Racial Equity Games Showcase
Interviewee: Dr. Kishonna Gray
Interviewer: Pallavi Sodhi
Date: April 20, 2021
Pallavi: 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.
Kishonna: Absolutely. I’m so excited to be here. I love that question. I love origin stories. So, I think my interest in this, like my research interests really stemmed from my personal experiences like in gaming. I’m a lifelong gamer. I’ve been playing since I was a kid. I’ve had like, all the consoles. Console gaming too – I want to make sure 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 an in my mind, I’m like you can’t do games because games are not serious. So, I was part of that, I had been conditioned to think that gaming stuff wasn’t serious. But I had office mate who was doing his project on a game called EverQuest. So he did like a whole ethnography on EverQuest or whatever. And I was like, wait a minute, how did you get like…? I couldn’t wrap my mind around that he was actually doing this project. He was like, “Well you can ask questions in like any space.” 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 was like, I 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 head shots in Call of Duty, but you know I did. I was like, “Well I do spend a lot of time playing game games 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 then 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 jumpstarted. 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: I was curious, what is your favorite game right now?
K: Oh my gosh, my favorite game right now. This is so hard. Rouge Company – I think Rouge Company is probably my bestest game right now. Overcooked – I love Overcooked. Playing Apex a lot – still playing Apex Legends. And Smite – I love Smite. And then people are telling me that Smite is very similar to like League of Legends, and I might actually like League of Legends, but I don’t know.
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 – It’s not like a like a snapshot. So, my dissertation was like a snapshot. I think the first book was like a snapshot. There’s all these things are like my earlier projects were like 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, 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. So, I also think a lot about – although it’s a conversation about like identity conversation and gaming – It’s also a question about like the technology of the space. I talk a lot about changing gaming technologies. I talk a lot about the Connect, I talk a lot about controllers, I talk a lot about the online space, I talk a lot about the online space don’t really allow you to file complaints. So if you experience racism in a space, the space won’t allow you to file a complaints. It’s also a conversation about the structure of a space – about how there might be particular identities that are protected more than others and what does that look like and how does that influence people? So hopefully, although the book is another snapshot, I feel like it gives like a wider range and water context of what’s been happening and going on inside this space. Yeah, thank you for asking that.
P: Following up on that, how do you think games help people engage in and understand complex social issues such as racism?
K: Absolutely. Oh my goodness, gaming is really like a microcosm of like larger society. Think about like all the kinds of conversations that are happening right now. I remember reading on Twitter on the timeline, there was like a heading that said, there are no safe spaces for white men to go that won’t radicalize them or something like that. So it’s saying that online spaces are at the core – online spaces are like toxic. And I remember in Woke Gaming, the book that, the edited volume that me and David Leonard did, I remember our opening chapter basically said that GamerGate for instance, was like a precursor to like the Trump era that was going to come like a few years later. I’m seeing how people would mobilize in online spaces and how people might recruit people, and how people can like use bots to create and sustain harassment campaigns. Like all these things are happening inside the gaming space and then they just like go, “Blaoo!” inside the other online communities and actually like in physical spaces. So I feel like gaming is really like a microcosm of our larger society. There’s like this online manifestation of like real world hate, and people come on to the gaming space and they might practice it. Like they’re practicing their talking bites – their sound bits or whatever. Things that they’re getting from those neo-nazi right wing sites or whatever. And you hear them saying it. You really hear them talking those kinds of things out. And I think really what’s happening is that the online space. I don’t want to be one of those people that just say like online spaces are at the core very toxic, but it does facilitate something. So for instance, if I am a person, and if I don’t like another group of people, in my physical spaces I might not know of other people that might agree with me – agree with my racist thoughts and ideologies. Because I might say something to the wrong person, and immediately get like punished for it or somebody might check me or I get might get rectified or I might get hit or slapped. In an online space, those real-world consequences and repercussions aren’t there. So I can come into online space and I can say the N word, I can speak disparagingly about immigrant populations, I can say awful things. And there might be somebody else that agrees with me and joins in, and then all of a sudden, I found somebody who’s like me. And then I start to like, build community, right? So I think that that’s where the online space reduces the parameters or the restrictions of it. Like a lot of people, for the most part, like I can go to the store and with me and my body, I’m mostly protected. So that’s not true for all women of color. Let’s say for instance, if I’m wearing a burqa, and I go out there, I might not be protected. There are different degrees, but I will say that’s not like a guarantee – like me even wearing hijab or burqa like going into that space – It’s not like a guarantee that something might happen. But in the online space, I can go turn my Xbox on and go online right now and I can start speaking and talking, and somebody is going to talk shit. It seems so instant all the time. In a way that like the physical spaces are – well, you know, I can’t even say that now. You know, I’m thinking about all the – I feel like on Twitter there’s been conversation about a mass shooting, like every day now. So even now, you can’t even really say that. But in previous, let’s say 10 years ago, that would have been the case that there was like a little more safety in the physical space. And a lot more of that violence, the symbolic violence or online violence like in the online communities. But I would say that these gaming spaces are really just like these microcosms of what’s happening like in the actual the physical world.
