could imagine me being happy doing." Jones ended up going to a for-profit school to learn more about video game development. He says that he learned a lot about 3D modeling and the different kinds of software that could be used to make a game, but most of what he knows today about video game development he taught himself.
What life is like as a video game developer: "You sit down and you code or you do art. In the larger scheme of things any developers have to deal with is not only sitting down and making the game, making sure the game is fun, but we have to worry about what other games are similar to our game. How can we stand out? How can you market the game? You have to make marketing materials. You have to do the sound effects in music." Jones says that indie developers like himself end up doing everything on their own without the help of a larger team at times. "It's not just one or two things, it's all aspects. I really burnt myself out on the game that I launched, I only slept two hours a day. It was very stressful, but, you know, I'm really proud of it."
The first game he developed: Jones' video game, Never Yield, is akin to runner games like Temple Run. The difference between Never Yield and other runner games, Jones says, is that this game has a narrative. Set in a futuristic Tokyo-style Detroit, the main character of the game is Wally, who is trying to escape enemies after finding his family's lost treasurer that grants him special abilities. "This one has cutscenes. The player interacts with their environment. It has a lot of freedom of movement." Jones also worked with a friend doing a full original soundtrack for the video game. "We had rappers come in, singers come in and record over that. That's not really something you see a lot of in games, especially indie games." Never Yield was Jones' way of proving himself as a developer. "I've been trying to get into the game industry for so long. Let me make my own thing. If I'm never going to make it into the game industry, let me make a perfect example of — this is what they're rejecting."
The barriers of entry into the video game industry for Black people: Jones has pointed out a lot of issues with the video game industry when it comes to the way Black developers are regarded. Many companies pledged to do better when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the 2020 post-George Floyd era. Jones is seeing more people of color get their foot in the door, but he says that skilled developers like him should be further along in their careers if companies had hired Black people in the first place years ago. "I don't think we'll ever be able to fix the original sin of these massive studios who have hired people over the last 20 years actively not hiring Black people. We can never make up for the lost time." Jones says that it's great more Black people are joining the industry, as well as that there is more racial and gender representation in games, but he says the industry still has a long way to go.
Passing the torch: Despite the barriers, Jones encourages Black people to get into the video game industry, especially kids. At an event over the summer where Jones showcased Never Yield for people to play, he ended up speaking with a lot of Black families whose children were interested in video games but didn't want their kids to think all they had to do was play games and they'd make loads of money. "I kind of just told them there's a lot of different jobs in gaming — community managers to project managers. He doesn't have to be a master at coding or be a master artist to kind of get into this." Jones says that he doesn't really like to give advice to people because everyone's journey is so different. "People say that, you know, the journey that I took was inspirational, and I never saw it like that until I talked to all those kids and those families." What he does tell people is to find your own voice and space, and just do what you like the most.
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