Being Black while Gaming and Developing

Illustration by Alamarii


Full disclosure: while I am half Native American, I present and pass as white. That said, I wanted to make an effort to give voice to people in the gaming industry whose voices often go unheard. So I interviewed four Black members of the game development community—some queer, some not, some veterans, some new.

The first person I reached out to was Tanya DePasse, the brilliant director of I Need Diverse Games, a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization dedicated to better diversifying the gaming industry. I Need Diverse Games is currently fundraising and you should check it out.

Illustration by BeckaLiz


Tanya offered several powerful reflections of the issues facing Black and queer people in the industry. Geekdom has often been (or has been portrayed as) a white dominated subculture. The controversy surrounding Donald Glover after he was suggested to play Spiderman is only one recent example. She had this to say:

Being queer, Black and geeky is a balancing act, a fine wire to tread across as we go through life. Standing at the center of those intersections gives a view on the world that isn't always what we like to see. There's often the erroneous idea that Black geeks and nerds don't exist. Thankfully, there are a lot of groups disproving that fact, as well as Black Twitter and Blerd communities growing in visibility and reach.

When you add in being queer, you start to feel like a unicorn. It can be disheartening to see yourself "represented" only in stereotypical, trope-ish ways if you get to exist in media at all. It's been painful at times to miss your own skin in games, movies, TV until recently. But it seems that we can't get to a fuller view where we have characters being queer, Black and geeky without caveats or two out of three, and the rest being left up to fandom around the media to explore and bring fill in the gaps the creators left.

The next person I talked to was Bran Schaffer, whose reflection on a shift from game development to academia offers a unique perspective. They felt comfortable with offering up their identity as bisexual and genderqueer.

Raine: In games, queerness is often denied. In recent years, though, there's been this look at Black characters often coded into stereotypes or tropes. How are games challenging this?

Bran: I'm not sure if there's effective challenging of stereotypes in a broad sense just yet, but there are a lot of people (such as Shawn Alexander Allen and others) from within the community bringing this up in talks. Maybe that has to be where it starts: talks leading to thinking, and thinking leading to action.

I noticed you moved into academia. Did the often white male dominated game industry trigger your move away from games?

I was in school before I entered the game industry, and I am in school after my near decade of being in games. The thing about white males is that they are everywhere, though they may have different attitudes/positions depending on where and when you encounter them. Usually folks' reasons for leaving games are manyfold. For me, the instability was a big factor. Employment by project is all too common, making folks feel like they're no longer useful or valued when one project is over. Another reason was being treated poorly because I was being perceived as a woman (I am nonbinary). White males in this equation were a feature of core problems, but not necessarily the core problem itself. Gatekeeping can be a huge problem, however. If it wasn't for a friend of mine encouraging me to apply for a QA role, I probably would've never done it, or even considered working in games, despite my passion for them. I probably told myself I didn't have the experience, wasn't good enough, etc., before I took a chance on applying."

I wish I had more time to interview Bran. I feel they have a multitude of perspectives to offer. They're not afraid to speak their mind in a way that's refreshing.

Teriann Khargie is a wonderful woman I had the pleasure of spending time with at my last GDC. She is cis and identifies as straight. She offered such an objective experience of trying to find a place within in the game development community, and had a way of speaking and conveying what she said in a captivating way. Though she now works outside of games, she takes time to work on games at Cat Splat Studios on the side. If you'd like to follow her on Twitter to keep an eye on amazing talent, I wouldn't blame you, especially after a game like Bathrobe Samurai.

Raine: For me, my native identity intersects with my enjoyment of games. Do you find yourself in that position also? Such as headdresses or odd stereotypes will often make me dislike a game.

Teriann: Yes, unfortunately, for a long time I felt that being offended at any stereotypical character in a game was being oversensitive, because growing up with a mixed heritage made me feel like maybe I just didn't understand the position. But as I became more exposed to people of color in games being written off as stereotypes (and as I became more secure myself) it became harder to get into those sorts of games, because I couldn't ignore the double standards and development of what I was told were "safer" or "more marketable" characters over others.

