Millions of people around the world play video games, investing in a multibillion-dollar industry. A large and growing percentage of the gamer community identifies as people of color.
Video games are a way for players to escape into another world, but for gamers of color, it still lacks representation that helps both on screen and in real life.
Enter the world of Seraph 7 Studios, and you’ll find video game characters born from the imagination of Minneapolis-based developer Jules Porter.
In one game elderly fighters from all around the world, voiced by some of Minnesota’s own senior community, engage in a war of the gods.
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Porter creates independent console games that challenge stereotypes and humanize marginalized communities. The Marine Corps veteran also wants to promote social justice movements against racism and sexism.
“Video games are a way to really build empathy and just teach people things covertly,” she said. “Because you just have to learn that environment in order to be successful in the game.”
Porter points to the importance of things as simple as hair textures to skin tones and the way her characters talk. But Porter says every aspect of game development matters.
Negative portrayals of marginalized groups in various forms of media anger Porter. She said they are often depicted as criminals, monsters or through stereotypical tropes. But she also sees video games as a way to inspire the people who play them and that “it just gives them other narratives and stories but also what that means for our kids.”
A recent diversity in games report by Diamond Lobby, a video game blog, found that of 100 of the bestselling games released in the last five years, almost 80 percent of main protagonists are male, and more than half are white. Just 8 percent are female and are non-white.
Despite some progress, there are still problems with depictions of characters of color. Porter said the video game “Assassin’s Creed Liberation,” where one of the main characters gamers can play is a Black woman, was revolutionary to her. But, she was still irked by the game developers’ choices.
“The issue with the game, even though I loved it, was that they force you to dress as a slave,” she said. “And I was like, ‘Did they not have any Black people on their team?’ Their fantasy is not to be slaves in their game. We want to do stuff. We want to time-travel. We want to slay dragons, save villagers who wanted to cool stuff, but we don't want to be slaves.”
The International Game Developers Association data showed only about a quarter of game developers are women, and just 2 percent identify as Black. Porter looks to address that disparity by offering paid high school internships for developing STEAM skills, and also community apprenticeships to help local game developers of color get their foot in the door into the game industry.
“We need to be able to tell our own stories from our perspectives and our imaginations and our folklore,” Porter added.
Advocates argue without diverse developers, writers or voice actors at the table, there are risks that the game’s story or characters end up lacking agency and players disconnect.
Beth Korth, who chairs the Twin Cities chapter of the International Game Developers Association, said that’s why some games can come off as one-dimensional.
Representation in all levels of game development, Korth believes, adds value to gamers’ experiences.
“If you weren’t written to be someone with all those drives and thoughts and feelings and different experiences, it’s kind of difficult to convey that if you haven’t lived it,” she said.
Bloomington, Minn.-based professional video gamer Games Alesha Horn agrees. Also known as MinnesotaMocha, she’s created a career playing on Twitch, a livestreaming platform where viewers can watch video game play for entertainment.
“I actually picked up gaming and streaming to stay out of trouble,” Horn said. “I was kind of running with the wrong crowd in high school, and I wanted to find something to fill my time that was positive, and keep me out of trouble, and that’s when I found Twitch.”
People pay to watch her play first-person shooter games including “Call of Duty” and “Valorant.” She chooses the games she plays and the games she promotes to her followers.
Some scoff at diversity in video games. But for Horn, who identifies as lesbian and Black, seeing herself in characters or stories is powerful — and further inspires others to dream big, which is why representation matters to her.
“For kids that haven’t had their whole lives still to live ahead of them, that are looking to grab onto that superhero that they can, that they can look up to, or that character that inspires them to be better, gives them like the courage to stand up to the bully at school, gives them the courage to live out their dreams, like ‘Oh, the character in the game can do it,’” says Horn.