An intimate conversation between SuAnne Fu and Lauren Brown for Animation Career Review
“You cannot walk directly in someone else’s shoes, but learning other people’s stories, reading articles, looking at references, seeing the meaning behind things—those are all really important in terms of understanding the full breadth of a character,” said Lauren Brown, art director, Wildseed Games, during SCAD GamingFest 2022.
A SCAD alumna, Brown (M.F.A., illustration, 2011) was speaking with SCAD chair of interactive design SuAnne Fu for a memorable conversation titled “Inclusive Character Design in Gaming,” focused on diversity and inclusion in character design and depiction.
Brown spent a decade in the television and gaming industries. After working as a background artist on shows like Archer, Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The League, she worked at Electronic Arts, Zinga, and as associate art director on Words with Friends before moving to her current studio, Wildseed Games. Fu is the esteemed chair of interactive design and game development, and a beloved professor of immersive reality, at Savanah College of Art and Design (SCAD).
What follows is a condensed version of their conversation.
SuAnne Fu: Lauren, will you please tell us a little about where you are now professionally?
Lauren Brown: I’m art director at Wildseed Games, a new, Black-owned studio. Our aim is to create inclusive characters. I also do advocacy work, working with employee resource groups, which are teams of diverse employees in the game industry advocating for more inclusion in games, and more inclusion in the studios themselves. And I’ve spent a lot of time talking to students and people trying to get into the game industry.
Fu: What would you say are some of the most important things to consider when designing for BIPOC characters in games?
Brown: Consider your character as their own person. Don’t just borrow from tropes and stereotypes as you build your perceptions of the character. Oftentimes, when we reference characters of other nationalities and backgrounds, or from any marginalized group, we can tend to focus on the idealized people who have been elevated in media. What’s important to understand is that the standard that’s been set in American society is a Eurocentric beauty standard. So, the people you see put to the forefront are often going to be people who adhere to that—even if they are from a marginalized community. It’s important to dig deeper, do your research, and understand how the character is influenced by their own culture.
Fu: What solutions can we work towards as we’re trying to create better representations of Black male characters?
Brown: Unfortunately, a lot of the Black male characters we’ve seen through the years have been portrayed in a way that borrows from stereotypes that have been perpetuated for generations about Black men in society. We see those depictions continue in our games, films, and on TV.
A character like Cole from Gears of War borrows from this very aggressive, muscular, angry stereotype. It’s an image that is not representative of all Black males, but this is the image that gets perpetuated. What that creates is an expectation in people who maybe haven’t really talked to that many Black men, or that many Black people, who will then ascribe those stereotypes to the people as a whole. This is why it’s really important to make your characters more complex, and move away from stereotypes.
The first image you see makes you assume certain things about characters. This can also be used to your advantage as a designer. You can skew how somebody is going to consider your character through thoughtful character design. Even in first-person shooter and fighter game, it’s important to mix things up a bit to be more creative with your design choices. Establish the backstory of the character, even in a paragraph or two, what their motivations are, and you’ll begin to break down stereotypes even before you start drawing.
Fu: Bad texture and bad lighting are two topics that get brought up when discussing BIPOC representation in gaming. What will lead us to create good textures and lighting?
Brown: First of all, learn how to render different skin types. It really starts with game developers and artists entering the industry and treating characters thoughtfully. The same goes for lighting. The full environment has to reflect the characters that you’re putting in it. If you have a super dark environment and a super dark character, it’s not going to read. You have to thoughtfully design your sets and lighting if your game is character-focused. An example that’s done correctly is Miles Morales from the Spider-Man game. That’s a great way to light darker skin tone because it not only uses lighting from various directions but also uses color as a way to highlight different tones and features.
Fu: Are there certain questions you’re asking yourself while you’re designing, to see if your designs are inclusive and successful?
Brown: When you step back and look at your character design, you have to be really honest with yourself, like, “If I was somebody who saw this for the first time, would I understand these key things about this character?” Of course, sometimes there are traits you want to conceal. But be sure you see the thing that you’d want somebody else to see on first read.
Currently, I’m working on a game, and we’re thinking about how to portray these characters and their traits without giving too much away, while also making them feel cool, appealing, and athletic. How does character design portray backstory? How does it portray the overall game? Break it down as much as possible. Dig deep into the character design process and make sure you’re considering all the possible angles before narrowing it down to the final design.
Fu: What are some of your favorite BIPOC character designs?
Brown: Layla from Redfall. Zora from In the Valley of Gods. Zora is an example of character designers working really hard to make sure there was a thoughtful portrayal of her hair and how her features worked. First off, she has an extremely cool silhouette with her afro, with a unique approach to rendering her hair. Her hair is particularly 4C [the classification for the tightest curl pattern of curly hair types]. The character design feels iconic with the silhouette, big earrings, shapes that highlight her face. Be thoughtful about how you’re building character up and seeing them as a whole.
Fu: What a beautiful example. When you talk to students or young designers about designing a BIPOC character, where do you tell them to begin?
Brown: It always starts with research. If you want to reference an aesthetic, I think that’s okay, but make sure that you are not treading on anybody’s culture and that you’re not misusing anything. It doesn’t mean that a white artist [working in character design] cannot portray a Black character or can’t portray a native character. It means that you have to be extremely thoughtful about how you do it and put more effort into it than if you’re portraying a character that is from your already existing cultural background. So, just be thoughtful and be smart about it and talk to people and research, research, research.