Professors Kishonna Gray and David Leonard Discuss Video Game Studies and Their Latest Book Woke Gaming

Even though video games have only grown in popularity, scholarship on this medium has been lacking in quantity. As scholars of culture and mass media finally begin to deeply dive into the subject, we are now seeing a wealth of important scholarship about video games being produced. Adding to this collection of research on gaming is Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice. Edited by Kishonna L. Gray and David J. Leonard, Woke Gaming is a brilliant and important collection of essays examining the relationship between video games and society. Wanting to learn more about this book and their careers, I was able to interview Gray and Leonard for Sequart.

You can learn more about Dr. Leonard by checking out his faculty profile, his Amazon page, and by following him on Twitter at @DrDavidJLeonard. And you can learn more about Dr. Gray by visiting her homepage and following her on Twitter at @KishonnaGray.

Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some video games you two loved playing? Are there any you two still enjoy?

Kishonna Gray: When I was younger, I mostly watched my older siblings and cousins play Atari. I didn’t get to play too often. Not because they wouldn’t let me, but because I was just too little. I’m sure I put the controller in my mouth a lot. That joystick was all that! Lol. When I got older, mom got me my own console. I started out with Sega and played so much Sonic the Hedgehog. Then I got a Playstation and played sports games mostly. I didn’t get into games with more developed narratives until Playstation 2 with Max Payne and Hitman. They are by far my favorite games ever! And yes, I still play those on the next gen consoles. I am also playing a lot of Sims and Overcooked with my kids!

David Leonard: I grew up in the arcade.  I grew up playing PaperBoy, Burgertime, Knockout, Dig Dug, Track and Field, Root Beer Tapper and countless other games.  I use to spend hours in the arcade either playing Skeeball, Ms. Pac Man, Marble Madness and the list goes on.  At some point we got Pong; then it was Intellivision where we played a lot of sports games.  Several friends had different systems where many days were spend playing all sorts of games

From renting video games for a birthday party to the hours playing Sonic while in college, from playing NBA Jam as much as possible at UC Santa Barbara now schooling my kids in Sonic Olympics, games have always been part of my life.  Given this longstanding interest, it is not surprising that games became part of my research and teaching in a number of ways.  I most definitely still play some of those games.  My kids and I love playing the “old games:” Gauntlet especially.  My longstanding love of sports can be found with games as well.  While my research always blends into game playing, even when I am playing with kids, I will often “relax” with a game of NBA 2K or NHL 18.  With the recent struggles of the Lakers, video games have been one of the few places I can relish in the dominance and greatness of the Lakers.

Yanes: Video game studies is still fairly new, so what was it that appealed to you two?

Gray: Maybe. I think it depends on how you define ‘new.’ Games scholarship has been out since the 90’s. While there wasn’t an abundance of scholarship, there were scholars interested in making sense of gaming as an academic scholarship. But of course, folks like us need to continue making game studies legible and visible to the larger academy.

I think the appeal to game studies for me was realizing how we’ve ignored large segments of the gaming population. There was almost no scholarship on black characters and gamers and game developers. I read David Leonard’s work and was hooked! Then I discovered Andre Brock. Anna Everett. Lisa Nakamura. And Others. And I wanted to continue in this tradition.

I felt like my contribution has been focusing on interactions in digital gaming environments. There was a good deal of scholarship from WoW during the early 2000’s. This scholarship was useful in making sense of socially mediated communication. I wanted to focus on the cultural aspect of digital gaming environments: what does it mean to be a marginalized person in a space created mostly by and for the dominant group (white western cis-heterosexual English-speaking men). So, my early worked examined the experiences of women, women of color, people of color and sexual minorities.

I drew largely on my own personal experiences as a member of marginalized groups within gaming culture. The racism and sexism that I experienced was crazy. I started recording it. I shared it in class one day during graduate school and it became the basis for my class project. Then it became my dissertation. Then it became my research agenda.

Where I’m at now is exploring Twitch, Mixer, and other live streaming platforms to see what role visible identity plays in influencing audience reception and engagement. So how do viewers respond to women and POC takes up the bulk of my current work.

Leonard: Reading these kinds words of Kishonna makes me smile because I never knew my work was being read much less having an impact.  It is nice to be thought of as an OGS= An original gamer scholar. I wrote my first piece on video games in 2002.  While in graduate school, in the midst of taking my master’s exam, I found myself struggling with motivation and confidence.

