As part of the Black History Month series, USC Games sat down with Gini Benson (they, them) to get their take on how Black creators contribute to game design and their conscious efforts to make game design an inclusive space. Some of the questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: So before we officially get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself: who you are, how you got into gaming and USC Games?
A: Hey, I’m Gini. I currently work for USC Games, as the office manager and administrative budget assistant. Before starting with USC Games and in the meantime, I’m also a professional tabletop roleplay gamer, as well as a designer and tabletop roleplay supplement writer. I got my start in games when I was in college: I played my very first game of D&D, with some friends. I then took a long break from any tabletop role-playing games until about five years ago. And that was when I started playing Dungeons And Dragons again. And from there I kind of branched out into a bunch of different games and had the opportunity to come to Los Angeles, and be part of some professional streams. Ever since then I have been doing all of this basically professionally. It’s been a lot of fun.
Q: That’s really cool! Today we’re here to talk about Black History Month, and for you personally, what does that mean?
A: So I think Black History Month is an interesting thing, not just as a concept, but also as a placeholder in the history of America. I think that all like Black people have a complicated set of feelings around this month because yes there’s a month that celebrates us in our history, but we also live in a country where that history isn’t really being taught properly. And there are a lot of people who don’t really know the full extent of Black history in America. Black people built America from “nothing”, but there wasn’t “nothing” before we got here. Natives lived on this land that they had been cultivating. They had been caretakers and stewards of this land before colonists showed up and brought along African slaves.
So the history and the general understanding of this month are really complicated. I think it’s great that we have a month that we are allowed to step up and shine, but I’m also the type of person who believes Black history is American history. And we should celebrate Black people, and especially Black creatives all year round because they’ve contributed so much to American society.
Q: Absolutely. As a game designer and as a Black person, how do you think these two identities and roles intersect?
A: Well, as a Black person and a Black game designer, I definitely feel a heightened sense of responsibility to make sure that I am making a space that is inclusive. It’s kind of an unfortunate aspect of games that for the longest time it’s been a “boys club”, specifically a White boys club. And we’ve seen a lot of things come out of that, like “gamer-gate”, “comics-gate”, all of this sort of stuff that lives in the nerd society that’s blatantly White supremacist. And (it) doesn’t want to make space for women, or for queer people, for people of color, (even though) we’ve been around since the beginning. It’s just sort of this kind of denial. The history of games has always been one where everybody has a stake in it. Games are a universal language. And so that (universality), by necessity, requires inclusivity. So as a Black game designer I’m going to make sure that whatever I’m designing feels like a space where everyone can bring their ideas, their identities, their unique points of view to the table and feel included.
And, by the same token, it’s really unfortunate that Black people are the ones that have to sort of step up. Not just Black people, but any person of any identity, other than a white cis-male, has to kind of step up and be like, if I want to make sure that I feel represented at the table and that I feel included, I’m the one that has to get in there and actually make the change. I can’t expect other people to do it. For me, to a certain extent, that is always going to be true. But at the same time, it would just be nice if people defaulted to making sure that their games felt like something that everybody could play as opposed to: this is only for me. When you’re creating a game, it’s good to create for yourself, but create for yourself in a way that other people can come in and feel invited to your space, and feel like they have something to contribute to it.
Q: Tell us a little bit more about Black excellence in the video gaming space: how you see it has changed over time and what do you hope to see in the future?
A: I think USC Games have made a really concentrated effort to uplift and highlight Black game designers, especially up and coming and eager Black game designers. We have a lot of people who are trans in our program, of all races. I think that when it comes down to it, USC Games has an opportunity to create a platform, a springboard off of which Black creatives can leap.
And this is especially relevant right now since USC Games just recently started developing the Gerald A. Lawson Endowment Fund to give financial opportunities to people who might not necessarily have those chances to start out with. We have the opportunity to broaden the scope of our student body. Inclusivity starts with education. Prior to this role at USC Games, I was an educator for 13 years and I had the opportunity to teach young children. And I know that the best type of education is the type of education that can be accessible to as many people as possible because everybody learns, creates and expresses differently. Our program and others around the country are doing a really great job of creating spaces that feel accessible. Accessibility is the most important part of creating games. What I think is so interesting about the young Black creatives in our program specifically is that all of them are very conscious of the fact that they want to feel included in games. So they are also working to create spaces that are inclusive of others.
Q: Excellent. Who is a Black hero that comes to mind from a game or real life that really inspired you throughout your career or your life?
A: So, interestingly enough, I was inspired from a very young age by the character Geordi La Forge from Star Trek: The Next Generation. He was the ship’s engineer, a Black man who was disabled. He was blind and he wore an assistive device in order to help him see. You can find the character now in the MMO, Star Trek Online. And he’s played by the incomparable LeVar Burton, who has also been a lifelong hero of mine: Reading Rainbow, his podcast, Levar Burton Reads. We’re not sponsored by LeVar Burton (Editor: we’d love to work with him, though . Mr. Burton: Go Trojans!) I think if I ever met him in real life, I would probably cry. But there was something about the way that he was an engineer in his role in Star Trek. He was a very creative engineer: he was somebody who was always coming up with out-of-the-box solutions for problems.
Another great Black engineer from Star Trek: Voyager, B’Elanna Torres (played by Roxann Dawson), who like me was biracial and–in the show–was the very first Klingon engineer in Starfleet. So there are a lot of really great Black excellence and creatives, especially in the world of Star Trek that I’ve grown to admire throughout my life.
Q: That kind of “out of the box” thinking and having the predisposition to try new things really echoes with the career trajectory that you have chosen.
A: I think that’s very true, especially the things that I am currently considering: next steps for me in my career in the future. I think I’m very much well on the path to do that kind of stuff. But yeah, space is awesome. I love space.
Star Trek is such a great template for people to go off of, because even when Star Trek failed, there was always the attempt to try. Even if they didn’t do a very good job of it sometimes, you could see that the effort was there and that they were making the attempt even if they didn’t make it very like a very good one. So, Star Trek always gave itself room to make mistakes. Star Trek is great if you need really great inspiration for how to be inclusive in games.
Gini Benson is a professional tabletop roleplayer, writer, and designer. Their work can be seen on Twitch channels such as QueueTimes, SavingThrowShow, and Geek & Sundry. They are also the lead writer for an upcoming release for the Altered Carbon RPG setting and are currently collaborating with a group of creatives on a yet-to-be-released original TTRPG setting. They have been in education for the entirety of their professional career, teaching English in Japan earlier on and transitioning into administrative work with USC Games.