Being at the Game Devs of Color Expo feels different than being at other gaming conventions. It’s looser, less focused on networking. When you talk to developers about their games, they’re less interested in making a pitch than wanting to know how you feel. It’s also looks different. White people are the minority. Here, the rooms are full of black and brown people who are making games. Omar Dabbous, audio engineer on Boyfriend Dungeon, was at the con and sounded pleasantly surprised as he said, “This is probably the most diverse group of game devs I’ve ever seen.”
This is the third year of the GDoC Expo, and its largest yet. For one sweltering day at the Schomberg Center for Research In Black Culture, a beautiful library and museum in Harlem, New York, game makers and players mingled, played games and listened to talks. Outside, the summer heat brought sweat mixing unpleasantly with the smells coming off a nearby halal truck. A man selling Italian ices would sometimes drift by, yelling, “Icy man! One dollar, two dollar!” at the con attendees getting some air. Sunshine gleamed through the windows as you checked into the event, the building somehow just as sunny inside as out. The first floor of this year’s conference was a crush of bodies. Below was a more spacious basement filled with games and a mezzanine above where attendees could watch the gaming below. The organizers offered free snacks—chips and bottles of Soylent.
Next to the halal truck and the icy man, I chatted with Dabbous. He grew up in Kuwait and started playing games with his older brother, starting with the Sega Genesis as a kid. His other great love was working with audio, so when his brother suggested he combine his two passions, it fit. He came from a “pretty well off family,” who encouraged him to follow his dreams.
“Fortunately our parents were super supportive of us trying to be creatives in the gaming industry, which is pretty uncommon for us back home,” he said. Despite that, he still faces some unique hurdles in the industry.
“Generally I think it’s just harder for someone of color to get a job, even if it’s just based on their name,” he said. “There isn’t that faith in where you come from and your background.” He did say it is getting easier than it used to be, though he also said that every single person he introduced himself to asked him to repeat his name.
“I also have to make it more white,” he said. “Make it easier on the tongue.”
The game he was showing, Boyfriend Dungeon, is a dungeon crawler where you can date your weapons. It attracted a crowd all day. Every time I swung by the booth there was someone sitting there with headphones on, glued to the screen, and half a dozen people in line to play. At one point, Dabbous said that a mother came by with her kid, who got really invested in the game.
“He tore through that demo faster than anyone else,” Dabbous said, “and she was actually really supportive of devs of color and was really into paying for indie studios and not giving her money to bigger groups of people.”
Although GDoC was mostly populated by young adults, some families had dropped by to let their kids play games and talk to the developers. When I spoke to Edwin Jack, a tall black man who painted white markings on his face as if he was a visiting dignitary from Wakanda, a young black boy was playing his game Cede in rapt silence.
The basic concept of Jack’s game is one of those smart ideas that works because he doesn’t complicate it. It’s an arcade-y beat-em-up, where enemies turn into grass when you defeat them. Wherever there’s grass on screen, enemies can’t spawn there, turning Cede into a fun puzzle of managing the space around you as you punch your way through the screen.
Jack said that he grew up in low income neighborhoods, which made it more difficult to get into game development. “It’s challenging because there’s not a lot of education in those communities for game development,” he said. “There’s no mentors or anything like that, that could point someone in the right direction that doesn’t have the money to learn how to do something like this.
“I’ll watch the [Video Game Awards] and I don’t see anybody that looks like me,” he added as the kid playing his demo defeated enemies, which turned them into a patch of lush, green grass. “I’m like, I love all races. I don’t discriminate against anybody, but we just need more flavor in the industry period.”
The kid playing Jack’s game caught on pretty quickly and only left after his mother pulled him away.
The Game Devs of Color expo is a place where social and economic obstacles to getting into development may feel a lot easier to clear. They do to me at a place like this. I’m always surprised by how invigorating it can be just to spend a few hours with people who share the same life experiences with you. At GDoC I could share jokes and horror stories about being in the gaming scene while also being a person of color and not feel as if I had to explain myself, or be a representative of my race. It’s a place you can find your mentor, or perhaps be a mentor to others. We aren’t just sharing a love of games, but a perspective on the world that can sometimes set you apart from your peers.
A few of the developers I spoke to said that unlike other conferences they’ve been to, at GDoC, they’re never asked why their games are necessary. In this environment, surrounded by people who look like them and have had lived experiences similar to theirs, their games are just accepted for what they are. Developer Miko Charbonneau of Pretty Smart Games deliberately sought out this con because of the kinds of people who attend it.
GDoC was one of two conferences Charbonneau applied for to show her game this year. She has a full-time job working on Minecraft and doesn’t have a lot of time to show off the games she makes on the side. She said that one of the goals of her game Code Romantic was to make programming feel accessible to everyone, and GDoC’s mission of diversity appealed to her.
Code Romantic is a visual novel and puzzle game that teaches you about how to code. In the half hour I spent with the demo, which is lovingly hand-illustrated by Carbonneau’s collaborator Allyson Kelley, I learned and retained way more about coding than in an entire semester of a programming class I took in college. (I also kind of fell in love with the game’s two romantic leads, and bought keychains of them both).
“It breaks my heart a little when I hear people say ‘gaming’s not for me, programming’s not for me,’” she told me. “I guess I hear a little of myself in that, when I was younger Sometimes I tell people this is the game I wanted when I was 12, which is when I started getting into making websites and things like that.”
“I’m really into role models,” Charbonneau added. “This year I got to speak at [the Game Developers Conference.] That was the first time for me, and I’m really big about, if people need to look at me to get into the industry, then I want to be there for them.”
Code Romantic is a game that embodies that spirit of tapping into the potential of people who society might easily overlook. You play as Mina, who teaches kids how to code in a post-apocalyptic future ruled by sentient machines. The resistance can take down their enemies by coding so she’s drafted into an elite squad of coders where she meets her idol, Leon. Leon acts as the face of the resistance but is absolute shit at coding. Through sharing her skills with him, they learn about each other and eventually fall in love. It manages to blend its young-adult-novel-love-story-at-the-end-of-the-world plot seamlessly into the coding puzzles, giving me just enough narrative before I switch gears into learning about variables.
Like Charbonneau, I was also the kind of person who started making websites in middle school. I taught myself HTML so I could declare my love of Sailor Moon to the world. After a while, I felt like the only other people who were into making websites were my IT technician dad’s coworkers, who were mostly white and male. I fell off and stopped coding. I wonder what would happen if I had been able to play a game like Code Romantic at that age, if I found something that appealed to my other more stereotypically feminine interests and presented a cast of characters that looked more like me than the guys that worked with my dad. Maybe I’d still have ended up as a journalist. Maybe I’d have made more Sailor Moon fansites.
Before I met up with Omar Dabbous, I took a break in the sunshine to check my phone. As I sat on a bench, a mom and her two children walked past me, having had their fill of video games for the day. The daughter, a skinny black girl dressed all in pink, was animatedly telling her mother about a game she had played. I saw a little bit of myself in her, especially as she complained that her brother tried to hog the demo. I didn’t have a community like the one that Games Devs of Color provides when I was growing up. I’m glad it’s here for her.