So, I thought of ways to keep me focused on task, to stave off procrastination, and to otherwise be successful.  My answer was to buy a PlayStation. I rationalized that what I needed was something in the house to give me breaks.  Whatever.  While the PlayStation started as a distraction or a double down on procrastination, it soon became part of my work.  At some point, I started playing Grand Theft Auto III.  Rife with racist stereotypes, I was struck by how in a moment of colorblind racism, where other forms of popular culture were somehow refusing the most grotesque racial imagery and narratives (or at least that is what we were being told), video games were embracing these sorts of representations.  I was equally struck by how the interactive nature of gaming effected the aesthetics, the cultural significance, and the connective tissue between video games and tourism.

Yet, it never became fully part of my research and teaching because as a young scholar I had few role models who were doing this work and even less support.  I was confronted by administrators and colleagues who dismissed the work, who questioned its legitimacy and its importance.  This is part of why I stopped writing on games.  Only after Dr. Kishonna Gray, whose brilliance is on full display here, asked me to write preface for her brilliant book on Xbox did I return to this work.  Being introduced to her work and several others, becoming connected with a community of scholars, compelled me to return to this work.

This, along with playing games with my kids, a fact that regularly introduces me to new games, that compels conversations about these same issues, has propelled the work forward.

Yanes: You two have both taught classes that address video games. What are you go to strategies to help students seriously and critically think about video games?

Leonard: I actually have never taught an entire class on video games.  Maybe in the future.  When I do talk about video games, I think it is essential to center the ways games teach us about race, gender, sexuality, and nation; the ways that games imagine a world where we find pleasure in violence, dehumanization, domination and Otherness.

The question should just be, ‘do games traffic in toxic masculinity and representations of women as sexual objects; not whether or not games are rife with racist stereotypes and violence; not whether games perpetuate narratives that normalize war (sadly the answers to each of these questions is YES), but why do we find pleasure and joy in these sorts of representations and narratives.

More and more, I am pushing myself and students to look beyond the pedagogies of racism, sexism, militarism, and xenophobia that has found a home in games but to also look at those spaces of opposition.  To examine and reflect on the types of games that are offering alternatives to both virtual reality and real-life experiences.  Last time I taught about video games, we had a real good discussion about how so often games that are empowering, that challenging existing games and dominant narratives, aren’t fun; that progressive games are games that lack the desired aesthetics and game playability.  It was a powerful conversation, highlighting the desire for both #Wokegames and #funGames but how we need to produce games that are pleasing aesthetically, narratively and ideologically.

Gray: While I was teaching in Kentucky, I had the wonderful pleasure of having a lab. My gaming lab served as an extension to the classroom. So not only were students able to read about issues within gaming, we could see them first hand. And I don’t need gaming classes to talk about games. I talk about games in ALL of my classes. It’s necessary for students to see how significant gaming is for contemporary culture – beyond Gamergate and the rise of the alt-right as many media outlets want to continue featuring.

Games gave me the ability to confront tough topics. For me, as a Fat, Black, Woman, it’s sometimes hard to talk about racism, and sexism, and ableism, and heterosexism, and transphobia. Especially when the dominant group makes up the bulk of my students. There was a lot of critique from my students of me being a reverse racist, or sexist. (I would often joke that yes, I do want to reverse racism and sexism! LOL). But I had to create some distance between myself and the content. So, games allowed for that. So, we would play GTA to discuss the sexualization of women. Or talk about police brutality and the Black community. We would use Sims to explore how to develop relationships and build communities with people different from us (students were required to create a roommate situation with at least 4 people who had different identities.). I would utilize NBA 2K to talk about Black identity – and how digital Blackness can be imagined and articulated in non-stereotypical manners. We talked about Assassin’s Creed Freedom Cry and retelling and reimagining traditional slave narratives. While there are only a few examples, they are very powerful at helping students make sense of race, gender, and identity in digital contexts.

Leonard: I wish I could take one of Kishonna’s classes although she is teaching me and so many others each and every day.

Yanes: It has been only four years since #GamerGate started. What do you two feel will be the legacy of it?

Gray: I truly feel like we missed our moment with GamerGate. I think the most marginalized among us were just trying to survive the onslaught of violence that was exacted upon their digital and physical bodies and psyches. This was tough so it was hard to expect any more emotional labor from people who were just trying to make it through the day without being violently trolled or doxxed. But this was a moment that the game industry lost; they had a moment to truly make changes within the communities. But I think with all the examples we saw from tech, google bro memo, etc., the folks sometimes in charge of making changes were the one’s complicit in what was happening.

