Note: This article interchanges the terms “black” and “people of color” in places. The author recognizes the latter of these terms is often also used to include indigenous peoples, Latinx peoples, and other identities, and no erasure of this fact is intended.
Recently I found myself in a brief exchange with someone upset over the decision by gaming titans Valve to sponsor this year’s Game Devs of Color Expo. Notably, this decision was made after criticism had been directed at the company for failing to issue any kind of statement in support of Black Lives Matter. Many other businesses — and game developers — put out just such a statement following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the disturbingly aggressive and violent police response to the protests against police brutality.
However, this particular individual didn’t seem that bothered by most of this, nor did he want to discuss the perception that there should be limits to what kinds of social reaction businesses are willing to take into account in making the decisions they make. His annoyance was a rather simple one:
“Sorry, I only buy games based on quality, not the skin color of the people that make them.”
My first response as a gamer was to scoff, naturally. I come from the era when hundreds of video game review scores packed into neat little averages were not a mere Google search away. When trailers, demos, and pirated copies of a game weren’t easily accessible and you often had only the box to go by and what you heard from friends and schoolmates. But even today none of what’s available is a surefire guarantee that the game you’ll buy will meet your own standards for quality. Odds are good a lot of us still buy games on occasion that disappoint us.
Even so, an event like the Game Devs of Color Expo is not going to be the sort of event where they try and force gamers to buy unwanted games. Signing on as a sponsor does not mean Valve will, either. This is literally a promotional event, which means it’s practically inevitable that there will be tons of trailers, demos, discussions with development teams, and other opportunities to, yes, show off the quality of the games.
I’m not interested in demanding anyone spend their money on any specific thing. But I, like many people, am happy to make recommendations where there’s interest. And to a large extent, that is what most of these promotional efforts are about: raising awareness and recognizing the hard work of underrepresented groups.
In an industry where African-Americans are estimated to make up only 3% of the workforce — compare this to their representation in the U.S. population at approximately 13% — it should be pretty obvious why events like the Game Devs of Color Expo are needed. These events help the work of these creators to get the recognition it might otherwise miss out on. This is done by putting on an expo that will be covered by journalists and media outlets, but it also shouldn’t be underestimated how useful gaming events like these can be for developers, publishers, and other people in the industry to network and form connections that could impact what else they go on to do in the future.
Perhaps in a roundabout way then the obvious response to the gamer saying they don’t care about anything but quality is: This is not about you, Steve. It’s pretty much right there in the name of the expo and no developer signing on to sponsor something like this is going to force money out of your wallet or harm the industry as a whole. In fact, it should be great for the industry and for us as gamers. More games we might want to play? How is that bad?
Honestly, the only way I can see someone believing this is a bad thing is if they’re relying on a deeply problematic assumption contained in their statement. It doesn’t make much sense why you’d have an issue with games made by developers of color, or an event organized to support them, unless you already assume the quality won’t be up to par. I’m sure this person would argue that what they’re really saying is something about how they’re “colorblind” when it comes to the quality of the art and entertainment they enjoy, but I’d contend that the false dilemma presented between quality and an underrepresented segment of the industry already shows this to be untrue.
This is certainly not limited to the gaming industry, though. I’ve seen and heard similar excuses given for why white friends don’t read black authors, in protest of efforts to promote black-owned businesses, against things designed to expose more people to black musicians and artists, and so on and so forth. It’s as if asking some white people to even stop for a second and think about where their attention is being directed to is asking something unreasonable or offensive of them.
And this isn’t just limited to race, either, as it always seems to be a familiar rationalization for neglecting, ignoring, or dismissing any question about inclusivity. The truth of it is that much of the art, entertainment, and information we consume comes to us through the various social circles and environments we inhabit. When most of the people we know and the sources we turn to are like us, it should hardly come as a surprise that we are missing out on a lot. Not so much because we’re consciously filtering for quality, but because those circles and environments we live in already act as filters.
I don’t feel that fact alone is good grounds for tossing out any of the influential works that have shaped our culture. It should remind us, though, that the art and entertainment we consume is always socially and historically situated — it’s just a fragment of the broader picture.
My question to this gamer and to anyone that would make this kind of a statement would be: why are you so skeptical that the work being promoted here will be quality work? How is it that you seem to have reached this conclusion before even seeing it, let alone giving it a try? What these creators are asking for is not blind support, but recognition. By balking at this, it sounds like you don’t even want to hear it, to say nothing of making some financial contribution. It sounds like you’ve decided they don’t deserve to be recognized for the work they’ve done.
But how would you know what recognition their work deserves before you’ve read it, heard it, experienced it, or played it? There is really only one thing you know about it that you’re basing this judgment on. It’s associated with a cause or event promoting the creative work of people of color.
As Monnica Williams writes in an article for Psychology Today:
Many Americans view colorblindness as helpful to people of color by asserting that race does not matter (Tarca, 2005). But in America, most underrepresented minorities will explain that race does matter, as it affects opportunities, perceptions, income, and so much more. When race-related problems arise, colorblindness tends to individualize conflicts and shortcomings, rather than examining the larger picture with cultural differences, stereotypes, and values placed into context. Instead of resulting from an enlightened (albeit well-meaning) position, colorblindness comes from a lack of awareness of racial privilege conferred by Whiteness (Tarca, 2005). White people can guiltlessly subscribe to colorblindness because they are usually unaware of how race affects people of color and American society as a whole.
Expressing a colorblind attitude does not actually mean someone doesn’t see or think in terms of race. Often it means someone simply chooses not to recognize the way race can affect opportunities, perceptions, income, and more, as Williams notes. This includes how someone might choose not to acknowledge the way their own perceptions about what makes quality art and entertainment are affected by race. Even by as simple a thing as a promotional effort aimed at spreading awareness for the work of black creators and people of color.