Video gaming's "harder road" to racial diversity

·4 min read

Game developer Chandana "Eka" Ekanayake waited till mid-career to found a startup because he didn't see a path to do it. "I joke about this on Twitter: I wish I had 'white man confidence,'" he says now. "I would have started a company at 25."

Historically, that confidence hasn't been encouraged in the gaming sector. Ekanayake is now one of several entrepreneurs aiming to speed up diversification in a field where progress has been slow.

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By the numbers: A quarter of the 200+ million video games players in the United States are people of color, according to the Entertainment Software Association. But the executive ranks of the industry, as well as rank-and-file game development and the power players in games media, are less diverse.

  • One measure: The group Black in Gaming says that only 2% of developers are Black.

  • Another: A recent leak of Twitch data showed that the list of best-paid streamers is dominated by white men.

After the killing of George Floyd last year, media CEO Regi Cash heard from the young workers at his digital entertainment company that they wanted to make a difference. Cash agreed and added a key goal: making that difference last.

  • “We needed to do something in a more sustainable fashion,” Cash told Axios of his team's project, “if we really wanted to have an impact.”

Needed change: Cash and his team at 3BlackDot are now creating a series of video shows called “Gaming While Black,” which are designed to attract both Black gamers and Black talent in front of and behind the camera.

  • The project came from a desire to uplift Black voices after Floyd’s killing, but it's been shaped by Cash’s recognition of where his own company, which prided itself on diversity, had fallen short.

  • Cash realized that 3BlackDot was paying out $5 million a month to content creators it had partnered with, but was only distributing 3% of that to creators of color.

  • Without a more intentional effort, they hadn’t found a diverse talent pool.

To solve that, Cash and his team took a more systemic approach.

  • He explored the reasons for a lack of visible Black content creators. For one, lack of representation was a barrier. "I firmly believe that you have to see yourself in it to believe that it's possible for you," Cash said.

  • He also identified a financial catch-22. The industry didn't invest in Black talent, so Black content creators couldn't build an audience and attract sponsors — unless those sponsors put money in to make the audience grow.

  • Cash's project would need to not only find an audience, but find talent, find distribution and prop up an ecosystem in which Black creators and others could succeed.

For Ekanayake, the challenge of making gaming a more sustainably diverse space has been a long, personal journey.

  • Emigrating from Sri Lanka at 8 and starting in the industry at 19, he worked for major studios for nearly two decades before co-founding his own, Outerloop, in 2017.

  • For most of his career he didn’t emphasize his cultural background. “I was like, I got to try to fit in,” he told Axios. “I was always worried about losing my job.”

  • Age and parenthood made him rethink his background and his interests, and he began to dream of starting a studio that would elevate themes from other cultures.

Dreams come true more easily with financing, and that’s where a fluke experience with virtual reality helped Ekanayake start Outerloop.

  • About eight years ago, VR became the rage, and investors were leaping at a chance to fund VR games.

  • Ekanayake, working for a studio called Uber Entertainment at the time, got the chance to pitch and lead some VR gaming projects. That gave him the opportunity to learn how to pitch, secure funding and run a team.

  • His epiphany: It isn’t that hard if you have the confidence, and if you’re given the chance to take that chance.

"Falcon Age." Screenshot: Outerloop

In 2019, Outerloop released its debut game, "Falcon Age," which mixes a simulation of falconry with a fight against colonizers.

  • It was enough of a success to expand Outerloop's diverse team and spur a new, mystery project.

  • "My success level is, 'Oh, we didn’t lose money,'" he said, "We have enough to do another one."

The big picture: For Cash, Ekanayake and others, they’ve found that building projects that support diversity also means doing work on the foundation below it.

  • Ekanayake acknowledges that's a "harder road," but said he's inspired because he's working in a creative industry and trying to pay his lessons forward to other aspiring developers of color.

  • That, he reasons, can help the next generation and make this progress last.

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