Yeah, Being Black and Liking Video Games is Still Surreal

Jeffrey Rousseau
Momentum
Published in
13 min readJul 4, 2023

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Black teenager playing video game | Photo by Ron Lach via Pexels

When I think about the contributions of professionals such as Muriel Tramis and Gerald “Jerry” Lawson, I remember Black folks have been a part of video games forever. However, despite the seen and unseen work of Black professionals over the years, gaming can feel like a surreal exclusionary experience when you’re Black. In one of my chat groups, we regularly discuss how when we mind our Black ass business. Gaming all on its own will remind you it’s “allegedly” sexist, racist, homophobic, and fighting for dear life to be the same.

To quote a friend: “It’s tough to love a hobby that doesn’t necessarily love you back.” That’s the Black experience across so many things.

Truer words have never been said. So I was tasked with trying to make sense of it. Although I am talking about serious topics to many people, it will be mostly tongue-in-cheek. These opinions are mine to share. This isn’t to devalue or gloss over the contributions of Black gaming professionals who are upholding the status quo. Anyway, let’s move on to some examples of why being Black and liking video games still makes you go hrmm~

It is like that.

Last year I downloaded a game, Dislyte, that looked kinda fun; a big cast of characters, different magic powers, and nice art. “Sign me up,” I thought.

As with most games like it, you can recruit characters and yadda. So eventually, I pulled the first Black woman I saw in the cast. So, her magic powers were mostly physical…hrmm okay. They were also particularly beastly — uncomfortable meter rising yet? Before you ask, her powers do not look like Vixen from DC Comics.

Okay, so here we have a dark-skinned woman who has animal limbs and is super strong physically — mmm. So I stared at this and thought…is this racist? And after 5 seconds, I uninstalled the game and never returned.

I honestly don’t know why I questioned whether the character development was driven by racism. Pretty game, but yes, that was still racist.

Voice acting 101?

Two or three months ago, I saw a Twitter thread about an actor, and they put out a press release saying, “I’ve made a mistake.” So what happened? This voice actor, who I’m assuming is white, shared that they landed two roles for Dislyte.

One of these characters was clearly a young Black girl — looking like Lunella from Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur. The other role was for a presumably East Asian character. After getting backlash from people, the actor announced that they only turned down the Black character’s role. This was an interesting case study. For one, this non-Black person was fine with auditioning for a Black character, and then the studio and or recording company was like, “yeah, this is it.” So again, this prompted voice actors, some Black, to chime in. In short, the industry is far from equal and remains very lopsided when it comes to who gets voice opportunities. And Black folks just want the opportunity to have fun in their career field.

Personally speaking, it’s funny to me that in 2023, when “things are getting better,” characters of color are still voiced by white talent, a trend that will likely continue. Have you taken a look at the newest Legend of Zelda voice actor credits? You should. It’s just one of those things, you know?

Online gaming and more moderation

Some of the best and worst examples of the gaming experience is arguably time spent online gaming. Most people would love to simply play the games they like online.

Are you Black, playing online games with random people with voice chat on? Yo, you brave as hell — salute — I’m joking…partially?

Black people, particularly Black femme folks, often express how public online gaming can be… what’s the word…a cesspool — virulent with sexism, racism, homophobia, and more.

Some people will say, “That’s how things are,” “Get a thicker skin,” and whatever else they say. If you believe receiving abuse is a normal part of online gaming, you’ve been conditioned — congratulations.

The process of training or accustoming a person or animal to behave in a certain way or to accept certain circumstances.

Huh, I guess that’s why people have to curate, vouch, and create their own vetted online gaming communities. To maintain, I don’t know…safety, sanity, and peace — No slurs and isms hurled at them? Now that’s paradise.

Online gaming isn’t all that great, so yes; it has to be treated with the utmost priority. Don’t you think so? Okay, um, back in December 2022, the Anti-Defamation League said that, for the fourth year in a row, harassment had increased.

Nah? Still not enough? Okay, in March, the lead congressperson who wants to know how these big companies are combating extremism was largely disappointed with their responses. Shocking.

When you stop and think about it, things were terrible online when we were little. Things are bad still and arguably, if not worse, now. Sure, these companies have moderation policies, but is it enough?

Be for real. Would you completely trust the guardrails in place now to keep Black children in a safe online environment? As someone who writes about these things for a living, and knowing what I know, there’s o way I could trust things as they are now. This is more than people being asked to be “tougher” when called slurs online. The racism that people experience online is linked to real-world harm. Black gamers have been saying this for years.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion…

How do I feel about DEI in the games industry when it comes to Black people? First, yes, it is better now than it was a decade-plus ago. I remember that time; 10/10 would not recommend PU.

Secondly, let’s get the numbers out of the way; a 2021 IGDA survey said that 5% of its respondents were Black. Are you sitting down? You may need to for this shocking revelation. The games industry is still mostly white — I know, I’m sorry, friend. It’s been maintained, and gatekept has been operated as such for decades.

