Interview with Kishonna gray

Check out the edited transcript for an interview with Kishonna Gray below! You can also listen to the interview on Soundcloud by clicking here or following this link:

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P: Welcome, everyone. I’m Pallavi, and today, I have the honor and privilege of speaking with Dr. Kishonna Gray about designing games with racial equity focus. So, a little bit of background to introduce Dr. Kishonna to people at home: Dr. Kishonna Gray is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and, Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois – Chicago. Her research covers the intersection of race, gender and digital media, with a focus on video games and gaming culture. She is the author, and co-editor of numerous books and articles, including Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live, Feminism In Play, Woke Gaming, and most recently, Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming. She has also won a number of awards over the years, most recently, the Evelyn Gilbert Unsung Hero award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences.


P: So, Dr. Kishonna, to start us off, can you take me back to where everything started for you and share your story on how you developed your passion for researching games.

K: Absolutely. I’m so excited to be here. I love that question. I love origin stories. So, I think my research interests really stemmed from my personal experiences in gaming. I’m a lifelong gamer. I’ve been playing since I was a kid. I’ve had, like, all the consoles. I want to make sure to distinguish that I’m not a PC gamer. Never have been and probably never will be. I’m a console gamer, but I realized when I went to, like, graduate school, I didn’t realize what the possibilities were around research. I thought it had to be, like, a real serious topic, you know. Like, in my mind, I’m like you can’t do games because games are not serious. So, I had been conditioned to think that gaming stuff wasn’t serious. But I had an officemate who was doing his project on a game called EverQuest. So he did like a whole ethnography on EverQuest or whatever.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around that he was actually doing this project. He was like: “You know, all gaming spaces are like any other social spaces.” Like, if you’re doing research like in prison, you’re asking similar questions—similar things are happening. And he was like: “Why not?” So I was like: “Can I do it too?” Because I still didn’t think I could.

So there was a class I had, a summer class, and it was like a project that we had to do like an ethnography. And I had procrastinated on this project, so I told my professor, “I ain’t did nothing on this project yet. What do I do?” And he was like, “Well, you know Kishonna don’t worry about what you proposed. Let’s just think about something that we could get done pretty quickly.” And then the question that he asked me was, where do you spend, like, a lot of your time? I didn’t want to tell him that I spend my time getting headshots in Call of Duty, but you know I did. I was like: “Well I do spend a lot of time playing game[s] or whatever.” He was like: “Why don’t you write about that?” And I said, “Well, what would I write about?” And then he said: “Well, think about like the questions like what’s the culture of the space?” And so that immediately got me thinking about what my experiences are as a woman of color in the space, right? Well, there’s a lot of sexism, a lot of racism, a lot of those things are happening. And he said, “Well, why don’t you just tell us about that and tell us about your experiences?” And I was like, “Okay.” And that’s really what jump-started [my research]. My officemate doing work in gaming and encouraging me to do the work too. But also realizing that, the kind of questions that I was asking were different than what my officemate was asking. You know, he’s a white dude. Amazing human but the kinds of things that he was looking at was very different from like, how I would do it. And then I realized that there wasn’t that much that could speak to what it meant being a woman in gaming – a woman of color in the gaming spaces. So that’s kind of what led to it. That’s my origin story.

P: Can you tell me a bit more about your recent book Intersectional Tech and what inspired you to write it?

K: Absolutely. Thank you for asking that question. I think I’ve probably got a copy of it right here in case people want to check it out. It’s Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming. This was really like the culmination of a 10-year ethnography that I had been doing since I started this, like, in graduate school. Ethnography is really about seeing like trends and changes in all those things that’s happening inside of culture. And so, it’s not, like, a one stop—t’s not like a like a snapshot. So, my dissertation was like a snapshot. I think the first book was like a snapshot. My earlier projects were [all] snapshots. But I think that going back and reading that stuff, I’m thinking about how much I’ve changed, how much the folks changed, how much the space is changed. And you know those like little snapshots can’t really give a context for