Hearing stories now about how many folks within the industry were supporters of Gamergate and sympathetic to google bro – just reveals why the response of the industry was what it was. I think I mostly saw companies issue statements of diversity saying they support women. I wanted to know how. How exactly do you support women? What are your hiring policies/practices? What do you do when women report harassment or sexual assault? Well we know that women still get ousted and the offenders get reported. We’ve had multiple examples of this. So, the legacy of Gamergate will be that there were small, incremental changes, but those in power were never in the position to do anything more. Sure, we’ve diversified ‘manel’s at conferences. Women in the industry are more visible. We have more titles featuring a diverse range of characters. But a few diverse characters and titles will NOT disrupt an oppressive industry.

Behind the scenes, when you peel back those layers, not much has changed for many women in gaming (as characters, as gamers, ad developers, as an audience, as critics). I will say that it has brought many of us closer. I get invited to more industry conferences to share my research. I have more connections with women in journalism. We support each others’ communities more. I think there is still a divide though. Women of color are still mostly invisible. The supportive response to Gamergate was a response to protect white women most often. Because Women of Color were not as visible, we didn’t get to see the intersecting nature of oppression online. We didn’t get to see that Women of Color experience racism, and sexism, and others. So, if we had situated our response to supporting the most marginalized, we really could have improved conditions for us all.

Leonard: As made clear above, there is a lot of lessons from GamerGate but many of those lessons have not be learned much less integrated into cultural and policies.  As such, the legacy of GamerGate is multifaceted: clearly the persistent racism, sexism, and toxic culture that continues to plague gaming, which was spotlighted during and after Gamergate, is one of its legacies.  That moment became an index for entrenched injustices.

The fact that some scholars, writers, and gamers remain hesitant to critically speak about gaming, their own experiences, and the persistent problems is a reminder that one of the legacies of GamerGame is the silencing of dissidents, critics, and those demanding accountability.  The 2016 election and our current politics is also one of the unfortunate legacies that we have yet to sufficiently respond to inside and outside of gaming.  Yet, despite these very depression and sobering legacies, I think our hope is that the legacy of GamerGate is the voices demanding better.  It is Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian, and Brianna Wu speaking truth to power and injustice; it is their work demanding justice and equity in gaming.  It is the ways they have inspired others to not only speak out but to create alternative games, critical interventions, and a discourse of wokeness.

The legacy of GamerGate can be seen in the communities of resistance that will not shut up and play; that will not be silence about the cultures of violence, about dehumanizing images, and about gaming that refuses to see marginalized communities.  Its legacy is hope and possibility rising up from the ashes and the rubble that caused so much pain and injury.  Our book hopes to shine a spotlight on those doing the work, on those seeking to transform and reimagine the potential in gaming.

Yanes: You two recently published Woke Gaming: Digital Challenges to Oppression and Social Injustice. What was the inspiration for this project?

Gray: I think my inspiration at first was more a response to anger. It was an emotional response to the moment of Gamergate where my friends were targeted. It was a moment where my sisters of color were ignored and rendered invisible. I didn’t just want to showcase the negative side of this. I wanted to share those stories, but I wanted more. I wanted to highlight our supportive communities. I wanted to highlight the dope interventions by companies who are doing innovative things to curb the violence and harassment. I wanted to showcase the amazing games that marginalized folks are making. I wanted to use my platform to center these stories and narratives. And I could only think of a few folks that I wanted to embark on this journey with me. Which is why I asked David to join me.

Leonard: Kishonna conceived of the project and when she asked me to join her, I was like ‘where to sign up’ because of the importance of the work and because it represented an opportunity to collaborate with her.  At a larger level, GamerGate was certainly an inspiration, the work, conversations, and research we each have done for years compels this project.  The yearning for games that don’t perpetuate racist stereotypes inspired this project; the desire for games that don’t reduce women to sexual objects led to this project; the importance of challenging the erasure of GLBTQ communities gave rise to this project.

While the hegemony of white masculinity drove this project, the responses we see from amazing scholars, activists, and games is the true inspiration for not only this work but our collective work.  The daily struggles to be seen, heard, and empower gave rise to #WokeGaming.  In all, we hoped that the book would spotlight games and gamers that are envisioning a world of justice and equality; that in the work we might move the conversations forward to show possibilities and potential of games as both a space and tool of transformation.

Yanes: While editing the chapters of Woke Gaming, were there any insights or facts that took you two by surprise?

