Black Professionals In Games: N’Gai Croal Talks Stereotypes, Finding Video Games’ Spike Lee

Last year, I interviewed five different women working in and around the video games industry.

Throughout my conversations in the special week-long series, we also spoke about diversity in general; all kinds of people play games, but it doesn’t seem that all kinds of people make them. This idea led me to my latest series where I talked with several black professionals working in the industry. They reflected on their personal experiences, talked about diversity and shared their hopes for the future of the industry.

First, I sat down with prominent games journalist N’Gai Croal, General Technology Editor at Newsweek (and friend to Multiplayer). In his tiny, video game-filled office, the Canadian-born, 35 year-old told me his career in journalism began in part because of race. A writer for the Stanford University newspaper during his undergraduate years, Croal once wrote a column criticizing Newsweek’s cover story about gangster rap. Soon afterwards, the then editor-in-chief of the weekly news magazine contacted Croal about his column and offered him an internship. Croal didn’t accept at the time, but after a brief stint at The Washington Post, he’s worked at Newsweek ever since.

We spoke about everything from his career to his thoughts on specific video games (“Gears of War,” “GTA: San Andreas“) to how diversity could benefit the industry…

Multiplayer: That’s funny you say that race got you started in your career. But have you ever felt it presented any challenges during your career?

Croal: Well, I don’t know. In a way, my take on an incident that had to do with race sort of got Newsweek to be aware or interested in me. But I was a good writer in college. I knew nothing about reporting. Everything I learned about reporting I learned at Newsweek. … But as far as race affecting my career here, I have to think about that. I mean, I would say the main challenge of advancing in any organization is mentorship, right? How much are you mentored and guided? Because there are some jobs where it’s pretty set and as long as your reviews are clean and you’re hitting very objective marks, you’re going to get promoted and advanced. Journalism is not really like that. A lot of fields aren’t like that. It really depends on the mentorship that you have. A lot of times mentorship gets doled out based on who people feel they relate to, who people sort of see themselves in. It also depends on the person. Is the junior person smart enough actually to seek out mentors? I don’t think I was that smart. I would say for most of my career, I wasn’t really mentored in my chain of command. There were people outside of my chain of command who were definitely informal mentors and advised and helped me through a lot of my early career. To what extent that race plays a part in that is hard to tell. It’s very difficult. I can’t really be sure about that.

As far as professionally, as far as the people I’ve had to deal with, a lot of it has to do with the name on the front of the jersey not the name on the back, right? So whenever I step into some sort of professional situation, I work for Newsweek, which is recognized the world over. So that sort of smooths out a lot of things that needs to be smoothed out. Even when I was starting in ’94 — well ’95 really — and the dot-com thing was starting to happen, a lot of those places like Newsweek, was a place they really wanted to get into so they can reach the mainstream. I never had problems that I can attribute to race because of it. Even if there were something to emerge, I think the fact that I worked at Newsweek made a difference, and I think that’s also true for games.

Multiplayer: Do you feel there are any advantages? Do you feel you stand out more because of your race?

Croal: Well, there are relatively few of us. So I guess in that sense I stand out. But I think also I stand out because of my dreads. [laughs] I stand out because I work for Newsweek. … [Working for Newsweek] opened a lot of doors. I know that’s not really what you’re asking, but in terms of race I don’t think I found a particular advantage or disadvantage. Professionally I think there is a perspective I have but I wouldn’t attribute it solely to race. I would say that I’m — and I hate to use a big word — but I’d say that I’m a liminal person; people who exist along boundaries or lines sort of in between spaces.

“I think that when you have to move in worlds where you’re not the majority… you sometimes see things in a way that other people don’t.”

