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How Does Ethnicity Influence Game Design?

Ethnicity in Game Development

Catt Small, of the Brooklyn Gamery and Code Liberation Foundation, and Asia Hoe, working on their five stages of grief action game at Global Game Jam 2014

“My ethnicity affects every aspect of my life, the same as it does for everyone. How I view the world, how I communicate, how I feel and think. It affects your world lens.” – Renee Nejo

Over our recent series of articles on women of color in game development, we’ve spoken with game developers from many different backgrounds about their games, accomplishments and advice for up-and-coming game developers.

One aspect of the conversations that stood out was the discussion of ethnicity, and how it affected the game developer, and game design.

I spoke with twelve developers: five Black women, four Latin/Hispanic women, two Asian women, and one Native American woman. Though they each had unique experiences, they all agreed that they do not see many women of their particular ethnicity in the industry, much less get to work with other women of their ethnicity.

And isolation affects their career.

“The first time I had the opportunity to write code with another black woman was twelve years into my career,” said Angie Jones, developer of Diva Chix.

“Imagine going twelve years of your life without working with someone who is the same gender and ethnicity as you are. That does something to your psyche. That causes you to feel like an intruder…someone who doesn’t belong. This self-doubt can affect your work performance and overall satisfaction with your career,” she said.

Renee Nejo, a freelance game artist and designer, agreed.

“I don’t see them. I believe they are here, there has to be more than just me and Elizabeth LePansee,” she said.

“But I really don’t see them. It matters. I don’t choose whether or not it does. It just does. When there is a presence of others around you that already know what it’s like without you having to explain it, it matters. When there is an absence of people who know what it’s like, it matters. You feel that either way.”

While it is obvious just from these conversations (and from my own experiences in game development) that diversity and representation matter, that could be said of any industry. No matter where one works, feeling like an outcast or minority will probably have an effect.

But the video game industry is unique in that it is ultimately a highly interactive form of entertainment or art. It is a way to play and to tell stories. Even the words “video game” can mean vastly different things, depending on who one asks.

So does being a minority affect game design?

The answer is yes, but in both positive and negative ways.

Diversity Creates Opportunity

People from different ethnicities have the opportunity to bring new ideas and skill sets to the table.

Ashley Alicea, founder of GameDev Latinos, considers her ethnicity a boon in the gaming world.

Angie Jones

Angie Jones

“It’s absolutely been a benefit to be bilingual and multicultural in the workplace. From tailoring game content for Latino audiences to creating marketing copy in Spanish, my skills and experience with Latin American communities has been valued by the companies I’ve worked for,” she explained.

Jones agrees. She believes her unique perspective is the bright side of being a black woman in a field dominated by white males.

“My background is different, my culture is different, my interests and hobbies are different, and therefore, my thought process is different. This different world-view is what has led to the creation of my twenty patented inventions,” she said.

The opportunity to bring in a different viewpoint or to tap into new audiences is a significant one. With so many games on the market, being able to bring something new to the table is not something to be taken for granted.

Diversity Serves as Inspiration

Christine Forbus, co-owner of Super Duper Game Company, uses folk tales to inform modern storytelling.

“Being Hispanic, I grew up with my grandpa and mom telling me all those wonderfully creepy Mexican folk tales–things like La Lechuza and La Llorona. I love those stories, and they were always told with that air of reality,” she reminisced.

Christine Forbus

Christine Forbus

“I’ve been playing around with infusing that type of folklore into the storyline of Black Ice. And the cyberpunk universe lends itself so perfectly to stories like that. There’s so much gray area in cyberspace. Things that are half real or half true. It’s perfect,” she explained.

Nejo and Gabriela Aveiro-Ojeda also mentioned using their background for inspiration.

“Blood Quantum is my love letter to my heritage. It’s my story,” said Nejo. “It’s about the most heartbreaking part of being Native for me. It’s about watching it disappear, and learning that there is very, very little you can do about that. My bloodline is precious to me and I never would thought to make Blood Quantum if I had a different background.”

“It’s one way that I keep my culture alive, in relation to myself, and it’s also helped me find a particular art style that I like,” Aveiro-Ojeda explained.

For these game developers, diversity inspires creativity, and includes the opportunity to introduce people to a unique cultural experience.

