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Friday, May 24, 2024

How the Black Girl Gamers Community Became a Lifeline

Jay-Ann Lopez knew she could do better. She was in college, and two of her friends were racking up views on YouTube with a gaming channel that was offensive at worst, mediocre at best. They used African American Vernacular English for cool points, made jokes that turned femininity into a punchline, and generally just churned out one clichéd bit after another. Watching them gain notoriety was disheartening. Lopez decided it was time to start a channel of her own. What she created evolved into a platform connecting Black women gamers all over the world.

Born and raised in London, Lopez started playing video games when she was just 6 years old, after receiving her very first console, a Nintendo, from her uncle. She was hooked, but—as with movies and TV—she rarely saw herself represented. “On screen, I hardly ever saw Black characters. When I did, they were there for comedic relief. They were the macho Black man or the Black woman with an attitude problem, the sassy Black woman trope,” she recalls. “Growing up with the absence of [Black characters] in games I liked to play kind of left me feeling like gaming wasn’t for me.” Lopez tried to find a place in gaming with her YouTube channel, but eventually abandoned it. She felt annoyed, ostracized, invisible—and there were lots of gamers just like her. 

In October 2015, Lopez started Black Girl Gamers, a Twitch channel that has since become an online safe space and platform for heightening the visibility of Black women in gaming. BGG currently has more than 7,000 members in its Facebook group and some 35,000 followers on Twitch. The group runs IRL events and creates online content to support diversity in the gaming industry. What started as a small Facebook page with four community managers has evolved into a dedicated and growing Twitch channel with 184 team members. The organization now offers events, workshops, consulting, mentorship opportunities, and a talent agency to represent streamers. Most recently, the group partnered with Facebook Reality Labs to offer members a three-month mentorship program for commercial roles in augmented and virtual reality.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), there are currently about 227 million gamers in the US. The majority of those gamers are white (73 percent) and identify as male (55 percent). For players not in those groups, gaming isn’t easy. A 2020 study by the Anti-Defamation League found that 64 percent of online multiplayer gamers in the US ages 18 to 45 experienced some form of harassment, with the majority of that harassment tied to gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or ability. “Women and girls don’t game as much as men and boys and not for a lack of interest or ability,” says Rabindra (Robby) Ratan, associate professor of media and information at Michigan State University. “Despite the stereotype that women and girls are not as good as men and boys at gaming, when we look at the skill increases over time, women and girls do just as well.” Ratan’s research, which focuses on harassment in gaming culture, shows women don’t spend as much time playing because of the toxicity they experience on online platforms.

And it’s not just harassment. Black women gamers are also subject to what’s known as stereotype threat, which Ratan describes as “this idea that when you are reminded of a stereotype that applies to your group you are more likely to conform to that group as long as the reminder is subtle.” It’s the kind of thing that can not only cause Black women to perform worse in games, it can also cause many to ultimately stray away from technical careers or STEM fields. Black women gamers also face the dual discrimination of racism and misogyny, while simultaneously dealing with backlash for trying to address them. “When we started BGG, people were always saying, ‘Why do you need a page for Black girl gamers? What if I made [one for] white male gamers?’” Lopez says. “If I had a pound for every time someone said [that] I’d be rich right now.” As Black Girl Gamers grows, it becomes more and more evident exactly why it’s so vital.

When it started, BGG was among the first Twitch channels to feature a variety of streamers instead of having one person be the lone face, an approach that's since become commonplace. Having multiple streamers allows for more collaboration, and when one specific player isn’t online, BGG utilizes its stream team, a list of the group’s members’ personal accounts that gives folks a chance to learn more about BGG and connect with individual streamers who go live on their own channels. While Lopez is the founder of the organization, she isn’t rigid with how the community is run or what games can be played. Those choices are made collectively by stream team members, and this freedom of choice hardly goes unnoticed.

