The Game Devs of Color Expo (GDOC) gathered in Harlem for the second year in a row this weekend to celebrate and showcase diversity in games. The one-day event coincided with LGBT Pride weekend in New York City, which seems fitting because GDOC’s mission statement is to create an inclusive safe space where people of color from all intersections of identity can share their work.
Chris Algoo, one of the organizers, said that the idea of hosting a conference sprang from the conversations and experiences the team was sharing with each other. Algoo is also a co-founder of Brooklyn Gamery, a small development studio, which hosts the GDOC. Brooklyn Gamery has released titles like Breakup Squad, an asymmetrical multiplayer game that’s still in development but available to play in early access on the indie game store Itch.io.
“We were in a room somewhere, basically in a circle of chairs, talking about the experience of being a person of color in games, as a person who creates games or plays games and some of the other stuff, like character design,” said Algoo in an interview with GamesBeat. “It was sort of like a prototypical version of what we ended up doing with the later events.”
GDOC features panels and micro-talks on topics such as organizing workflow in the Unity game engine, sound design, and writing diverse characters. The speakers came from diverse backgrounds as well. Some, like multimedia designer Ethan Redd, talked about their experiences as self-taught developers; Cierra McDonald, a senior program manager from the Xbox team at Microsoft, joined a panel discussing what it’s like to work in the games industry; and Auriea Harvey, the cofounder of the now-defunct and influential indie studio Tale of Tales (whose meandering introspective games like The Path and Bientôt l’été are spiritual predecessors to hits like The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home), Skyped in from abroad to share what it means to stop making games.
In addition to the talks, attendees could also play over 30 indie games, such as virtual reality experiences like Don’t Look Away (EOS Interactive), platformers like Even the Ocean (Analgesic Productions LLC), and tabletop games like The Ultimate Clap Back (Mot & Dot LLC). Games such as (Try To) Dress Up by Nivetha Kannan delved into the social and cultural pressure around fashion, while others like the visually striking Exposure by The Sheep’s Meow was a hide-and-seek side-scroller featuring an aesthetic inspired by the shoot-’em-up Ikaruga (Treasure).
“Our goal was to have a mixture of both pro and amateur game developers,” said Catt Small, co-organizer of the expo and co-founder of Brooklyn Gamery, in an email. “We also wanted to feature work of different types and genres as well as hear from speakers with vastly different perspectives.” She added that there was no fee for either the developers or speakers who applied to be a part of the festival.
Algoo said that there are a lot of reasons why an event like GDOC is important, first and foremost because there’s an audience that needs to be addressed.
“The one that comes to mind first is that we’ve always been here, playing video games, especially if you’ve gone to an arcade and seen lots of people of color playing fighting games, or anywhere in Chinatown, there are so many different areas full of [people of color] playing video games. But for some reason, a lot of the games and the characters out there are focused toward this sort of white male demographic,” said Algoo. He added, “So we wanted to create a space where other kinds of games and other kinds of game developers are visible.”
Small added, “The games industry can often feel exclusive, especially to people of color and others who are unfairly marginalized. Events like the Game Devs of Color Expo help to even the playing field. We are giving people of color in games a place to feel normal, inspired, and hopeful. By sharing information that is often kept secret, we can help keep people of color in games and encourage those who are interested to join the industry.”
GDOC is still a small, grass-roots conference, but it is growing. About 200 people attended the inaugural GDOC last year, and this year, the attendance doubled. A handful of children and families also attended the expo, giving GDOC more of a community feel.
“I think ‘professional’ environments often exclude younger, and older, people,” Small said of the GDOC’s diverse crowd. “One of our goals was to make sure that we inspire both working-age and future generations of people to participate in the industry. The expo is an amazing chance to find role models AND show parents of color that game development is a viable field for their children.”
It also speaks to the GDOC mission statement, which prominently highlights its zero-tolerance policy toward harassment and emphasizes welcoming everyone who might want to come. Its planning committee took things like accessibility and representation very seriously, making sure to include closed captioning for every talk and all-genders restrooms.
“[We also] tried really hard for a good gender balance in the speakers, and to present people with a wide array of experiences and different skill sets,” said Algoo. He added, “The community response is probably the main reason why I do things like this. The outpouring of appreciation and feedback is really amazing, and I’m really glad to be able to provide something that makes people feel safe and represented and hopeful about games and game development.”
Especially after Gamergate exposed a particularly ugly backlash against women in games, diversity has been increasingly discussed in the gaming and in the wider tech industry. There were some larger industry players at GDOC, which received sponsorship from Xbox, GitHub, and others. Avalanche Studios (Mad Max, Just Cause 3), Amazon Game Studios, and the International Game Developers Association also had vendor tables set up to discuss things like possible partnerships and job opportunities.
“I think one of the best things that a larger event could do is to have a diverse planning committee,” said Algoo. “Have people of color, have women. It’s one of the best ways to one, make sure you’re doing something interesting; and two, to make sure you’re not doing something terrible and offensive.”
When asked what he thought about the mainstream games industry and whether or not it’s making strides to include more representation, Algoo seemed cautiously optimistic.
“Something that I’ve been finding kind of encouraging is that we’re seeing more POC protagonists, in even the like biggest, triple-A-est games,” he said. “You play a person of color in the new Assassin’s Creed, and there was Watch Dogs 2. This isn’t all games and we definitely have a long way to go, but it’s really encouraging to see things like that.”