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Loopbreak.gg shines a light on Black stories in gaming | Donovan Erskine interview


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Donovan Erskine is a lifelong gamer, but he hasn’t seen that many characters that look like him in video games.

So he decided to create a new game journalism publication, Loopbreak.gg, to highlight the Black stories of the gaming industry and video game content. The extraordinary thing about this is that game journalism has been thinning out, with many publications laying off people or shutting down during the struggles of the pandemic and the economic downturn.

The website got off the ground in early February, and it has financial backing from Google Play and help from the Off School Grounds Coalition. To Erskine, this is like a dream come true, as he thought about his own challenges breaking into gaming. And wanted to provide a platform for Black writers to get a start in game journalism, either as reviewers or reporters. He has some freelancers helping with the writing and he hopes to expand over time.

Erskine graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism in 2020 from Bowie State University, the oldest historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Maryland. He joined ShackNews as an intern when he was 18 and he joined them as a news editor after he graduated. He still does that work and also found time to get Loopbreak.gg off the ground. I talked to him about what he hopes to achieve.

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Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Donovan Erskine is editor-in-chief of Loopbreak.gg.

GamesBeat: I feel like there’s a massive weakness in game journalism right now, where all I see are people getting laid off everywhere. To see something new come along and have a reason to exist, in a good niche, I can’t remember the last time I heard a story like LoopBreak. So how new is this? How long have you been doing it?

Donovan Erskine: We launched the very beginning of February, so maybe about a month to the day. In the first days of February we launched. We have a couple of writers working on the website. It’s been great to provide a platform for Black writers to get a start in the industry. I have a friend of mine I’ve known for some years who contacted me years ago about getting into the industry as a Black writer, the trials and tribulations you face, the hurdles you jump over. I was able to bring in some freelancers to start LoopBreak, which has been awesome. People are able to put down “I wrote for LoopBreak” on their resume, have a byline they can point to. If that helps them get jobs down the road, that’s awesome.

GamesBeat: You’ve been out of college for about three years, is that right?

Erskine: Yeah, I graduated in 2020 from Bowie State University. I got out right as the pandemic was really kicking off, luckily for me. I have a degree in broadcast journalism. I studied news there. Bowie State is the oldest historically Black college and university (HBCU) in Maryland. It has an amazing journalism program. I learned a lot about not just being in front of the camera, but behind it, writing news. A lot of the things I’ve applied to what I do now.

GamesBeat: Was ShackNews your first job, then?

Erskine: Yeah, I had been writing for ShackNews as an intern when I was 18, still in college. I was lucky enough that they brought me on very young. I got to cover events with them. I went to E3, PAX, New York Comic-Con. I did interviews. I really ran the gaming journalism gauntlet by the time I graduated college. Then they were gracious enough to bring me on as news editor there. I love the group over there. They’re awesome. But yeah, that was my first gig in gaming journalism. It’s been quite a blessing.

GamesBeat: Did that come to an end? When did you start thinking about LoopBreak?

Erskine: I’m still there. I still do my role as news editor at ShackNews in conjunction with my work at LoopBreak, which I’m fortunate to be doing. Last year, maybe early fall, or maybe even before the fall, that’s when serious conversations had started about LoopBreak. It was something I had always thought would be very cool to do before that, but the wheels really started turning at that point. Of course, Google Play was brought on as one of our founding sponsors. They’ve been very supportive, the team over there. We’ve been working with the Off School Grounds coalition. They’ve been awesome. It’s a non-profit we work with. A lot of folks helped get this off the ground.

Loopbreak.gg got started in February 2023.

GamesBeat: That is pretty unique, that you could start with someone like Google Play behind you. What were the conversations like? What gave you the grist to go and try this and make it real?

Erskine: Mainly just getting resources. Knowing folks that are able to design a site, folks that can get in touch with sponsors. Having connections to writers. There’s no shortage of talented writers out there. We mentioned layoffs earlier. A lot of folks are getting let go from their jobs who are more than capable, excellent writers. Just being able to bring everything together.

GamesBeat: With the support from Google Play, does that let you have a certain amount of staff on board and operate profitably? Or do you still need to find more companies to support you, advertisers and sponsors?

