Pokémon GO maker Niantic Labs announced in early February its Black Developers Initiative (BDI), a program designed to support Black game and augmented reality (AR) app developers.

The five-month program will fund new projects for Black game development teams with the intention of building a playable prototype and pitch deck for their real-world AR games.

“BDI is our commitment to providing access, opportunity, resources, and mentorship,” said CEO John Hanke in Niantic’s official announcement.

Trinidad Hermida, Niantic’s head of diversity and inclusion, told CNBC in an interview that the company’s recent Pokémon Go Fest 2020 raised $13 million, and roughly half of those funds will be dedicated to this initiative.

“Developing a game costs a lot of money,” said Hermida. “It’s a billion dollar industry and it’s moving fast with so many different pieces, so finance can be a huge barrier.”

Gaming’s diversity problem

The video game industry that has been booming during the coronavirus pandemic continues to struggle with diversity behind the scenes.

“The gaming industry has been predominantly white for the last 20 years,” said Hermida. “Although we’re moving out of that and we’re really creating more balanced and equitable studios, that’s still tough when you’re trying to enter into a culture that you really don’t know.”

According to an NPD Group report, U.S. consumer spending on video game products in the third quarter of 2020 shattered previous record highs reaching $11.2 billion, an increase of 24% year-over-year. 

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Niantic’s multi-million dollar commitment comes as a follow to the company’s pledge of support after the killing of George Floyd last summer.

“We think the next area where we can make a powerful, scalable impact is through the culture, ideas and role models we help to create,” said Hanke in an internal memo issued in June of 2020. “To achieve that, we are going to fund projects from Black creators and will bring the best of those creations to a mass audience where they can shine a light on characters, story, and points of view that validate the lives and experiences of the Black community.”

Nielsen reports that African Americans remain among the most likely groups to be engaged gamers (71%), the second largest ethnic group after Asian Americans (81%) and followed by non-Hispanic whites (61%) and Hispanics (55%).

Despite these high engagement levels on the consumer end, data from a self-reported 2019 International Game Developers Association survey paints a more bleak picture behind the scenes. The survey found only 2% of developers identify as Black, African American, African or Afro-Caribbean.

Finding solutions

Jessica Murrey, W!CKED SAiNTS Studios Co-Founder and CEO will be the first Black game developer to participate in Niantic Labs Black Developers Initiative.

Niantic Labs

“The hard thing about being a person of color is that you just don’t get the benefit of the doubt,” said Jessica Murrey, Co-founder and CEO of W!CKED SAiNTS Studio

Murrey is the first developer signed on to Niantic’s Black Developers Initiative. 

The Black and female-led studio based in Bedford, Oregon develops graphic novel-style storytelling games to engage with young leaders and create social impact.

Prior to becoming a game developer, Murrey ran the communications department at Search for Common Ground, one of the world’s largest dedicated conflict resolution organization.

She was soon in the field, training young activists in storytelling and strategic messaging, which now translates to her game designs. Her exposure to gaming however started at a young age.

“Actually my mom is a huge gamer,” said Murrey. “When I was in high school my mom was ranked like top 25 players in the world at like Lost Planet.”

A multi-generational gamer, Murrey’s path to growing W!CKED SAiNTS has overcome its share of obstacles. In order to focus exclusively on the studio, she quit her job in advocacy and focused on networking with artists, narrative designers and raised money on Kickstarter.

Before connecting with Niantic, Murrey said that one of her primary investors at the time withdrew their investment.

“The feedback that we got was that ‘I really like you and you’re really energetic, but I don’t know if you can pull it off,” Murrey said.

Now, W!CKED SAiNTS will work with Niantic to build a game called “World Reborn” – a player experience Murrey describes as “Game of Thrones” meets “Riverdale” with a dash of “Black Mirror.”

When asked what opportunities developers will have to remain part of the Niantic family beyond the five-month initiative, Hermida said that’s a decision to be made on a case-by-case basis. 

“It’s a dance,” said Hermida. “Developers have to want to at the end walk with us, dance with us and we have to want to walk and dance with them.”

Hermida said ideally they want to build partnerships with developers that they’ll be able to bring to their in house game development team.

“Having an equitable balanced workforce is going to make you not only more innovative, but it’s huge to your business,” said Hermida. “If we’re not balancing our workforce to look like what society looks like, then we’re at a disadvantage to our business.”

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