PAX West Explores Afrofuturism: A Black Vision of Science Fiction

PAX West 2020 just wrapped up and was packed with literally non-stop gaming content streaming straight to your homes!  PAX, (Penny Arcade Expo) is a series of gaming festivals featuring arcade, table-top, and video games typically held around the U.S. and in Australia. Pax West was supposed to be held in Seattle, WA this month, but as all other conventions, PAX had to go the virtual route this year. However, The convention organizers responsible for Pax West and Australia alongside EGX made sure to deliver fans a remarkable and engaging experience with a steady 24/7 stream of events, panels and gameplay all for free !!

From September 12th- 20th 2020 PAX Online featured non-stop streaming from 3 continents, 24 hours a day over 9 days, all hosted from one place! (You can catch the digital expo recaps daily on You-Tube) Fans got to tune in to the Esports tournament, check out the latest in upcoming indie games, watch panels and performances, participate in Discord and Twitch streams, and even play demos !

The free virtual gaming event featured multiple ongoing streams and presentations from gaming icons, to developers and creators. PAX events like to ensure the safety of their fans, and like any PAX event Pax Online wants to make sure everyone feels welcome and the organizers worked hard to bring the spirit of PAX to fans virtually and to discord. Representation and inclusiveness are also very important to PAX, and with the PAX initiative (PAX Together) the event aims to highlight underrepresented groups in gaming. One of the panels that stood out to me was Afrofuturism: A Black Vision of Science Fiction.

This is the livestream of the PAX2 channel, aka The Unicorn Theatre.
05:57 Afrofuturism: A Black Vision of Science Fiction

Xalavier Nelson Jr. [Narrative Director, Heart Shaped Games], Anthony Jones [Art Director, Heart Shaped Games], Jordan Minor [Analyst, PC Mag], Ural Garrett [Project Manager, iamMedia]

Afrofuturism: A Black Vision of Science Fiction

What is Afrofuturism?

A cultural movement that uses the frame of science fiction and fantasy to reimagine the history of the African diaspora and to invoke a vision of a technically advanced and generally hopeful future in which Black people thrive: this movement is expressed through art, cinema, literature, music, fashion, etc. Afro- + futurism; coined by U.S. author and critic Mark Dery (born 1959) in his essay “Black to the Future” (1993) published in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture (1994) –Dictionary

The panel consisted of a team of talented game developers, journalists and analysts in the world of gaming as they discussed black representation in SCI FI and video games. The panelists discussed the importance of representation, what Afrofuturism is, their personal introductions to Afrofuturism, and the future of Afrofuturism in gaming and media. “What does sci-fi look like when you consciously step outside the bounds of western ideals of fiction? Afrofuturism imagines a future through an unapologetically Black lense, and its influence is expanding into the world of games.”

There is a serious lack of diverse representation in the Science fiction genre as a whole. Most futuristic movies, television series, books and video games of space travel and Sci- fi storytelling feature predominantly white males and a society based on one concept and culture. There is a lack of Black representation across multiple genres and one of the most important concepts discussed in this panel is changing fundamental ways of thinking and breaking traditional stereo-types and patterns.

The panelist discussed shifting the focus of the black experience in America and abroad in the past and present, to focusing on the future and building and exploring new traditions and ways to grow in the realm of video games. They emphasized shifting the focus to telling more stories of the African diaspora with a prosperous futuristic outlook and bringing about new patterns in media. Also the telling of stories without only having a Western influence and colonial ways of thinking or perspective but having more of a variety of diverse backgrounds. Through story-telling there is an opportunity to explore more cultures and different backgrounds.

How can gaming influence other forms of multimedia and vice-versa?

Art Director, Anthony Jones expressed the importance, impact and influence of the critically acclaimed Marvel Studios Black Panther movie. Black Panther is not only a Superhero action movie but a fantasy sci- fi with an African aesthetic. Black Panther is a perfect example of Afrofuturism and exploring the developed intersection of African diaspora and technology with the most technologically advanced nation of Wakanda. The blockbuster film is noteworthy not only for featuring a predominantly black cast and black director, but it is also recognized for diversifying the catalog and breaking stereotypes. The movie displayed a positive representation of a wealthy black nation and presented strong and powerful black characters. Wakanda was a world of its own without colonial influence and had its own traditions, cultural identity, language, and customs.

There needs to be more positive representation in media like Black Panther. The panelists expressed the lack of representation of an all black cast aside from being boxed into stereotypical roles like Tyler Perry movies or roles of oppression and suffering. Note that these movies are still good, but that there are so many other roles that can portray a strong black character. This is why movies like Black Panther are so important.

