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How the Black Girl Gamers Community Became a Lifeline

Jay-Ann Lopez knew she could do better. She was in college, and two of her friends were racking up views on YouTube with a gaming channel that was offensive at worst, mediocre at best. They used African American Vernacular English for cool points, made jokes that turned femininity into a punchline, and generally just churned out one clichéd bit after another. Watching them gain notoriety was disheartening. Lopez decided it was time to start a channel of her own. What she created evolved into a platform connecting Black women gamers all over the world.

Born and raised in London, Lopez started playing video games when she was just 6 years old, after receiving her very first console, a Nintendo, from her uncle. She was hooked, but—as with movies and TV—she rarely saw herself represented. “On screen, I hardly ever saw Black characters. When I did, they were there for comedic relief. They were the macho Black man or the Black woman with an attitude problem, the sassy Black woman trope,” she recalls. “Growing up with the absence of [Black characters] in games I liked to play kind of left me feeling like gaming wasn’t for me.” Lopez tried to find a place in gaming with her YouTube channel, but eventually abandoned it. She felt annoyed, ostracized, invisible—and there were lots of gamers just like her. 

In October 2015, Lopez started Black Girl Gamers, a Twitch channel that has since become an online safe space and platform for heightening the visibility of Black women in gaming. BGG currently has more than 7,000 members in its Facebook group and some 35,000 followers on Twitch. The group runs IRL events and creates online content to support diversity in the gaming industry. What was once a small Facebook page with four community managers has blossomed into a dedicated and growing team of 184 members. The organization now offers events, workshops, consulting, mentorship opportunities, and a talent agency to represent streamers. Most recently, the group partnered with Facebook Reality Labs to offer members a three-month mentorship program for commercial roles in augmented and virtual reality.

According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), there are currently about 227 million gamers in the US. The majority of those gamers are white (73 percent) and identify as male (55 percent). For players not in those groups, gaming isn’t easy. A 2020 study by the Anti-Defamation League found that 64 percent of online multiplayer gamers in the US ages 18 to 45 experienced some form of harassment, with the majority of that harassment tied to gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or ability. “Women and girls don’t game as much as men and boys and not for a lack of interest or ability,” says Rabindra (Robby) Ratan, associate professor of media and information at Michigan State University. “Despite the stereotype that women and girls are not as good as men and boys at gaming, when we look at the skill increases over time, women and girls do just as well.” Ratan’s research, which focuses on harassment in gaming culture, shows women don’t spend as much time playing because of the toxicity they experience on online platforms.

And it’s not just harassment. Black women gamers are also subject to what’s known as stereotype threat, which Ratan describes as “this idea that when you are reminded of a stereotype that applies to your group you are more likely to conform to that group as long as the reminder is subtle.” It’s the kind of thing that can not only cause Black women to perform worse in games, it can also cause many to ultimately stray away from technical careers or STEM fields. Black women gamers also face the dual discrimination of racism and misogyny, while simultaneously dealing with backlash for trying to address them. “When we started BGG, people were always saying, ‘Why do you need a page for Black girl gamers? What if I made [one for] white male gamers?’” Lopez says. “If I had a pound for every time someone said [that] I’d be rich right now.” As her channel grows, it becomes more and more evident exactly why it’s so vital.

When it started, Black Girl Gamers was among the first Twitch channels to feature a variety of streamers instead of having one person be the lone face, an approach that’s since become commonplace. Having multiple streamers allows for more collaboration, and when one specific player isn’t online, BGG utilizes its stream team, a list of the group’s members’ personal accounts that gives folks a chance to learn more about BGG and connect with individual streamers who go live on their own channels. While Lopez is the founder of the organization, she isn’t rigid with how the community is run or what games can be played. Those choices are made collectively by stream team members, and this freedom of choice hardly goes unnoticed.

In 2018, at TwitchCon, a conference for Twitch streamers, “a white woman came up to me. She said to me ‘I love what you do with BGG, but I noticed y’all like to play violent games,” Lopez recalls. The woman seemed to be trying to make a connection between race and the types of games the group’s members played, but Lopez was struggling to see what it was. Much like movies and music, Lopez understands that everyone has their own taste in video games, but the assumption that there’s a connection between race and game preferences couldn’t be further from the truth. “Black women play all types of games,” she says.

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