That was a wonderful response. OK, next question! In recent years, there's been this look at Black characters often be coded into stereotypes or tropes within games. How do feel games are challenging this?

Sorry just to clarify, do you mean how are today's games challenging those tropes? Or do you mean because there has been a light shined on those tropes recently, how are people now challenging that?

Both. Though perhaps, now that a light has been shined on these tropes, how games and creators of games, are challenging these?

I think I will hear about this more than experiencing it first hand, just based on how we approach "believable" or "likeable" characters. For example, when you look at the diversity ratio (or lack thereof) of playable characters in AAA games, you constantly read/hear interviews with writers who don't feel comfortable writing characters they don't themselves identify with, may it be gender, race, etc. I think that there's some truth to that as an artist, you end up taking from your experiences. I think there is a lot more dialogue and even demand today for diversity in games and game development that wasn't there before, and I think that's how developers challenge that: Breaking down more barriers that stand between those voices creating the characters to challenge those tropes. I feel this has already started, I mean from the talks at GDC last year where you could have such a platform to discuss this is one of the many ways that can be moved forward."

Diversity can be really awkward in games. Many individuals who fall outside of being a white cis man, describe at times feeling very alienated. Do you find yourself in a similar position? Or do you find yourself being able to navigate the industry more comfortably?

I think the awkwardness of this makes it more important to address. It's important because I've actually been asked for the "other" perspective in academic settings when there was a person of color up for discussion before, and I thought that it wouldn't get worse than that: Being expected to have a particular opinion when you look different, and almost needing to be granted permission to talk about it. But in my experience navigating networking and social situations in this industry has sometimes been worse, perhaps because being a "younger" industry there sometimes doesn't seem to be room for that particular dialogue yet. I think the rise of interest groups and safe spaces is very important to encouraging that dialogue, but that it's not quite there yet for me navigating those situations outside of those groups."

Image by Teriann


Rejon Taylor-Foster, founder of Maximum Crash, was in the middle of the Train Jam, an annual event leading up to GDC, In which developers spend the course of a train trip from Chicago to the San Francisco Bay Area creating games. I was honored that he took time to answer my questions. He is cis and identifies as straight.

Raine: For me, my native identity intersects with my enjoyment of games. Do you find yourself in that position also? Such as headdresses or odd stereotypes will often make dislike a game.

Rejon: I find that naturally we all have a need to enjoy our environment and ourselves in unique ways many may not have thought of. Since we were kids we didn't exactly know what "playing" was. We simply performed the act naturally. I find that my culture definitely plays a big part in when or how much I indulge in playing games. Of course, there are those games made to be socially unjust as a means of pointing out something funny we don't completely understand or even as far as appropriation of a culture as a means of being "cool."

In recent years there's been this look at Black characters often be coded into stereotypes or tropes within games. How do feel games are challenging this?

I'd say there's definitely more of a conversation around Black characters being slotted into stereotypes. Most of this is because of a lack of information, basing information on stereotypes, etc. Just a lack of research into creating a character we have no relations with. I've always wondered if developers stopped to even ask a person of color about how they would be represented on such content. Because there's so much conversation around the topic of Black characters with stereotypes we are starting to see more games tackle the issue (ie. Watch Dogs 2, Mafia3).

Something I've always been skeptical of is whether they are creating more diverse characters as a means of pandering so they can cash in on something that is important to folks just like you and I. It's hard to put a single answer to something like this because it's nearly impossible to place the motives of big developers whose sole motive is to keep the lights on.

Diversity can be really awkward in games. Many individuals who fall outside of being a white cis man, describe at times feeling very alienated. Do you find yourself in a similar position? Or do you find yourself being able to navigate the industry more comfortably?

Imposter Syndrome is something a lot of people who don't fit the white cis man slot experience, including myself. It's hard to sit in a room with people I don't feel I could have a serious conversation with. It's as though nothing I would do with this person would ever be genuine because there is this stigma, a weird smell in the atmosphere, where we have to tip toe around the "Oh right, you're Black" bit.