In 2018, at TwitchCon, a conference for Twitch streamers, “a white woman came up to me. She said to me ‘I love what you do with BGG, but I noticed y’all like to play violent games,” Lopez recalls. The woman seemed to be trying to make a connection between race and the types of games the group’s members played, but Lopez was struggling to see what it was. Much like movies and music, Lopez understands that everyone has their own taste in video games, but the assumption that there’s a connection between race and game preferences couldn’t be further from the truth. “Black women play all types of games,” she says.

While the majority of BGG’s members live in the US, the group has become increasingly global. It has core rules—be respectful; no racism, queerphobia, ableism, hate speech, or sexism permitted; no backseat gaming; and only moderators are able to post links in the chat. Rules like these help promote positivity within the space, and if trouble arises, Lopez has no problem blocking users to ensure the safety of the community. “Not only did I feel represented, but I felt safe,” says stream team member Briana Williams, known on Twitch as StoryModeBae. While Williams is still relatively new to streaming, she has gained thousands of subscribers. When she first started, Black Girl Gamers was among the first groups she found. For Williams, BGG is an “amazing platform for Black women to really come together and be themselves. There are different areas where you can meet and talk about issues you’re having, whether it’s troubleshooting or anything.” Williams wants to advance the narrative that there is room for more girl gamers—all they need to do is play.

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Perhaps the most impressive evidence of BGG's resilience is the place where the organization has made its mark: Twitch. In the decade since it launched, the platform has struggled to moderate harassment and toxicity, but there have been some signs of improvement. Following #ADayOffTwitch, a one-day boycott of the service to raise awareness about “hate raids,” the streaming platform filed a lawsuit against two users who targeted Black and LGBTQIA+ streamers with racist, homophobic, sexist, and other harassing content. Over the years, the company has banned accounts and implemented various policies including the ability to take action on all instances of hateful conduct and harassment in hopes of mitigating similar conduct. The most egregious violations may result in an indefinite suspension on the first offense. To help mitigate hate raids, Twitch has also added controls that allow streamers to require a viewer to have a verified phone number to chat.

Beyond combating harassment, Twitch claims it is making efforts to connect with creators in underrepresented groups to, according to a spokesperson, “find new and intersectional ways to promote” their streams and ultimately be able to earn a living on the platform. Last year the site partnered with BGG for a summit to address the issues Black women gamers face when they stream. For Twitch it was informative; for Lopez it was a chance to lay out some brutal truths “because for a long time people were ignored.”

Those issues go far beyond Twitch, though. “It’s the publishers," Lopez says. "It’s also the consumers and the streamers that want to foster negative and toxic environments and remember the good old days when white men were the core audience. Companies have to catch up."​​

To fully illustrate what Lopez is talking about, look no further than the bulk of popular gaming releases, all of which reflect how game developers are still catering to the white male demographic. While some popular games have made new additions to their character archive, many continue to ignore Black people, especially Black women, entirely. A 2019 survey revealed that only 2 percent of developers identify as Black, African American, African, or Afro-Caribbean, which largely impacts the type of games being created.

There are ways to address these issues. Niantic Labs, for example, recently took some of its Pokémon Go revenue and used it to start the Black Developers Initiative, a five-month program that aims to empower Black game and augmented reality developers and provide access, resources, and support for their work. The program launched in February of this year with the goal of funding and bringing more Black creators to prototype. “It stemmed from the need. We just weren’t seeing Black developers a lot in the pipeline,” says Trinidad Hermidas, Niantic's head of diversity and inclusion. “We wanted to bridge that equity gap.”

While companies like Niantic and platforms like Twitch are making progress, there is still more work to be done if the gaming industry wants to mirror its diverse audience. Unfortunately, that change won’t happen overnight, and having resilience and thick skin against the onslaught of harassment and toxicity remains necessary. But even if gaming isn’t the most welcoming place for Black women, Lopez wants to urge young girls, especially Black girls, to make those spaces for themselves, regardless of what anyone says or thinks. “Do it anyway,” she says.

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