Wij willen met u aan tafel zitten en in een openhartig gesprek uitvinden welke uitdagingen en vragen er bij u spelen om zo, gezamelijk, tot een beste oplossing te komen. Oftewel, hoe kan de techniek u ondersteunen in plaats van dat u de techniek moet ondersteunen.

Protests across the U.S. over police violence and systemic racism against Black Americans have sparked gaming companies like Electronic Arts, Epic Games and Sony Interactive Entertainment/PlayStation to publish statements of their support and make donations to relevant advocacy organizations.

These are positive actions, but the most impactful thing game companies can do is take action internally. Racial bias is baked, usually unintentionally, into games by those who develop them. This creates a recurring pattern of Black and Latinx characters being stereotyped or completely absent in games, which is invalidating and demeaning.

There are 2.5 billion gamers in the world, a group that includes consumers across every ethnicity and age (especially in mobile gaming, the largest market segment). Quartz has noted that “57% of video game players in the U.S. between the ages of 6 and 29 will be people of color in less than 10 years.” Black and Latinx youth in the US spend more time per day, on average, on both mobile games and console games than white youth. For hundreds of millions of gamers globally — particularly in demographics driving the industry’s rapid growth — there are very few games whose stories center on characters like them. That is also a missed business opportunity.

“Telling these stories isn’t as niche as people think it is. Look at [the Marvel movie] Black Panther,” says Rashad Redic, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Brass Lion Entertainment, “The content is defined by whether it’s entertaining, period.”

Beyond characters’ skin color, there are subtle aspects of game development that contribute to underrepresentation or misrepresentation. The consistent view among gaming executives and researchers I interviewed for this article is that the lack of diversity among employees at leading gaming companies results in leadership remaining largely oblivious to this.

Raising this simple critique isn’t always welcome. Games industry journalist Gita Jackson, for example, has described the criticism she gets anytime she mentions the race of characters within a game. “I think the presence of more video game characters who are women of color is good … These should not be controversial statements — I’m simply stating something I appreciate, something that’s relevant to me,” she wrote last year, “and yet some readers responded as if I’d suggested that all gamers should amputate their pinky toes.”

Character representation

One of the most extensive studies of racial representation in games was a 2009 study that analyzed 150 of the most popular titles. Black characters comprised 10.7% of characters, roughly on parity with the then-most recent census data that 12.3% of Americans are Black, and only 2.7% of characters were Latinx (relative to 12.5% representation in the U.S. population). But Dmitri Williams, a professor at the University of Southern California and the lead author of that study, says that Black representation is even lower if you only look at primary characters and that in any case “athletes in sports games account for most of the Black characters in those games.”

Kishonna Gray, a professor at the University of Illinois—Chicago, highlights that merely tracking the number of Black characters present in games misses the point of how they are represented. “In film, there have historically been three roles you see Black characters in: Black as violent, Black as the sidekick, Black as the help. This has also been true in video games.”

Furthermore, she argues that “sports games should be removed from those analyses since they are just copying real people from the real world” and mask the statistics that would show how infrequently Black characters arise from the creative process at most game studios.

Casting specific demographics in a certain light in any form of media has an impact on consumers’ perception of those demographics in the real world. At least one academic study found that white participants were more likely to associate Black faces with negative words after playing a violent video game as a Black character than after playing a violent video game as a white character.

When the only option to experience the fantasy worlds of many games is through white characters, it internalizes in many gamers that those fantasy worlds weren’t designed for them. “Anything is possible in games,” Gray told me in reference to her passion for the industry, “But anything is only possible for white characters. When they add Black characters to a game they root them only in their real world context … why can’t Black characters ride dragons?”

Game developer demographics

Data has shown that the representation of different races within games correlates to the racial makeup of the game development community. According to Williams. “It was pretty much a one-for-one representation.”

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) found in the 2019 edition of its annual survey that among game developers worldwide:

  • 81% identify as “white/Caucasian/European”
  • 7% identify as “Hispanic/Latinx”
  • 2% identify as “Black/African-American/African/Afro-Caribbean”

“People draw their inspiration from their experience,” explained Gray, “that’s why we still have a problem with representation.” Redic said that during his career — which includes roles at top gaming companies like Bethesda and Crytek — he has frequently been “the only — or one of very few — Black guy among hundreds of game devs at a company.”