Erskine: The great thing with Google is that they’re also helping us with promotion, Google ads and whatnot. They’re huge into diversity and inclusion. They’ve been very gracious with their time with us. We’ve had calls with them talking about how we can make LoopBreak better, how we can get the word out about the website. Just steering that ship together. Talks with other companies, that’s more of a down the road feature.

GamesBeat: What areas do you intend to cover? How far do you want to go in terms of platforms and types of coverage?

Erskine: I really want to do a little bit of everything. We have some reviews up. We reviewed the new Dead Space remake that came out. We reviewed Forspoken. We’re planning on reviewing the bigger games as they come out. Covering news as it pertains to our readership. Some of the content I’m most proud of that we’ve done so far has been interviews. I believe at this point we have five interview articles live chatting with Black game developers and folks that own Black indie gaming studios releasing games for different platforms. We’ve spoken with Neil Jones, better known as Aerial_Knight, who developed and published Aerial_Knight’s Never Yield. A lot of smaller developers.

That’s another place that Google has helped us out, pointing us toward Black developers in their program. They have their own system over there where they highlight some underserved voices. I just recently did an interview with Craig Tinsley who runs Fresh Dope Games, and he was telling me about Rap Quest, which is a game that mixes classic RPG elements with hip-hop culture. I think the game has about 50,000 downloads now on official stores. It’s a very unique experience. He kind of had this brainchild to serve folks that love hip-hop and RPGs. There’s really no other game that does what it does. He talked to us about his aspirations, his full vision of making it an online game with 3D models and robust characters. Having actual artists come in and do voices. It was very cool to get to provide a platform for him to show that vision as he’s still working on getting people to develop the game with him and try to secure funding himself. That’s something I’m most proud of with the website so far.

GamesBeat: I saw Blessing [Adeoye Jr.] did a video that you guys wrote about as well.

Erskine: Yeah, it’s kind of funny. Blessing is great. Blessing Adeoye Jr. over at Kinda Funny Games, he did a video essay talking about black hair in games. It’s something that most Black folks that play video games, really a lot of non-white gamers, at some point you load a game and you’re creating a character. There are 30 hairstyles and maybe two of them are ones you could potentially relate to. He’s not just talking about modern games like Elden Ring or Pokemon Scarlet and Violet, but he’s diving deep into why it’s like this in the first place. A lot of the bias and how it’s rooted in prejudice and racism and how the game industry can improve on that. I thought it was brilliant. It’s something I’m very familiar with as a black gamer myself. We wanted to highlight their video. It’s awesome.

GamesBeat: It feels like that’s exactly why you guys exist. If somebody who has insights like this, you can highlight them or amplify them.

Erskine: That content doesn’t get made or put out there if there aren’t creative folks like Blessing at a place like Kinda Funny. That group is awesome. They do great content. But if he’s not there, that video doesn’t get made. That’s a massive audience that isn’t being catered to. No one’s raising awareness for them wanting inclusion. Folks like that having a platform, I think you just can’t overstate how important that is for the industry at large. If LoopBreak can be just a fraction that effective, I think that’s a job well done.

Loopbreak covers Black gaming stories.

GamesBeat: Does it seem like there are interesting developments in the industry related to this? Someone like Blessing getting to work at Kinda Funny is significant. There’s the Game Devs of Color expo. It makes you feel like there’s traction for this particular slice of the audience. People want this to exist.

Erskine: For sure. Game Devs of Color, those folks are great. We’ve actually interviewed some of them for ShackNews over the years. They do great work there. I always like checking out their show and seeing the games. I believe recently it was Black Voices in Gaming that held a showcase for games from Black developers. Even if you go back a few years at this point, the early pandemic days, following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police, it was a big movement within the game industry. The Pokemon Company donating money to Black Lives Matter. Electronics Arts expanding its DEI efforts. There’s definitely a bit of a movement there.

At this point it’s about keeping that ball rolling. Maybe there isn’t a big news story every month that’s going to make game developers want to come out and talk about being inclusive in their efforts, but even when there isn’t a tragedy in the collective social consciousness, folks are still thinking. When you’re hiring developers, what does that room look like? Who are you interviewing? That goes for media websites as well. When you have a position open for editors, who are you hiring? Who are you interviewing for that role? That’s very important stuff.