Leonard: The pieces themselves didn’t surprise me; they each were compelling in their analysis; in their efforts to provide an intersectional discussion of gaming; in their examination of both the inequities and progressive possibilities of gaming; and in their rich discussion of theory, history and representation. As someone who researches and teaches mostly about representation, I was especially appreciative of the pieces that talked to gamers and producers.  I was also appreciative of the fact that we had pieces about Gold Farming and one about board game, as I didn’t anticipate these types of pieces when we started the project.  It was nice to see how these authors bridged to discussions of video games in important ways.  While there were clearly lots of facts and lessons I learned from each piece, one of the striking lessons from the process was that despite our desire to highlight spaces of change; to document games of opposition; to move the conversation toward “freedom dreams” rather than lived nightmares, so much of the conversation often came back to the persistent obstacles, injustices, and inequalities.  I wanted more hope than we got, which speaks to the work that still needs to be done within game studies and more importantly in gaming.

Gray: I don’t think I’d use the word surprised, but I will say that I was floored by the appreciation for me and David Leonard’s work. I think we are just now realizing how important Professor Leonard has been to game studies – I still wonder why there is not more engagement of his work within gaming scholarship – I don’t think I’ve seen him keynote. Or be invited to critical spaces in and around gaming. But I see it happening now. So, I hope that this compilation illustrates to the scholarly world that he is foundational. Put some respect on his name! LOL

Yanes: Woke Gaming brought up a variety of important issues in the gaming industry, however, I was still left feeling somewhat powerless to help make positive changes. So, what changes do you think individual consumers can make to encourage studios to make games that are more inclusive?

Gray: Yes, you’re right in that we’ve made many strides, but we have a long way to go. As I type this, I am on my way to the MIGS18 conference. I realize that it’s the first time that I’ve been invited to an industry conference. I think it highlights the lack of engagement that the industry has with academia. I’m not saying that relationship has to exist to foster change, but I want to use my institutional privileges to share the knowledge that has been imparted to me, especially around the experiences of marginalized gamers and marginalized game developers. I think it’s sometimes too dangerous for women and people of color to talk about the issues they have within game development.

We see what can happen when someone speaks up (harassment ensues, contract with the company isn’t renewed, etc.). I can have those tough conversations. Not to speak for them, but really to use my platform to amplify their experiences. We have many wonderful folks who at the front lines of these conversations (I’m thinking mostly about Tanya DePass, creator of #INeedDiverseGames). I want to support her and others like her in pushing back on the industry and demanding more for all of us.

Leonard: Like Kishonna, there are reasons for hope but many reminders of the work yet to be done.  As we selected the pieces; editing them; and getting ready for publication I too felt the culture of repressions, hostility, and silencing; the toxicity make breathing, surviving, and flourishing as gamers, scholars, and thinkers difficult. While there are spaces of opposition and sources of change, the culture remains one that is toxic, dehumanizing, and disempowering. Yet, we have to see and celebrate those doing the work to ensure change.

What I think the pieces speak to is that there are games, gamers, gaming communities, and gaming research that is pushing for a paradigm shift in games.  This work empowers us to ask new questions; to demand answers; and seek out alternative to the virtual and lived realities so many suffer through each and every day.  Consumers can certainly push companies by supporting games and gamers that fulfill the promises of #WokeGaming but more than we hope that it inspires producers and scholars to continue to produce work that embodies the change that so many deserve.

Yanes: When people finish reading Woke Gaming, what do you hope they take away from it?

Gray: I first hope that people are inspired. When I go back and read these chapters I am motivated to continue this work. There were a few years where I felt demotivated and hopeless around gaming. But I reframed that energy and came up with the idea of creating this project with my friends and colleagues. I became quickly energized and enthused about the wonderful possibilities that games still has to unlock. But I also became invested in ensuring that those stories of resistance, change, empowerment were highlighted. I know I’ve offered a lot of doom and gloom in some of my work. But I want to show that joy is possible and resistance can also exist with joy. Think about the fantastic contributions of Anna Anthropy for instance. And the wonderful game created by Momo Pixel, Hair Nah. I love seeing how individuals channel their experiences, and struggles, and pain, and love, and happiness into digital wonderfulness. And they share that with us. With the world. The hope of it all. That’s what I want people to take away from this beautiful compilation.

Leonard: Inspiration is key. Hope and the drive to continue to do the work necessary to transform gaming. That while gaming, like America, like society itself, is rife with violence; that while games and gaming represent pedagogies of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia; that while gaming is a mirror and perpetuator of injustices, gaming is and can be a source of change.  From the games themselves to gamers, from the critical conversations around game to those communities that develop within gaming, we need to see video games not just as a threat to justice, equality and inclusion but as a source for the fulfillment of “freedom dreams.”