just how dynamic and amazing really like the console gaming spaces. So, I look at that book as just a way of recognizing and acknowledging like all the changes—the good and bad—and acknowledging just how influential black folks have been like inside that space. Just, like, what they have contributed to the culture, what their growth and development inside the space [would be], and how they were influenced by the things that were happening around them and how those things seeped into the gaming space. Like just being, like, being inside gaming is, like, one thing, but these folks have also branched out and they’ve taken gaming to social media. So, think about how active folks are immediate when you get like an epic head shot on Apex or something and you uploaded it to Twitter, and you engage in, like, a different kind of community there. So, I really just wanted to make clear and make plain just how nuanced and complex and awesome the black community in console gaming, like, is.

I also think it’s not even really, like, a book about gaming. It’s more a book about, like, identity. I’m thinking about what it means to be, like, a black man, or a black woman, or a black trans person or a disabled person and how, like, technology can afford certain things. It can help you facilitate community in that space, or it might hinder the creation of community in a space. 

P: Shifting gears here to the Racial Equity Game Showcase that we’re hosting. Since there’s not really a specific template for making racial equity games, if you were going to be the one to enter the showcase, what would your very first step be?

K: Oh, my gosh, I love that question. Thank you for asking. Oh, my goodness, I think the first thing that I would do is to bring a multitude of voices to the table. I think having

diverse perspectives is so important, and to make sure that everybody contributes to that conversation. So in my mind, how I see the Racial Game Showcase, I see them, like, building a table and you have to make sure that foundation of the table. The legs got to be solid and got to be sturdy. And then a part of that building that foundation is really just making sure that you’re intersectional and inclusive at the outset. Right, you can’t think about it after you build the table and, like, “Oh, we got to make sure that we have, like, a cuisine of all cultures now.” But you’ve already built the table and the table be built, like, on a bunch of hegemonic ideology and white supremacy and Western European [and] Eurocentric kind of perspectives, ignoring the global south and ignoring, like, other places. But at that core of when you’re building the table, you include those voices, then the cuisine, you’re going to automatically have, like, a diverse set and a diverse range of folks there. So that means you’re going to make sure that the narratives are not regressive, you make sure that the narratives that are put forth are progressive, and you have people there that can say: “Oh, that might not be a good idea. Don’t do that, Chad. Don’t do that, Brad.” You automatically have that from the outlet. Something else that that also gives you is just a range of different modalities and ways so I can gauge. For instance, think about how ablest, like, a controller is, right? Like, a person has to have, like, a traditional use of like their hands to be able to use this. What about people who don’t? What about people who don’t have hands or different? So you want to make sure that you are making sure that a wide range of folks can engage and can participate. So the narratives are important.

P: Talking about feedback, I remember in the Racial Equity Games Panel you also talked about that one thing that people can do is “be reflective and open to criticism and feedback.” What sort of tools or resources can people seek out to get that feedback and find those right people to be at the table?

K: Yeah, absolutely. Oh, my gosh, the internet is free. Twitter is free. Like, utilize these free tools that are provided. Like, you can easily send out a tweet: “Hey, do we have any graphic designers that are from, like, the trans community.” You can just reach out and ask and allow the community to be able to provide you with some folks that you can go to. Google is free. There are all kinds of different like networks of black graphic designers. I

P: What do you think are some of the most challenging parts about creating games with racial equity focus and how can people who are designing these games overcome them?

K: I think the biggest challenge is that a lot of folks are scared to mess up now. So we’ve kind of transition from just that willful ignorance of being, like: “Oh, well, black people don’t play games. And we don’t we have all white creators so that this is their creation, this is their design. Sorry, that it’s hella white.” We’ve gone beyond that a little bit. So people, they’re proclaiming that they care about diversity and inclusion and equity.

