Online gaming is supposed to be fun. And, when you’re controlling digital avatars and characters – it really shouldn’t matter what you look like.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for many black women who are facing ‘disgusting levels’ of misogynoir and overt racism in the world of online gaming.
Jay-Ann Lopez founded Black Girl Gamers in 2015 and says she has had countless experiences of racism and sexism while playing video games online.
‘I’ve had the misogynistic stuff – being told to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich,’ Jay-Ann said. ‘And then there are specific racist comments.
‘I’ve been called the N-word, I’ve been asked if I can twerk on camera, someone has told me to go and make them some chicken. This is all whilst gaming online via chat. It’s disgusting.
‘There was also this stupid, racist Knuckles meme – based on a character from Sonic the Hedgehog, but it’s like a Ugandan version and would take the mick out of African accents and make jokes about Ebola.’
‘These experiences are happening to this day,’ says Jay-Ann. ‘So many of our members post videos where they are being targeted because people can tell they’re a black woman via the voice chat. They will just get called the N-word, particularly if they’re not playing like the other gamers want them to play.
‘A lot of gamers and streamers – especially black women – are tentative to game and stream online because they don’t want to go on camera. They feel like they will be targetted.’
These aren’t unfounded fears. This type of racial abuse is happening with alarming regularity to black female gamers.
A 2019 study found that two-thirds of gamers have experienced serious harassment while playing online, much of it involving racist threats.
53% reported being targeted based on their race, religion, ability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. And these aren’t always empty threats, the researchers found that ‘an alarming 29% of online game players have been “doxed” in an online game, meaning that their personal or private information was publicly exposed against their wishes.
It’s also an incredibly hard problem to police, and thousands of incidents aren’t being followed up or monitored by the authorities.
So, Jay-Ann created Black Girl Gamers (BGG) in direct response to this need for a safe space to game. She wanted to find other black women in the community and help these women feel empowered to game and be online without being afraid of abuse.
‘The community has now expanded to 5,700 members, globally. Now we host events too, and we hold panels,’ explains Jay-Ann. BGG Recently hosted the first women-only UK gaming event – Gamer Girls Night In – in collaboration with Nnesaga and Facebook, which she hopes to take to the States.
Jay-Ann says that as well as creating safe spaces, the group also aims to create connections between gamers and game companies, coders and developers. She says the beauty of BGG is their ability to give a voice to some of the most important issues in the black gaming community.
‘Finding people who are as vocal as I am can be difficult because a lot of people tend to assimilate when they get into the room,’ says Jay-Ann. ‘To be a black person in this industry often means not being able to speak up about an issue, or being shut down if you try to raise it.
‘Gaming is seen as an exploratory passion, and as such, people don’t really like to mix it with politics. People say that gaming isn’t about race. But gaming is always political if you are erasing people of colour, LGBTQIA people and women.’
As well as abuse in online forums, the games themselves can be guilty of perpetuating racist attitudes with offensive stereotypes and damaging racial assumptions feeding the design of characters and communities.
A 2018 study found that African American avatars in video games were likely to be ‘physically imposing, angry and menacing’, and white people playing as a black avatar were more likely to display increased aggression towards others.
Jay-Ann, who also works with the Institute of Coding, says her aim is to tackle this issue head-on and make it clear to gaming companies that simply shoehorning a black character into a game is not enough to solve this pervasive problem.
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‘They have to have that representation in the workplace too,’ she explains. ‘And not only that, they have to have a diverse culture. You can’t just have a black person in the workplace if they don’t feel as though they can bring their whole selves to work.’
BGG are taking on locality, visibility and community in gaming. Jay-Ann says increasing the representation of black women will mean that fewer people have to feel apprehensive about going online.
‘People get so much out of this group,’ she adds. ‘They can find a safe space where they won’t have to deal with abuse, they can feel represented and connect with people who are similar to them online, and they can find a space where black culture and gaming intersects – which is really cool.’
But Jay-Ann has experienced a serious amount of pushback for creating the Black Girl Gamers group, as is so often the case when black people carve out safe spaces for themselves in hostile environments.
‘When we complain that we’re not included, they tell us to make our own. But then when we do, you suddenly have white people or non-black people trying to enter those spaces,’ she explains.
‘There is this intrinsic lack of context and lack of understanding about what it is really like to be a black woman who games. I have no issue with white guys gaming together – that is what most of the environments are like – but why do so many people have an issue with black girls gaming together?
‘There is always this implication that we should just be happy with the way things are.’
So, what is the solution? Jay-Ann thinks there needs to be better accountability from the gaming companies when it comes to producing and creating inclusive, welcoming environments.
‘I was just out in San Francisco two weeks ago, and there is still a lot of work to do,’ she says. ‘When companies are onboarding and bringing people in to do certain jobs that will affect different communities – have they had unconscious bias training from the very get-go? That should be a prerequisite.
‘If you’re dealing with a diverse audience, you can’t only offer products and capabilities from a white lens, it’s just not going to work. And that unconscious bias training needs to be there at the AI and coding stages as well.’
One of the biggest problems is that black and ethnic minority people aren’t in the rooms when decisions about products and gaming environments are being made.
Research in 2018 confirmed that white men dominate Silicon Valley – the hub for game development in San Francisco.
In fact, ten large technology companies in Silicon Valley did not employ a single black woman in 2016. Three had no black employees at all. Six did not have a single female executive.
‘You need diverse people in those rooms,’ says Jay-Ann. ‘One of the issues is that people don’t want to hire us as consultants. They are not doing the outreach that they should be in the communities that they claim to serve. The gaming industry and the tech industry as a whole don’t recognise the black cultural experience as a capital that they could be using.’
She adds that it’s not good enough just having a diverse roster of characters. She says companies have to make it clear that they will not tolerate racism or sexism.
‘But they’re scared to do that because they don’t want to ostracise their white male gaming audience, who they think are the dominant audience,’ she says.
But that is changing. In America, African Americans are the fastest-growing demographic of gamers, and those numbers continue to climb. So tech and gaming companies need to acknowledge this and change their policies to truly reflect this diversity – or they will alienate a huge potential customer base.
‘I think everyone is responsible for change. Consumers who let things slide are responsible,’ says Jay-Ann.
‘I stopped playing a specific game because I didn’t include black women in it. I took my money out of their pocket and I stopped promoting them.
‘Companies are at fault for not connecting with communities and always wanting to take the easiest route possible.’
Jay-Ann is willing to take the difficult route, to do the work necessary to chip away at deep-seated prejudices and slowly but surely alter perceptions.
Now she needs the all-powerful tech companies to support her in this.