GamesBeat: Do you often feel like there’s a perspective that’s missing from a lot of what you’d call mainstream game journalism or game coverage?

Erskine: I think so. It’s definitely not as bad as it used to be. Again, a lot of game websites are predominantly either white or non-Black. It’s probably better now than it was a decade ago, or especially two decades ago. But every now and again still, I’ll see an article, whether it’s a feature or a review or a news piece, and I think, “Man, you can really tell there was nobody Black in the room when they wrote this.” If you just asked one Black person about doing this thing, it probably would have come out totally differently. It’s definitely a perspective issue. It’s something you can roll your eyes at. But I think there have been positive changes as well.

GamesBeat: Would you do that as one of the staples on the beat? Pointing out transgressions like that, I guess?

Erskine: Perhaps. I never want to be somebody that’s calling folks out or pointing fingers at other writers. But I think definitely holding folks’ feet to the fire when it matters. It was a big thing, again, a couple of years ago, a lot of Black History Month initiatives and commitments to improve. It would be interesting to go back and look at a lot of the companies and organizations three or four years ago and follow up. What have they actually done since then? Have they put resources and funds toward building a more inclusive gaming industry and landscape? It’s certainly something worth doing.

GamesBeat: I feel like I see more diverse characters than I used to. At least from my point of view, I see more diversity in main characters or major characters. But I don’t know if you share that perspective.

Erskine: I definitely do, to a degree. It’s gotten better. I look at characters like Miles Morales, and how he got to headline his own triple-A video game. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 comes out this year. Not only does that game star a Black and Latino protagonist, but he’s so authentically him. His character design, the way he acts and talks, his hairstyle. They get his hair right. It’s all very authentic. You can tell there were Black developers at Insomniac that were part of bringing that character to life. Nadji Jeter is excellent in that role.

Marcus Holloway is a hacker and the central character of Watch Dogs 2.

But even going back further, like Marcus, the protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 from Ubisoft. You had a great Black protagonist in a modern game. He’s cool as hell. He’s not a stereotype. Black characters have been in games forever, but they’re usually stereotypes. They’re a thug or a superstar athlete. I looked at Marcus as a very cool and nerdy protagonist in Watch Dogs 2. Definitely one of my favorites in recent years. I think we can go a bit further. But things are getting better in that field, I’d say.

GamesBeat: Do you think that content is also going well in terms of the directions it takes?

Erskine: That’s one that I don’t see as much. There aren’t a lot of games that really focus on Black stories particularly. It’s great that we do have a lot of Black protagonists and characters in games these days, but I don’t think there are a lot that are specifically setting out to tackle Black issues, to handle things like racism. There are games with themes that touch on that and that do a very good job, but it’s something you have to ask. What triple-A studio is going to come out and make that game that has heavy anti-racist themes and comes out and says it? If and when those games do come out, you can bet that there will be Reddit threads and petitions and people saying, “What are they doing to this franchise? This developer has lost its way.” Which speaks to the overall issue here. But it’s something I would love to see more of.

Again, I think it speaks to who is making games. Can you expect a studio that’s 95 percent employees to make a game that dives deep into the Black experience in the modern era? Or anything even close to that. The answer is probably no.

GamesBeat: Are there things you find inspiring? Things that make you think, “I’m glad I did this. I’m glad I went down this path to create a publication about this.”

Erskine: The response to LoopBreak has been awesome to see. A lot of folks have reached out, both professionally and just privately, folks I know in real life that I haven’t spoken to in a long time. They’ve been enjoying reading the website. A couple of friends, when I told them about it, they said, “I never really thought about that, but there aren’t any gaming websites tailored toward Black readers and Black gamers.” Folks have been very supportive of it so far. I haven’t had too many harsh criticisms or trolls about it, which I hope we can keep up.

GamesBeat: I would hope it wouldn’t be harder, now that people are more outspoken now about criticizing “wokeness.” It’s a different environment than it was even just five years ago on that front. I look at what’s going on with Scott Adams and wonder why he could even feel the confidence to speak like that.

