Gamers Like Us
© Petra Eriksson
The Red Bulletin profiles four people who are using their talents and love of gaming to create a far more inclusive community.
Published on The Red Bulletin
To true fans, video games are about community—about connecting people despite barriers like language and distance. But like all communities, there’s work to be done. Consider that 46 percent of gamers are women, yet they compose just 22 percent of the industry’s workforce. The overwhelming perception is that gaming is primarily straight, white and male. But increasingly, those from other backgrounds are combining their love of gaming with their talents and drive to create a far more inclusive community. Here are four of them.
GENEVA HEYARD, 20
Student; New York City
When I was in high school and finally found games that reflected me, I was like, 'Wow, this is great. Where has this been all my life?'
While playing video games as a kid, Geneva Heyward (who prefers the pronouns “they” and “them”) felt bad for Mario when he fell into the lava. Heyward was fascinated by how their choices could change the fortunes of characters in visual novels. And they got super attached to a robot in a cyberpunk adventure game. They just wanted that robot and its friends to be happy.
It was this sense of connection and constant interaction with storylines and characters that made Heyward—a tech-savvy kid who loved storytelling—pivot from an initial dream of being an animator to being a video game designer. And the games they create today make use of that interaction to tell stories that foster awareness.
While in high school, Heyward attended two game design programs—one at New York University and one at the School for Interactive Arts—and won two national student competitions for their game, Green Hero. “It’s a game about a hero without powers trying to fight climate change,” says Heyward. “I was just worried about the world. A lot of crazy stuff was happening, and I was thinking, OK, I could just make people more aware about it. But I wanted to do something more, and be like, ‘Hey, you can do something as simple as turning off electronics to help the Earth.’"
Heyward has since won numerous additional awards and recognition for their games, including for one called Skate and Date, a roller derby game about high-school-aged lesbians, in which players are helping a girl named Maggie dodge other skaters while impressing a competitor she has a crush on. “I made sure there’s a diverse cast of characters, and I wanted it to be an E for Everyone type of game,” says Heyward. “When I was in high school and finally found games that reflected me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is great. Where has this been all my life?’"
Heyward now teaches at the School for Interactive Arts while studying video game design as a sophomore at New York University and has received consecutive Computer and Video Game Arts scholarships from the Entertainment Software Association Foundation. The scholarship program supports the next generation of video game developers by providing tuition, mentorship and access to industry events for networking opportunities. It’s a program that Heyward says gives them hope for what they call a “very messy” industry, in part because of its lack of diversity and inclusivity.
An industry they say could benefit from more diversity in playtesting games, consistent recognition of preferred pronouns and gender-neutral restrooms at events. “I want the games industry to change for the better,” says Heyward. “A game came out last year that had a character-naming screen that was worded, ‘What’s the name that your parents gave you?’ And that’s not OK at all. The industry needs to acknowledge that different types of people exist.”
Heyward intends to make that happen. They plan to work for a small studio, making fun games with knights and dragons and stuff, but games that are inclusive and “not super cis white male straight and whatever.” Games that raise awareness about the many ways people live this life; that can help all of us understand ourselves—and each other—a little better.
ANASTASIA STATEN, 40
Executive Director, ESA Foundation; Washington, D.C.
If we want change we have to create a network where we're nurturing talent, bringing women into the industry and retaining them.
I want to champion people with passions,” says Anastasia Staten.
Staten serves as the executive director of the ESA Foundation, the charitable arm of the Entertainment Software Association. The foundation leverages video games to create educational opportunities for kids and provides funding for schools and nonprofits across the country. It has also partnered with Red Bull to create We Are, an initiative to connect, educate and inspire women from diverse backgrounds in the gaming community.
“I sometimes cheekily refer to it as cradle to career,” says Staten, meaning her empowerment of dreams starts with the very young. Staten will go into middle school classrooms, ask who loves video games and watch nearly all the hands go up, then watch half those hands go back down—often along gender lines—when she asks who wants to make games. They don’t like science, they say; they’re not good at math. “I’m not good at math either!” she tells them. But do they also love art? Fashion? History? Do they want to be a makeup artist, run a production crew or be a lawyer? All these jobs—and more—exist within the gaming industry, she tells them. “We try to get them to think outside the box and show them role models,” says Staten. “Many of these schools have a lot of underrepresented students, so if you see it, you can believe it. You can be it.”
High school kids who become ESA scholars receive money for tuition or other college expenses, and for attending industry events where, among other things, they’ll get mentorship from professionals, which can end up launching their careers. These are the students, Staten says, who embody what she never quite had growing up—a singular, life-defining passion. “To play a part in removing the economic barrier to a quality education and giving them access into the industry so they’re in the best position to get a job,” she says, “is the most fulfilling part of my work.”
But she admits that money alone will not fix the problem of underrepresentation. “If we want change, we have to create a network where we’re nurturing talent, bringing women into the industry and retaining them,” she says. The We Are initiative targets college students and those who are early in their careers and hosts events that connect them with each other and with professionals in gaming and esports to promote networking and mentorship.
“One of the primary challenges is that people do not feel like their voice is valid because they’re women, and part of why certain cultures develop [while others do not] is the lack of diversity,” says Staten. By sharing their experience and expertise, the female industry veterans of We Are are inspiring the next generation, who will further diversify those cultures for the better.
Facilitating this kind of cradle-to-career-to-change trajectory is Staten’s passion—a passion she’s turned into her life’s work.