Tanya DePass, founder of the non-profit I Need Diverse Games, makes the point that for companies wanting to improve diversity in their content, “the biggest thing is diverse staff, and diverse staff at leadership level.” Moreover, her advice to game studios is to hire outside experts who can review their development plans and give feedback on where their content may stereotype or misrepresent an ethnic group: “Bring in diversity consultants in the beginning, not a month before launch, and treat it seriously.”

One company that uses consultants is Niantic, the studio behind Pokémon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. It has also implemented “Diversity and Inclusion check-ins through a game’s concept, preproduction and postproduction phases,” according Trinidad Hermida, the company’s Head of Diversity and Inclusion. “These check-ins look at everything from character design to evaluating whether the internal Niantic team working the product is diverse,” she explained, “Every new game we publish must go through this process to launch.”

Good intentions, slow progress

That IGDA survey last year also found that 87% of game developers said “diversity in game content” is “very important” or “somewhat important,” which offers optimism that representation can improve as developers are pushed to think of diversity less in the abstract and more in the context of the specific games they work on.

The number of Black or Latinx characters across popular games is indeed growing, even if that progress is quite slow relative to the pace at which the demographic makeup of the gaming community is diversifying. Examples can be found in Moby Games’ list of games with Black protagonists through 2017 and the list of Black video game characters on Wikipedia.

Giving users lots of options to customize their avatar’s appearance goes a long way in helping different demographics of gamers feel welcomed and emotionally attached to a game. This is increasingly common in games, but there are often more limited options for Black avatars, like the ability to choose natural hair styles. DePass says that game developers “are often not thinking about the fact that there are other people who also want to see themselves [in creating their avatar].” And when they do, the homogeneity of their team can lead to foreseeable mistakes. For example, DePass expressed that “If Black hair is available at all, it looks bad. Sometimes there’s 5 inches between braids; or Afros look like steel wool. It’s like, ‘Have you ever met a Black person or seen photos of black hairstyles?’”

Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a big issue in games, MMOs in particular, and in their efforts to combat it, gaming executives should recognize that both female gamers and Black and Latinx founders are particularly targeted with abuse, often denigrated with slurs and racist jokes.

A small but important step that developers can take, according to Gray, is giving players the option to mark racist behavior as the reason for submitting a complaint against another user. Many games have added the ability to mark a complaint as being due to gender discrimination, she notes, but the lack of a similar option for racism permits game studios to remain ignorant about how often racism occurs on their platform. Collecting data on a problem allows for more measurement of that problem and more effective action to address it.

Building for an underserved market

As DePass noted in our call, “There aren’t a lot of Black creators of games, but there are a lot of Black buyers of games.” There is business opportunity in creating content that better speaks to often-overlooked segments of the gamer community.

The natural question here is: If making games with narratives that center on Black or Latinx characters is a compelling business opportunity, why hasn’t it already been tapped? Leadership at established gaming companies “have a sense of who is a gamer, and who isn’t, that is very archaic” says Glow Up Games CEO Mitu Khandaker, whose studio is developing a mobile game leveraging IP from the HBO show “Insecure.”

Likewise, she explains, entrepreneurs who found their own studios with this thesis quickly find that the major funding sources (publishers and venture capitalists) are composed of ethnically homogenous teams who are quick to judge such games as niche.

As a result, the game developers focused on building games that speak to Black and Latinx audiences remain stuck in the indie games space, lacking the resources or industry credibility to develop a AAA title.

There’s a long list of societal problems that contribute to the disproportionately small number of Black software engineers entering the games industry or in leadership roles in the industry, from less access to high-quality STEM education in K-12 to employers devaluing degrees from historically Black colleges and universities to the well-researched pattern of resumes with white-sounding names receiving dramatically more job interviews.

Khandaker noted that the perceived lack of representation and role models for Black engineers looking at the gaming industry causes many to avoid the sector altogether, and many who enter the industry leave it in frustration.

Taking responsibility

On our recent call, Williams shared his memory of speaking on a panel about racial bias in games at the DICE Conference for game executives: “In the few minutes of transition between the prior session and my panel, roughly 90% of the audience left.”

A repeated sentiment among several of those I interviewed for this post was that the problem is not gaming executives with harmful intent so much as gaming executives lacking the interest or empathy to treat diversity as an issue that they personally should dedicate time to address. Discussion of diversity, whether at conferences or otherwise, is still too often treated as a token matter for purposes of political correctness, not a pressing business problem to solve.

