Nathan Damtew is the visionary founder of BeBlocky a gamified learning app created to teach young kids computer programming in a fun and intuitive way. In a personal op-ed he muses on the value of representation in the gaming space.
Growing up, I was a kid who enjoyed outdoor activities the most. Riding a bike, skating, roller blading, tennis, swimming, basketball… you name it. Except gaming, indoor activities were not really my thing. I had a soft side when it comes to gaming. I loved every inch of video games, from Snake on my grandmothers Nokia, Super Mario on DVD to the Arcade games on Windows XP. I still don’t have a clue as to how the Minesweeper game works.
The very first 3D game I remember playing was Freedom Fighter. I had my elder sister help me install it on our PC, probably because I had no idea how computers worked back then let alone how to install a computer program; that was a job for someone smart. It’s hard to imagine how many times me and my brother completed the game just because it was the only one that was available. For kids who used to play arcade games, we were very much enlightened by Freedom Fighter.
That game changed everything for me. My love for gaming instantly increased; I couldn’t think of anything else. I started spending more time indoors playing games. Even if I wasn’t playing, I would think about it the whole time. By middle school, I was proud to call myself a gamer. My parents didn’t like it though, I wasn’t performing well at school and all. It’s not that I used to have good grades before or anything, it’s just that I kept on the bad performance. That’s what’s up!
By the time I joined high school, I’m pretty sure me and my brother had played hundreds of games and we were killing it like a Pro. In stark contrast, my love for games wasn’t the same in high school. I wasn’t sure as to why at the time but it could be many different things. Was it because I outgrew gaming? Nope, I believe no one can outgrow gaming. Was it because I started to focus on my studies? Not a chance! What does that even mean?! Was it because I found other things interesting? Maybe, to some extent. It was after my 8th grade National Exam that I got my first phone and I believe that has something to do with my lack of interest. I found other things interesting; I had to up my game. Now that’s a different story.
Either way, my love for gaming had changed tremendously. That doesn’t mean I stopped playing video games, it’s just that I didn’t do it as often as I used to. I remember a particular summer time where I was playing console games the entire time, but the love wasn’t the same for me. So what really changed?
It has never occurred to me why I drifted away from gaming until a couple of years ago while I was trying to build a game and understand the science behind it. I realized it had something to do with my personal behavior and being human.
I’m someone who gets easily bored of repetitive tasks; it drains me to the core. It doesn’t matter how involved I am or how much I’m enjoying myself, I start to lose interest as soon as something becomes repetitive or very familiar. What happened was that the games became more or less similar to one another and I started to notice a pattern among them. It was either the gameplay, storyline or characters; everything started to look the same. The only thing that was continuously changing was the graphics and that was pretty much it. It started to get much easier and eventually led to my disinterest.
At some point the stories used to excite me, I would watch every intro or cameo in the game. These scenes were used so the player can understand and better relate to the game and visualize themselves in it. It’s quite clear that these games were made for the Western World and it was pretty hard to relate to the story or character for someone in a 3rd world country. It can’t possibly be easy for someone to relate to a game character that was designed for his/hers western influenced peers. You can’t build an attachment! While building games, that is one of the critical things a game should have. If the game fails to build an attachment with the player, it would eventually lose the player’s interest. That’s exactly what happened. I basically stopped being attached to the games; I couldn’t relate anymore. It was difficult to visualize myself in the games. That’s just it.
Neither have I played as a black character nor have I seen a lead black character in a video game. Maybe I did a handful of times. That doesn’t take away from the point that I feel Africans are less represented in the gaming industry. Seeing that the industry is global, involved organizations have the responsibility, to some extent, to represent a more global audience, but of course they are not obligated to. It’s important to note that making a lead character colored is the least these companies can do to make games a bit more diverse. It’s not that they couldn’t take these steps, but It’s just that they don’t want to. We’ve all seen the influence Black Panther brought to the entertainment industry. Marvel went out of its way to make a superhero movie that was a bit more inclusive and it was appreciated by everyone. Personally, Black Panther hit different as compared to the other superhero movies that were made. I could relate in so many ways. All I’m saying is that the same can be applied to the gaming industry. And I ask, Who is going to fill that gap? Are we going to wait for someone else to do it for us?
Representation Does Matter! Not only to draw players to the game but to address a lot of issues along the way. Video games don’t only teach techniques and ways to pass a certain level. While playing, we are introduced to life skills that can be applied in real life. I had the basic know-how to driving from my time playing Grand Theft Auto. Can someone be an expert in driving just by playing GTA? No, but it sure helps grasp an idea about driving. I know about Guns too; it’s just that I’ve never shot one in real life yet. Since video games usually are based on reality, they teach about ones’ culture, language, history, music and tales. I’ve also learnt history to some extent; history that has got nothing to do with mime and I can’t relate to. Imagine what it would mean if the historical narration was something I could relate to? I would at least have a timeline as to how events occured in the past. History as a subject would have been a lot more interesting and my high school teacher would have been proud of me; I swear. A game character can inspire and motivate a player. It’s these and many other reasons why representation matters. It’s tough to see one of the largest industries lacking inclusivity. SOMEONE needs to do SOMETHING about it, because IT MATTERS.
There are a handful of companies here in Ethiopia working to make the gaming industry more inclusive. For instance, Qene Technologies — one of the pioneers in Ethiopian and African gaming — have developed an amazing Runner game, Kukulu, that features a chicken being chased by its owner with the game play not to get caught. It’s a common scenario to see a chicken running away from its owner in Ethiopia and seeing that in a game gave me chills, literal chills. I really enjoyed playing that game. Early in 2020, Qene Technologies also launched a digitized adaptation to the historic board game of Gebeta. Qene was able to make the traditional game easier to learn, practice, play and pass down to future generations. I’ve been kicking the computer’s a$$ lately.
Etan Comics, is another company in the entertainment industry changing the narrative as to how superheroes should be portrayed with their Jember and Hawi comic book series. All 3 books I have read thus far were really inspiring and fascinating. Imagine what an impact all these are going to have on a child? Sidenote — I can’t wait to read Jember 3. I hear it’s out now.
Here at BeBlocky, we are also doing our part to make the EdTech and gaming industry more comprehensive. We are primarily focused on teaching African children computer programming. Along the way, we have set out to make the learning process as fun and as productive as possible. The way we’re achieving that is through gamification. On course to make BeBlocky relvant to its users, we have designed our characters, Blockys, to look like our primary users — names, clothes and the whole set. [Blockys are game characters with oversized head, large beautiful eyes and disproportionately small body. Their cutesy design make them look very child friendly and fun to play with.] In addition, BeBlocky is bringing African characters that kids are already familiar with. As a next step, we are building the game environment to have an African-inspired theme to make it even more significant.
We don’t just want kids to learn coding when using our app. We want them to relate, learn their culture, get inspired and, of course, have fun along the way.
If only Africans and our culture were better represented in the gaming industry and if only there were enough people working in that sector to make it happen, there wouldn’t have been the need to write an article to prove a point. In closing, I would like to reiterate that it is our duty to make the industry more inclusive, to tell our stories and tales, to share our culture and language as well as amplify our amazing heroes and heroines through our games, thus having a significant impact on the player.
I want my games black, is that too much to ask?