AMANDA STEVENS, 32
Esports journalist, host, analyst; Troy, New York
If we're pushing to make esports more mainstream, it needs to represent the community. The industry has a diverse fan base, and you'll get so much more out of them if you meet them where they are.
She calls herself the Esports Unicorn.
For Amanda Stevens, the moniker had something to do with her previous gamer tag, SageGnosis—gnosis is Greek for “knowledge”—being too hard to remember and even harder (for some) to spell. While contemplating a new one, she decided that since unicorns were her jam, and since people had gotten used to seeing the colorful Tokidoki Unicornos with the oversized heads pinned on her backpacks and clothing, the tagline made sense. But the name captures much more than her love of mythical creatures.
“I’m a marginalized person twice,” says Stevens. “I’m African American and I’m also queer and trans. There are not a lot of queer, trans, black people in esports, especially in the content creation sector.”
Stevens has coupled her work as a multimedia journalist, host and analyst with her background in diversity training (she was a student coordinator for the University at Albany Safe Space Program) to make a niche for herself in the gaming industry. As a former judge for the card game Magic: The Gathering, she didn’t always feel safe or comfortable at the game’s bigger events. She began holding seminars at judge conferences in both the U.S. and Canada on how to make game stores and tournaments more inclusive. The seminars attracted the attention of the Organized Play Foundation, a global organization that regularly brings gamers together, and Stevens helped influence the group’s policy changes on behaviors that warrant a game loss in Magic tournaments.
“Being misgendered five, six years ago wasn’t culturally considered threatening language, and [offenders] only got a warning,” Stevens explains. “Imagine you’re a queer person and someone is being completely homophobic to you. Well, that wasn’t considered threatening language [either], and the most the person got for it was a warning. How does that make you feel at a Magic tournament? I became very staunch and very loud about [how] this policy does not work, not just for queer people but across the board.”
In esports, Stevens is just as vocal. She uses her platform to talk about systemic racism in the industry like the use of transphobic language, and how the inherent expenses in online games—a dedicated computer and fast internet—contribute to a lack of diversity in esports. At conventions she works booths for organizations promoting diversity and inclusion and sits on panels to discuss the many ways women are increasingly contributing to the gaming world, not just as team managers or streamers but as business devs and CEOs. Right now, she says, her project is challenging organizations to make their LGBTQ and POC event activations more honest and meaningful, beyond just token uses of pride colors in June.
“There are trans people, bisexual people, asexual people, and people in those communities don’t think the rainbow is this great signifier that unites us. Or maybe it’s Black History Month and you’d like to see someone who is mixed represented. If we’re pushing to make esports more mainstream, it needs to represent the community. The industry has a diverse fan base, and you’ll get so much more out of them if you meet them where they are.”
DANIELLE UDOGARANYA, AKA EBONIXSIMS, 28
Content creator; London, England
Hairstyle is my main content because it's one of the most important things to me in real life. I wanted this content for a long time, so I'm happy to share it.
Well, since it’s not there, I’m going to make it myself.
And with that thought, Danielle Udogaranya, aka EbonixSims, decided it was time to start making content for The Sims 4, a life-simulation video game. Content that would allow her to make characters that look like her, represent her culture and embody her experience as a half-Nigerian, half-Bajan (her mother is from Barbados) woman living in London. The first thing she made was a dashiki—a colorful, loose-fitting shirt commonly worn in West Africa—and it was not easy.
“The first time I opened Blender [an open-source 3D creation suite], I closed it down straight away,” says Udogaranya. “I was like, ‘No, not today.’ ” She laughs. “But I always tell new creators don’t be scared to try new things. You just have to have patience.”
That was five years ago. Today Udogaranya is a Twitch partner, a recipient of a 1000 Dreams Fund Twitch BroadcastHER grant and a full-time content creator also known as EbonixSims, who is beloved by her community for the hairstyles she creates—braids, locks, curls, Afros—which she has long made available for free download.
"Hairstyle is my main content because it’s been one of the most important things to me in real life,” she says. “Hair is something in black culture that is just amplified. Like when you have a really nice hairstyle, it’s always commented on first. I wanted this content for the longest time, and so I’m happy to share it.”
Describing the response to her work can leave Udogaranya briefly speechless. She is overwhelmed with gratitude. She likes especially to talk about the woman who messaged her about her niece, describing how much the girl loved The Sims but never created one that looked like her because she herself didn’t like how she looked. The woman asked if Udogaranya could create a certain hairstyle for the child, and when she did, the woman wrote to say her niece had fallen in love with her Sim self and wanted her own hair done the same way.
Udogaranya could relate to that girl. She remembered playing The Sims 2 as a 13-year-old and being unable to make characters that reflected her. “It made me feel bad about myself, like, well, I don’t have hair that people care about making. So I was able to change how a little girl perceives herself, and that will sit with me always. Always, always.”
She thinks the industry may be listening, noting that The Sims now includes more representative hairstyles. “For me, it’s the element of having to pay for that content that makes it feel a little like a microaggression,” she says. “It’s like, ‘OK, we’ve made it, but now you have to pay extra for it, just to make a character that looks like you.”
But she is hopeful. And she’s thinking about the future, about her own role in ensuring that everyone can see themselves in games. Something along the lines of a chief diversity officer but not just for a single entity. For the whole industry.
"All companies could tap me for advice on being inclusive when it comes to content creation,” she says. “And I could say, ‘Hey, it’s not quite right. This is what you need to do.’”