The video game industry is as prone to systemic oppression as any other. Developers of color, and perhaps particularly Black developers, face an uphill battle for employment, let alone creative expression. With this series of features, DBLTAP hopes to highlight the creations of Black developers working to tell their own stories through games in this monthly series. Check out our previous entries here.
On Dec. 10, 2021, IGN published a report titled "The Battle for Bungie's Soul." In it, more than 20 current and former employees described the studio as a breeding ground for toxicity spanning "overt sexism, boys' club culture, crunch, and HR protection of abusers, as well as more complex stories of microaggressions, systemic inequalities, and difficulties in being heard." Managers were described using racial slurs, berating employees, and indulging in all manner of inappropriate behavior.
It was a familiar story, told over and over in the games industry about any number of top companies. As part of a larger reckoning, it was absolutely essential. But for some of the Bungie employees working to improve the studio from within, it was also painful.
Kareem Shuman joined Bungie in 2016 as an Embedded Audio Test Engineer. He had studied medicine in school, but he took online classes in audio design and found enough work on indie game projects that he was able to put together a respectable portfolio. He even worked on a game that shipped for the Wii U, the 2014 title Sportsball. That was enough to get him in the door at Bungie.
The decision to jump from medicine to audio might have been scary, but Shuman says it also made plenty of sense.
"I knew I wanted to do something creative, technical, and complex," he said in an interview. "I figured I could have pursued audio in a different industry, but videogames have been a big part of my life since I was a child. Once I realized that such a career existed it was too appealing to ignore."
Since joining Bungie, Shuman has transitioned into working as a Technical Dialogue Designer, where he's spent the last three-and-a-half years tooling away on Destiny's dialogue. But as a four-year member and current president of the Bungie Diversity Committee, his work extends beyond Destiny and into the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion.
The Bungie Diversity Committee (BDC) works as a framework in which employees could discuss issues related to diversity and work toward improving conditions within the studio. It led to the hiring of the studio's first Diversity & Inclusion Lead, who then worked with the committee to create Inclusion Groups. Once Shuman was on the committee, he took the opportunity to form Black at Bungie, the first official Bungie Inclusion Group.
Shuman describes Inclusion Groups as a system where "employees could self-identify and easily group up to uplift their own specific community." As the founder of Black at Bungie, he's played an important role in establishing the kind of work Inclusion Groups can do.
For Black at Bungie, that's meant a heap of accomplishments supporting Black people in and outside of the industry. The group sponsored the Game Devs of Color Expo in 2020 and 2021, providing networking and growth opportunities for Black developers across the industry. It worked with the Bungie Foundation and the Destiny product design team to create the Be Heard pin and emblem for Destiny 2, profits from which went to the Equal Justice Initiative. It even came up with a comprehensive internal document for Bungie designers to refer to when designing and writing for Black characters, noting tropes to avoid, providing pointers on visual design and highlighting examples of strong Black characters.
In the future, Shuman is looking forward to the return of in-person events and co-working. He wants Black at Bungie making appearances at events such as Blerdcon and AfroTech, collaborating with Black Girls Code and Black Girl Gamers, and even working with other Employee Resource Groups across the industry.
Of course, Black at Bungie doesn't just include Black employees. Allies are welcome to join, and Shuman says their help has been invaluable for the group's work. But they're asked to prioritize Black voices whenever possible. Of course, racial identity is a fraught issue, and appearances can be deceiving.
"We do not want to assume the race or ethnicity of someone based on appearance. And we don't want to categorize individuals by making them check a box when they join," he said. "Instead, it is more of an honor system." Provided everyone acts in good faith, allies can be productive members of the Black at Bungie team.
Since the establishment of Black at Bungie, several more Inclusion Groups have sprung up at the studio. They include Trans at Bungie, Women at Bungie and Accessibility at Bungie. Each has its own community, and new Inclusion groups can be formed at any time. And though all these different groups might threaten to undermine cohesion at the studio, Shuman says they're all in constant contact with one another, with the Bungie Diversity Committee at their foundation.
"Inclusion club leads are asked to attend BDC meetings, so we can all stay on the same page. Once we're back in the office there are plans for co-sponsored events that will focus on intersectionality. For now, a lot of what we're doing is helping each other via discussion and support."
Shuman says he's learned a lot through his time working on the BDC and Black at Bungie, from project management skills to better communication strategies. But what sticks with him most is a newfound appreciation for the sustained struggle of the marginalized, and how each community reflects the others.
"Away from work I've become much more invested in studying and understanding the history and current events that affect underrepresented communities in our country, not just the issues that affect me personally," he said.
With that growing historical awareness, Shuman and his teammates on the BDC are doing their damnedest to better Bungie. So when IGN's report initially claimed the BDC had been shut down, he and his colleagues were hurt.
"I felt it was my responsibility as the BDC President to call out an incorrect statement regarding the tireless work that our members have put in since the group was originally founded," he said.
"To say that Bungie leadership judged the Diversity Committee as 'ineffective and shut it down entirely' is simply not true and was hurtful to those who are already not being recognized enough for their additional responsibilities regarding inclusion, diversity, and equity."
And slow though change may be, Shuman says it's coming.
"I think Bungie's come very far over the last few years," he said.
"We aim to keep making strides and hopefully become an industry leader in this space."