Many people still think that being a gamer and a Black woman is a juxtaposition. It’s not. We’re not unicorns. Just like in any other industry, there are content creators, industry professionals, and consumers, and Black women can be found in all of these categories — but they’re often overlooked, underestimated, or outright ignored. So Black women are taking their spot in gaming for themselves.
If you’re not familiar with gaming, let me briefly explain how we got here. Gaming started with simplistic classics like Pong, and in their infancy, games were aimed at a broad audience who just wanted to play and have fun. But after the video game crash in the 1980s, the industry essentially said, “Fuck it, let’s just focus on white men and boys.” And after decades of game creation and marketing geared toward men, here we are in 2021, with the majority of the highest paid gamers being white men. Not to mention that the workforce in the industry is also dominated by white men. According to research from the University Of Sheffield, only 28% of game developers in the UK are women and only 10% of game developers come from BAME backgrounds. And unfortunately, with this came the foundation of a toxic misogynistic culture, which companies overlooked and sometimes encouraged with their early marketing — just look at one ‘90s Playstation advertisement.
As the social climate changed to become more critical and vocal about racism, sexism, homophobia, and discrimination, some companies have vowed to change, but only after hitting rock bottom. In July, a lawsuit filed against Activision Blizzard by the California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing alleged the company long facilitated an environment of harassment, discrimination, and a toxic “‘frat boy’ workplace culture.” The suit led to an outpour of horror stories on social media that exposed what often happens behind game creation. Some triple-A companies have started to hire experienced chief diversity officers, who slowly but surely hope to tackle the ingrained bias internally and in their games.
But many gaming companies are still struggling to hire, and retain, Black employees which means, beyond the marketing, the culture isn’t progressing. Just 6% of video game developers in the US are Black, according to Zippia, so it doesn’t take long to look under the surface and see the dust is still under the rug. Brands are still enabling toxic content creators or work environments where marginalised people can feel as though they are collateral damage as we’ve seen with recent revelations about Activision. There’s still so much to do, and it seems the industry only reacts to current events, such as the murder of George Floyd, rather than plan for a better future. Despite changing demographics and efforts from within to create more inclusive spaces, Black women still aren’t visible and have long been ostracised, ignored, and underpaid.
The space is democratising. But rather than the companies that make millions, it’s creators-turned-entrepreneurs who are doing the necessary work to address the lack of transparency and seemingly unclosable gaps in gaming.
In 2015, I started Black Girl Gamers (BGG), a Facebook group-turned-community-powered organisation whose mission is to provide Black women with visibility and equity in gaming, and what I’ve seen over the years is nothing short of Inequity 101. I had no idea what it took to create a community-powered company, but all I knew is I wanted to create a platform for change, and I learned those skills from being an influencer. So when an issue reared its face, I sought to tackle it via social media or the press, vocally challenging the status quo much to the dismay of anime-avatar racists on Twitter. Our focus began on heightening the visibility of Black women content creators and challenging the lack of Black women characters in games. Since then, the industry has seen a huge increase in playable Black women characters and Black women streamers who cite BGG as being the reason they started to stream.
It was becoming notoriously obvious that increasingly visible Black women creators and streamers were struggling to navigate the new conversations they were having with brands. Influencers in any industry have a hard time pricing up their work; there’s uncertainty, a lack of transparency, and also egos all added to the mix. If you multiply that with an industry like gaming, where things can be last minute and super janky, you end up with creators who underestimate their worth. So we created the solution. In addition to conferences, workshops, mentorships and consulting, Black Girl Gamers now runs its own talent agency for Black women gamers, a first in the industry. We have since brokered women for TV shows, podcasts, and partnerships with brands like H&M, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Captain Morgan, and Netflix.
Another area that was vanilla through and through was gaming PR. Whenever a new game or product comes out, there are few popular Black creators who are repeatedly cherry-picked, if at all, to test gear and receive new products and gifts. That’s why the work of people like Stephanie Ijoma, founder of Nnesaga, is so necessary. Ijoma has teamed up with Timi Ofarn of The Nerd Council to create ION agency, an influencer marketing agency that works with brands to introduce them to a diverse and inclusive group of influencers. Other creatorprenuers have inserted themselves into the industry such as Brandi JaVia, founder of Brown Girl Gamer Code, who is now community manager of Glow Up Games, the studio behind the upcoming mobile game for HBO’s Insecure. Influencer Xmiramira has created her own network, Noir Network, to share her knowledge to fellow content creators on how to progress in the industry.
Through our endeavours, we’re closing the gaps — but the industry still moves at a tortoise’s pace. On any given day on Twitch, you’ll still see mostly white men promoted on its front page. Or, as revealed in a recent Twitch leak, you learn that white men streamers make up most of the highest earners on the platform. This long-standing cycle of lack of discoverability further contributes to a lack of possibility for more Black creators to reach this peak.
So while we wait for the industry to catch up, Black creatorprenuers are shouldering the responsibility and creating a new wave of businesses that will give them a fighting chance to be seen and heard.