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The rise of Game Devs of Color Expo

Co-organiser Catt Small talks us through the event's origins and its rapid growth ahead of this year's festival

Catt Small has been making games since 2011. During the early years of her career, she made friends with a number of people in Brooklyn, New York who were also interested in development and she soon came to notice something.

"New York is very diverse, there are a lot of people who want to make games there, but then when you start to actually network with people in the industry, things don't reflect the local scene," she tells GamesIndustry.biz. "As I started to go to games industry events across the United States, I was not seeing nearly as much diversity as I was seeing in New York in terms of the people who were excited about the idea of making games. I started to get pretty lonely, and my friend Chris Algoo and I met some folks who were starting to feel the same way."

Agloo and Small began running games events at the New York University Politechnical Institute (now the Tandon School of Engineering), starting with the formation of a group called Brooklyn Gamery. As this endeavour grew, Small and her colleague realised their passion was not only for making games, but drawing together communities of diverse individuals to "make games and really bring that New York vibe."

The result was Game Devs of Color Expo.

The first iteration in 2016 was hosted in an office in the Microsoft building at New York's iconic Times Square, and centred primarily around roundtable discussions and other activities. Small expected around 50 people to attend – instead, it was closer to 200. And not just from New York, but from out of state as well.

Catt Small, Game Devs of Color Expo

"It really took off and people really responded to it," she says. "They were sensing that same disparity between all the people who ever said that they wanted to make a game. I hear this so much in the Black community in general, so it was really surprising when I saw these folks who were being gatekept basically. We figured if we made a platform that highlights really great people, maybe that could be a jumping off point for them to actually get seen within the broader industry.

"We've seen that over time where we highlight really awesome people, folks who have been here in the industry but just really hadn't found maybe the level of recognition they deserve, by giving them a grant or highlighting them in our expo. Then we have seen those folks go on to get more grant awards and get more recognition. We started this because we knew that all these folks were here and we just wanted to create a space where we could exist together and celebrate each other and hopefully figure out how to collectively bring each other up."

Encouraged, Small and Agloo brought the event back in 2017, moving to the Schomburg Center in Harlem, which Small says "felt like a historic space to have an event, especially an event that was centred around people of colour." The attendance doubled that year, and continued to grow right up to 2019, when Game Devs of Color Expo saw up to 750 people taking part.

Naturally, the pandemic compelled the organisers to move the event online in 2020 – and once again, attendance doubled with approximately 1,500 people tuning in to its activities. Game Devs of Color Expo had been running online streams around previous events, but shifting to an online-only model gave Small and her team a chance to think more deeply about that experience and how it could continue to grow. Even in 2022, with much larger events returning to physical form, Game Devs of Color Expo remains online.

"We've been remote since because we want to make sure that people are safe," Small explains. "Our community has continued to grow, we've started to see more people following us online. We're really excited about this year in particular. It's grown over time from a singular day event to essentially a four-day festival. We have networking, we have all these community building conversational spaces and times, and then on top of that we have the panels and the talks. We added interviews as part of the 2020 experience. It continued to grow and iterate based on what people want to see."

"New York is very diverse, there are a lot of people who want to make games, but the when you network with people in the industry, it doesn't reflect that"

Another key change is this year's shift to becoming a non-profit organisation. Previously, the expo has been sponsored by partners like the Creative Tech Alliance or run out of the Brooklyn Gamery entity. Now that Game Devs of Color Expo is a non-profit, Small is keen to think even more strategically about "how to grow in a way that makes sense for the mission we have and for our community."

Small says there are many benefits to keeping the event as a digital-only affair – for one thing, the organisers don't have to pay four days of venue hire fees. It also frees the team up to experiment with different formats, try different online events platforms, and find new ways to engage with the audience. This year – tomorrow, in fact – Game Devs of Color Expo is trying out live chats, which Small says "almost feel like the AOL chat room experience, except a lot safer and friendlier."

"Giving people the chance to talk about things like funding and marketing your game in that kind of space... one of the draws has been that there's been this live chat as you are watching the event streamed within the platform, so we were figuring out other ways that people could talk," she says. "Maybe on the Thursday before all the talks go live, it'd be nice to actually have the ability to check in with folks and say, 'Hey how's it going?' and nerd out about these topics within a text chat."

That's not to say there are no disadvantages to being online-only. While the organisers still run the Game Devs of Color Expo Direct, a livestreamed showcase highlighting games created by diverse developers, that traditional expo feeling and atmosphere is still somewhat missing.

"There's really an energy that game devs get from seeing people play their games in person," Small says. "We're still figuring out how to really build on that. The Direct has been really helpful because that's been a way for developers to see potential players get really excited about their games. It's definitely not the same as being on a show floor and having people come up and talk to you and to see that excitement live. We're definitely going to keep thinking on ways to bring that continued additional value to the folks who submit games to our event."

While the online version has taken GDoC Expo global, the organisers are keen to bring back the feeling of a traditional physical event as well

Perhaps the most rewarding part of running this event is seeing the impact it can have for developers. In 2019, GDoC began securing and giving our development grants thanks to partnerships with the likes of Humble. At first, it was a single $15,000 grant, but as the event grew, it became six grants, ranging between $15,000 and $25,000.

"That's really impactful for these creators," says Small, adding that GDoC Expo has helped shift the industry towards more no-strings-attached grants for underrepresented creators.

"If we have long-term sustainable studios that are run by people of colour from the get go, then long-term we will have that leadership [in the industry]"

"We're seeing the Moonrise Fund, for example, and other funds that are popping up around the industry that are specifically focused on creators of colour. I feel if we look back to 2019, we weren't really seeing that. That was a really new concept and I'm excited for that. I think we're all here to do the same thing, which is see more interesting stories come out to the world. New and interesting mechanics exist and I feel like any part we can have in that is really wonderful."

She adds that she wants to see the industry provide more support, not only for startup studios but those still scaling up. That, Small says, will be key to diversifying the industry.

"If we are going to have long-term sustainable studios that are run and funded and those companies are run by people of colour from the get go, then that means that long-term we will have that leadership, so I am looking out to see whether we can reduce churn of people leaving and things of that nature because that is a challenge.

"I'm just hoping that we keep having these conversations about sustainability and unions and co-ops and other business models. I am hoping that, in addition to all the burnout, is going to lead to more folks actually staying and reaching those higher-level positions."

Looking forward, Small hopes to keep the spirit of the online event, but also bring back the in-person aspect as well. When last it was held in the Schomburg Center, GDoC was pushing up against the limits of the venue's capacity, so the hope to find a new location the festival can grow into.

"Beyond that, we're thinking about other ways we can be beneficial to the community," she concludes. "We're figuring out, for example, do we have a Discord, or are there other things we can potentially do throughout the year? A lot of ideas right now we're throwing at a board basically and trying to write out what this could continue to be, how can we continue to add value.

"Really, we're listening to what the community says in addition to, of course, trying to come up with our own ideas."

Game Devs of Color Expo 2022 kicks off tomorrow with this year's Direct and live chats, and runs until Sunday, September 18. We'll have a preview highlighting some of the must-see talks on the site tomorrow.

Disclosure: GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Game Devs of Color Expo 2022

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James Batchelor avatar

James Batchelor

Editor-in-Chief

James Batchelor has been a journalist in the games industry since 2006, joining GamesIndustry in 2016, and also runs Non-Violent Game of the Day (@NVGOTD). He does play violent games, but always on Story/Easy mode.

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