By Dennis R. Upkins
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Tanya DePass for many years, ever since the relevant days of LiveJournal. A 1973 Original (as stated on the title of her LJ) and a Chicago native, Tanya DePass has been on an epic quest to bring multiculturalism and progress to the video game industry. In 2014, she launched the #INeedDiverseGames initiative in the hopes of educating both gamers and creators on the importance of representation and diversity.
Upkins: Tanya, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule for this interview. For the unfamiliar, why don’t you introduce yourself.
DePass: Hi, I’m Tanya DePass, accidental activist for diversity in games. Long time gamer, a bit of a grump at times but a full time advocate for diversity, Director of the non-profit I Need Diverse Games
Upkins: What first drew you to video games?
DePass: A chance to escape, to do things I normally couldn’t do.
Upkins: What is it about the medium that makes it such a passion for you?
DePass: I get to save the world, the universe if I want. It’s a medium with so much potential to bring people new worlds, stories, universes. I can just chill in Thedas, walk the Normandy or lose myself in a new world.
Upkins: What’s your favorite genre and titles?
DePass: Favorite genre is RPG, the more narrative the better. Favorite game of all time is Dragon Age II. I know a lot of people hate it, or think it was rushed, but I love it. Also, Mass Effect 3, Witcher 3, and the Elder Scrolls series. I like the Sims as well but it’s not an always go to fave.
Upkins: Video games, the culture, the fandom are evolving and arguably more popular than ever? Why do you think this is?
DePass: The people who make games are aging. There’s also a new group of people making games that they want to see in the world instead of accepting what medium and large studios churn out each year. It’s also marketing to the folks who grew up with games and want to pass them on to their kids. That nostalgia draw is strong.
Upkins: In your estimation how did Gamergate come about and what has been the fallout?
DePass: Let people Google it, I’m really tired of talking about them.
Upkins: Fair enough. What do marginalized gamers have to contend with, that others may not realize?
DePass: Not being represented well, or in some cases at all. Often in fantasy genres we are left out in the name of “historical accuracy” but these are games with magic, elves and dragons but people of color are a step too far. Or if it’s a more modern setting, and we are present, we don’t get to exist happily, or we’re simply an accomplice to the main white protagonist. We are more often present as tropes and stereotypes than fully realized characters. When we bring this up, then we’re complaining or that we’re making a big deal out of nothing.
When we do make our own, then we’re leaving white people out so it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Look at how people have responded to Mafia III, Watch Dogs 2 and Battlefield 1 for example.
Upkins: Regarding video game companies and the industry itself. What are some of their areas of opportunity?
DePass: Diversifying the people making games. The IGDA (International Game Developer Association) did a Developer Satisfaction Survey. Unsurprisingly, there are not a lot of people of color in leadership roles or decision making roles. It’s not enough to have a team that’s ethnically diverse that does do better, but to have leadership that supports the decisions to have black leads, to address topics of race and racism (when appropriate) in a game. Also, gamers need to realize that you can’t say games are art, then turn around and refuse to hear criticism of the medium. That you can say, hey this game handled race poorly, but overall I still like it. That pointing out a failure to do something isn’t a condemnation of the whole game or franchise but people can’t hear that. All they hear is that you hate X or Y. Lastly, if your team is still full of white people and you want to tackle race or other issues outside your experiences, get a diversity consultant or sensitivity reader for your script.
Upkins: Are there companies who are doing it right in terms of being progressive?
DePass: Like I’ve said elsewhere, I give Bioware a double-edged sword on this one. On LGBTQIA representation, they are doing well (IMHO, others mileage may vary on this) but in terms of race they have a long way to go.
Blizzard, also gets a half and half on this. Characters in Overwatch are ok, Ana and the work they did to get her dialect correct, as well as having an older female character at all is a great example. But their additional skins are problematic.
Kitfox Studios did a great job with Moon Hunters and it shows that they did the work. I’ll give Ubisoft a dap for Watch Dogs 2, they listened and did the work. A fantastic departure from the first game in the series.
Lastly 2K and Hangar 13 get my kudos for 2016 with Mafia III. If not for Charles Webb’s writing and the team’s dedication to doing it right? The game could have been a total dumpster fire of racial fail. But it’s not and that’s what shows.
Upkins: Tell us how #INeedDiverseGames came into fruition.
DePass: I was literally mad about videogames around 6 am on October 7. 2014. Tweeted out a few things with #INeedDiverseGames, and folks with bigger followings than me retweeted, like Mikki Kendall. Soon it was trending and it hit at the right time when people wanted to continue the conversation. It soon got its own twitter account, a Tumblr and other spaces where we spoke about the need for better and more diversity & representation in games.
Upkins: What are the objectives of #INeedDiverseGames?
DePass: Here’s our Mission from our About page, that sums it up best: We view diversity as a way to enrich the video game experience, not a quota to be filled, or a tool to avoid criticism. Diversity is essential not just to reflect the variety of our community, but also to push the limits of immersion, to present audiences with a perspective that they have never experienced before, and ultimately, to foster empathy for others.
Upkins: Who are some of the other people involved with #INeedDiverseGames?
