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  • Writer's picturebonniehl

System Failure

The games industry is experiencing a reckoning right now. Racism and sexual assault have plagued the industry for years and are coming to the forefront in the midst of this historic moment of upheaval. This comes less than 2 months after I graduated with an MFA in Interactive Media and Games and began applying for jobs in games. I am vulnerable to the same horrors described by victims of race and gender based harassment, yet I have continued to push towards a career in this notoriously toxic industry. Today, I would like to unpack the roots of these issues and discuss why I am still trying to make it as a game designer.

In my first post, I talked about my early experiences recognizing racism and sexism in games themselves. I didn't encounter oppression from people within the community until I was a teenager. The summer after I graduated high school, I went to San Diego Comic Con for the first time. I made my first cosplay: Link from The Legend of Zelda. I had a great time while I was there, and many people stopped me to ask for my picture. One of these people, unbeknownst to me at the time, worked for Nintendo. A few weeks later, I was ecstatic to see that my picture was included in a Facebook album of Nintendo character cosplays at Comic Con 2013. Less exciting were the comments that accompanied my picture. People criticized not the costume, but my body in it. They all boiled down to the assertion that a Black girl shouldn't be cosplaying a white man. I got the last word with a sarcastic comment thanking everyone for paying attention to the hard work I put into my costume rather than my background before the page admins deleted all of the likes and comments for every photo in that album. At the time of that incident, I almost thought it was funny. Almost.

A year after that, the Gamergate controversy broke and I began to understand the true depth of racism and sexism in the gaming community. It wasn't just a lack of women and POC in games and game development roles. It wasn't just a few bad people leaving nasty comments on Facebook pictures. It was, and remains, an entire culture rooted in hatred of people who aren't straight, cis, abled, white men. People like me. And while this has been abundantly clear at the community level for years, there has been a bit of a disconnect from this mindset at the industry level until now. Part of the reason for this is public discourse; particularly since Gamergate, it has been incredibly easy for conversations about toxicity in gaming to focus on the gamer bro. This is the guy who uses racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs in online gaming, who review bombs games with minority protagonists (or any number of other things that he dislikes), and doxxes women who work in game development. While this person is certainly a massive problem for gaming, his image has been used to distract us from the more subtle and unfortunately common ways that similar attitudes are perpetuated from the top down.

As a graduate student at USC, I had the opportunity to learn from industry professionals within and outside of the classroom. By and large they were great people with forward thinking attitudes and kind demeanors--nothing like the image of the angry gamer described by news outlets and elsewhere in media. Knowing good people at the top who expressed a genuine desire for change throughout gaming gave me hope that while I would almost certainly face opposition and cruelty from gamers during my career, I would have a united network of supportive people fighting for and advocating with me. I still believe that to be true, but the network envision now is far smaller.

This boils down to the distinction between systems and individuals. Individually, I know a lot people including my grad school peers and academic and industry mentors who are on the right side of these issues, and I'm sure many people working in the games industry are as well. However, systems are what take away people's power and allow less savory individuals to abuse others. Despite the relative newness of the games industry compared to other entertainment and tech related fields, it faces old systemic problems: white male hegemony, the view that workers are disposable, and a culture that discourages empathy (if this sounds familiar, it's because these same crises permeate nearly every facet of western life). Taken together, this creates an environment inhospitable to minorities by:

  • keeping POC/women/LGBTQ people vastly outnumbered to manufacture loneliness

  • making it difficult or impossible to speak out about harassment by constantly reminding people that they are lucky to work in this industry and that there are hundreds of people desperate for a shot at their jobs

  • making allyship difficult or impossible using the same tactics described above to instill self-preservation rather than solidarity

  • downplaying people's experiences if/when they do speak out in order to make them doubt themselves and remain compliant

  • firing, blacklisting people, forcing them to quit, or worse if none of the above prevent them from speaking out

Despite the positive individual attitudes of game devs, these harmful systemic practices have been enforced to the detriment of minority game makers' careers (and, in my opinion, the detriment of games as a medium by limiting the scope of their perspectives). Similar patterns have also infected game adjacent areas such as streaming and esports where they have continued to fester unchecked. Given that, is it any wonder that a significant number of people who consume game-related media espouse toxic anti-minority ideologies?

Thankfully, as this new wave crests, real change at the highest levels finally seems to be on the horizon. I doubt it will come easily and I know it will be painful as events are cancelled, channels are banned, and people lose faith in their mentors, role models, and the companies where they work. However, it will take more than appointing heads of diversity and inclusion to cure the toxicity that now lives at the heart of the games industry. A few things I would like to see implemented in game and game-adjacent companies going forward:

  • increased accountability measures including accessible reporting procedures and consistent investigative practices and punishments

  • union protections for game workers who speak out against harassment

  • pay equity initiatives

  • scholarships for minority college students studying games

  • developer sponsored after school programs in minority neighborhoods to teach kids of color tools of the trade and help them build portfolios

This is not an exhaustive list of changes, and they are not enough to dismantle the toxic culture of an industry that exists within a society plagued by the same issues. However, the more we put our creative minds toward policies and practices that privilege the safety and acceptance of minorities, the closer we will get to an industry that lives up to the kindness of so many of its people. In the meantime, I hope that the victims of abuse and discrimination perpetrated by game devs and content creators feel liberated by the public rallying behind them, and that they are able to see justice served.

So now to address what I brought up at the beginning of this post: I am a woman of color fully aware of the myriad risks that working in games entails. So why do I still want to do it? There are the obvious answers: that I love this work, that I want to leave my mark on the world through games, that I want to do my part to change the industry. While those comprise a portion of my willingness to stay on this path, I'll admit that it does feel strange to be filling out job applications as scandals involving victims who could easily be me continuously erupt across the industry. In times like this, I remind myself of what has gotten me this far: representation matters. It is the mantra that I have carried with me ever since I saw Tetra get white washed. It is the reason that I studied all forms of media in undergrad and focused in on games in graduate school. This belief has become my truest, most heartfelt mission that I feel called to share with the world. And because games brought me to this realization, it only feels right to me to continue this work through them.

I'll leave you with this: last year, I went back to find that picture that Nintendo posted of me for a tweet about Black cosplay. After all this time, this was what remained:

Does this one positive comment make up for the abuse I and countless others have endured as part of this community? No, not really. But it affirmed my work, my mission, and my worth, and that is something that should be cherished. I encourage all of my fellow artists to look for moments like this in times like these and evaluate why you're here.


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