When Dani Lalonders first fell in love with gaming, it wasn’t through some of the well-known classics that many enthusiasts name drop (though she does enjoy a good game of Super Mario and Zelda). Instead, it came from lighthearted offerings she played on her Game Boy and on the computer as a kid: Lizzie McGuire on the Go, Freddie Fish, Pajama with Sam, and Barbie’s Spa Adventure.
“I used to only play family-friendly games because I was so scared of dying in the game,” she tells ESSENCE. “I eventually just kept playing more games to the point where when I was in undergrad I realized that I can start making games myself. I don’t have to rely on everyone else to make the games that I want to play.”
A game that Lalonders wanted to play was one with some diversity. The only time she could play with a character who looked like herself was when she was able to customize players, and even then, there were limited Black skin tones.
“I just never really felt represented in games growing up. And as I got older, there were more and more games that had Black men, but they didn’t have Black women,” she recalls. “And if they did have Black women, they were never playable characters. They were always side characters.”
So, despite not having formal experience behind the scenes, she started building her own games, delving headfirst into game writing for visual novels, which she’d started doing around the age of 10. “I just taught myself how to code, art stuff and everything,” she says. “I also had a team, obviously, who was helping me out, making games, teaching me how to make them, what works and what doesn’t. We just shared each other’s ideas and from there we just kept going. And that’s kind of how I built my experience in the industry.”
The end result was her first major game, ValiDate. Instead of an action game or something of the arcade genre, it’s a visual novel based on the dating experiences of younger twentysomethings, including those of the LGBTQ+ community. So how does that work?
“You are able to select choices that dictate what kind of ending you get,” she explains. “You are playing as one of our preset characters. As you select what choices that you feel are fit, you are able to learn more about the character. You’re able to pursue other romantic and friendship opportunities with other characters.”
The game received the support of Xbox. It was funded in part by their New @ID Xbox Developer Acceleration Program, which seeks to empower underrepresented creators. Now Validate is available to all Xbox users.
“I think something that people don’t realize in this industry is that games are really expensive. And when you’re making certain type of games, it’s going to be so much harder to get financial support from these companies, these publishers, these investors because the game that you make is so risky. ValiDate is a very risky game. It’s high risk, high reward,” Lalonders says. “Xbox saw that we were a high-risk game, but they saw that we were such a different and unique one that they took a chance on us. And ultimately the chance that they took, it benefited both of us because now they have an amazing, diverse game on their portfolio and I have a game that’s out that is meant for the world.”
The success of the game pushed her to create a gaming company, Veritable Joy Studios. The CEO’s mission is to keep ensuring that everyone feels represented in the titles they play.
“I want to have a studio that is constantly making games that are like ValiDate, that celebrate people of color, not just your token people of color in games, but every person of color,” she says.
For Anika Howard, driving diversity in the gaming industry, specifically with online gaming and sports betting, has been of the utmost importance to her. After being recruited by Harrah’s, now Caesar’s Entertainment, while in business school, she went from wanting to get into video games and entertainment to finding a home on the “real money gaming side.” The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has since recruited her to spearhead its newest company, WONDR NATION, to help provide diverse representation to online gaming entertainment. She has an executive team made up of women, and they’re diverse in regards to everything from ethnic background to age.
“When you look at diversity, it has to be part of your DNA. It has to be at every part of your organization. And so if you don’t have diversity in leadership, it makes a difference, because then you can’t have anyone that’s advocating for those diverse ideas as they bubble up,” she tells us. “And you want to make sure that not only do you have people in the trenches, but you have people in leadership that can see the vision and nurture that innovation in those ideas.”
She also sees the importance, like Lalonders, of diversifying the characters and game mechanics as the players become more representative of the world around us. It’s necessary in an industry she says is surrounded by gatekeepers.
“Gaming companies, they’re realizing that diversity isn’t a buzzword. It is a competitive advantage. It’s proven that when you do this correctly, diversity is a competitive advantage,” says Howard. “Diversity allows you to create in ways that you can’t when you have a homogenous group of people just thinking the same way. It makes you step outside of your comfort zone. It makes you look at things differently. And ultimately, that engagement interaction creates a better product in the end.”
For both CEOs, being Black women making the change they want to see in gaming is of great significance. In addition to WONDR NATION, Howard takes part in organizations to help with that. One is called African Americans in Gaming, which she co-founded and Global Gaming Women, which is a female-led organization that she’s the chair of the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee for. The aim of both is to help people realize they’re not alone.
“Because there’s not a critical mass of people of color, in many cases, you are going to be the only person who looks like you in your space, but that doesn’t mean you have to be alone,” she says. “So we’re creating this extended community that allows you to say, okay, I need someone to talk to about X and being able to reach out to community to do that.”
For Lalonders, who has her eyes set next on a ValiDate volume two and three, being able to disrupt the standard in the very white, very male gaming industry is crucial to the experience of players to come.
“Myself and other developers of color constantly deal with racism. So when it comes to having games like ValiDate that have such diverse, queer characters of different body types, of different races, ethnicities, different skin tones, it is just so important. You need different kinds of characters because gamers are not a monolith. We come in all different shapes and sizes. Gamers can be your 8-year-old cousin on a Nintendo Switch to your 80-year-old grandma playing Candy Crush,” she says. “So it’s important that the games that people are playing reflect the people who are playing them. And that also counts when it comes to who is making them.”