If the current news cycle is helping change that attitude and energize executives in the industry to step up, the most impactful action they can take is to approach diversity as a product development priority not as a PR issue.


TechCrunch

During these long, mundane physically-distant days, stretching on into an uncertain future like an ever-lengthening beigeish corridor, it’s impossible not to miss hanging out with friends. Especially the kind of hanging out where you’re not really doing anything in particular, not talking about any one thing—just kind of being.

As we continue to stay physically distant from one another, it can be hard to feel socially present with the tools we have. Even with Zoom and other more casual chat apps, video chat can feel sort of flat. (And for those of us lucky enough to be working from home, visiting friends after work with the same tools we use to do work stuff doesn’t always feel great.) More often than not, we sit, stationary at our designated video-chat-spot, trade reports from self-quarantine and maybe drag in a cat or a kid or two.

But even untethered from our desks with more playful video chat apps or innovations like Facebook’s Portal and its roving eye, there’s still something else that doesn’t get conveyed. With flat screens, we have little sense of our physical selves in relation to one another. Socializing spatially, as it turns out, is something we probably took for granted. But the gaming world has understood this for years.

Now more than ever, we need creative ways to feel present with other people. The whole crisis looks like a huge opportunity for the gaming industry, but also one for more transcendent digital social experiences that don’t just look like playing a few rounds of Call of Duty after work. Hopefully, these experiences could be so imaginative that we don’t even know what they could look like yet.

If VR had delivered on its early promise, we’d all probably be living in it right now. The idea of having some kind of shared virtual realm is still a potent one, but the additional hardware has proven too prohibitive to get the average person on board (for now, at least) and even the coolest VR experiences remain niche. Still, it’s clear that we want to come together, not just in Instagram DMs and email threads, but as avatars navigating shared spaces. Somehow.

Virtual worlds getting it right

If the mainstream crossover success of Animal Crossing is any indication, people have a huge appetite for virtual spaces right now. Even with Nintendo’s truly painful online multiplayer experience, there’s something fun and special about visiting a friend, bopping each other with nets and showing them your new digs.

In Animal Crossing, this is truly a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience. The last time I genuinely laughed and could not stop was visiting my younger sister’s Animal Crossing island right after the game launched. In spite of the interface’s few emotes and harsh character limits, her weird sense of humor managed to bubble up through the game’s limitations. And those constraints made it more special, for some reason. When I left her island I felt a pang of sadness at leaving her funny little physical manifestation, running circles around my own. It felt different than signing out of a video chat or dropping out of a conversation via text.

These experiences are happening on an individual level, but also a collective one—and people are getting creative. One of the writers from Rogue One just made his own in-game Animal Crossing talkshow, complete with its own tiny guest couch and cityscape view.

A developer in New York even launched a dev conference that took place entirely on an Animal Crossing island. Much like a normal conference, “Deserted Island DevOps” boasted speakers, moderators and even talks to be uploaded to YouTube after the fact.

Plenty of players are using Animal Crossing for more intimate get-togethers too, like celebrating Ramadan and Passover last month or just gathering far-flung friends or family together in one place.

 

The pandemic is showing us that the sweet spot of mainstream virtual presence might be something more than a Zoom-like video conference but less than a full-on virtual reality experience. Video games, or more specifically video games as platforms, seem to be resonating right now, even among the kinds of people who wouldn’t identify as gamers. That last bit is important.

This is something that Fortnite maker Epic Games has been doing right for a while now. There’s a reason that Fortnite, like Animal Crossing, brought non-gamers into the fold. Sure, Fortnite is fun and addictive, but lots of games are fun and addictive—and Fortnite is much harder than a lot of those games.

Epic’s real innovation is its buttery-smooth social layer that seamlessly connects players across platforms. If you can talk a friend into downloading an app, you’re in business. Of course, other games get this right too (Minecraft comes to mind, of course, and others) but timing is everything right now. And Fortnite’s team is cleverly iterating on its already-good ideas.

This week, Epic added a new deliberately chill game mode called Party Royale to Fortnite—a new island just for hanging out with friends. Littered with appropriately zany non-lethal weapons like throwable hamburgers and paintball guns, Party Royale is a designated space where you can take a group and chat while doing mindless yet amusing nonsense, like awkwardly kicking a soccer ball around (I did this with a total stranger for 20 minutes for some reason!) or driving virtual ATVs off virtual precipices.

