Growing Black Girl Gamers from a safe space into a progressive space
Founder and CEO Jay-Ann Lopez on what the industry can do to combat racism and discrimination
It started with a Facebook group.
In 2015, content creator Jay-Ann Lopez had been running her own channels on both YouTube and Twitch, raising her profile considerably, and yet she felt "very lonely, and also very ostracised at the same time."
"This was due to a couple of things," she tells GamesIndustry.biz. "First, not seeing many black women gamers. I knew they were out there, but I just didn't know where to find them. And then, second, because of the racism, sexism that you get when you play online games."
Lopez created a Facebook group, Black Girl Gamers, and invited a few Black women she'd encountered on Twitter. These early members became the first "mini-management team" for the group, but have since become lifelong friends for Lopez. As this group grew, it transformed into a company with part-time employees, and Lopez as the CEO. The initially small Facebook community now stands at over 8,000 people, also gathering on a Discord.
"I look at the diversity reports of every company, every year. Some of them don't even have them, and they need to, especially the big companies"
More importantly, Lopez says it has turned "from a community into a community-powered business," running everything from events, mentorships and workshops, consulting, sponsored content and even talent brokering -- pairing Black influencers with brands from across the business of games, but also beyond (including Netflix, Buildbox and makeup companies such as Anastasia Beverly Hills).
We're speaking to Lopez on the day of the Ensemble 2022 photoshoot, where she reveals a fellow member of this year's cohort was surprised to find Black Girl Gamers had been running for nearly a decade.
"He thought it was only three years old because I didn't show my face for the first two to three years," she explains. "That's because I'm aware of how colourism works in the black community. If you're whiter, you tend to be more favoured than being darker.
"That's not something everyone knows, but the black community knows it as something that happens subconsciously in people's minds. The lighter skin you are, sometimes you're chosen for better things. I wanted to be behind a veil for a very long time before showing myself, because I didn't want people to credit the work that I'd done solely to colourism. Colourism is global, so I had to think about all of that when building this community."
The inconsistencies of people's collective knowledge could further be seen last year as the media ramped up its coverage of reactions to hate raids on Twitch: groups who would invade a Black streamer's chat channel and send racist, offensive and often threatening messages. Tolerance for this among the streamer community reached a low point when several banded together for the #ADayOffTwitch strike, urging others to join in order to reduce the revenue the leading streaming site generated for that day, hoping this would encourage the company to take notice and deal with the problem.
Except this was not a new problem. Hate raids have been occurring across Twitch for years, and is something Lopez is all too familiar with. She even tells us similar streamer strikes have been held in previous years, so why did these not achieve the media awareness of last year's campaign?
"I think gaming has its subcultures -- if you love Guild Wars 2, you're going to be on the Guild Wars 2 server -- and there are subcultures when it comes to race and ethnicity and gender and sexual orientation and identification," Lopez explains. "When you are in that pocket of what we call 'Black Twitch,' there are things that maybe the media won't know unless you speak to someone like myself. Because I know that they've done loads of strikes off of Twitch before. They do one to two days per year, and I know that.
"I spoke with Twitch's vice president of trust and safety... about the hate raids. We specifically did a town hall [meeting] at Black Girl Gamers to understand who had been affected, how they'd been affected, what had happened, and I passed that on because I'm tired of waiting for something to happen."
Lopez is not surprised the raids continue year after year -- "gaming's been nurtured to this place where people like that can survive and thrive" -- and she and the team at Black Girl Gamers have been looking for more active ways to deal with the wider issues, rather than just these raids.
"I had to draw a line at some point where I said, 'Am I just going to be fighting racists all day?' Which I still do, but not the majority of my time. It's either fight racists all day, or actually create programmes and progress. I wanted Black Girl Gamers to be a safe space, but also a progressive one. I don't want to just have us holed up in a Discord, talking about what we've experienced -- which is valid -- but how are we also going to change the things? How are we going to have an impact? How are we going to talk to people? How are we going to network?"
The difference between a safe space and a progressive one, Lopez says, is "being vocal, and unashamedly so." She reports that top streamers have attack both herself and Black Girl Gamers over the years, but she and her team aim to be "not just the shield but the beacon, to show that this is something that needs to change."
"That's when it becomes progressive. You stop staying in your safe space, and start creating actions to make that safe space not just visible, but in a way a bit redundant"
Crucially, this comes down to doing more than showing the need for change, but also following through with various methods of achieving it. Many communities, she observes, stay as communities -- albeit ones that partner with or raise funds for charities, for example. But Black Girl Gamers works with establishing its members as the face of gaming and non-gaming brands, runs its own online summit (which was sponsored by Twitch) and brings these issues before thousands of people.
"That's when it becomes progressive, because you stop staying in your safe space, and you start creating actions to make that safe space not just visible, but in a way a bit redundant," Lopez says. "I've always said I don't want Black Girl Gamers to exist by necessity. Everyone has their tribes. Everyone has the people that they like and they orient themselves around, but I don't feel like we...in society, we shouldn't need our safe spaces. We shouldn't have to be attacked to then go into a safe space.
"If we want to be with our tribe and be with our people, whoever likes the same games, great. But for us to need a safe space specifically to stay away from racism and sexism, I want to make that redundant, because we shouldn't have to be in a safe space away from those things."
And following through is something Lopez would like to see more from the industry. While efforts to combat racism and discrimination have seemingly been more visible, especially since the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, the Black Girl Gamers founder is keen to see longer term actions.
"They need to actually do things with longevity," she says. "There are a lot of initiatives that I see that'll start and stop, and it's like, 'So, what change are you having?' If I can do it... I started a Facebook group for six years and continued the longevity of what I want to do. Big brands can assign a budget to do it and continue that work. Put your money where your mouth is.
"It's also about challenging unconscious biases in recruitment processes, and in promotional processes, because my professional background was in recruitment. So, I know that during the recruitment process, there are biases coming into place that will affect who gets recruited into a company, and who will get the promotion in a company. And I think when you continue the norm, you don't get change. And I think that's what a lot of gaming companies have done, until you see major problems, like in Riot, Ubisoft, etc., cultural problems with companies, because they're just continuing with the norm.
"I look at the diversity reports of every company, every year. Some of them don't even have them, and they need to, especially the big companies. I would love to see tangible action around the diversity reports, and the goals of what they're actually doing, and what their goal is, and how they work towards it each year. So, I'd want to see that from everyone. And it's 2022, so there's a lot of work to be done in that way, and it's not necessarily just for BGG."