Graffiti Games: Amplifying Diverse Talents in Gaming

Playcrafting hosted our very first virtual Play NYC back in August 2020 with the Graffiti Games initiative as one of the highlights in our program. For those who may not be familiar, this is an annual initiative started in 2017. Its purpose is to provide a platform for game developers from underrepresented groups by commissioning them to create exclusive games for Play NYC. In the in-person setting, the developers are tasked with transforming their booths to create an immersive experience for convention-goers. Every year, we select five developers to create something that is their own representation. 

Graffiti Games 2020: Amplifying The Voices of Black Game Developers

This year, we worked with five Black developers from across the US. The results were incredible. But this piece is not about the results. It’s about how we got there. 

Back in June, social media was focused on Black Lives Matter, rekindled by the passing of George Floyd. I read threads after threads of people and companies wanting to take a stand. Many wanted to diversify their organizations. And many asked the Black professionals to step up.

I too put out some reactionary responses on social media. It wasn’t ideal, but I think we were all trying to right the wrongs. However, I caught myself as I was scrolling through the feeds. For a systemic issue running as deep as this one, taking action that leaves a lasting impact is crucial. The present is important, but it is more effective to sow the seeds to reshape the future. At the time, our Playcrafting team was still deciding how to handle Graffiti Games given this year’s show going virtual due to the pandemic. We decided to move forward with the initiative since we could make a big impact on an important cause. And I tasked myself with running the project from start to finish. 

Back to my earlier point. In pivotal times like now, asking people to step up is not enough. Companies are the ones who should step up, reach out, and consider changing hiring practices. It’s important to acknowledge and understand that we don’t have the same starting point and an equal platform in life. The socio-economic barrier is real. For some, it’s difficult to fathom a career in the games industry. They don’t even know if it’s a possibility. For non-white professionals, it takes effort and courage to break into a place that is not designed for us.

An Approach to Look for Diverse Talents

With Graffiti Games, we had an open forum that allowed people to nominate themselves or someone else. And to make sure that we had a big enough pool to finalize the participants, I also combed through multiple hashtags, including digging deep in the Black Game Developers database. With a big list, I narrowed down to about 20 folks before concluding the search with the Decoy Games team. Ahmed and Khalil worked with us as consultants in selecting the finalists and providing feedback throughout the development time. Each participant received a $5,000 grant (made possible by the generous support of Rockstar Games).

I’ve seen arguments in professional forums about how challenging it can be to recruit diverse talents, which I have to disagree with. While it may take a little bit more time, BIPOC folks have been working hard and proudly presenting their talents for years. Now is the time to leave the usual bubble. Expand the list of schools and events where your companies usually recruit from. Take those extra steps to reach out to local institutions, schools, and communities.

The Prompt

The thing that I love about this initiative is that it gives creators an open prompt: create a game project that is a representation of yourself. It’s not rare that creative projects tend to put people in a box in the name of diversity, which creates another problem. It puts people in a particular place where they’re only encouraged to talk about their struggles. Therefore, it’s important to provide creative freedom where people are able to be at their best. You’ll notice a wide variety of games in the lineup from this year’s Graffiti Games:

Andrew Augustin created a fun yet challenging puzzle game called Sheep Herder Nay.

Cara Hillstock brought To Be With You to life, a project that she’s been wanting to make for five years. 

Derrick Fields examined the cross-section of Japanese and African history with Oni Fighter Yasuke

Missy built a pastel world in Love Self where you could make sad people happy by shooting love from your heart. 

Ricardo Lee found new inspirations through Hello Lantern

If you haven’t got a chance to play these games, check them out here. Seeing these talented individuals make awesome games in a short amount of time while the world is falling apart truly leaves an impact on me. We also hosted a fantastic panel with all the devs and AJ Cirilo from Rockstar Games. You can watch that here.

Organizations You Should Check Out

Some organizations that have been doing the work to make the games industry a more inclusive and diverse place.

The fight for diversity and inclusion is a long and hard fight that dismantles a broken system. The work will be draining. It will be about making an active ongoing effort in reaching out, mentoring, and amplifying the voice of others. It will involve difficult conversations that most may not feel comfortable partaking in. If you consider yourself an ally, I hope that you will continue to advocate for that in the years to come, even when it’s not a trending buzzword anymore.

Thao Bui


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