My parents are from Guyana, South America. I was born in Canada. I lived a little bit of my life — when I was two to when I was five — in Guyana. I studied French for 10 years. I grew up in Canada. I moved to the United States for college. I’ve lived in California, D.C., and now in New York. I work at a mainstream magazine covering a niche subject within that magazine. So there’s a way in which I have all of these different perspectives. I’m a black, Canadian immigrant living in the United States of Guyanese descent, right? So there are all of these things that I’ve seen and done and by virtue of how I came into covering this, starting out writing about arts and entertainment, mostly movies, some music, some technology, and bringing that to covering games and being very inspired by everyone from Pauline Kael and John Simon and Stanley Kauffmann, Roger Ebert — to people who were writing for the Village Voice like Greg Tate and Lisa Jones and really strong cultural reporters who brought multiple perspectives to things. I try to bring that to games. Because my strength isn’t that I’ve played every game that has ever come out or that I’ve played every game that does come out … I always said that if I had a mutant power it would be that I hold a bunch of relatively useless facts in my head until it comes at the right moment to bring them all together, then I do. Then at best, it turns into something interesting and compelling, and I think race is a part of that. I think that when you have to move in worlds where you’re not the majority, your antennae have to be a little more active, you have to be a little more aware and pay attention to things and see things, you sometimes see things in a way that other people don’t. If that’s a strength, which I think it can be, then that’s a strength I have. Everyone has different strengths that would be one of mine.

Multiplayer: As far as the industry in general, although it seems that many African-Americans play games, there aren’t that many making them. Why do you think that is?

Croal: … I think that it’s not a clear career path, there’s one thing. Another thing that I think is relevant — it might seem that I’m dancing around the point but I’m not — is when I was in college in the early ’90s — and I suspect it’s still true today — a lot of black students go to college with a different mission in mind. It’s not to find yourself or figure out what you want to do or whatever. It’s very pre-professional. It’s pre-law, it’s pre-med, engineering, business, things like that. In particular in the United States, given the racial history of this country, given the fact that we approach parity in terms of income, there’s still an asset disparity because there were hundreds of years where black people couldn’t own things, property. Even when they did it, could be taken away at any time. So I know people who were my age, some people older than myself, who were the first people in their family to go to college. …

It’s only relatively recently now that there’s been an academic path into games. Before it was very much apprenticeship, right? You would have to write the company. I know people who have written letters and that’s how they got hired. Or come in as a tester, and testers don’t get paid a whole lot. So my point is that if there’s an asset disparity, and there is — one exists between African-Americans and other groups — then it’s going to be hard for your family to support you in a profession that doesn’t pay well, assuming the entry-level position we’re talking about is testing. So if you look at a field like publishing and ask yourself why there are so relatively few African-Americans in publishing, that’s because that’s a field that notoriously pays very, very low salaries. If you happened to have a trust fund or your parents were going to give you a credit card or things like that, then you could make it into those professions. Otherwise you would have to look into other fields.

The game industry isn’t that bad. There are other ways to get in. I think more needs to be done to get people aware. I think so many people think of games as entertainment, something you play and don’t necessarily think, “How do I get into this profession?” It’s kind of like watching sports. A lot of people think the only way in is to dunk a ball or hit a baseball and things like that, but there is a lot of support that goes on around it. I think it’s important to build upon awareness. One of those ways is to reach out to historically black college and universities with programs similar to what USC and Electronic Arts have with their partnership. I think even by college, in some ways, it can be too late. Not that people can’t go down that path but you want to make them aware even earlier. So I think identifying high schools that publishers and even colleges that have programs want to work with. Because making games isn’t fun all the time but it’s an incredible profession. I think raising awareness is the key thing. I think if more people knew that that was a path open to them, I think they would take it seriously.

Multiplayer: So you think that part of the issue too is the lack of visibility of African-Americans in these positions?

Croal: Well, the challenge that [the video games industry has] is that it’s a pretty invisible industry. Game developers aren’t featured on “Entertainment Tonight.” You don’t see Lucy Bradshaw or Kim Swift on the cover of Us Weekly. It’s not a glamorous profession. So that’s what makes visibility hard. A lot of editors of outlets like Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are boomers or older. And a lot of them don’t play video games. Even some of them that do don’t necessarily connect it to other things in their lives. So maybe they play a little “Bejeweled” to relax, but they sort of dismiss that in a way they wouldn’t dismiss watching “The Wire” and “The Sopranos” or “Lost” or shows like that. So I think there’s invisibility there in terms of mainstream media.

“I’ve gotten e-mails from black students… who’ve said that it was inspiring to them — to see my photo on the blog and read my stuff.”