P: Shifting gears here to 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 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. Also, the technology and the tools that facilitate that is important. You also have to make sure that what’s included, there’s like a feedback loop because we won’t be perfect. No matter how diverse we might be, there still could be like some missteps. So you want to make sure that there’s like a feedback loop so somebody can say, “Wow, y’all did a good job, but like, your subtitles aren’t big enough.” I mean, I don’t know, whatever it is, you want to make sure that you have a feedback loop and that you’re listening. Like listening is also at the core of that – that you are reflective enough and that you can hear tough things and be able to take it in and not take it too personally. Especially if your intent is to make good products and do good things for a wide range of folks who are there. So listening to folks, making sure that the foundation is as intersectional and inclusive at the core and the outset. Also making sure, like part of that feedback loop too, is also making sure that folks have a place to go if they want to critique or criticize or file grievance or say something. Make sure that there’s like a clear pathway for people to be able to do that. I don’t want people to go and be mean on Twitter so the thing that we created, because I hate that part. But also, just make sure that we realize that, make sure to give fake folks like a space to be able to comment and provide feedback. I think that would be like some of the first things that I would do.
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. They have like a whole page and a whole community where you can go to. Black Girl Gamers is a space if people are looking for content creators or whatever, you want to diversify your teams, you can go online and you can find them. So I think a lot of the work is like really done for us, because so many people are present, and they’re prominent, in these online spaces to make sure that they are visible But I want to also make sure that we don’t fall into that trap of the hyper visibility – that we’re making certain people and certain populations like really vulnerable to public attacks or to harassment and things like that. That’s part of that tokenism too. You don’t want to just tokenize these folks. You want to make sure that first off you have not just one – one is not going to do it. You also want to make sure that people aren’t isolated and alone, you want to make sure that you bring in like a cohort of folks. So if you want more – for instance, if Overwatch wanted to do better with South Asian women that are featured in the game, bring a group of South Asian women to the table to be able to speak to that, and to discuss those issues and to be able to offer.
Also think about what folks of color, what we’re conditioned for to. We don’t want to rock the boat. If there are some missteps, a lot of times we’re not vocal enough to say, “Y’all just messed up”. But I might not be inclined to say anything. And if I know, I’m like, “Okay, this is really racist”, but I’m scared because I want to keep my job. That’s why there’s strength in numbers, and there’s power in numbers. So that’s why you want people to be able to be comfortable and confident enough to be able to say something. So don’t just have that one person on an island, bring in a multitude of people. And I think folks also – we need to develop more allies and advocates in the space. So white folks need to be also responsive, so that the work doesn’t just fall on folks of color all the time to be able to do this. You’ve got allow – we need to mobilize these Karens to do something better than what they’ve been doing. I also understand that it’s not a lot of folks of color that are in a lot of these spaces and all these tech spaces, so people have to do the work to make sure that they have done the basic work, went beyond Race 101 and Race 102. Like making sure that they’ve graduated to the graduate level kinds of classes where they aren’t just doing basic kinds of things. I really think that those are those are some of the things that need to happen because really folks of color and women, they we’ve done
so much work to make it easy for folks to get this right and to do this right. If they choose not to, then they are basically they’re just ignorant or just hella racist. So either you’re ignorant or you’re racist, because there’s really no need for a lot of these conversations like right now at all.
P: What are some of the ideas or concepts relating to racial equity that you personally would like to see presented like through a game’s lens?
K: Absolutely. So something that – I’m trying to think about gaming early on – stereotypical representations play-gaming early on. And if you want to go off a stereotype, that’s fine, but give us something else, give us something more. There were times as well, when the only time you saw Middle Eastern characters, like in a game was if they were terrorists. If you saw like Black or Latinx characters in a game, they were drug dealers. Or if you saw women, then they were hyper sexualized, or they were killed, just for the protagonists to be able to do something or have like a narrative. So we have to go away from that or add to that. I’m not about restricting somebody like okay, all right, the black dudes a drug dealer, okay yeah, black drug dealers exist. I’m not trying to act like they don’t, but give us like, a Black person like on a dragon that’s like going through medieval times and slaying other dragons and saving a whole castle or a whole town. Give us that kind of narrative too. I guess what I hate that a lot of these games do is that when it comes to folks of color, they feel like that they have to create that authentic experience. And since they don’t know what authentic experiences are for us, they are often like, rooted in like stereotypes and what they assume of folks of color. And I think that that’s where that’s where the error thing comes in.
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, because they think that they’re being so – I don’t know, I can’t even wrap my mind around that. But 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?” If you’re looking for the people who graduated with CS degrees from Stanford and MIT, then you’re going to miss out on a lot of people. 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? And I think that a lot of them are “Well, we didn’t even think about that.” See that’s part of the problem, because you’re replicating structures of white supremacy, so then your end result is going to continue to be white supremacy. So they really have to, really rethink, the entire structure, and offer multiple pathways for folks, because we’re out here. There are so many designers of color, that may not have done their internship at Google or Facebook, they did their internship and Hack the Hood, or Black Girls Code or whatever. Those spaces and those pathways should also matter. And we have to start to highlight a lot of those things.
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, but right now I don’t want to do it yet.
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.