Building Games at the Intersection of Race, Trans Life and Mental Illness

An Interview with Riley H.

by The Editor & Riley H on March 28th, 2016

Riley H. is a Black trans femme computer scientist, video game creator, diversity in tech advocate, and contributor to Model View Culture, penning popular pieces including Dear White Women in Tech: Here’s a Thought — Follow Your Own Advice and Your Half-Assed Diversity Initiatives Aren’t Going to Cut It In 2016. They’re currently building a non-profit, 2D fantasy game centering queer and trans people of color, and we sat down with them to discuss the importance of representation in video games, the challenges that face queer and trans people of color in funding their work, and what’s next for the project.

MVC: To start out with, one of the things that you’ve talked about is how difficult it is to share and build support for your work when you’re targeted for online harassment. How is that threat and that reality limiting what you’ve been able to do?

Four years ago, I started a fairly small-scale fundraiser for character concept art on a game project. During and after the fundraiser, I received death and rape threats multiple times a day. Even after the fundraiser was done, the harassment continued. Despite the fact that I delivered the character concept art commissioned, plus environment art and a full 3D model, as well as a breakdown of where all the money went, the same group that had been stalking and harassing me for months started a fresh campaign, this time to paint me as a scam artist.

In the time that’s passed, I was able to return to school and I finish this semester. Meanwhile, these same people are now working tirelessly to try to get my new fundraiser shut down, including reporting it to YouCaring (where we’re hosting the campaign). YouCaring asked us for proof that the game was in progress, they received it and were satisfied. They even had to shut off my comments because people were being so disgusting. Unsatisfied with that, people began to donate just to leave gross comments.

It’s the most exhausting part of all of this. I’m not even comfortable having the other people working on the project speak because they may be violently attacked next. I have to spend extra time avoiding and blocking people, which takes away from my working hours, on top of just emotionally and mentally dealing with the harassment as a disabled autistic person.

It’s the kind of story that people ignore while they’re demanding that those who want better and more representation “make their own”, and it’s a huge problem.

MVC: That aspect – online harassment – really compounds the existing structural barriers that queer and trans people of color, especially Black women and femmes, face in funding their work in tech and gaming. Can you talk a bit about that?

When a Black face is on a fundraiser, the fundraiser is usually doomed from the start. There have also been numerous studies about how initiatives to help Black children receive substantially less in donations than those meant for non-Black children. On the business side, people simply don’t think that Black femmes can achieve anything. The average failed startup run by white people receives 1.3M. Failed startup. This is literally money lost to the ether, and it still receives multiple times more money than the average Black woman does where venture capitalist funding is concerned: #ProjectDiane revealed that Black women get an average of 0% of the available VC money. That’s for those who want to make successful businesses.

If you don’t want to run a company? You don’t even get the ability to be turned down for funding. Crowdfunding, which used to be the solution for projects like this, has been taken over by corporations who already have 50K to throw at a prototype. People try to claim that this ensures higher quality, but it doesn’t. The same failed projects by white men are still making large amounts of money…and everyone else now has to try to raise money to fund a reasonable test version of their projects in hopes that they will be able to crowdfund the full work successfully. It really becomes impossible without connections somewhere, or having the funds to sink into the early development yourself.

MVC: What do you hope to accomplish with your game, as far as creating more positive representation in gaming?

Hands typing on a keyboard.

Photo CC-BY WOCinTech Chat.

If the game can reach one person, it’d be worth it for me. I have no interest in making money, only telling stories, which is a huge part of why I want to go non-profit. I just want to provide another example to show that representation is a real, possible, viable thing, and that it can be enjoyed. I want some mentally ill Black kid like myself to have something to keep them going another day. When you have little else to rely on due to your circumstances, an escape is so meaningful. Books and comics are another way to pull yourself out of your traumas temporarily, but I have always had a special place in my heart for video games since they allow me to navigate the story at my own pace, which lets the character I’m playing wholly envelop me. For the hours that can be sunk into games with meaningful stories and great representation, suffering doesn’t seem as real.

We have 9-10 main characters as of right now. Largely women or femmes, nearly all of color. We explore transgender motherhood and queerness, we explore the interaction of varieties of people and the internet, we explore different body sizes and we explore mental illness and other varieties of neuroatypicality. Since the few members in the team reflect all of these things, we just need to come from our own experiences!

On a more personal level, I’d like to grow from making this game. I’d like to learn more about making bigger and better games faster, so I can make materials for others, released open source so they can be community tools! I’d like the source code to be of use to some Black developers who have always wanted to make a game but are struggling to figure out more complicated coding. I want to learn more so I can spread more and better information. This is meant to be a start, not an end.

MVC: Tell us a little about the tech behind the game! What tools, frameworks, languages are you using, what’s been the hardest part so far, what are you learning along the way?

A running test on the game's battle system.

Testing the battle system.

I’m working in Game Maker, using GML. Game Maker has a lot of issues but it’s perfectly capable of making amazing, beautiful, top quality 2D games and I’ve gotten to see a few in the last week that really made me happy about the engine’s capabilities. There is also a really large community around the engine, since it’s been around for a while and is constantly being upgraded, and I can find just about anything I want by searching forums or digging through the documentation.

The hardest part, not counting the amount of work something like this takes, is definitely figuring out new programming models that are specific to gaming. Even though using an engine cuts down on certain parts of the work, only RPG Maker has all the parts to make an RPG built-in. There was still a lot of background work to be done before we could even get to the point we are at now. The early time working on the game was meant to implement components to smooth the development along by allowing us to simply call regular RPG elements with easy functions and allow them to self-manage.

Right now, we’ve finished those an initial implementation of those components, but right now I’m taking much needing coding time off to really hammer down the design, not only of the prototype level (which is the actual first level, somewhat muted in art to fit it all in), but of the battle system itself. Funny enough, I don’t mean this in a high level way; we already know how it works, but in a more basic way, like how the exact state machine design should work. I had a wonderful Computational Theory professor that told me that if you take the time to design your programs as deterministic finite automata, you’ll be much better for it, and that’s what I’m doing here, particularly with modular parts so that we’re able to remove elements of the gameplay that don’t work well and replace them with better parts.

MVC: What are the next steps for the game, and how can people support your work?

How can people support it? Talk about it. Spread my story. Let the world know that I’m a human being that deserves the most basic respect. For those of you who have seen my project, keep an eye on it! Share it! If that makes you want to support us financially, knowing the hardships that I face and in general, Black femmes face getting support for their work, you can do so here! Or you can just RT this and spread the word! I had no real hope of getting this far, even, so I and my programming buddy would be really grateful.

Please contribute to Riley’s work by donating to their crowdfunding campaign today! It’s already over half-way funded to the first milestone, but they’ll need to double to that to complete the prototype and build the foundation for the final build. Help them get there by donating today – any amount helps.