Since the introduction of the Atari in the 1970s, the world of video games has grown into a billion dollar industry.
Still the teenage boy or 30-something Caucasian male living in his parent’s basement has prevailed as the image of the typical American gamer.
This is in direct contrast with studies which find African Americans, Latinx (the gender-neutral term for Latinos and Latinas), and Asians are more active in the gaming community than their white counterparts.
In 2018, the U.S. video game industry generated a record $43.4 billion in revenue.
The driving force behind the spike according to analysts is the increase in women gamers.
While women and people of color openly embrace gaming culture, there are areas within the video game world that continue to marginalize this demographic like toxic online environments, characters that are designed as a cultural streotype, and discrimination in the workplace.
In August, the gaming industry faced its “Me Too” movement with several high-profile men in the industry being accused of sexual assault.
According to a BBC report, some women developers described being groped at industry events while other claimed men had tried to lure them to hotel rooms with the promise of work opportunities.
The Times Up campaign, a group which fights sexual harassment, called the actions described in the posts as "disturbing" and "unconscionable.”
Changing The Game
“My own personal experiences gaming got me into this work,” said Kishonna Gray, professor of Women and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Gray is the author of Intersectional Tech: The Transmediated Experiences of Black Users in Digital Gaming, coming to press in 2020.
“Every time I logged on I was called everything but a child of God,” Gray told BET. “It was isolating.”
Tech journalist Emmanuel Ocbazghi recalls being met with an onslaught of racial slurs online.
“Imagine how 12-year-old me felt when I logged onto Xbox Live for the first time and was almost immediately called the n-word,” he said in an interview.
Microsoft, Sony (who makes the PlayStation) and Twitch each have mechanisms in place to deter harassment allowing users to flag others who have made offensive comments, but gamers say these guidelines fall short of providing a real solution.
Even with this reporting tool, many, particularly black men, have adopted a “no snitching” rule, Gray explains.
“The toxicity is still there. What gamers have found is that social media, specifically Twitter has been the ideal space to express the racism that occurs. They don’t engage Microsoft or Xbox at all. They just share their stories and connect with one another in that way.”
Lifelong gamer and technical recruiter Erich Pflum took his passion for games and made it into a career having recruited diverse candidates for major industry players including Amazon and Microsoft.
Pflum says companies are becoming more aware of the benefits of having a culturally diverse workforce.
“Too many times diversity candidates are being told why company X values and needs diversity candidates like them, and not enough time spent on listening to diversity candidates and their experiences in the corporate world, both positive and negative in a way that values their opinion.”
Insiders like Pflum and his colleague technical recruiting consultant Charles Creamer say there is a new found sense of urgency in big tech and among gaming companies.
“Racial and gender distinctions are consistently the biggest focuses of the largest corporations from a recruiting perspective for all disciplines technical or functional,” Creamer explained.
“There has been no better time to be a diverse candidate of whichever distinction.”
Winning more than $600,000 in earnings to date, professional gamer Dominique "SonicFox" McLean, a gamer of color who recently came out as gay and who identifies as a non binary man, has seen great success in the esports arena.
SonicFox represents one of the more dominant names in the booming world of eSports, which is covered and televised by giants like ESPN and Turner Sports. The team he plays for, Echo Fox, is one of the more successful squads in the entire industry, touting other stalwart gamers as well.
Still Gray, whose literary contributions include Woke Gaming and Feminism in Play, points out what she views as a disparity in the promotion of SonicFox compared to his white counterparts.
“SonicFox is the most dominant player in esports, but it was a white gamer,who gets featured.. on the ESPN cover, situating white masculinity as the ‘norm’ in esports,” said Gray.
In a step towards making the gaming industry more inclusive and representative of the wider population the Entertainment Software Associate (ESA) Foundation awarded minority and women students with scholarships to support them in pursuing degrees that lead to careers in the video game industry.
Tré Lannon a Junior at the University of Southern California was among the 35 scholarship recipients.
“It’s important to have people of different backgrounds sharing their perspectives. I think that adds to the games being created,” Lannon said.
With the scholarships, the ESA Foundation hopes to empower the next generation of video game creators to focus on diverse storylines and characters in video games.