Erskine: It’s really just arrogance and entitlement. For so long, people could and did say things like that, and it was okay. Even if people disagreed with it, nobody was checking them. They weren’t being held accountable in any way. We’re in an era where folks are being held accountable. You can argue about who deserves and doesn’t deserve it, second chances and so on, but I think overall there’s much more of a consequence for folks that come out and just spew hatred or prejudice in 2023.

Clementine was the hero of The Walking Dead series from Telltale Games.

GamesBeat: On the flip side, do you see many companies you think that have progressed to a stage where they get it, so to speak? They’re supportive of living up to some of the promises they’ve made.

Erskine: Some companies, I think, do a pretty good job when it comes to inclusion. At least from the perception when you’re on the outside looking in. On the media side, I think websites like–Kotaku I think is great. They have an awesome arsenal of writers over there. They’re very candid with their audience. I know a lot of folks don’t like them for that, but I think it’s great. They have some cool Black writers at that website.

As far as the actual game industry, it’s a bit hit or miss. Sometimes I get into a game and I think, “Oof, in 2023?” Elden Ring is a recent one where I love that game. It was my game of the year. But I remember making my character and thinking, “Wow, there are not any sort of Black features in this game at all.” Babylon’s Fall, the darkest skin tone you could make your character was a kind of eggshell cream. I’m thinking, “There is no way this is a video game in the modern era.” It’s hit or miss. Some do a really good job. But again, it’s always hard to tell. I’m not in those rooms. I don’t know what those offices look like. Still, there are some doing a good job out there.

GamesBeat: I guess you have to believe there are people in those companies who are trying to make a difference. Maybe getting to what their experience is like is something you can do more of. You can care more about what they’re doing than some journalists.

Erskine: It’s one of the reasons why I’ve loved talking with developers over the last couple of months. It’s mainly been on an indie level, but I’d love to chat with some triple-A folks, even if it’s just someone mid-level, junior, whatever. Just to hear about their experience of the industry, what those conversations are like. Even if it’s just an anonymous chat, I’d love to get a better insight on the triple-A level about how those conversations are handled behind closed doors. It’s usually very manufactured, very carefully constructed by the time it gets to us as consumers.

Deathloop was a hot game of 2021 with Black main characters.

GamesBeat: Have you found that there’s a lot of talent in the game journalism space that you can tap into? There seem to be a lot more people who could do this kind of writing.

Erskine: Oh, yeah. 100%. Talent and skill are not what’s lacking in media. There’s an abundance of talented and capable writers out there. It’s just about finding them and giving them chances. I know a lot of times–it’s pretty much a joke, and not just in media, but really anywhere in the professional world. “We want somebody with five years’ experience in an EIC role.” If you’re not giving people those chances to begin with, then how are they supposed to have that experience? And then you think, what kind of person does have five or 10 years of experience in the game industry, who was there in the old guard before the boom and the recent era? They’ll probably be a white writer.

When you think about it like that, it’s almost systemic. It’s not necessarily deliberate. I don’t think every hiring manager out there is saying, “We don’t want Black writers.” But when you overlook them because they’re inexperienced, because they haven’t been a guide editor or a review editor before, because they’ve never had those prestigious titles or written for IGN or Polygon, you miss out on some real talent.

That’s something I’ve been excited to do with LoopBreak. One of our writers, we’re his first byline professionally. I think that’s awesome. That’s my goal, to bring in people who are talented. I can look at what they write and see that it’s excellent, but maybe they’ve never written for a website before, or written anything outside of a personal blog. I can give them a shot to show everyone what they have at a higher level.

We have two or three people including myself right now. It’s a small crew. I’d love to bring some more people on as the site grows and we get more coverage opportunities. Right now I’m in a phase where I’m the one reaching out and initiating every conversation, whether it be with PR or anyone else. If I can get to a point where folks are inviting LoopBreak to do things, whether that’s attending press events or interviewing someone or getting review keys, I’ll be in a much better spot. Right now it’s about getting our content out there. Showing people that what we’re doing matters, and they should support us along that journey.

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