And like much of Epic’s battle royale hit, the island itself is over-the-top weird, stocked with everything from a pirate ship to a music festival grounds awash in colorful lights, gigantic neon dancers and a very psychedelic vibe, molly not included. There’s even a drive-in movie screen, like another area of the main game, which could signal interesting things to come. If we’re lucky and Epic expands it out, Fortnite’s newest casual online virtual space could evolve into something pretty interesting.

Fortnite is a game ostensibly about killing people before they kill you, but it’s also a concert venue—and that hints at Epic’s deeper ideas about the game as a versatile social platform. The game held its latest big in-game show event last month, this time featuring a skyscraper-height Travis Scott who performed as he stormed around a bucolic-turned-kaleidoscopic version of the Fortnite map. 12 million people tuned in, besting the 10 million who played during the more modest Marshmello in-game EDM show a year prior. Whether you even listen to his music or not, the wildly visually imaginative event was, by all accounts, cool as hell.

Video games should evolve to meet the moment

For anyone who’s spent any time in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), this will all sound familiar. These games have long, vibrant history of drawing huge numbers of people together into persistent shared virtual spaces and letting them express themselves. Curating outfits, decorating spaces and even making choices around playstyle and faction affiliation are all ways to express aspects of who you are and what you’re about in a virtual world populated by other people doing the same. As someone who played World of Warcraft for years, this was the real appeal of the game for many of us. The game itself—quests, dungeons and the rest—was secondary.

During its peak ten years ago, World of Warcraft had as many active subscribers as players who tuned into the Travis Scott event—12 million. Since then, gaming exploded into the mainstream and by late 2018, Fortnite boasted almost 80 million active players. Online multiplayer itself bounded forward too, mostly through the success of blockbuster first-person shooters—usually grim, well-funded and vaguely or overtly militaristic games that routinely court one kind of gamer. Playful, candy-colored shooters like Fortnite, Splatoon and Overwatch emerged to extend a hand to casual players, even non-gamers, but there’s still plenty of room for online gaming to move beyond shooters.

The wild popularity of Minecraft carved out a path for cooperative gaming not just because building stuff is incredibly fun, though that’s true too, but because doing anything new with friends in a virtual space is really cool. Scrappier games like the incredible No Man’s Sky could do for exploration what Minecraft did for building, but with an indie developer’s budget, big ideas about multiplayer play can only get so far. Historically, the lion’s share of industry resources still get funneled toward reliably profitable military-style shooters. But with the world changing, trends could transform too. Just look at sales of Animal Crossing’s social feng shui sim dominating sales during the first months of the epidemic.

There’s a big opportunity right now for games offering a common social experience that’s magnetic enough to draw in the kind of people who don’t even play games. For those of us stuck at home, imaginative gaming worlds offer not just their usual escape from the moment’s stresses, but a way to share space when we can’t come together.

We just need more of them to visit.


TechCrunch

Crowdfunding platform for startups Republic has acquired crowdfunding platform for games Fig, joining forces to help creators get their ideas off the ground. Users of each service will be happy to know they’ll continue as-is for the foreseeable future.

The model of publicly accessible micro-equity has proven an effective one, and both platforms have recent successes under their belts. Startups of a wide variety have raised hundreds of thousands on Republic, while Fig has had a great year with games like the critically acclaimed (and popular) Outer Wilds and What the Golf.

The scale of the sites is small compared with Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but the projects are more carefully curated and, although they are all crowdfunding platforms, the Republic/Fig model is different, awarding equity rather than product. Or in addition to product — who can resist wanting to have their own weird new Intellivision console?

The terms of the acquisition were not disclosed, but the general idea is to merge the two sites without compromising either. Ideally both will see an increased audience, and users will see an increased variety of projects to potentially back. Gaming is a growing area of investment, especially niche indie games that might be the next big unexpected hit, so Republic saw Fig as a natural extension of its existing platform.

“One of the best things going for Fig is how successful they’ve been in making positive returns for investors. Capital raised is used to develop the game, games are sold, and sales revenue is shared with investors,” said Republic Funding Portal CEO Chuck Pettid in a statement sent to TechCrunch. “Most private investments take 7-10 years for investors to get meaningful returns. Fig has accelerated that outcome and even boasts 3 straight years (2017, 2018 and 2019) of positive returns for investors. There isn’t another crowdfunding platform in the world that can say that.”

