Good Designers Listen. Great Designers Listen and Grow.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to learn from a variety of colleagues during my time in education, game design, and much more. If you’ve ever caught my podcast, you’ll notice that I frequently cite Gabe Barrett of Board Game Design Lab and his podcast for providing game design insights and perspectives from a variety of guests. I have the honor of co-teaching with none other than Shareef Jackson, who owns his own tutoring service, plays and DMs in a variety of D&D shows, and has been featured in the New York Times and NPR. Every time he shares insights in our class on Video Games & Learning, I learn something new.

One of Shareef’s best messages to our students is making sure you are bringing diverse voices to the table whenever you are creating. He says this knowing that our course is often heavily attended by future video game designers, and he knows that games are one aspect of culture that shapes our worldview. If we want to make sure our games portray groups in a way that acknowledges our unique perspectives, we need to listen to those groups.

As I started down the road of designing Gamestormers, I realized that representation is a huge piece to the core mechanic of storytelling. Sure, the cards in my game might be fairly vague and open-ended on purpose, but what would the visuals look like? How might I portray a salesperson? What would I put on the health expert card? Who would these character cards be and why? Would all players feel like they could relate to the characters, or is that even the point of a futuristic, steampunky universe?!

Cy the Composer and Irina the Innovator, two playable Gamestormers characters.

Regardless of my eventual answers for these questions, I knew I needed perspective. And, lo and behold, I had a designer connection in a very serendipitous fashion who could bring some invaluable perspective on inclusive design.

Kenyatta Forbes is an artist, educator, and game designer who most recently created Trading Races, a card game about blackness and black culture. To win, you must play a figure from black culture in your hand and advocate for them being the “blackest” individual played that round. As the tagline says, “the rules are easy – the discussions won’t be.” Kenyatta shared the game on an educator forum we both frequent, and I reached out to talk more about her design of Trading Races and how to achieve effective representation in game design.

Hearing Kenyatta describe her design process for Trading Races was illuminating and, frankly, quite humbling. At one point, we played a round of Trading Races, debating who was blacker between Omarosa Manigault Newman and Rachel Dolezal. When trying to describe where I would put Omarosa, I contextualized her in terms of her relationship with Donald Trump. After Kenyatta gave her rationale for how she would compare the two, I realized that I had positioned Omarosa’s blackness in the context of her connection to a rich, white male instead of on her own accomplishments. As Kenyatta astutely noted, “the patriarchy is real.” I have some work to do, folks.

Check out the episode of Gamestorming with Kenyatta Forbes here!

When I asked Kenyatta about what can help designers ensure they are doing due diligence on creating a game with effective and appropriate representation of different groups, she gave an incredibly similar response as Shareef Jackson above – invite diverse people to the table. Invite them to the conversations. I’m going to do my best to invite people to the table when designing to ensure I make a game that represents our multicultural society.

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