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How The Game Devs Of Color Expo Is Leveling the Playing Field

“I was in a computer art department, in art school. I used to make jokes like, ‘There’s two and a half Black people in the room,’ and someone would be like ‘Hm?’ And I’m like ‘What? I’m the half-Black person.’”

These are the kind of jokes that activist, organizer, and game designer Shawn Alexander Allen found himself making early on in his education in arts and games as a Black man. He considers himself a longstanding member of the games industry, getting his start in 2000 as a moderator on the IGN boards for seven years. However, Allen didn’t get a job working in games properly until he landed at Rockstar Games almost 14 years ago. After some time at Rockstar though, Allen still found himself in the same spot he did all those years ago in art school.

“I’m like one of the only Black people in this company that sells Black culture to Black people,” he tells UPROXX. “F**k this s**t.”

This moment came to Allen as a part of a reexamination, or “reinvention of self” in 2012. He always enjoyed games, and he always thought about them critically, but to that point felt he had failed to consider the “cultural implications” of the work he himself was doing. Around that time, he began listening to Saul Williams and Jay Z’s “Dead Presidents,” and before long it was, as Allen puts it, “like They Live, the John Carpenter film.” Suddenly, he was looking around at the industry and culture he was a part of and just wasn’t content with what he saw, or more specifically what he didn’t see.

“I can’t look at things as like innocent mistakes anymore,” he said.

Allen spent some time writing a thesis paper on Black and Latin people in the indie games scene, built up a knowledge of hip-hop and its origins, “dug into race studies,” and did everything he could to feel confident in what he hadn’t known for all those years. Then he pointed all that energy and knowledge outward. His sharpened beliefs subconsciously found roots in his longtime project, Treachery in Beatdown City; in places within the game like “a white socialite cheering on an aggressive cop” and the game’s general reflections on gentrification (a problem which has deeply afflicted New York City, the place Allen’s called home for most of his life and the not-so-subtle inspiration for his own game’s setting).

But it wasn’t enough to just make games about his people, his home, and their struggles; he wanted to actually help Black folks and people of color in games with what he worked hard to internalize. So, eventually, he found himself at the Game Devs of Color Expo.

Conversations that Allen had with Game Devs of Color Expo co-founder Catt Small, as well a general frustration with the whiteness of the games industry, seem to have played a pivotal role in realizing the event. In the early 2010s, there was what Allen called a “time where the industry was open and could have been an amazing changing point and it wasn’t.” This period was the indie boom of the 2010s, where fresh new exciting perspectives were merging with the mainstream, bringing an influx of not just novel perspectives but specifically perspectives of color. Instead, it did what it always does and “calcified around the status quo.”

Allen did not become formally involved in the GDoC Expo until after the inaugural event came to pass. Joining in its second year, Allen has fought tirelessly to make sure that the GDoC Expo is an event for and about people of color. He played a chief role, for example, in the event’s change in venue to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Malcolm X Boulevard in the heart of Harlem, a space Allen proudly dubbed “Black as hell.”

As a co-organizer, he’s also primarily focused on outreach for exhibitors, sponsors, and speakers, who are invited to talk about anything and everything outside of how they are marginalized, a weakness he’s observed in how the industry props up its minorities from his own time giving talks.

“Advocacy talks are garbage because they’re only ever on advocacy panels and they’re only around advocacy people and they’re only on tracks for advocacy,” Allen said.

The possibility space for growth and development for developers of color has traditionally been narrow and thus needed expanding. The GDoC Expo then exists as a place where the folks invited on to those panels were free of those responsibilities and being pigeonholed. They’re free to explore all kinds of topics, including the intersection of their cultures and games beyond representation. Allen even presents his own talks or hosts panels at the shows, telling me, “You know you gotta back the thing you believe in, right?”

The folks that Allen has brought into the fold seem to believe in the show just as much as he does.

“They’re just happy,” Allen shared. “Like they’re not anxious, they’re not tired. They’re not like ‘Whew man, that was a hard week but I think I got something out of it.’ It’s more like ‘Wow, when do I get more of this? Because this thing made me feel seen.”

An example of that is how Xalavier Nelson Jr., the acclaimed indie developer responsible for An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs and Hypnospace Outlaw, specifically wanted to debut the latest announcement for his game Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator at the GDoC Expo this year because of his affinity for the show. For countless others, the space the GDoC Expo has afforded them is their first opportunity to be seen at all. It’s put countless devs directly in contact with folks who would try their game for the first time and has attracted publishers who attend, gauge interest in the games, and allow for negotiations to take place. Some indie studios, like Virtuoso Neomedia (Zodiac XX) and Soft Not Weak (Spirit Swap) have been the outright recipients of money at the GDoC Expo or on the part of its organizers, which has helped them continue development on their games. Others have benefitted from this direct support, having been able to add features like additional translations or simply launch their titles due to the aid. This kind of impact is exactly the kind of work that Allen wants to accomplish with GDoC Expo: help that immediately translates to the success of developers of color.

Allen does acknowledge that this makes the expo a bit of a dark horse in a white-dominated space, even if it’s just doing what most shows and institutions in games seem afraid to do: give people of color an actual chance. He specifically called out the inaction on part of publishers who say they aren’t excluding developers of color, though in fact do because “their Rolodexes are just very small and they don’t go out of their way to do anything.” In response, Allen wants to do everything in his power to lift up those voices.

Though Allen’s no longer in New York where the GDoC Expo will likely continue once in-person events can happen again, he’s determined to keep it global and accessible, enjoying the success the online show has experienced the last few years and is determined to keep up. He wants to do for Atlanta, where he now resides, what he did back home and keep expanding even.

“I’d love to do something in Detroit. I’d love to do something in Oakland,” he continued, adding that he’d take the show to Ghana and Nigeria if he could. “Like keep bringing it with you because that’s the good thing about the globalness of [the show being online] right now is that we are getting people from everywhere.”

The idea seems to be to grow the GDoC Expo into a healthy alternative to the more widely-recognized (and exclusive) Game Developers Conference, and it seems well on its way.

Allen joked that his goal was to expose the games industry to people of color like Homer Simpson was exposed to a lesbian bar in an episode of The Simpsons. The joke is that the audience expects Homer to condemn the whole thing, but really it’s a misdirection and he embraces it all.

“I wanna do that to like the Homers of the world,” Allen said. “I want them to walk into the Game Devs of Color Expo and just look around and be like, ‘Man, there’s so many beautiful people here.’”