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How Video Games Can Help Us Explore Ideas About Race


The video game industry has often been accused of being too white and too male. That can make it hard for people of color to get attention for their work. Now there's an event specifically designed to help generate excitement for new voices. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team takes us there.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem is this historic research library for people of African descent worldwide, so it makes sense that it's the home of the Game Devs of Color Expo which just wrapped its third event. It's like a typical gaming convention - people mashing buttons, staring at TV screens, moving through gorgeous landscapes. But it's more diverse with black, Asian, Latino people.


CHOW: That was music from Solace State. That's a 3D visual novel, a video game about fighting the power and a surveillance state. This game, like others at the expo, is different from classics like Super Mario or war games like Call of Duty that have long lived on bestseller lists. One of the games at the expo is called Code Romantic. It teaches you the equivalent of an entry-level computer science course through sci-fi love story. In another game called Skate & Date, you play queer roller derby jammer, and your goal is to try to impress your crush with your skills. It's not just an expo for videogames exploring themes of social justice. There are real-life card games, too.

JOANNA HERZ: She couldn't match her under-eye concealer...

A M DARKE: Because makeup companies are racist...

HERZ: That's true.


DARKE: ...And don't have her shade.

CHOW: A.M. Darke was in college at UCLA when she came up with the idea for this game, called Objectif. She got the idea because in school, she says she didn't always fit in.

DARKE: There weren't that many black people. I felt like my body type was, like, out of place. And so I needed a way to deal with that.

CHOW: So the way she dealt with that was to create a card game that asked its players to question their assumptions about who's beautiful, smart or thoughtful. Here's how the game works. Players hold cards with hand-drawn images of black and brown women of varying skin tones, hairstyles and eye colors. One player acts as a judge and pulls a card with an adjective on it - cute, stylish. Each player then puts down a face card that best represents the adjective and makes their case for why. Darke says this is where the game makes you think.

DARKE: So maybe I had a preconceived notion about someone, or I said, oh, this person looks a certain way. And I say that out loud. But then it gives me a moment to pause and kind of laugh at myself instead of, like, laughing at another person.

CHOW: That's what happened to Lafiya Watson when she was playing.

LAFIYA WATSON: You know, like, I got a card. I think it was, like, cute or something like that. And there was one that looked cute, but they were also light-skinned. And I'm like, am I just picking them just because that's, like, the preconceived notion of what's cute in society? And I had to, like, really think about that for a minute.

CHOW: That sounds kind of heavy, right? But Darke - she says it doesn't have to be.

DARKE: I like to say that it's like taking your bra off at the end of the day. You know, you don't have to put on airs. You don't have to be perfect.

CHOW: Or even serious. You can have fun with important issues. For Darke, her game Objectif's mission is like a lot of the other games at this expo.

DARKE: You know, by showing this diverse set of people and showing them in a positive light, I'm not getting people to eat their vegetables. I'm showing them that there's cake, and they didn't know where to look.

CHOW: Objectif is currently in development, and Darke plans to crowdfund for it in the fall. Kat Chow, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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