Fig’s CEO, Justin Bailey, will stay on as a board member at Republic and help guide the intelligent integration of the two sites.

“Fig will continue on and over time will slowly become a part of Republic,” he said. “Republic will keep the core parts of Fig’s community publishing platform and then add in its ingredients such as its commitment to diversity which will create an even stronger platform for indie game developers. In the end, Fig’s mission is to help support independent developers and making games possible that wouldn’t be.”

Both CEOs went out of their way to mention that the sites especially value underserved and underrepresented groups, which may find crowdfunding the only way to collect enough capital to pursue an idea. “More than half of the campaigns featured on Republic have come from underrepresented founders,” said Pettid. “In the past few years, the tech and video game industry has pushed the diversity message, but not enough is being done.”

Bailey noted that the pandemic has led to a major disruption of traditional investment methods. Crowdfunding is already successful, but in the modified post-coronavirus world it may be even more valid.

“Developers should always be rethinking how to raise funding,” he said. “Innovation and creative thinking leads to the best campaigns, and we will be there to assist them.”


TechCrunch

People seem to love the concept of the battle pass.

Largely popularized by Fortnite, battle passes reward players for playing well, and playing often. The better you do, the more XP you earn; the more XP you earn, the more stuff (new looks for your character, or victory dances to fire off at the end of a gunfight) you unlock. Willing to cough up a few bucks for an optional “premium” battle pass? That’ll open up a whole new set of rewards. The model has made its way into countless games over the last couple years, from PUBG to Rocket League.

Zelos, an LA-based company out of Y Combinator’s Winter 2020 batch, is aiming to make that same concept work across multiple games. Tackle challenges in one game, earn rewards for another — or use your points to buy new games altogether.

Each day, Zelos offers up a handful of challenges across each of the games it supports, like dealing 10,000 damage in League of Legends or getting 5 kills with Wraith in Apex. Completing a challenge earns you “zips”; most challenges I’ve seen will earn the player somewhere between 15 and 150 zips, depending on how tough it is to pull off.

Once you’ve pooled up a pile of zips, they can be redeemed for all sorts of virtual goodies. The more something would cost otherwise, the more zips it’ll require. 60,000 zips, for example, gets you a $ 5 Steam gift card —or 90,000 zips for $ 10 worth of Apex Coins. Once you get into the 50,000-200,000 zip range, you can redeem them for digital download codes for games like Rainbow Six Siege, Monster Hunter: World, and Tabletop Simulator. Getting the good stuff can mean completing a lot of challenges, but remember: these are games people are playing anyway.

In addition to zips, each challenge earns the player a bit of EXP. EXP levels up your Zelos profile; with each level, you unlock a bundle of zips, additional challenges, and items for your Zelos avatar.

Zelos is currently issuing challenges and tracking stats across seven games: Fortnite, Apex, League of Legends, Teamfight Tactics, DOTA 2, Counter Strike: GO, and Clash Royale. Stat tracking works a bit better in some games than it does in others, depending on how open a game’s developers are with the data. With League of Legends, for example, they’re able to ping Riot Games’ dedicated API for a rich backlog of match data; with Apex, on the other hand, they’re limited to pulling stats based on a handful of unlockable trackers players can flip on between matches.

Zelos co-founder Jeffrey Tong tells me they’re focused on ensuring they stay above board with the data they pull, making sure they comply with each provider’s ToS. That makes sense, of course: getting on a developer’s bad side could mean losing access to the data firehouse, in turn squashing Zelos’ ability to support a game. The more popular games Zelos can support, the better the whole idea works.

So if they’re giving stuff away based on challenges in games they themselves aren’t selling.. how will they make money? The same way the aforementioned games do: a premium battle pass. Tong tells me that they’re currently testing a subscription-based battle pass that’ll unlock new challenges, more prizes, and increase the rate at which points are earned.

This isn’t Tong’s first foray into the gaming space; he previously built and sold OverStats, an analytics system for tracking a player’s esports stats over time. Co-founder Derek Chiang, meanwhile, was previously a senior software engineer at the decentralized computing company Dfinity.

Tong tells me they raised $ 2.8M in the days after YC demo day, eyeing expansion of the platform, supported games, and their team. The Zelos team is currently three people, with plans to hire another “six or seven” in the coming weeks. They’re currently seeing over 50,000 weekly active users, with 55% of their users playing 2 or more games on the platform.


TechCrunch

Created by R the Company. Powered by SiteMuze.