It’s hard as hell to be a game developer right now, especially if you’re on the margins. Today’s dev has to dodge or endure harassment campaigns, watch their employers side with their harassers, and struggle to take care of themselves during the already demanding grind required to make and market a game in the first place. In the middle of what seems like a complete hellscape for marginalized workers in this industry, the Game Developers of Color Expo last weekend provided a welcome shelter.
The Game Developers of Color Expo welcomed fans, creators, influencers—everyone who makes time in their lives for games—to the Schomburg Center for the Research of Black Culture in the heart of Harlem. This part-research-part-gallery space has become something of a hub for indie scenes in black pop culture. In addition to GDoC Expo, the Schomburg has also hosted the Black Comic Book Festival for the past six years.
“The Schomburg Center has a lot of historical significance in supporting people of color [and] the black community, and has been a staple of this neighborhood,” Jarryd Huntley, one of the show’s co-organizers, told me about why the committee chose the Schomburg. “Being able to partner with and work with them to have the event here means a lot.”
Very few shows in gaming take place in areas directly connected to the communities they serve, so seeing people from the neighborhood able to walk in and play games made by people that looked like them was a striking way to start my own experience with the expo.
Twitch streamer Sheila Moore, known online by her handle DaPurpleSharpie, noted how it was a dream of hers to be able to speak on stage in Harlem, specifically because of its historical significance as a touchstone in black culture. In the Schomburg’s auditorium, she lived that dream while on a panel about how to find success as an online personality.
“Being able to physically see all the places that people who wrote the words that helped mold me was pretty overwhelming,” Moore told me on the show floor.
The expo had a number of highlights, but what continually impressed me was the programming, and how accessible it was to folks with hearing disabilities or those who couldn’t attend the show itself. The talks and panels were live-captioned while being streamed directly to the expo’s YouTube channel. The stenographer on duty wrote and edited the captions in real time with the help of voice recognition technology, ending each talk with a transcript ready to go. Seeing this in action easily set the benchmark for how other gaming shows should run their programming.
During the series of talks, I also noticed that there were no stock diversity panels. For the past few years, “Here’s What’s It’s Like to be (insert marginal identity here) in Games” panels have been a staple of any given convention or show’s programming—and while some presenters did speak about the need to have a wider range of voices in games, the atmosphere of the whole expo’s talks seemed to be looking farther.
“We’ve all seen and been to and been on very intro-level panels about diversity and inclusion, and those were good, but there’s been a lot of that and so something we’d like to do is advance the discourse,” Christopher Algoo, another co-organizer, told me when I asked if GDoC Expo was ‘post-diversity panel.’
Giving developers of color the space to speak about anything but their own marginalization shouldn’t be a grand gesture, but in an industry fraught with its own issues of race and tokenism, this is an exemplary move, and one that other show organizers should pay attention to.
Toward the day’s end, people from all sides of game development reflect on how GDoC Expo is becoming a staple of the games industry. “If you could take this and find a way to expand it to other communities looking for somewhere to go, you could have something big. It’s like an expo that lives and breathes on its own.” Becker Derby developer Réjon Taylor Foster told me on the show floor.
Algoo mentioned that at 5pm, the venue is still full of people playing and listening to presenters. He notes that it’s getting stronger every year, and that they’re getting to make bigger moves to bring developers of color to the forefront with the help of their sponsors.
Working in games is tough just about every day of the year, but many of the exhibitors and attendees here could tell you that this is one day they can count on to feel seen and appreciated by their community.
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