[“Black on Black” is a feature that may, or may not, be ongoing. It’s an attempt to spotlight Black video game developers working in the industry — the problem is there aren’t very many of them.]
I got a chance to sit down with E.A. Gray, the brains behind Hip Hop Berserker, to talk about Black people in the video game industry, hip-hop, and dealing with the App Store. First, I have to start with the absurd way E.A. and I crossed paths. It was after several nights of me going through a major portion of the IGF candidates, which consisted of searching through staff pages in hopes of finding one, just one, Black video game developer. Regretfully, my labor was fruitless and I did what most people do nowadays when frustrated, I bitched on Twitter. And as you may have guessed, this yielded some results. While I was only able to find a few black game developers through the powers of social media, beggars can not be choosers.
But enough with my sob story, lets talk about E.A. Talented is the first word that comes to mind — multi-talented is probably a tad more suitable; also passionate, extremely, unabashedly passionate. I first noticed the passion for his work after watching him pick apart the hypocrisy of Apple’s App Store, or brashly and hilariously, giving it the middle finger — either way his point was made.
I am embarrassingly ignorant to the ins and outs of the App Store, however, I do understand how unpredictable that platform can be — see Flappy Bird. Now, lets for a second imagine the labor put into Hip Hop Berserker. Blood, sweat and countless tears just to release your game to a marketplace that very well may ignore it. But imagine it isn’t being ignored because it’s a bad game, imagine it being ignored due to the art form it pays homage to — hip-hop. This is Mr. Gray’s dilemma. Hip Hop Berserker is wholly reflective of E.A’s personality, hell, he even voiced all the characters in the game; everything from the graffiti ridden aesthetics to the Nujabes-esque soundtrack was carefully crafted. The studio even went as far as putting cutscenes into a mobile game, yet, games with half the craftsman ship rocket to the top of the App Store.
It is not my agenda to point fingers, but I can’t help but to agree with E.A’s evidence, and when asked did he feel as though his game was honestly snubbed because of the hip-hop content his answer was not surprising.
“In all honesty when I was talking to my programmer, and I was also talking to a major developer, he was like the editors of the app store they do have an insane amount of, I don’t know, they can be very subjective about things so it would be, despite the fact that one game is better, the guy that was reviewing it could have simply said to himself, “I don’t like hip-hop,” and then the other thing was them choosing Sega’s rhythm game over ours, which, ya know, still didn’t make sense, because when we were a priced app, we were charting better. But since we have gone free obviously the ranks have kinda dropped. We aren’t in the paid section anymore, but we’re hoping to pick things back up…”
Could this be a possibility? I can’t help but say yes. We see these issues consistently when arguments of more diverse video game characters bubble up into the gaming industry consciousness. The answer is always, more or less, that diversity doesn’t sell. Well, if diversity doesn’t sell, what are the chances diversity doesn’t review well either? And did the mythical creature that curates the App Store see Hip Hop Berserker and assume its future on the marketplace solely because of the word hip-hop?
“Now that I’m thinking about it I have to ask myself this question had this game just been called Berserker would it have gotten the attention that I, and ya know, our studio feels that it deserves, or were the words hip-hop immediately associated with something else that didn’t automatically drive the bias, and drove people to say, “I don’t want to play it, or I don’t want to review it.” I wrote in a Tumblr post that I know this game isn’t going to win any awards, but shit a game like Flappy Bird is getting attention, and it’s an addictive game but it really is not that great of a game. It doesn’t have a great soundtrack or anything like that, and it’s getting reviewed and everything. So, it’s very weird.”
This is where our conversation turned from diversity not only being necessary with the people who create the games, but individuals whom write about games as well. There has admittedly been a push for diversity in recent memory, although, that push has primarily been coming from the mouths of thirty-something white dudes.
“It bothers me because I wonder if, ya know, as an editor, as a reviewer of games you are sorta like a gatekeeper. People come to you to get opinions about games, and despite the fact you try to be objective you’re going to be subjective in certain circumstances, and, ya know, there may be a game that comes across the table and if you grew up in the suburbs and you were an avid rock fan your entire life, and didn’t happen to have people of color around you maybe if a game called Hip Hop Berserker slides across your desk you’ll say, “eh, I don’t like hip hop.”
