In 2015, Danielle Udogaranya had a realisation while playing The Sims: There were no cosmetic options to make characters who looked like her. “There was a lack of Afrocentric hairstyles and clothing,” she says. “This is meant to be a game where we simulate life, so why can’t I make Sims who are representative of me or the people in my world?”
Udogaranya decided to create her own solution, teaching herself 3D modelling to make hairstyles that she found conspicuously absent, from braids to locs to afros, sharing them online for people to download and add to their games. “In 2022, we should not be an afterthought,” she says. “We shouldn’t be struggling to see ourselves in games.”
Udogaranya started livestreaming games on Twitch under the name Ebonix, becoming the first British black woman to be named a role model or “ambassador” for the platform. She soon realised, however, that most black streamers on the platform were American. Where were all the Brits? This led her to found the Black Twitch UK collective with fellow streamer GeekyCassie.
“We started this because we couldn’t find each other,” Udogaranya says. “And now we’ve found each other, let’s allow the world to find us as well. And let’s create opportunities so that we aren’t just a token or a nuance, we’re very much here and present.”
The collective has grown to encompass almost 300 black British streamers and is a key contributor to Twitch’s current celebrations of UK Black History Month, for which black streamers are provided a dedicated space on the homepage. This is a marked improvement over last year’s rocky rollout, when Twitch struggled to distinguish the British celebration from its American counterpart. “North America dominates the entire conversation about the black experience,” says game writer Chella Ramanan. “It polices black experiences elsewhere and the voice is so dominating that it just becomes exhausting.”
Partly in response to this tendency, Ramanan is creating Windrush Tales, a game that explores the experiences of the Windrush generation who came to the UK from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971. She is working with writer Corey Brotherson, whose grandfather wrote about his complex feelings on moving to England from the island of Saint Kitts in 1955. It is important to the pair that the core team working on the project are black Brits with Caribbean heritage who can ensure sensitive and accurate representation of a subject which has never been broached in games before.
Outside of the UK, however, in recent years several complex black protagonists in gaming have emerged, including Nadine Ross in the Uncharted series, Miles Morales in Spider-Man and both the hero and villain of Deathloop. There are also games that thoughtfully explore black experience such as Hair Nah, where you swat white hands away from an exhausted black woman’s hair, and Blackhaven, where an intern working at a historic house in America uncovers troubling links to slavery in its past.
Last year saw the release of Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield, created by independent black developer Neil Jones after a decade of struggling to break into the gaming industry. Despite many game developers publicly supporting movements such as Black Lives Matter, few have meaningfully addressed a lack of diversity within their own studios. In the US, a report showed that, in 2005, 2 per cent of workers in the gaming industry were black, a figure that had only increased to 4 per cent by 2021, despite black people making up 12 per cent of the population. In the UK, 2 per cent of the games industry is black, lower than the population average of 3.3 per cent, and they are less represented in senior positions. Rare exceptions to this include Gianni O’Connor, creator of the TRDR Pocket Console.
To address this, games companies such as Humble and Niantic have established funds to support black developers, while organisations such as POC In Play campaign for better representation in the industry. Ramanan, who is on POC In Play’s team, says games will only better represent black people when there are more black people making them. In the meantime, developers from all backgrounds must be encouraged to tell stories that deliberately and sensitively represent diverse characters. “If they want to stay relevant, it’s the only way,” she says.
Outside of the big studios there are several companies run by black people breaking into the industry, including Silver Rain Games, Kiro’o Games in Cameroon and the Jamaica Game Developer Society. “If the black community is anything, it’s resilient,” says Ramanan. “We’re used to doing everything for our own damn selves. Increasingly I’m seeing the younger generation saying, ‘Maybe we don’t want the job with the big corporation but we want to make our own space and do our own thing. We’ll make the table that we’re going to sit at, instead of waiting for crumbs from yours.’”