Now in terms of the enthusiast press, there’s probably also some invisibility there. I think a lot of what gets featured in enthusiast press is screenshots. There aren’t really a ton of photos of people. So I think it does help to see people that look like you succeeding in these professions. It’s like just knowing it’s Spike Lee and because he starred in his own movies, he was sort of like Woody Allen. You’re seeing the guy on screen who wrote and directed this movie. For me as a 16 year-old, that was really powerful. So I think that it would be powerful to other people. I know that it is because I’ve gotten a number of e-mails from black students in high school and college who’ve written me and said that it was inspiring to them — to see my photo on the blog and read my stuff. They felt that it was inspiring to them, looking for career advice and other things. So I do think that visibility is definitely a part of what would boost people’s interest in games.

Multiplayer: Ultimately, is diversity important in the video games industry?

Croal: Well, that’s an interesting question. Is diversity important in the video games industry? [pauses] I’m pausing because I guess I’ll answer like this: I think we don’t yet know how important diversity is in the games industry because the industry is not as diverse as it could be. Stephen [Totilo] did that interview with John Koller where John Koller said — which is something I’d known anecdotally — that the PSP over-indexes among African-Americans and Latinos. I know just from my anecdotal experience — back in ’94, I went to a studio where a hip-hop album was being recorded for the first time. One of my best friends from college, Cheo Hodari Coker — a journalistic screenwriter who wrote the book on Notorious B.I.G. — he took me to the studio with him in ’94 when I was visiting New York and he told me beforehand, “Look. There’s three things without which a hip-hop album cannot be made: a bag of weed, a bottle of Hennessey, and a PlayStation with ’Madden.'” He’s like, “You go to a studio, you’re going to find those things.” So I know from my own experience video games are a powerful draw in these communities and the video game industry is doing a good job reaching and selling to these audiences. So my guess is they can continue doing that just fine and not have to worry about being more diverse.

But the flipside of it is that when you look at the entire hip-hop industry, now the music industry is not in good shape right now. But when you look at up through I guess 2000, 2001 before the decline really started to hit, there was an industry that was born from creating something from nothing. In neighborhoods where arts education programs were getting gutted and neighborhoods that were blighted, you had people who said, “With two turntables and a microphone I can make a difference, I can make the world listen.” You built an entire movement. I mean, there’s hip-hop in Cuba, there’s hip-hop in Poland, there’s hip-hop in the Soviet Union; there are people all around who are moved by that. And so you say to yourself, if more black people had access to the means of production in video games, if more women had access to the means of production in video games, if more anyone — what would you see? Other people could share their stories and their experiences. Not that games are a story-telling medium, but there’s so much more that games could be. …

“We don’t know what we’re missing out on yet, because the industry is not as diverse as it could be.”

I think that there are people who come from other places that might have something to offer games. They might come from very different — not really so much cultural traditions — but pop cultural traditions. … When you look at what jazz unlocked, when you look at the blues, when you look at hip-hop, when you look at basketball. I mean, not just look at black people — look at The Matrix. Look at what happened when two white directors from Chicago said, “Man this is incredible wire work that’s going on. We’re going to bring it here.” It changed action cinema the world over. That’s what I mean. That’s why I’m getting excited about it. That’s why it took so long to answer [the question] because we don’t know what we’re missing out on yet, because the industry is not as diverse as it could be. All we have to go on is what’s in front of us. But if we look at other fields, and we see what’s been done in other fields, it stands to reason that as you let more people who haven’t had as much access to the means of production in video games get access, you’re going to start to see some very different things. And that can only benefit the game industry. For those who write about it, it can only benefit.

Multiplayer: What do you think of the way African-Americans have been presented in games — for instance, “Gears of War,” the “Def Jam” games, “GTA: San Andreas”?

Croal: It’s been largely stereotypical portrayals but video games tend to be very much about stereotypes and types. I think one of the challenges is that you can tell stories in games but it’s not really a story-telling medium. It’s much more of an iconic medium, and it’s an interactive medium. So you are trying to make a strong, quick impression on people, you have to get a couple of things across very quickly. …

“People don’t realize how colonized their minds are by stereotypes.”

I think the challenge is that there should be enough awareness that these are stereotypes, and you sort of say, “Well, what do you do about them?” How do you change them? So there was some criticism, which I think was fair, of “Gears of War” for its portrayal of Cole Train. The thing is, that wasn’t the only way the character could have been portrayed in that situation — when you sort of think of a movie like Die Hard and the character of Theo, the geeky, smart, caustic guy who gets knocked out at the end. I’m not saying that’s what “Gears of War” should have had; I’m saying people don’t realize how colonized their minds are by stereotypes.

