INDIECADE EAST TEXT TALK: RISE UP – supporting our community and erasing toxicity instead of identity
this is the original text reference from the talk i gave at IndieCade East on the 14th of February. my actual talk wasn’t -exactly- this but it was my set of guidelines. in this talk, i spoke about Jerry Lawson and the invisibility of black people in games, touched on how capitalism affects race representation in games, why we’re not “doing better,” and how we can band together to support our community.
i’ma be frank here: “indie” as a label has lost all meaning to me. what i used to perceive as an identifier for people doing artwork independently has shown its true self to me over the years, and it’s no different from the rest of the world. it’s the face is the face of capitalism. it’s the face of privilege. the face of oppression. i’ve met a diverse group of people during my time as an indie developer, and yet the ones on top are never those faces; it’s always the faces of the privileged. the majority. the Old Guard. the white man.
the truly influential people i know, the people that have the potential to make a huge difference, are constantly pushed to the side so we can keep telling the idealized stories of crunch time and kickstarters and keeping within the norm, as if we’re putting up some kind of facade that there is a definite way to succeed in the industry as long as you just pull up your bootstraps and work hard on the best game you can. this is unrealistic. for every Super Meat Boy, for every Spelunky, for every Braid, we have hundreds of thousands of games that truly try to break the mold of genre conventions, presentation, storytelling, and player interaction, which we simply just brush to the side because they don’t fit the bill of what our “established” “heroes” are creating. because of that, we homogenize and standardize our “sect” of videogames; a sect that was originally founded on breaking the norms of what a video game is and how they can be made.
really, “indie” has turned into nothing more than a buzzword, and it’s the way we perceive videogames and our community and shun truly interesting works that have turned our identities into something that needs to be marketable and agreeable, which, as you can imagine, naturally excludes minorities 95% of the time. we stifle our own creativity, we stifle the creativity of our peers, and we stifle the development of our culture as a whole. we cultivate a culture where the established continue to reign above all, and the smaller continue to be shunned and silenced. we force a brand of “objectivity” onto creations and shove “subjectivity” down the throats of creators. when you speak up, you’re told to stay in your place. when you try to discuss problems, you’re interrupted and told you need to come up with a solution right then and there, from those who are more privileged than you are.
when you show any form of emotion that isn’t positivity or neutrality, you’re being unreasonable and you should just be more “rational”, that you should be more willing to look at it from a different angle. “maybe the answer is somewhere in the middle!” nah, that’s bullshit. we all know it. anyone who’s ever been in a position where a voice with power has shut them down or ignored them knows that this middleman shit doesn’t work. if we are to truly create a system in which it is possible to look at “both sides” of the issue and just do what we do without all this added grief, we need to work together as a community to listen to the voices of the marginalized when they talk about issues that affect their lives.
if we band together in understanding and cooperation and actually start listening to each other and opening our minds to different viewpoints, we can create the kind of environment that we all need, where people won’t be afraid to make something different and unique, and won’t be afraid to speak.
we need to diversify our thinking processes, and we need to diversify our community.
I. jerry lawson & the willful ignorance of the black developer
Jerry Lawson. how many of you can recognize this name? (author’s note: only one person in the audience knew this.)
born in 1940, Jerry Lawson is the designer of the very first cartridge-based video game console, and the founder of Videosoft, an independent development company that made games for the Atari 2600. he also produced Demolition Derby, which was one of the earliest coin-op arcade games, introduced in a pizzeria in California shortly after Pong was. when he was young, he got himself a ham radio license and built an amateur radio station in his room. he also put together, and sold, walkie-talkies himself. he was Black. where’s his book? where’s his documentaries? we don’t even bother to mention him and the things he accomplished for this industry. i mean, i didn’t even know about him until last December. that’s shameful.
how can we, as a community, so easily ignore the existence of this man and the things he did to shape game technology to the state it is today? is it because his success story isn’t that of a white man making technological breakthroughs?
this was something i was already concerned about, already being one of the very few Black game developers i knew of in the gaming world, but as i tried to do more looking, no matter how hard i tried, no matter how far deep i dug, i could find little information on other Black people in the game development world– only articles and forum posts asking “where are all the Black people?” for a while, i didn’t think we even existed in this community. why is it so difficult to find Black game developers?
i bought a book recently, called “Our Black Year,” by Maggie Anderson. the book is her story where, in 2009, she and her husband John went through with their plans to spend a full 12 months in which they only purchase items they need from Black-owned businesses. reading about her experience is soul-crushing; in the course of the experiment, they repeatedly find themselves in run-down businesses in dangerous neighborhoods, rarely finding stores for what they need, and watching as these Black-owned businesses close down left and right. it opened my eyes to a truth that i always felt but never really acknowledged– Black businesses in general struggle more than any other race in America, and game development is no different, where we only make up 2% of the overall developer population.
so on top of overwhelmingly poor renditions of Black people in games and a racist community comprised mostly of ignorant white dudes who drop N-bombs on each other over Halo, we also have a major lack of diversity within the people making our games in general. doesn’t really reflect well on the state of game development’s “diversity” as a whole.
do we really have any right to champion our “amazing diversity” when just mentioning you want to diversify your workplace is considered taboo, or “reverse racist”? and keep in mind that Affirmative Action has been a thing for 50 years. trying to strengthen diversity isn’t the “new wave of social justice” that people on the internet like to make it out to be– it’s been half a century.
