The number of Black video game developers is small, but strong
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Black pioneers in video game development have pushed the field forward. There's Jerry Lawson, who helped make video games playable at home, and Ed Smith, who reimagined consoles in those early days of at-home gaming. But even though there are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the video game industry nowadays, Black people hold only 5% of those jobs. That's according to a 2021 survey from the International Game Developers Association. But their numbers have been growing. So NPR's Brianna Scott spoke with some Black indie video game developers about how they got their start.
BRIANNA SCOTT, BYLINE: Growing up as a kid in Texas, Xalavier Nelson Jr. knew he wanted to be part of the video game industry.
XALAVIER NELSON JR: I was reading an article about Duke Nukem Forever, a kind of infamously panned video game, and it mentioned that game journalists got games for free. And I was like, oh, game journalists get games for free. That is the only job that makes sense for a child in this world. So thanks to the power of the internet, at 12 years old, I pretended to be an adult, and I got my first job.
SCOTT: Bold move for a preteen, but it worked. He began reviewing games from companies like Activision and Bandai Namco Entertainment. Soon, Nelson was writing for well-known industry outlets like PC Gamer and Polygon. And before he was old enough to even vote, Nelson had gained a lot of insight into the video game industry, like how grueling it can be.
NELSON: I decided I didn't want to be a part of it anymore.
SCOTT: But there was one thing he still wanted to try - making his own video game, even though he knew the industry had its issues.
NELSON: The problem is I loved it. I found a deep joy and satisfaction in the process of making a video game.
SCOTT: That first game he developed would start him down a path of working on various games with varying roles, from creative director to narrative designer, like on the game Space Warlord Organ Trading simulator.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NELSON: It is a virtual stock ticker and auction interface set in the far future, where you are buying and selling the one thing everyone needs and has at the end of the world - meat, organs...
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NELSON: ...Juicy, jiggly bits.
SCOTT: Or An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, which, yes, is exactly like what you're probably thinking right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You get a boarding pass, 50 boarding passes if you want. That dog has short-term memory loss. He's just happy to help you look. You look for your flight...
SCOTT: And that was sort of the catalyst for Nelson founding his own video game studio, Strange Scaffold, in 2019. He started with a $2,000 investment from his dad. That 2,000 grew to 40,000 through what Nelson says was elbow grease and the grace of God.
NELSON: Strange Scaffold has now released five games, completing our sixth, got two more at least releasing this year. That all came from an amount of money that I had been told when I started my studio is not enough to make a video game or to pay people effectively, and we've managed to do both.
CATT SMALL: We are actively giving people money to make their video games. Like, we're just trying our best to remove the barriers.
SCOTT: Catt Small is another developer and product designer based in New York City. She says access to capital is just one thing that can prevent Black people from getting into the video game industry, which is one of the reasons that Small and a fellow group of developers organized the Game Devs of Color Expo, a place to showcase their games and connect developers with the people who write checks. Small herself start coding at the age of 10. She wanted to make her own dress-up doll game.
SMALL: The thing that I really have always loved about games is the ability to become something else or to imagine different worlds.
SCOTT: One game Small has developed is called Sweetheart. You play as a 19-year-old Black girl from the Bronx going through the ups and downs of everyday life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SCOTT: Choices like what you decide to wear affect how you're treated in the game, and it highlights some of the microaggressions Black women face.
SMALL: Being a woman - a Black woman in New York City, you experience a fair amount of street harassment. And a man actually told me that he was not going to harass women or catcall women anymore after playing the game.
SCOTT: Without Black people in the driver's seat, games like that probably wouldn't exist or have the same kind of impact.
NEIL JONES: Race is a big part of games these days. I feel like the characters that we play, the people that make the games, they all kind of need to kind of represent something.
SCOTT: Neil Jones, better known as Aerial_Knight, is another video game developer who wants to see more people who look like him in the industry. He's based in Detroit, and his grandma, who raised him, is actually part of the reason he got into video games.
JONES: And my favorite thing was after she would get done, you know, working and cooking and all that stuff, she would just want to play Bejeweled. And I would sit there and watch her. And then she would give me the controller, and I'd try to beat her score. And we'd go back and forth.
SCOTT: Jones taught himself most of what he knows today about video game development. The first game he developed and published is called Never Yield. Now, if you're familiar with the game Temple Run, Jones says Never Yield is kind of similar. Set in a futuristic Tokyo-style Detroit, you play as a lost person being chased by enemies.
JONES: This one has, like, cutscenes. The player interacts with their environment. It has a lot of freedom of movement. I spent a lot of time with my friend Dan doing a full original soundtrack.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE MAN WHO OUTRAN TIME (FEAT. AUSTIN C.)")
NEIL J AND DANIEL WILKINS: (Rapping) ...In the mix. Ain't never seen anything quite like this. In a league of my own, I'm one of a kind. I be in the zone. I be on the grind.
JONES: We had rappers come in, singers come in and do - and record over that. That's not really something you see a lot of in games, especially indie games.
SCOTT: For Jones, this was his game to prove himself as a developer, and he made it all on his own dime.
JONES: I've been trying to get into the game industry for so long. Let me make my own thing. If I'm never going to make it into the game industry, let me make a perfect example of - this is what they're rejecting.
SCOTT: His, quote, "perfect example" of a game was a success. Never Yield was released in 2021 on several major gaming platforms. But Jones believes skilled video game developers like him should be further along in their careers.
JONES: By now, I should be, like, a studio lead or some kind of like - leading some massive project.
SCOTT: Many video game companies pledged in 2020 to do better when it comes to diversity and inclusion. But something I heard from a lot of the Black developers I spoke with is that when they're offered opportunities at bigger companies, sometimes those offers are below their skill level.
JONES: I don't think we'll ever be able to fix the original sin of, like, these massive studios who have hired people over the last 20 years actively not hiring Black people. We can never make up for the lost time.
SCOTT: But Jones isn't dwelling on that lost time. He's staying creative and encouraging other Black people, especially kids, to get into the video game industry despite the barriers.
JONES: I talked to so many Black parents whose kids were so interested in gaming. And, you know, I kind of just told them, like, there's a lot of different jobs in gaming - community managers to, like, project managers. He doesn't have to be a master at coding or be a master artist to kind of get into this. People say that, you know, the journey that I took was inspirational, and I never saw it like that. And so I talked to all those kids and those families.
SCOTT: Find your own space and voice, he says, and just do what you like the most.
Brianna Scott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.