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Sean Mason is living his childhood dream.
As a game designer for Big Huge Games, he is creating gameplay features and designing systems for the industry he only dreamed of being a part of when he was a 10-year-old playing Pokemon Silver and Final Fantasy X in Richmond, Virginia.
“Being a game designer was a childhood dream of mine. Looking back, it’s interesting that I gravitated toward game development so much because a lot of people pick their career based on what they see other people doing in their community, but I didn’t really have a point of reference outside of the game developers I would watch on G4 TV,” he said.
The now-defunct gaming tv network introduced Sean to the people who were designing and developing the video games he loved playing. Seeing a path to a career in the game industry motivated Sean to commit to study and ensure he was able to make his dream come true.
But while he was glad to learn about the developers that were designing the games he was passionate about, he didn’t see himself reflected in the games or in the group of people who made up the gaming industry.
“The Game Industry is not known for being very diverse,” he said. “In the US, It’s mostly middle-aged white guys, but this is changing. I’m happy to see that there are initiatives in the industry to be more inclusive, but I think there is still a long way to go.”
While studying game design at George Mason University, Sean says he was often the only African-American student in his classes. He says the lack of diversity hurts the industry and broader culture since video games have an outsized impact on popular culture. If game designers were a more accurate representation of society Sean says consumers could better identify themselves in the games they’re playing.
“One-way that games are hurt by lack of diversity is that you see a lot of characters in games that aren’t diverse, and when they are diverse, those characters are often generic or stereotypical representations. Growing up, most of my favorite game characters were white guys. In the back of my mind, I always wondered why there was a lack of cool black game protagonists that could stand next to iconic characters like Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII or Link from The Legend of Zelda. I believe that diverse voices in the game industry will help lead to a greater diversity of characters, themes, and perspectives that will ultimately make games and the industry better.”
His current game studio, right outside of Baltimore, Big Huge Games, is an outlier when it comes to representation in the game industry. Instead of usually being the only person of color in the room, Sean says the teams he works on are intentionally more diverse, and he says the games they develop are better because of it.
Some of the work Sean is most proud of is Big Huge Games’, DomiNations. DomiNations is a strategy game that allows players to build an empire and battle it out with other players. The game has been on the market for five years and for the past year, Sean has been leading the content and combat design of the game.
“My team has done so much and my design is visible all over the game. On any given day hundreds of thousands of players are interacting with a system or piece of content that I designed. It’s cool to watch players around the world talk about the fun they are having with my work.”
That praise and representation are essential in an industry that is extremely competitive for anyone and especially people of color.
“Trying to succeed in a competitive space like game design when you don’t see people like you can be demoralizing. Not only is it hard to break in, but when aspiring game designers don’t see other people like them in the industry, it may be hard for them to see themselves there. Despite this, they will need to have a lot of confidence, passion, and thick skin to breakthrough.”
Sean encourages aspiring video game professionals to get involved with their local chapter of the International Game Developers Association. Within IGDA there are mentorship opportunities and a push to get more people in the industry who traditionally haven’t been represented.