II. the silencing of minorities & capitalism’s “race game”
“but wait, are you saying that we’re racist? that’s kind of a broad generalization to make.”
but IS the game world racist? well, of course it is. how often do you really see really good minority representation compared to non-minorities? video games in their current state are capitalist, and capitalism is inherently racist, sexist, xenophobic, and exploitative. video games have the ability to say “well, i don’t think race matters at all, the only thing that matters is how good you are” and receive absolutely no critical analysis from the community at large. only agreement. but is this agreement an educated one? no, it’s not. because when you say “race doesn’t matter,” you are directly silencing anybody who isn’t white, whether or not that’s your intention. “i got mine, so who cares about everyone else?”
when a white person walks up to me and says “i don’t think race should matter,” the only response i can give and be genuine about it is “but it does.” it’s a huge factor in the lives of those who are part of a racial minority, because the system that all of us thrive off of thinks race matters. the system is built to profit off of us for the benefit of those above us. it’s meant to make those of us who are less fortunate into tools that can be exploited for the financial profit of suits. “race doesn’t matter” is essentially a verbal punch in the face to any person of color. the system allows us to innovate, but doesn’t let us profit off of it. the system twists society and culture into whatever will allow it to continue to exist.
“maybe YOU’RE the racist for wanting to see more ethnicities in games.” “maybe YOU’RE the sexist for expecting this woman character to conform to YOUR expectations.” deflect the criticism, use it against the marginalized, profit off of their struggles, rinse and repeat. capitalism has done this ever since it has existed, and because of the nature of profit and “success stories” in games are always cast under a financial light, it means that games are tightly woven into capitalism as well. the video game world continues to benefit by pushing minorities under the bus for their own profit. who cares if we offend Black people with soulless “street Blacks” in our games as long as we can squeeze out that extra dollar? who cares if we offend Hispanic people by making all of their typical representations stereotypes and luchadores in our games as long as we can get that paper? we’re in an industry where having minority protagonists is a “risky move” and having white protagonists that talk “street” is comic relief. something ain’t right here.
III. the facade of “doing better”: how we, as a community, don’t learn from our mistakes
meanwhile, if you say anything about these kinds of behaviors, you get slung with abuse, especially if you’re a minority yourself. the insults and threats roll in, everyone says “that’s just how it is, people are always going to be awful,” we move on. nothing changes. the cycle isn’t disrupted. the abuse continues.
i’ve seen it happen too many times. it’s gotten to the point where i predict this pattern any time minority issues pop up in the game world. someone says something that disrupts the beehive known as the game community, and are given an unbelievable level of harassment. some of these people end up quitting, or at least consider quitting, because of it.
we all want things to get better, but as things stand right now, they’re not. it seems like every week that passes we do something wrong and everyone forgets about it a few days later, especially if it’s aggressive towards a minority. we forget about it, and it happens again to someone else. we’re killing our own culture by dismissing it. it’s easy to say videogames are bullshit, and they are, but when it comes down to it, the only thing we’re really doing is making it more difficult for ourselves. we’re helping other people not take us seriously, by not taking ourselves seriously.
to say that “we’re doing better” is a facade. we are only doing better in some areas, in some sects of the community, within certain groups. the community as a whole hasn’t improved– in multiple ways, it’s actually gotten worse. “we’re doing better” functions as nothing more than an ingenuine way to encourage ourselves that things are getting better, but i think it’s a lot more dangerous of a statement than people let on, especially in an industry that tries to find as many ways around genuine community improvement as possible.
when the words “we’re doing better” are uttered in a culture that is powered by abuse and exploitation, we’re essentially ignoring those things for a short confidence boost that ultimately will lead to our further exploitation. the words “we’re doing better” get heard by a member of the upper echelon, and they process that as “don’t change a thing.” once that happens, the cycle of mistakes continues yet again.
we need to stop playing around with false hope and handouts and start taking our community and our culture more seriously. we need to further our community and ourselves by looking at ourselves and each other with a critical eye, and working together to construct the kind of community that we deserve. we won’t reach empowerment as independent developers without truly empowering each other. the mainstream gaming world certainly won’t help empower us, unless they’re gonna benefit from it directly.
