In a 2005 study, the International Game Developers Association found that black people only make up 2 percent of the industry’s workforce. A decade later, that representation isn’t much better.
But game development does have some notable black creators — like Revelation Interactive Studios founder Dennis Mathews. He has worked in the industry for more than 10 years, and he is now actively working to increase the representation of minorities in the game-creation process. At the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Mathews led a roundtable discussion with fellow developer and game design professor Derek Manns that dealt with issues faced by black people who make games as well as fans of the medium as a whole. The two highlighted a number of concerns that the assembled crowd of developers elaborated on, and the consensus was that it now is the best time for young black people looking to learn how to develop games. The reason: Important creation tools like Unity, Unreal, and Source 2 all available to everybody for free.
“Over the last 10 years, the number of black game developers has only grown by half a percent, according to the IGDA,” said Manns. “Having accessible software is one of the first steps [to address that].”
At the same time, Manns explained that the game industry cannot just throw free software at the problem.
“We have to get to informing not only potential students but their parents, because game development is still considered a kid thing,” Manns said. “Being able to educate those parents to let them know game programming can lead to a successful career.”
But the accessibility of Unity and Unreal means that young black people no longer need to wait for a more welcoming industry. They can start making games right now, and that’s something that Mathews views as necessary.
“The industry isn’t going to look for something that is out of its norm,” he told GamesBeat. “They’re looking to maximize what they’re already doing. So if we want to see more diversity in game development, these diverse communities need to come out with their own stuff and show the industry it is a model that can work.”
At the same time, Mathews recognizes that not everyone can afford to put their lives on hold to develop a game. And the low number of black developers is a signal that taking a chance on making something on your own may not pay off.
To solve that issue, Mathews says that publishers and console makers need to step it up with some small level of incentives.
“Incentives are not always the solution, but in this case it’s a good way to get press and inform young people that they could get something out of learning development,” he said. “Like if Microsoft or Sony — or even an EA — says hey, here’s a $5,000 award for a game jam about diversity. A lot of kids would love to do that.”
Another option for an incentive is potentially free publishing help where young developers submit their games and get the chance to see their creations sold digitally on a store. A big reason that few black kids consider game development as a career is that it just doesn’t seem possible that they could sell a game. That’s where Mathews wants Activision or Nintendo to step in with guidance.
Mathews went on to explain that a lot of underprivileged people cannot afford to fail.
“They have to make money to put food on the table,” he said. “So having incentive and support is very important. But it’s not always about the money. It’s also important to have someone there when you fail to say that’s OK. You can try again. When you’re in the middle class, it’s easier to find those people to say that’s OK. But when a lot of people who are part of lower-income families fail, they’re going to hear, ‘OK. What are you going to do next because you have to put food on the table.'”