A couple weeks ago, I got to go to the Game Devs of Color Expo in New York City, and I have to say it was quite the experience. While I’m not a developer myself, gaming is my preferred sector of nerd culture. And for the unaware, I’m a person of color. Add these factors up and this was an event I needed to attend.
Luckily, and full disclosure, I was provided a press badge for entry.
Although they had a similar event in the past, the Brooklyn Gamery considered this their first official go at the event. The expo was held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem; this event wore its pride on its sleeve. This was only my second time in the city, but I felt welcome and comfortable around the whole area and event. My main draw in being there was to preview some indie games that were in the pipeline or were newly released. Having a semi-decent pulse on the industry, I was familiar with a few of the projects and a few of the devs, so it was nice to finally put voices and faces to names. It was exciting to play games that I’d only heard whispers about until then, and fascinating to experience games that I’d heard nothing about until the event: there were so many ideas that I wouldn’t have considered. Every game I played was innovative in some kind of way, either through novel mechanics, charming characters, or re-imagining ideas we’ve seen before in a fresh way. For instance, a game called Even the Ocean involved keeping a health bar around its midpoint, rather than completely empty or completely full. Card Witch featured a Black witch with incredible fashion sense. Treachery in Beatdown City turned a beat-em-up into a tactical, turn-based RPG. The games were set up on three separate floors, with games of all types. Some games had displays or decorated tables, while others were simply on a laptop on a table. Neither style seemed to be necessarily better or worse, but all added to the general atmosphere of creator-focused messaging.
The expo also featured microtalks and panels about various aspects of the gaming industry. I didn’t get to catch them all (there was so much to do!) but I did see one of the later ones. The panel was about music and choreography in video games, and how it affects gameplay and bringing games to a non-gaming audience. The main topic was that composing music and orchestrating movement was the common thread between the music and dance industry and the video game industry. The skill sets transfer over quite easily. There were musicians and developers on the panel, so the back and forth discussion opened some great doors. The talks are also available through the Brooklyn Gamery’s YouTube if you wanted to catch this discussion or the many others. Another great feature of the talks was that the conversation was typed onto the screen for the hard of hearing, which was a great step towards inclusivity and accessibility.
Speaking of inclusion, the event was hugely inclusive. One of the first things I noticed when getting my badge was the space to write in your own pronouns. Rather than being restricted to circling two or three options that might not cover an exact identity, that was left open. Continuing this trend, the restrooms were also designated as gender neutral. (The facility didn’t make this distinction in its construction, but signs were put up to ensure this was the case.) But it wasn’t just the event itself; the developers and attendees also represented a diverse set of people. There were developers of many races and ethnic groups, genders, and sexualities. (I always like to point out that cis white guys showed up to see the games and they weren’t turned off despite not being catered to, no matter what the AAA scene says.) I talked to one of the organizers, and they said there wasn’t necessarily a concerted effort to get the diverse gender and sexuality developer attendance that they did, which in hindsight they should have, but it was good to see that the turnout was inclusive anyway. I think when you foster such an environment, diversity will naturally occur, but I agree that it is something that should be pushed for regardless.
Overall, the event was a great time. Of course I got to network and experience some great games, but this expo meant much more to me. For one, it was the first event I actually covered in any sort of press fashion. But more importantly, it felt like a celebration for people of color. Of course this was work for the developers, but such an inclusive event in such an “obviously Black” location made me feel welcome. I go to a lot of anime conventions, and while they aren’t necessarily openly hostile, you sometimes do feel ostracized. Whether it’s the fact that so many anime and video game characters are a skin tone I’ll never have, or the occasional 4chan flag someone wants to wave around, they don’t always feel like places I’m supposed to be. This expo was different; not only was I invited to be there, it felt like I was welcome and was supposed to be there. It wasn’t just that some of the characters looked like me — I played a game where you had to dress an Indian girl up in a way that would please her strict parents before going out, and plenty of other games had player characters of different races and genders — but that there wasn’t a hostility towards diversity. I think Brooklyn Gamery did a fantastic job with the Game Devs of Color Expo; I hope they get to host many more events like this, and I hope I get a chance to attend them. I always say that representation matters, but it matters even more when people roll their sleeves up and enact action. This is the kind of action the game industry needs.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!