As many year-end articles will remind you—not that you needed reminding—2020's been rough. That made it harder than usual to pick specific people for our annual list of influential game-players. Anyone who brought a smile to a friend, a loved one, or even a stranger this year by playing a game with them did a wonderful thing.
In years past, we’ve highlighted pro gamers, speedrunners, modders, hackers, and even those two guys who discovered that No Man’s Sky didn’t really launch with multiplayer.
This year, we’re highlighting four people who combined playing games with activism in their hopes of making the gaming world—or really, just the world overall—a better place.
Entries for our honorees have been written by freelancer Robin Mosley and Kotaku senior reporter Nathan Grayson.
Amira “Xmiramira” Virgil
...the innovator who pushed to make Black visibility in the Sims community a priority
The Sims series owes a lot to players like Amira “Xmiramira” Virgil, who is one of the series’ most influential content creators. She’s an EA Game Changer, which means she’s part of The Sims publisher’s community program that highlights top players and contributors. And she’s put that platform to good use. In 2020, in collaboration with other game changers, EbonixSims, CatherineSims, Mia Zaff, and Rio, she helped improve Sims 4 gameplay by collaborating with EA and ushering in new skin tones that helped underrepresented Simmers feel seen. This happened only after Virgil and her peers spent years speaking about a lack of Black Sims content.
If you don’t know her by Amira, then you might know her as Xmiramira or Mira, an incredible advocate who is beloved by a lot of the Sims community. In 2020, the dynamic content creator, joined the inaugural season of Sims design reality show Spark’d and won alongside her teammates in their final challenge, where they demonstrated their relationships with Sims to create a story personal about all three of them. Her teammates decided to make the final challenge about Virgil’s relationship to the Sims from childhood until now.
The Spark’d winner also contributed to The Black Futures Project, an anthology that is all about asking and answering the question “What does it mean to be Black and alive right now.” In the book, Virgil discusses the community she created for Black Sims players, The Black Simmer.
Virgil has centered Black voices and create safe spaces for Black people to be, well, Black. She’s done that despite microaggressions from unwelcoming Sims spaces that disregard the need for Black hair, skin, etc. Virgil has heavily influenced the way Sims players think about and enjoy the game. She has inspired younger creators to make their own way in this industry.
All that she’s done for the Sims community paid off, because she recently signed to a women-led gaming lifestyle company Queens Gaming Collective that will try to even the playing field in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. Virgil’s star shines so bright, there is nothing she can’t do next. — Robin Mosley
Danielle “EbonixSims” Udogaranya
...the trailblazer and designer who helped put Black UK Simmers on the map
Danielle “EbonixSims” Udogaranya has worked to put a spotlight on Black UK streamers and Simmers. In the Sims community, EbonixSims also known as Ebonix has been a huge champion for diversity, inclusion, and representation.
Udogaranya runs her website where her incredible work is on display. What Udogaranya is known for is her incredible hair designs tailored to Black Sims. From braided updos to sleek ponytails, there is something for everyone who’s interested in diverse hairstyles across the Black diaspora.
As an EA Game Changer, she was instrumental in fixing a longstanding issue of accurate representation in the Sims community regarding December’s update on skin tones.
The UK-based content creator and Twitch Partner has not only fought for representation in games, she also spoke out on #EndSars and the BLM movement to shine a light on the mistreatment Black people face globally. Udogaranya’s use of digital activism this year has been pivotal because what she’s done is uplift Black voices globally.
Udogaranya is also the founder of BlackTwitchUK, an organization that promotes Black streamers online. BlackTwitchUK is known for raising money for important organizations through the collective power of gaming. Its last fundraising event was for SpecialEffect, a UK based charity that helps gamers with physical disabilities play games.
Her reach matters because what she creates is a representation of what she sees as the beauty of Blackness inside and out. And the response from people has been positive. From T-Pain to less famous people, everyone has found her content central to their gameplay.
My custom content experience started with Udogaranya’s content. Her website was the first place where I saw culturally relevant Sims and I haven’t looked back. I am grateful for her work and dedication in the industry and she continues to be an inspiration for younger Black Simmers/content creators making their way through the industry. — Robin Mosley
Tanya “Cypheroftyr” DePass
...a advocate for diverse games who rallied support for racial justice
During a year defined by unrest, the country’s simmering rage boiled over at the beginning of summer, when police murdered George Floyd in broad daylight, just like so many Black people before him. As protests raged in the streets, companies flailed about online, performatively making amends for failing Black users since... forever. This forced both Twitch and the streaming community to look inward, to varying degrees of success (and little in the way of long-term change), but as a result, Black streamers briefly received some long-overdue recognition. Amidst this backdrop, Tanya DePass, the director of the non-profit I Need Diverse Games put on a tremendous Animal Crossing marathon stream. In the stream, she raised nearly $200,000 for national nonprofit The Bail Project, which works to pay bail for people in need and, ultimately, end the cash bail system entirely.
A few months later, DePass—alongside a host of fellow developers and performers—launched Into the Mother Lands, a sci-fi tabletop RPG created entirely by people of color. Sessions on her Twitch channel proceeded to pull in big numbers, sometimes passing the half-million total viewer mark—an important success, given the difficult-to-ignore strain of whiteness that runs through other popular tabletop streams. All throughout, DePass also spoke on numerous panels and performed in and produced D&D actual play stream Rivals of Waterdeep, which also gave the spotlight to people of color.
The streaming ecosystem—and the gaming industry in general—has repeatedly failed Black streamers and viewers, but DePass, her collaborators, and those she’s inspired continue to upend the status quo, even as big companies—the alleged stewards of the platforms DePass and countless others broadcast on—do the bare minimum to meaningfully assist them. — Nathan Grayson
... the leftist streamer who turned Twitch into a destination for political coverage
Hasan Piker was hardly an unknown quantity on Twitch at the beginning of 2020, but this was inarguably his breakout year. The outspoken leftist’s coverage of the presidential election in some cases competed with major networks in terms of viewership. However, unlike those buttoned-down broadcasts, Piker brought a relatable authenticity to the proceedings, translating major national events and politically charged Twitter spats alike for an unruly audience (Piker affectionately jokes that he “babysits” the viewers who call his stream home).
During a time when the internet didn’t produce content so much as it vomit-birthed a quivering, undifferentiated mass of the stuff every several microseconds, Piker’s stream provided an essential service, curating the madness in a way that isolated what mattered. He did this in a decidedly modern fashion, digesting politics one browser tab (out of a frankly preposterous number) at a time. As current Vice (and former Kotaku) staff writer Gita Jackson put it: “Piker’s appeal is not just in what he says, but in how he presents information. While your parents were most likely watching CNN’s John King tap around an electoral map on a giant touchscreen, Piker sorted through exit polls and early reporting the same way I did: clicking frantically between tabs of different news sites, YouTube streams, and various chats.”
Not long ago, conventional wisdom said that politics was a no-go zone for Twitch streamers—at least, if they wanted to maintain their viewership. In part thanks to Piker, that is resoundingly no longer the case, with many other streamers big and small now also dipping their buckets into the political well. All of this culminated in October with one of the biggest political events of the year: Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar streamed Among Us alongside Piker, Imane “Pokimane” Anys, and many other top streamers. The event was a huge success, drawing millions of viewers over the course of its runtime. Since then, AOC has engaged with Twitch even more, as have other politicians like Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh and, most recently, Georgia senatorial candidate Raphael Warnock.
Piker also sometimes plays video games. — Nathan Grayson
Those are our picks. Want to celebrate other influential gamers? Please mention them in the comments below.