Active & Authentic: Black Girl Gamers' Jay-Ann Lopez on Black Stories in Games
Across nearly every industry you’ve heard the call for companies to make more diverse hires. Bring in voices from underrepresented demographics to improve not only inclusivity but the quality of whichever product, service or experience is being peddled. The video game industry sits comfortably at the top of media divisions in serious need of a cultural overhaul, owing to its long history of catering primarily to a single market — the White male demographic.
In a time when 73% of African Americans aged 13 and over identify as gamers, compared to 66% of the total US population, communities are still fighting an uphill battle for fair representation. Black Girl Gamers (BGG), founded by Jay-Ann Lopez, is a community-powered business that has dedicated themselves to creating a safe space for Black women, and Black voices, within gaming. With humble origins as a Facebook page back in 2015, BGG has since expanded and established a firmer presence across multiple platforms thanks to positive and crucial outcomes they’ve achieved over the years. Jay-Ann highlighted just a few of the group’s successful activities: “From the different things that we do: consulting the talent, brokering the events for our community, the events for everyone, and our content, we get positive feedback. But as much as we get positive feedback, we're always looking to improve as well.”
Alongside bettering the lives of their community when it comes to online engagement and representation, BGG has continued to fight for that presence within actual games. “The industry has progressed a little bit since, essentially, our platform started calling a lot of brands out. There was an increase in Black female character representation after 2018 because we specifically called out the initial Overwatch game for not having a Black woman character playable at all. And I think a lot of other games followed suit and were then paying attention.”
We’ve seen trickles of representation emerge within games; a few POC characters here and there, but rarely more than one per game and hardly ever as the protagonist of their own story. Now I appreciate that this might not be for a lack of trying, but perhaps a lack of commitment. A fear of backlash from objectively the wrong side. The loudest voices in a room are rarely those who are content, and no-one screams louder than a toxic gamer scorned.
Forspoken, a recent IP from Square Enix and developer Luminous Productions, is perhaps one of the best examples of this phenomenon. In a rare move from the studio behemoth, Forspoken features a young, Black woman called Frey Holland as its main protagonist. This casting alone was enough for the weaponized usage of ‘woke’ to emerge, a chorus of ignorance spouting that the game was pushing some form of political agenda. “Whenever someone sees Brown skin in the game, whether it's Black or Brown, they presume that it's something to do with being a social justice warrior, which is a really stupid term. They think it's something to do with politics, because our skin is political, and they basically tell you to your face: ‘This is politicizing the gaming industry by not having a White person in it.’”
Why Black stories can’t be given the same blanket acceptance afforded White stories is a question I fear we’ll be asking until the end of time. Unique and interesting perspectives which industries and audiences forfeit by failing to acknowledge their biases.
But is it this push-back from an overly loud subsection of the gaming demographic that's stopping studios from investing in more diverse stories? There’s a culture that exists within gaming that seems to foster a level of entitlement — even the most minor of aspects can be pulled up for criticism or debate across social platforms. Studios should expect backlash for championing diversity, that’s unfortunately the state of gaming culture, but that shouldn’t stop them. “I think there's so much money being left on the table by developers, VCs, investors, publishers, by not investing in new stories, I think they're missing out on their Netflix moment.
When Netflix came out, they had so much diversity in different shows, and they're [the video game industry] missing out on it. And to be fair, Netflix, from what I know, kind of innovated that space in terms of having more diversity on screen. That's what a lot of people, especially in the UK, were missing on TV.”
Black representation isn’t just missing from on-screen worlds. Behind the scenes, those authentic voices are seldom part of the creative process. Black writers were notoriously absent from telling the story of Forspoken and Frey Holland, a presence that could have easily helped Frey’s characterization avoid harmful stereotypes. The game’s opening act has Frey appearing in court for theft after stealing from a gang, describing her as “angry” and having "fallen through [the] cracks of society". Ella Balinska’s motion capture was even described by the developers as giving Frey a “hip-hoppy kind of walk.”
But Luminous Productions sought to fill that gap in knowledge and experience by bringing on consultants from BIPOC backgrounds, including BGG, to help define Frey’s story. In a Tweet, BGG explained that as part of the consultation, the group had the opportunity to play a pre-release version of the game and provide some feedback on elements of the experience. This included aspects of gameplay and the portrayal of Frey as a protagonist. The transparency of the group’s involvement made it more clear that games only stand to benefit from bringing authentic voices into the conversation, cultivating a positive outcome and final product. According to Jay-Ann, a successful collaboration can carefully be fostered: “I think timing is key. And I think understanding what you don't know is key. You don't know what you don't know.
But that's why you should, in a collaboration, expect long term strategy to be shared, and short term capabilities and resources to be understood by both sides. I'm very much aware that's a perfect scenario, and can't always be that way. But you would hope that there's a lot of time, that there's a lot of involvement from both sides in order to elicit the best project.”
What we also need are more creatives and voices brought on at the conceptualization level, particularly when it pertains to RPGs. There’s a wealth of cultures that lend themselves perfectly to interactive storytelling, yet the industry seems largely fixed on the Eurocentric Middle Ages and Norse Mythology. While these settings are valid and have spawned incredible titles over the years, there’s room for other ideas to be given the same AAA treatment.
“You know, one of the token replacements is feudal Japan,” Jay-Ann said. “And don't get me wrong, I love a good feudal Japan game. And I love a good medieval game set in Europe, I just think there needs to be a wider scope that games can be set. In India, in West Africa, in Ghana and Nigeria, in Jamaica, in Mexico. There's so many stories that need to be told.”
The message that active inclusivity sends is that the wider gaming community is, and should always be, for everyone. Taking steps to ensure that voices are heard and characters are created with care only improves the overall outcome. Change has been slowly materializing; we’ve seen more studios commit to improving the diversity of their content over the last few years. Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Arkane Studios’ Deathloop and upcoming Redfall all feature decently-sized POC casts, but they’re far from commonplace.
“I think a wave of innovation needs to come to the industry beyond adding a Black and Brown face to a roster of games. I think Black and Brown people deserve to be the protagonists of their own stories.”