So when I think of DEI and the games industry at large, I often think of that scene on Family Guy where a card with six skin tones is held up, showing that people with lighter complexions were considered “okay” while darker complexions were labeled “not okay.”

Thank you, Family Guy, for this consistently relevant screenshot |

DEI inspired real conversations as people from the margins demanded more and called out the discriminatory industry, a tireless effort indeed. Conversations and efforts for “improvements” have been going on for decades. Despite it all, we should consider, “how likely is it now for Black folks to get into the gaming industry?” Will luck or skill sets help them cross the finish line? Stares into the camera.

When you read a report or listen to a person discuss a company getting more diverse and hiring more people like you, it’s often described as a “work in progress” or “difficult.” I often laugh at such an assessment. If my eyes weren’t attached to my head, they definitely would have fallen out with all the damn rolling they’ve been doing for years. Because far too many companies try to look like something they aren’t.

If you need a reminder, the gaming industry isn’t uniformly welcoming to women, LGBTQIA+ people, and less so for melanated people with intersecting marginalized identities. It’s as if the White people at the helm of the gaming industry never considered that all kinds of people exist in real life and would enjoy playing. Industry events are not as welcoming as they should be. For example, “Game writer and developer Leena van Deventer reported that women at GDC were ‘belittled and undermined in their roles, been hit on relentlessly, and had their drinks spiked by predatory men.”

Also, new well-funded studios are also not what I would call diverse. The people that receive big investments don’t look like your family cookout. Nah, for real; look up the photos of new companies. Don’t you just love it when a dog is the only brown person in a company? Great inclusivity right there, bravo? “We encourage people from marginalized communities to apply for this position,” have become empty words.

I recall that one of my peers said the industry at large has made a particular kind of people the face of diversity. Hint, it ain’t Black people or colored folk in general. I’ll leave that up to you to think about who the face of diversity is and has been. But I’m tapping the sign again; DEI includes racial and religious minorities, people with a queer identity, etc. Many leaders within the gaming industry do not incorporate intersectionality, and it shows.

Yo, I lost count of how many times I’ve seen people rightfully point out how the best of intentions aren’t enough when the spaces are still overwhelmingly white. By the way, if noticed, mentors in the industry are overwhelmingly white. However, experiences and knowledge aren’t all transferable or useful to everyone in the same way.

It’s no wonder that smaller, independent game studios and organizations made by people of the global majority are so fundamentally different. In this environment, the games do not center on white, cis-hetero, and male sensibilities. But the whiteness in the industry makes this feels radical when it’s just a reasonable approach.

Games Media

Oh, games media, what can I say about my career field? Well, it’s complex for a number of reasons. For one, so far, it's been tough to be media; there have been over 17,000 layoffs across media since 2016. Even before the waves of job losses, I can say that as a full-time Black games journalist, I am a rarity. That’s not hyperbole; that’s just a fact within this specialized field of journalism.

A question for you: Think about your favorite big games media platforms across everything. Next, how many people on staff or who make regular appearance aren’t white, male, and cis? Then, how many of them are in senior positions such as editor, lead editor etc? I bet you that short ass list huh? — Bet you that list even shorter when you think about Black people

My hrmm moments don’t happen at my job; it’s cool over there. What I find interesting about a career working at a big website is there’s this air of “everyone need to be the same” — it’s like a weird country club, and I don’t like country clubs.

Photo by Desola Lanre-Ologun on Unsplash

Yeah, I’m in a community with people and respect a lot of other folks’ work. But why should I need to constantly remain in some kind of bubble to be good at my job? I have other hobbies, concerns, and priorities like any other person. Gaming isn’t even the number one thing on my mind — Rent is expensive. Secondly, I enjoy finding new music. What’s your favorite album of 2023?

But what do I know? I’m an award-winning journalist (thank you, BIG), so I must be doing something right. I do enjoy learning about and profiling organizations and people that aren’t interested in being reflective of the dominant culture in gaming (whiteness)— shrug. I’m taking this time to once again say thank you to video game content creators. Are they journalists? No. However, they fill a space that traditional media doesn’t touch. “PS, y’all raise your rates; you're ahead of the culture curve.”

I don’t really consider myself a part of the gaming industry, despite being in media — I’m a Haitian dude from South Florida. Again, let’s be real. The largest platforms don’t exactly do the best and consistent jobs of rejecting homogeneity or embracing people who look like me. The conversation came up again during the Summer Game Fest. The only things that were different about those in attendance were the type of flannel shirts or blazers + jean combos they wore.

Unless people get called out repeatedly, things won’t change in the gaming industry. But again, this is an industry that panicked when faced with the 2020 racial reckoning. Like so many others, gaming companies issued press releases pledging to do right by Black people in response to our trauma and protesting.