IV. empowerment in a racially divided industry
in an e-mail converation between Evan Narcisse of Kotaku and David Brothers, Brothers said, and i quote,
“The developer side of things, as you mention, is complicated. It’s a Catch-22. There aren’t a lot of black developers, so people—black, white, and everything else—assume that black people aren’t into it. Which in turn leads companies to refrain from performing the outreach to schools and communities who would be all about it, if they knew they had a chance.
As a kid, I didn’t know that black people were doing punk music before punk was even fully formed. Nobody told me about the band Death (the protopunk band comprised of all Black members), and they were left in obscurity until like 2006 or something ridiculous like that. So, I just assumed that punk music was a white thing, so I put it in a box. If I knew different, I would’ve tried it out.”
this is an experience i relate with on multiple levels– as a teenager, i spent a huge part of my life in a racial struggle, finding myself constantly questioning whether or not i were “genuinely Black.” looking back on it now, i have absolutely no idea what it means, but back then, i knew exactly what it meant– aside from my light skin tone, all of my interests were considered “not Black”– i drew anime and shit, and i listened to almost exclusively metal and rarely touched hip hop. most of my friends were white kids who constantly “joked” with me about how “white” of a Black dude i was.
that shouldn’t sound like a big deal, right? but it is, because i didn’t fit the mold of what the world is told a Black person is supposed to be. this turns into exclusion, which eventually morphs into segregation.
this leads into this second quote, again, by Brothers:
“Not to knock or disrespect the valiant efforts (and stubborn staying power, like all devs who have to deal with crunch) of the black devs that do exist, but if you had a black rock star game dev on the level of Cliffy B or Jade Raymond? Someone the press routinely calls attention to, someone that companies trust to lead their titles? That would change the conversation. Some kid could google up Jacqueline Robinson, the first black lady to write and direct a AAA game, and be like “Oh, dang. I like video games. I’m pretty good at programming. That could be me.”
Increasing diversity provides options for everyone. It provides role models and it lets you feel that electric shock of recognizing something that’s you in a work of art.”
by promoting our minority developers, our people of color– their stories, their views, their lives– we would automatically and naturally create a more diverse community. more visibility for people of color means more people of color will feel empowered to jump into the field. more people of color in the community mean more diverse creations, which leads to a furthering and an expansion of our artform and the way we see and approach games in general.
the mainstream game world is powered by us. we grease their gears and allow them to continue operating and oppressing us by giving them our wallets. but what if we maybe cut back on that a bit? what if, instead, we put that money in our communities?
Malcolm X, in his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, said:
“Our people have to be made to see that any time you take your dollar our of your community and spend it in a community where you don’t live, the community where you live will get poorer and poorer, and the community where you spend your money will get richer and richer.”
what if, instead of blowing that $25 on Steam’s latest sale for AAA games that have been on sale since 2009, you bought five $5 games directly from five unknown indie developers? instead of giving money to a company that is already well-off, you’re helping finance an indie who’s probably busting their ass off right now just to make rent this month. keep doing this, and encourage others to do the same thing. don’t rationalize not supporting an indie by “waiting until their game goes on sale.” as someone who’s not financially well-off, i understand how a sale or a price drop is enticing, but that pattern of thinking is exactly what makes it hard for all of us to flourish.
as a community, we need to start banding together on a deeper level than just encouraging each other through text. we need to help each other, we need to be a family, we need to show as much support for each other as we can. at the end of the day, if we don’t have each other’s backs, who will?
in closing, i have a short special thanks to give to some individuals who have essentially helped me become who i am today.
big ups to Shawn Allen for introducing me to some other Black game developers, as well as giving me a fresh perspective on Black people in games, and for encouraging me to even come to IndieCade East and give a talk in the first place.
big ups to Mattie Brice for being so vocal about capitalism and race issues in the games scene, and for being one of the few people i can think of off the top of my head who do. you deserve a LOT more for your efforts than what you get.
big ups to Zoe Quinn for being an amazing friend and a wonderful support network, and for being as resilient as she has been despite her struggles over the years, and for helping me have the confidence to stand up here and speak my mind.
big ups to Merritt Kopas for her great work with forest ambassador, a website that brings attention to a lot of varied games made by underground developers, and for continuing to support me by buying my things.
big ups to my Seattle buddy Jesse Burnett for helping me learn how to use Game Maker again and for being a big part in getting me to give programming my own games another shot. it’s thanks to him that Joylancer is even playable!
big ups to Sophie Houlden for being as vocal as she is about issues in the community and for being a strong voice for matters such as digital distribution and gatekeeping, things that we need to be talking about a lot more.
and last, big ups to my awesome roommate Lulu Blue who basically paid for all of my Seattle move and my IndieCade trip in LA last October. she makes cool games too and i think she’s really underrated as a developer. i don’t think i would be where i am now if she hadn’t spent so much money on me!
if you enjoyed this text, please consider supporting me financially by buying some of my work! thanks for reading.