Even worse you won’t give it the benefit of the doubt you’ll just judge it based off its name alone. And just say to yourself, “eh, ya know, I’ll give it a try, but I’m probably going to hate it.” So, it is troubling to see that, because you wonder, ya know, if they are reviewing certain games are they being as objective as possible, and whether or not they even attempt to review it. So, ya know, we got shunned by a bunch of major sites and I don’t want to say it is because of the title hip-hop.”
Hip Hop Berserker does not take hip hop that seriously. In fact, it is a game that respectfully has fun with its homage — it has a talking sword, and a fairy covered in graffiti for God’s sake. This is what makes his claims so problematic. Hip Hop Berserker conceivably couldn’t escape the stigmas, the flat out wrong and misguided stereotypes of hip-hop music, even though, it makes light of it.
“I wanted to make this as accessible as possible, because hip-hop, unfortunately, it gets a bad, ya know, forgive the pun here, but rap. It gets a bad rap.When people think of hip-hop they think of the gangster part of hip-hop they don’t think of Common, or the guys that are very conscious about culture and that kind of stuff.”
This bias, or perceived bias, isn’t something that just exists in the video game industry, or the App Store. It is a battle African Americans fight in movies, books and music — even black porn is perceived as not profitable.
“It’s the world that we live in, but I am not content with just saying it is the world we live in and that’s it. I’d really much like to do something about that I would like the app store to reverse its policies. If a game is charting better it should be featured in your best new game section. It shouldn’t be, ya know, whatever it is favoritism, or cronyism, whatever they want to call it. It should be based of your performance, and I’m not sure what happened there. It just doesn’t make any logical sense.”
I can not wholeheartedly blame the lack of Black game developers exclusively on the powers that be. Pressures to act a certain way, or do a certain thing also comes from the black community itself. African Americans, like E.A., who choose to take a different path are often met with statements like, “that is not what black people do.”
“For ten years I lived in Jamaica, Queens. It was a really rough neighborhood that I grew up in. There was like a pimp down the street, and yeah, it was rough. Then my dad got a better job, and then for seven years we lived in the suburbs. And it is funny how from both sides you could see it. From the first ten years growing up, ya know, from other black people you were told, ya know, talk a certain way, act a certain way, and Black people aren’t nerds. Then I moved to the suburbs, and I was always a pretty intelligent kid. And you would hear the same thing from the white kids, “you’re not black, because you talk so proper and you do well in school.” I played football and I got a full scholar ship to Maryland for track and field, but I also was able to do my thing in the classroom, but when I knew the main characters of Final Fantasy 7 you hear the White students say, “oh, Black nerd alert.” You hear those kind of comments.”
E.A. ignored those ignorant comments, and perused his passion, but does he see himself as a role model for younger, starry eyed Black game developers?
“It would be great to see more successful, very successful, game developers of color who are minorities. Be they women, or Black, Asian, or anything. It’s sorta empowering and uplifting for people who may look up to you some day, and think I can do that too. So that we don’t have to experience what you and I experienced growing up and having someone tell you that is not what black people do. We don’t do games, we rap and play basketball.”
This is the most poignant part of our conversation. There’s a certain fortitude one must have when growing up as a Black man; everyone has preconceived notions as to what you should be. It felt good to hear E.A. say this, and it needs to be said more often.
Undeterred by adversity, E.A. is still optimistic about the future of Hip Hop Berserker. He is a man on a mission to prove all the naysayers wrong. He truly believes there is a market for hip-hop infused media, and I candidly agree. The Black community needs more role models like E.A, and even more so, the gaming community needs more developers like E.A. He poured himself into a project that he felt needed to be made. Who knows if Apple didn’t feature Hip Hop Berserker merely because of the hip-hop influence, and quite frankly, that’s not the point. There’s a certain uneasy gut feeling you get when there is a suspicion you are being marginalized because you are different, or because someone doesn’t understand you, and sadly that is the point.