Sometimes it is hard to see the potential, to see the possibilities, to see the work that is being done to not only transform gaming but society as a whole amid the pain, the dehumanization, the violence, and the silenced cries for justice, but we hope #WokeGaming is a reminder of the work that is being, the work that needs to be done, and the possibilities going forward.

Yanes: Woke Gaming covers a lot of important topics, however, which areas of video games do you think scholars need to explore?

Gray: I will be honest. I wanted to see a lot more scholarship around race, ability, and decolonization (especially with how pervasive settler-colonialism is within games). We don’t have nearly enough scholarship on this. So, I need to think about what I’m doing to facilitate dialogue around these topics and to support scholars who may have an interest in doing this work. It’s hard to recruit folks to do gaming scholarship. I think in cultural studies for instance, many don’t take gaming seriously. Many are just now starting to interrogate media beyond film and TV. So, I know it will take some time, but I need to use my platforms to show to academia just how important and significant gaming is as a site of academic inquiry.

Leonard: What Kishonna says …. Yes, to all of this. When she speaks, believe.  You can thank her later.  There is so much work that needs to be done.  While there is a lot of important and dynamic work coming out that looks at representations, that examines the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, that looks at gamers and gaming cultures, there needs to be more here and elsewhere.  There are two areas that I hope to see more research on: 1) e-sports, especially work that goes beyond the business aspects to look at the ways race and gender operate in these spheres specifically.  I also think it is important to have conversations about how the embrace of e-sports from universities speaks to the nature of corporate neoliberal higher education.  2) There has long been this binary between “mainstream games,” those games produced by big companies that are invested in money making, and “progressive games,” those niche games that are about education or consciousness raising.  It is time that we put that narrative to rest to highlight the market and financial possibilities of progressive games.  The belief that only racist and sexist games, that those about war and violence, that those centering 20-30 year old white male gamers as the sole market, are profitable needs to be challenge through research.

Yanes: Finally, what else are you two working on that people can look forward to?

Gray: Wooo….where do I start! LOL.

Unfortunately, in academia, there is a strict hierarchy around what counts for us in getting tenure and what doesn’t. Sadly, this compilation won’t count for much for me in academia. But it’s such an important contribution to the field, I didn’t care. And did it anyway. And in fact, I did another compilation that just recently came out, Feminism in Play. So, folks can buy that book in addition to Woke Gaming!

But because edited volumes are not weighted as much in academia, I have to continue working on my own sole-authored book. It’s currently under contract with LSU Press. That title right now is “On Being Black And….” The Journey to Intersectionality in Digital Gaming Culture.” This book will highlight the 10 year ethnographic project I’ve been working on within Xbox live. So, I’m really excited about completing that project (and finally getting tenure!!!).

I am also thinking about the post tenure project. That is taking me away from games a little bit, but it’s focused on Black Digital Feminism. So, stay tuned for that!

Leonard: I hope to work on another project with Kishonna.  Truly collaborative projects are a blessing and the best of what academia can do.  I want to write a book on gaming but I am not sure what’s next.  I have a book coming out hopefully next year on how race, class, and geography shapes how we narrate gun violence but I am not sure what is next.  Much of my work tries to be responsive and accountable to the moment; this collection emerged out of the ashes of #GamerGate.  It tries to respond to the demands for change and the desire to see, reflect on, and connect with those levers of change.

In recent years, I wrote pieces about Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Black Lives Matter and another on race, pleasure, redemption and Mafia III and Watch Dogs II that came together following the 2016 election.  In many ways, my work is responsive to the critical conversations of the moment. As I said, I not clear what is next not only because I am unsure what games will be published (or other happenings in popular culture) but what sort of conversations will emanate from their release and lived realities of the moment.  I know that my work will continue to seek and give voice to pathways of justice; it will seek to highlight how popular culture, from games to sports, is a site for not only the perpetuation of inequalities and violence, but for transformation and empowerment.

Remember, you can learn more about Dr. Leonard by checking out his faculty profile, his Amazon page, and by following him on Twitter at @DrDavidJLeonard. And you can learn more about Dr. Gray by visiting her homepage and following her on Twitter at @KishonnaGray.

And remember to follow me on twitter @NicholasYanes, and to follow Sequart on twitter @Sequart and on facebook.

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Nicholas Yanes has a Ph.D. in American Studies, and his dissertation examined the business history of EC Comics and MAD Magazine. In addition to being a professional writer, he frequently consults entertainment companies in regards to video games, films, and comic books.

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