The video game industry’s Black writers problem will remind you of journalism’s diversity issues

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Last year, I built a working relationship with a video game outlet that I was hopeful would lead to something beyond freelance work. Writers have shared stories online of being stuck at the freelance stage of their careers for longer than what’s common.

When I noticed no Black writers on their staff, I asked questions about their diversity initiatives and was met with radio silence. I no longer heard back from the outlet that initially kept up email correspondence. I figured it was because I asked one too many questions. While it took a while to process the reality of what occurred, I realized that this issue of few Black video game writers pervades much of the industry.

Despite this reality, summer 2020 saw an influx of initiatives, donation drives and public conversations around racial justice following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. In the video game industry, developers, publishers, content creators and journalists showed support across social media with links to websites whose purpose was addressing the disenfranchisement of minorities in the U.S. GamesRadar most notably halted stories for a day back in June 2020 as a show of solidarity.

While the momentum was there to address the lack of Black writers and video game creators at the structural level, efforts have since waned, with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion statements taking their place.

A key component of those conversations two years ago was the lack of Black voices hired, and doing the hiring, in the workforce of the games industry. Last year, I spoke with several developers in the field to discuss the progress made and found little had been achieved since the early 2000s. I learned that the International Game Developers Association, the nonprofit whose annual and semiannual reports provide snapshots of the industry’s demographics, noted in 2005 that just 2% of their respondents identified as Black. The 2021 report showed, 16 years later, that number had only grown to 4%. While the growth may indicate progress, it actually fails to meet the percentage representative of the general population, which is closer to 13.4%. The gap is similar to that in journalism, which has faced its own problems with recruiting, training and retaining Black reporters and writers since the late 1960s.

The American Society of News Editors (now the News Leaders Association) has tracked the trend through annual diversity surveys distributed to various newsrooms that choose to participate. Their 2018 survey revealed that the online gaming and entertainment outlet Polygon had zero Black writers in their group of respondents that year.

In 2020, the NLA shared structural changes to their surveys, citing a number of reasons, including news outlets across the country in recent years declining to participate. Media who cover the video game industry, including websites, magazines and video journalists, have not appeared in their diversity survey results because membership to the NLA has not been sought, which would allow them an opportunity to receive these surveys. The absence of this data creates challenges to understanding job retention and transparency, as well as whether institutions have taken steps to address their own disparities in job hires.

Critics may attribute this disparity to the lack of nonwhite applicants, but statistics have long dispelled the myth of the “absent minority gamer.” The Entertainment Software Association’s 2021 report on the essential facts of the industry provided insights that directly challenged the notion that minorities don’t care about video games. In their survey of 4,000 American gamers, 25% identified as being part of an ethnic minority.

Despite gaming outlets failing to adequately recruit, train, and retain Black writers in their newsrooms, others have taken up efforts to combat the growing gap. Tom Phillips, deputy editor of Eurogamer, shared that their paid summer work experience program for ethnic minority writers was born out of the realization that their newsroom needed restructuring.

“A few years back, UK games websites were called out for their lack of diversity and Eurogamer — correctly — was among those mentioned,” Phillips said over email. “We acknowledged we had failed to adequately grow and diversify our team to reflect the audience video games and our own website now attracts.” The summer work experience program has been running since 2018, though Eurogamer skipped 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Last year we organized the work experience program to host two candidates for a month each,” he said. “This year we are running the program for one candidate over both months, as we feel this will better allow us to get to know the candidate in question and continue working with them longer on their skillset.”

Phillips said candidates cover a broad range of stories, from workers’ rights and company misconduct to simple product announcements. They continue to work with one of last year’s work experience program graduates who now does a daily shift with Eurogamer on a freelance basis.

Quintin Smith, a writer at People Make Games, a British investigative game journalism YouTube channel, spoke about working with freelancers from a range of backgrounds to try and combat the gaps in representation.

“By working with people who have a different background from us, it widens the range of the kind of stories we can tell,” he said in an email. People Make Games focuses on the news and cultural trends of the video game industry, and they’ve been fielding pitches from a more diverse group of writers.

“We spend so much time talking about how to make the industry more diverse, but we don’t actually care enough to spend more time with the sections of the games industry that are displaying real diversity,” Smith responded when asked about actions industry leaders can take.

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