But like so many times before, we know what happens with promises companies offer to Black people. “Alexa, play Fleetwood Mac — Little Lies.”

Representation, I guess?

Drum roll — And for the last talking point, I wanted to explore representation in the games themselves. So it’s said that representation matters…except when it doesn’t.

Yes, praise the universe; games are more representative of different people and cultures now than decades ago. More people from different communities and identities have been able to create the games they want and wanted. The needle has really moved, thanks to the lower barrier of indie games.

But for AAA games? Now strictly talking about Black lead games? We have probably seen the most work on that front in the last five to six years. The list is still rather short for single-player games. Shooters and battle royales hold us down, though.

I’m going to use the example of Final Fantasy 16 when it comes to representation in games — relax, I’m not telling you not to buy the game. This, to me, is interesting in multiple ways. The development team said that they were fans of Game of Thrones, and thus the game was inspired by that. So, despite the franchise’s thirty-five years in the industry, FF16 is yet another game to be heavily influenced by white medieval fantasy narratives. What was really different here is the thing was said out loud — not once but twice.

As others have reasonably argued, the game director parroted talking points from the worst kind of people in defense of their chosen fantasy game. Hell, researchers even said the “historical reasons” were wrong. I’ve seen arguments range from this isn’t new to the developers being oblivious to racial dynamics. But they knew. I’ve also seen people chop others down unnecessarily during this. I’ve seen my very talented peers get called everything but a child of god and have harmed wished upon them. And for what? Trying to do their job and offer people some criticism — and people wonder why I don’t care what the public thinks about my work. I’ve also seen people challenged about whether or not they cared about better representation in games as they claimed.

Because one of the biggest counterpoints to the FF16 conversation was, if everyone was supposed to care about representation in games, why didn’t they purchase Forspoken? Which was released in January of this year? — *Hrmm intensifies*

It’s interesting because, sure, the game had problems with how it controlled and ran. It took a couple of patches. Does it star a literal magical Black woman in a fantasy? Sure, but the story was written by a team of white writers, and yeah, there were zero Black women in its development…outside of the lead actress.

Okay, yeah, this Black woman starts the adventure looking at her own rap sheet. And yeah, not a lot of Black critics thought it was a good game. But if we all care about representation in games so much, why we didn’t buy the game about the Black woman they suggested? And if FF16 did have people of color, would it get the same criticism for not having folks of different identities involved in its development? Now, if you really do care about supporting Black-made and other games from people from marginalized communities, keep an eye out for indie games. That’s where you’ll find them in abundance. For instance, South of Midnight is a game starring a Black woman, developed in part by Black femmes, and very much nothing like Forspoken and FF16-.

As someone who spent the last seven years educating themselves and writing about media representation from a lens of Blackness, I’d rather walk barefoot, in triple-degree Miami summer heat, on the concrete — than voluntarily subject myself to discussions about Black representation in media with people whose range starts and hard stops at “I have a Black friend” — What? Am I being too dramatic?

How many Black voice actors can you name that aren’t Debra Wilson, Cree Summer, Phil LaMarr, and Keith David?

Saving the best for last

Yes, I get a kick out of criticizing and calling out what makes gaming fantastically exclusionary as much as acknowledging the good. I still have to sit back and get real. Even if everything I mentioned were better, that wouldn’t stop the inequities we face in medicine, housing, LBGTQIA+ stories, livelihoods, etc. That being said, games do and can help people get through the day, feel excited, and serves as a communal hobby for many. So it means a lot, and there’s value in that too. I mean, I have a job in it, so there’s that.

We’re ending this long-ass write-up on a good note, I promise. So I wouldn’t be able to throw shade or do my job if I wasn’t inspired and impressed by others. The following is a list of some of the Black folks doing fly shit in the gaming space.

Dr. Kishonna Gray — Author, professor, and advocate
Black Voices in Gaming — Highlighting Black developers
Dames 4 Games — A platform dedicated to spotlighting women in games
Black in Gaming — Recognizing the work of Black gaming professionals
The Unapologetically Black Gaming Podcast — Good podcast
Loopbreak.gg — A gaming website tailored to Black folks
Jordan Minor — His book Video Game of The Year drops next week
Black Games Archive — A database of Black culture and games

Back to my thesis, so how do you love something that doesn’t necessarily love you back? Even when, at worst, it treats you like an unwanted stranger? I guess the answer has always been the same; you create something that allows you to enjoy it. While also holding it accountable — you know, the stuff Black people have always done.

One last thing before I go. BIPOC, or people of color, is not a synonym or alternative word for Black people, or dynamics that almost exclusively effect us. Be specific. But don’t worry. I’ll be here to remind you.

Stay Black

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Jeffrey Rousseau
Momentum

I bat for PoCs, marginalized, equality, inclusion & geekdom. I'm warming the bench until coach subs me in. https://linktr.ee/jeffreyrousseau