SHAWN ALLEN LOOKS FORWARD AND BACK ON DIVERSITY IN GAME'S CULTURE
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
By Jamaal Ryan Writer's note: This article was originally written on The Zero Review
Hip hop isn’t a genre of music that you hear in games often – let alone gaming conventions. But game designer Shawn Allen opened his PAX East 2014 panel How Urban Black and Latino Culture Can be the Next Frontier in Gameswith All I Need is You by Ghostface Killah, a song about the hardships about growing up in a urban community, which set the tone for his discussion.
Though both Shawn Allen and I were raised by single mothers in New York, our childhood stories are nothing alike. As a Black male and raised upon welfare by his white mother on the Lower East Side in NYC, Shawn Allen is no stranger to socioeconomic struggles. Gaming on Tiger handhelds, Gameboys, and working odd jobs to pick up N64 games were his methods of hobbyist preservation. Going to school for visual arts – which his mother advocated for his school to accept him as a minority student – Shawn spoke about being one of the few Black students in his entire program. Being the exception followed him into his first gig at Rockstar.
Call me naive, but I’ve always valued Rockstar as one of the few developers to cast minority leads, and illustrate minority representation in their games. Allen has a different take, showing this trailer for Red Dead Redemption and criticizing it for its theme in having a white male lead be the “savior” for this “savage” culture of Spanish Americans. I asked Allen that based on his argument, why is it that Rockstar tries so hard to write diverse cultures into their games? Shawn only commented on the possible British disconnect from American culture.
Allen talks about the industry’s issue in portrayal of non-whites by white developers – a point that he’s stressed before – and how it can lead developers into a slippery slope of basing characters and themes off of stereotypes without having someone on the team from that minority group, or at least without extensive research. He uses Bolt Riley for example, an adventure game based on the fictional titular Reggie singer’s raise to fame in Jamaica. The designers behind Bolt Riley are Oden Sharon, and Corey & Lori Cole, none of which are Black or from Jamaica.
Sociology teaches that these issues are systemic, a product of generational disadvantages. While hip-hop was created out of the lack of urban access to traditional instruments and the increased accessed to electronic tools, game development tools have only recently become cheaper for inspired designers to get their hands on. As for many urban minority groups that do make it into the industry, there tends to be a shift into sound design. Sound design. Music. See the parallel?
As a Black gamer, though I may not hold the individual experiences that Allen has, I hold a similar level of expectation regarding diversity in the games industry. Speaking with Shawn, I expressed how games with minority representation can not only call out to other underrepresented game designers, but members of the game’s press as well. Writers like Evan Narcisse, Patricia Hernandez, and Mattie Brice do well to advocate for more diversity and speak to diverse audiences, but as GiantBomb’s Patrick Klepek says “It’s important to lobby for a more diverse staff.”