I'm still a student and I've got some experience in the game industry and tech industry. Alienation comes in waves and it's not just white vs Black or even cis vs LGBTQ. It goes down in those communities as well. Alienation for not being the norm, not being what people expect you to be. If I had a penny for how many times I've heard "Oh you should be more like this, you should do this, etc." I'd be a rich man, Raine. Growing up being really big, Black folks expect me be in sports. When I tell them I'm an engineer I get: "You're big for nothing." Of course, this is a very specific case, but I'm sure not being enough for what we identify with translates across the world.

Image courtesy of @mxmcrash


Rejon offered a brilliant perspective on being both a gamer and someone new to the game development industry. He's definitely someone to keep an eye on, you can find him on Twitter @Maximum_Crash. For a look at the company he founded you can check out

Khristan Yates is a quality assurance engineer mainly in the medical software space. Primarily she work for a consulting company. She is an avid geek, and nerd within the Chicago sphere. She felt comfortable sharing her identity as a bisexual woman.

Raine: For me my native identity intersects with my enjoyment of games. Do you find yourself in that position also? Such as headdresses or odd stereotypes will often make me dislike a game.

Khristan: Yes! Oh dear god, yes. Nothing turns me off from a game faster than a sassy black friend or an ignorant "baby mama" stereotype. To be honest, that's what turned me off of Pokemon Sun and Moon. The bad guys were way to close to 90s hip-hop culture.

Oh? Care to elaborate any further?

It seriously drives me batshit when I want to play a game, spend my hard earned money and find a stereotype. I just paid 40+ dollars to be insulted. It makes me wonder if that's really what people think of me. Is that really what I'm up against? People are playing this, and when they come in contact with my family is this what's running in their mind? Why is this even entertaining? Who even approved this nonsense? Then when we speak on it, we get told that we're sensitive. I play games to escape from reality, so when I come across negative tropes and stereotypes about Black people? It hits like a ton of bricks in the wrong spot.

In recent years there's been this look at Black characters often be coded into stereotypes or tropes within games. How do feel games are challenging this?

I'm happy to say that the gaming industry is taking steps to correct a bit. It's not often a game will dive into racism and send you against the KKK. Even in the Vita version of Assassin's Creed, you could play a Black woman combating racism, albeit in a more physical sense We still have a long way to go, but creating dialogues like that help. I'd love to see more visibility for all minorities. I'd love to be those characters and "live" those stories.

Diversity can be really awkward in games. Many individuals who fall outside of being a white cis man, describe at times feeling very alienated. Do you find yourself in a similar position? Or do you find yourself being able to navigate the industry more comfortably?

It's a bit of both. At times yes. It's extremely isolating. I grew up in the projects of Chicago. Walking into the office, nobody looks like me, walks like me, talks like me. I'm literally standing for my entire race, and if I make a mistake, I know somebody is liable to use it as a reason not to engage anyone who so much as has my skin tone. It's an odd balancing act of knowing when to be the Black QA and when to be the QA who happens to be Black. Then you have days where you meet another outsider and you commiserate, share an eyebrow raise, and things are OK with the world. I was fortunate in my first job to have an amazing manager who understood that I was the odd one out and looked after me quite a bit. I know he shielded me from a lot, and he's part of the reason I stayed in this space. When you're a tech minority a support system is vital. I've been lucky to have an amazing one. A lot of my success is because of them.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I guess just to the minorities who read this. You aren't as alone as you think. LGBTQ tech is here and we're amazing. Don't quit, and feel free to reach out to your support system. They love you because you're amazing.

Khristen can be found on Twitter @KhristanYates. She's also active in Chicago's tech scene. As you can gather from her responses, she has a charismatic enthusiasm to her thoughts. It was definitely an honor to interview her.

In fact, it was a huge honor to talk with all those who took time out of their busy pre-GDC set up to reflect on the growth the industry needs to better communicate across cultural lines. It highlights the importance of creating space for diversity to grow within the game developers community.

Raine's picture
on March 20, 2017

Raine is a Non-binary Trans advocate who is an avid gamer, nerd, geek and fringe queer burlesque performer. They work primarily in Tech/Video Games.