Diversity is Not a Checkmark

Although many of the developers mentioned the positive aspects of being different, there are also negatives that come from looking at diversity solely as a tool, rather than as the experience of human beings.

According to Aveiro-Ojeda, it can be frustrating to hear people refer to her culture as her “brand”.

“My culture is my life and my inspiration, but I would never label it as my ‘brand’,” she insisted, “mainly because it just doesn’t fall into that category. I find it disrespects the memory of my ancestors who carried this culture with them.”

Companies and co-workers must remember that there is a living, breathing person on their team.

Renee Nejo

Renee Nejo

Nejo said that her ethnicity often caused her discomfort in the industry.

“I love my life experience and a big part of that is coming from a different place than most of the people I am around. But being one of the few Natives in games, I have felt far out of my comfort zone,” she explained.

“At times it has felt a little ‘outside looking in’. What’s interesting, is that I don’t typically carry that baggage with me throughout my daily routine. I don’t notice that I’m the only Native in the grocery store or the only Native in the restaurant. But at conferences, I’m a female, bi-sexual, Native American game dev,” she said.

Nejo also pointed to the awkwardness of discussing the caricatures of Native Americans that have been the norm for years.

“The portrayal of Natives in stories has been abysmal for ages, with few exceptions. Games are no different. But discussion about it is very hard for non-Natives. There’s a lot of guilt there, and most people prefer to just distance themselves from it,” she explained.

Catt Small, co-founder of Brooklyn Gamery, noted the stress of minorities being expected to constantly champion the cause of their people.

“Sometimes marginalized people feel like they need to keep fighting, even when they’re tired,” she said.

“Being one of a small number makes a person feel like they can’t leave, because no one else will fill the void. But they shouldn’t be required to endure hardship for the sake of existing in this industry,” she said.

While ethnicity is a very important part of identity, game developers who feel like they are fighting an uphill battle may feel pushed to leave the industry, resulting in a loss of talent and viewpoints.

Diversity Feeds Diversity

One way to combat the fatigue of being a minority is to bring more diverse people into the game industry.

Lauren Scott

Lauren Scott

Many of the game developers, such as Sandra Honigman, Lauren E. Scott, Ciara Burkett and Ishki, expressed their interest in creating relatable games.

“Being a brown woman and Latina, I bring my identity into all my projects” explained Honigman. “I want to make things that people like me and others can see themselves in. I want to make things for my community. It motivates me knowing that if I succeed, I might be able to influence other women of color to make games.”

“When I’m designing, writing, coding, whatever, I think about a player that is similar to myself, and what they might like, understand, or find fun. And whenever I think about ideas for games I’d like to make, myself, they usually contain some kind of rhetoric that is representative of my experiences with the world, through the eyes of someone who is black, female, who loves games, and a host of other things that define me,” said Scott.

“It has pushed me to write inclusive material, to make safe spaces for everyone, and to tell unique stories with decolonized content,” Ishki said.

“Nearly every protagonist of my games is a black woman, and I do this in an attempt to showcase the diversity of our stories and lives,” said Burkett.

Diversity is Important

Malika Lim

Malika Lim

Kari Toyama, who works at Valve, and Malika Lim, a game dev, believe that greater diversity will help strengthen gaming as a whole.

“People are fascinating and the game industry is filled with so much talent, it would be a complete waste to not take advantage of that,” said Toyama.

“I think an industry that is geared towards making experiences should be comprised of people who have lived a diverse range of experiences that includes people from different cultures, ages, genders etc.” explained Lim.

“But that also includes people with a diverse range of interests, strengths, and thoughts as well. I guess what I’m saying is that I’d like to see more diversity and inclusive environments in the games industry as a whole, and I’m concerned that the lack of representation discourages those who would otherwise bring their unique life experiences to a powerful medium,” she said.

“Really, the more we are open with each other, the better our experiences are,” Toyama pointed out.

Sarah Rodriguez
Sarah Rodriguez is the author of Marvel’s Agent Carter: Season One Declassified and the co-host of Woman Up! Podcast. Catch up with her on Twitter @SarahTheRebel, or on Twitch at twitch.tv/sarahtherebel
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Sarah Rodriguez
Sarah Rodriguez is the author of Marvel's Agent Carter: Season One Declassified and the co-host of Woman Up! Podcast. Catch up with her on Twitter @SarahTheRebel, or on Twitch at twitch.tv/sarahtherebel

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