I don’t think “Def Jam Vendetta” is a bad thing; I don’t think featuring rappers in games is a bad thing. I liked the portrayal in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” Rockstar does a really, really good job of quickly and efficiently creating a character in ways that are more interesting. It’s sort of simple. The one [scene] that seems to stand out in that game is the whole big brother arguing with his little sister over the fact that she’s dating a Latino character in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” I mean, that was really well-written for that little total of 90 seconds that it portrayed. … So I think there are ways to do that. Even in their game they had a character that you would say was stereotypical. He was an ex-gangster who comes back and falls into his own gang. Rockstar managed to take their stereotypes and take the stereo out and turn them into types, and sort of tweak them and sort of capture the whole arc of that character, capture the era or some sort of that era; capture the conspiracy theories and paranoia and some of which is rooted in fact about how drugs were introduced to L.A. and things like that. I think it’s a really interesting portrayal.

Games are capable of more than people are doing with them. I think that’s what they have to look to and say, “How much longer are we going to rely on the bald space marine? Or how much longer are we going to rely on the Elven female warrior whose armor barely covers her breasts? Is that all we can do with this medium or is there more that can be done?” I think some people just don’t push themselves hard enough.

Multiplayer: So stereotypes are a staple in video games right now, but do you think that the audience is aware of those stereotypes?

Croal: That’s a challenge because I think a lot of audiences, a lot of gamers, are happy with the games they play. I think there’s a kind of defensiveness seen from gamers when they feel their hobby, their pastime, is being attacked. We saw that with a lot of things, in particular the Jade Raymond incident. We saw that with the “Mass Effect” and Fox controversy. We saw that with the “Resident Evil 5″ trailer. …

Multiplayer: Assuming that you would like to see more diversity in games in general, what games would you like to see for African-Americans?

Croal: I don’t know. I guess I would say that it would be like, “What kind of movies would you like to see with African-Americans before Spike Lee came along?” I really like the movies he has made. He’s black, but that’s not the only thing that influences him in his movies. His father is a jazz musician so he grew up around a lot of music. He used to go to musicals a lot, and I think his films are best understood as musicals. There’s a very theatrical quality to his films. I couldn’t have said I want that in a movie because I didn’t know. It’s the same thing with games. I have ideas or thoughts on how games overall can be improved. But in terms of thinking of things that are specific, I do think that tapping into aspects of black American culture could be very fruitful. …

“I unfortunately was one of those black people who was born without the rhythm gene — but I keep the beat. Just let it be known, I keep the beat.”

I think in terms of things that I’d like to see, there are many things that people could tap into. … You’ve got these dancing games that Konami does, “Dance Dance Revolution.” There are segments of the black community for which dance is very important. I unfortunately was one of those black people who was born without the rhythm gene — but I keep the beat. Just let it be known, I keep the beat. The thing that always struck me about “Dance Dance Revolution” is that you have a majority male audience that plays. It’s probably not that heavy but in the arcades, a lot times you see guys more times than not. And I’m thinking, stereotypically, you’ve got these guys, and some women, who are learning to be good at “Dance Dance Revolution” but they’re not learning any moves that they can take with them to the dance floor. They’re accumulating cultural cred at this game that isn’t transferable to social cred because if you were to bust out those “DDR” moves on the dance floor, you’re going to get clowned. People are going to sort of back away slowly. So I wondered what if someone made sort of a “DDR” game that had a hip-hop choreographer? I’m not saying that those are the only things to tap into. But those are some of the things that tap into mind like cultural specificity, looking for interesting stories for protagonists that are outside the mold. I think that’s something that games should be looking for anyways. I understand that people are looking for the some of the “same old, same old” but you have the potential to surprise people and engage people in different ways. There were a lot of people who thought that a black protagonist wouldn’t work in “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.” But there were a lot of people who thought like, “Well I want to be a thug, I want to be a gangster” and it’s the most successful “GTA” game ever. So I think the sky’s the limit and people just have to look.

Check back later this week to see N’Gai Croal’s extended thoughts on the “Resident Evil 5″ trailer. Next up tomorrow: “Tomb Raider” producer Morgan Gray.