DePass: We’ve got several mods for our online spaces, and our Board of Directors is listed on our About page as well. I’ve been the most public facing person for the work, as some of our mods are international and can’t always attend US based events.
Upkins: What are some of the things the community has accomplished thus far?
DePass: We’re part of the GDC Scholarship program, which gives 25 all access passes to the annual Game Developers Conference each year. We’re part of the PAX Diversity Lounge and we’re working with Xbox’s Gaming for Everyone on ways to collaborate, to help better the community.
Upkins: You’ve had the opportunity to speak at various companies and conventions. What has that been like?
DePass: A bit nerve wracking to be honest. It’s intimidating to stand in front of people who may or may not be ready to hear your message. Or that could be ready but have a lot of huge, big picture questions you can’t really condense into an actionable item list as an answer. It’s been fruitful though, and I’ve gotten feedback that the talks have sparked more conversations afterward. It gives me hope that other studios will listen to such feedback and discussion.
Upkins: You had the opportunity to meet Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency. That must’ve been surreal.
DePass: Not really, she’s a human being. Very cool, had great conversations with her and a chance to see her for Anita, not the persona people have built around her and who they think she is. I think there’s a problem with how we mythologize people like her, others that have been in the public eye for what they tried to do, the harassment they have suffered and make their narrative all about that until they become someone above and beyond. I’ve met Zoe Quinn as well and she’s just a sweet, lovely chill person who wants to make games. I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of people in games that some folks really deify and they are like OMG you met X or you paneled with Y person, OMGGG. It’s not that serious, really. They are people doing the work too, and we need to remember they are people as well.
Upkins: It’s well documented that Sarkeesian regularly receives harassment and even death threats. As a black woman fighting for diversity in gaming, have you endure any of this as well?
DePass: Somewhat. I’ve had people flood the hashtag with porn, slurs, racist and fat phobic commentary when I started to get more press about the work I do. I haven’t been doxed, but I have had someone film a panel I was on in an attempt to “intimidate” the SJW’s on the panel. There was the requisite “response” videos to the hashtag that were just rando white dudes screaming for 15 minutes about how diversity isn’t a thing and SJW’s need to shut the fuck up, etc., etc. I might have death threats, but since I run three block bots simultaneously on all my twitter accounts I might not see them. I actually got worse harassment for talking about an abortion had over twenty years ago than speaking up for more representation in games
Upkins: You’re a contributor for Polygon. Where else can people find your work?
DePass: I’ve got a piece in Vice Gaming, with another one to come over at Polygon. I’ve actually got a side page on my site where I’ve collected all my articles, interviews etc. https://cypheroftyr.com/pressinterviews-etc/
Upkins: Any immediate # INeedDiverse Games goals?
DePass: Get some long-term funding. Right now our only funding is our Patreon which did tip a goal of $750 a month, but we could use some kind of major donation to get us through the first few months of 2017. We want to be able to give travel grants to folks to events, like GDC, HavenCon, the next GaymerX whenever that happens, or GaymerX Australia for example. We want to be able to pay say IGDA membership fees for students once or twice a year.
Upkins: If people want to get involved with #INeedDiverseGames, what can they do?
Patreon — It’s our only steady funding source for our 501 ( c ) (3) non-profit organization. The more we’re getting per month, the more we can do for the community.
PayPal.me- For a one time donation to our organization, so we can keep up our work.
Support our Podcast — Fresh Out of Tokens — Donating to the INDG Patreon keeps us on the air. We might open up donations on the podcast page itself in 2017
I Need Diverse Games Spreadshirt shop- Wear your support for diversity in games! Get tees, mugs, hoodies and more to show that you too need diverse games!
To support me directly so I can do this work full time, and keep a roof over my head: Patreon — monthly donation for as little as $1 a month. This keeps a roof over my head, the cat in kibble and the lights on so I can keep running I Need Diverse Games.
PayPal.me for a one-time donation if a recurring payment isn’t your thing/not in the cards right now.
Diversity Consulting & Sensitivity Reads — Rates depend on word count, time table, follow up requested. In person diversity consultation negotiated on case by case basis, with travel costs & per hour/day/week payment rates dependent on client needs
Upkins: What lies ahead for Tanya DePass?
DePass: Rest and no travel until January 12th, when I head off to Seattle, Washington for my first Guest of Honor gig at OrcaCon. Then a lot of travel in the coming months, and hopefully some good naps.
ABOUT DENNIS UPKINS:
Dennis R. Upkins is a proud Atlanta, Ga. native. A voracious reader, a lifelong geek and a hopeless comic book addict, he knew at an early age that storytelling was his calling.
In 2011, his debut novel, Hollowstone, was released by Parker Publishing. His sophomoretitle, West of Sunset, was also released by Parker Publishing in 2014.
Upkins has also worked as a freelance artist and a digital photographer. His artwork and short stories have appeared in Drops of Crimson, Sniplits, and a number of other publications.
Upkins regularly critiques and analyzes the representation and portrayal of minorities in comics and media and has served as a contributor for Ars Marginal, Black Girl Dangerous, Prism Comics, Nashville Geek Life, Comicbook.com, The Nerds of Color, and Geeks Out.