They’re claiming these things. So it’s just one of those another path right to getting—to trying to get there to do the right thing. But I think so many folks are scared of messing up now, and then that they’re still reverting back to like the same old practices of basically perpetuating white supremacy. Because they’ll make a character and—so for instance, I just saw on the timeline there was, like, the VR experience I think of, there’s a black dad and his black son and they have a police encounter. And then of course, the first thing that people ask: “Who’s the audience for this?” If we’re creating stuff, we’re not going to replicate—going back to that authentic experience thing. They think that “Oh, this is like the black experience.” No, it’s not. Most of us haven’t been pulled over by the

police, and even if we are, we don’t want to see that in a video game. We come to video games to have fun. We don’t want to be reminded of oppression and our marginalization, and that at any time we could be killed by the police. We don’t want to be reminded of that in the game. That’s where a lot of these games, they need to evolve beyond that. They need to stop doing that. I think something else that a lot of these folks need to do is to—I remember a company saying that applicant pool is not diverse enough, right? So whenever they have jobs and are trying to diversify, the creators and the designers and developers, It’s just not that many folks of color. And then the question, I asked him: “Well, where did you advertise to? And also, what kind of resumes are you looking for?” Do you care about the computer science degrees from somebody who graduated from Howard, or Florida A&M, or any of these are historically black colleges and universities, or Hispanic serving institutions? Do you care about the folks who came from these schools that target and focus on communities of color? So they really have to, really rethink, the entire structure, and offer multiple pathways for folks, because we’re out here. 

P: I’ve heard that you have a book currently under contract NYU press titled Black Cyberfeminism or How Intersectionality Went Viral. So can you reveal to us what the readers can expect from this book?

K: You know what’s interesting, I don’t know if you’re aware, but something happened this past year, you know, called COVID, and we’ve been quarantining. My energy is not there with that book anymore and I actually contacted the folks at NYU and I’m like: “I want to write a different book.” So they said: “Sure, what do you want to write? What do you want to do?” And the book that I want to do—I want to write a book on Black game studies, because I feel like the pathway to game studies is different for Black folks, and what we create is different, how we engage in the space, and how we engage with each other, and with the tools is totally different. And I want to elevate that and highlight that. So it’s still with NYU press, but it’s going to be a Black game studies—like a primer, just to give people a sense of what it looks like. Yeah, so that’s going to be the next book that comes. Not Black Cyberfeminism. I love Black Cyberfeminism, but I just don’t want to do that right now. Maybe later on.

P: Can you give a teaser of what theorists or theories will you draw from in this work?

K: So for me, if it’s coming from, like, a black tradition, I have to engage with black studies. So I have to engage with different scholars like W.E.B Du Bois. I have to engage with, like, the work of Mark Anthony Neal; black popular culture scholars; folks who looked at, like, music; and folks who talk a lot about like hip hop; and folks who talk a lot about like black TV and television. For instance, like, Shonda Rhimes; like, Sean Dillon; like, that’s a significant pathway; and what are those kinds of spaces in gaming? What do they look like? So I’m thinking a lot about—there was a game called the Black College Football Experience. I think the name of the company who did that was Equinox maybe. But I’m thinking about like these black companies, and looking at the products that they’re developing, and then looking to see who these folks behind the scenes are. So for instance, like the Black College Football Experience, Doug Williams was a part of that. Doug Williams is like a big name in the NFL, right? And so, I’m just thinking about how much we have like a re-mixing and like mashing up of, like, different black cultures. So you have black sports culture, meaning gaming culture, and then you also have different thinking about how influential black celebrities are on the things that get created.

Thinking about how influential for instance, Snoop Dogg is, or Drake, or playing, like, Ninja might be. So really like putting black folks at front and center into these conversations on game studies, I really think it’s an intervention that that we need. So we can recognize that there’s like a multitude of pathways into the space.

P: To wrap this interview up, is there anything else you would like to add that we haven’t covered or any further advice that you would like to give to the participants?

K: No, I don’t think so. Like, I mean, just go out in the world and be awesome. Do good things. Take care of one another, you know. And I think if we have just. like. that ethic of care, I think you know things just fall into place naturally and organically. You don’t have to work hard to do this work. But if you just have that ethics of care, like, intact, then you know just trust that you’re doing the work that needs to be done.