Another notable mention is the HBO Watchmen series, and a perfect example of how fiction can also be educational. Surprisingly many people did not know about the Tulsa Massacre and the introduction scene of Watchmen was a teachable moment through fiction.
These messages can be told through story-telling and expand peoples perceptions of other cultures and identities. Xalavier (Narrative designer) emphasized the importance of black storytelling by black creators and telling stories authentically. He mentions how although Miles Morales has been such a representative character in the Marvel canon, he was created by Brian Michael Bendis and is now in hands of creators of colors in the current run of Miles (SALADIN AHMED). It is important to think about  who’s telling the stories, who is invested in the characters and who will continue to be the creative voices behind these stories in the future. Miles Morales will also be the major focus in the upcoming Spiderman PS5 game.

The panelists discussed how they were first introduced to the idea of Afrofuturism through different forms of media. Game Analyst Jordan Minor first learned about Afrofuturism through the book Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture by Author Ytasha Womack, which introduces readers to a community of artists and innovators creating Afrofuturist works. Another huge influence of his was Black Kirby: a reimagining of the style of iconic comic artist Jack Kirby, but reconfigured with black characters. Think Malcolm X as Magneto. The series by John Jennings  (Author), and Stacey Robinson uses Kirby’s revolutionary ideas combined with themes centered on AfroFuturism, social justice, Black history, media criticism, science fiction, magical realism, and the utilization of Hip Hop culture. 

Gaming journalist, Ural Garrett gives some great examples of Science Fiction with strong black lead characters. The Life and Times of Martha Washington: The comic masterpiece from Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons set in a futuristic war-zone features a heroic black female fighting injustice and corruption. Ural also mentions Black No More, a Harlem Renaissance satire on American race relations by George S. Schuyler as his first introductions to Afrofuturism. The central premise of the novel is that an African American scientist invents a process that can transform blacks into whites.

Garrett also talks about inclusive representation of black people in gaming and some of his favorites from Shadowman, Killer 7 (capcom), and Final Fantasy (Barret Wallace). The panel mentioned other stand outs like Def Jam Fight for NY, San Andreas and the most anticipated game this year Cyberpunk 2077 which has a black creator Mike Pondsmith. Ural believes the gaming industry has done a good job of representation but can always do better, and that more people need to support black developers and black studios. Garrett also has a lot of experience working in Multimedia (Black Eyed Peas) and VR. He blends his passions of music and gaming by bringing the VR experience to events, and tours.

*Applying Afrofuturism to Gaming:

Panelist Anthony Jones (Art Director) and Xalavier Nelson Jr. (Narrative Designer) Heart Shaped Games, are both working on the upcoming indie game We Are The Caretakers.

We Are The Caretakers is an afrofuturist squad management RPG. Assemble an arcane team of protectors in squad-building systems inspired by Darkest Dungeon and XCOM. Defend the endangered animals your world relies on in strategic auto-battle combat. Define your approach to a global resistance with every action in a modern, sci-fi take on Ogre Battle. We Are The Caretakers is a strategy game fusion like nothing you’ve seen before.

Indie title coming to Steam ORIGINAL AFROFUTURIST UNIVERSE: Former Activision-Blizzard artist Anthony Jones brings breathtaking Afrofuturist style and human empathy to the complex sci-fi world of We Are The Caretakers.

Anthony Jones talked about the importance of storytelling and world building. We are the caretakers takes real world circumstances like dealing with conservation, protecting people and land while also protecting animals. It takes specific cultural influences and dynamics while telling a story that most people would understand around the world. It can be very powerful to share a story where everyone has a piece of culture and it’s shared around the world. He expressed the significance of changing the narrative, sending a positive message and how storytelling can help to educate and inspire people. It’s about adding to culture not being exclusive to one ethnicity but being inclusive to everyone. Using media as a tool to get people to question things and have important conversations.

Xalavier also on “We are the Caretakers”, discusses the significance of how black media also has an impact on the people who create media. He describes it as the amount of invisible self-hatred, having invisible barriers, breaking out of own mindset of stereotypes, and accepting black identity and new ideas and visions of representation. He described deconstructing his own work and identity through media and not accepting the white default protagonist. 

To make changes we need to support the creators that are pushing for more representation. Attend more events focused on black and brown creators, support more black art, support indie games and comics, support kickstarters, and share more work. Jordan Minor mentioned the Harlem Devs of Color Expo which is a great event supporting all ideologies and highlighting black developers.

Learn more about Heart Shaped Games /PAX Together
and Check out/ follow the panelist here:

-Jordan Minor Analyst PC
@Jordanwminor (twitter)

-Anthony Jones: Art Director / Artist
(blizzard/ riot games, indie developers heart-shaped games)
@robotpencil INsta/fb/ twitter

-Xalavier Nelson Jr.: Narrative director
(We are the care-takers, heart-shaped games, Hypnospace Outlaw, SkateBird)
@WritNelson twitter

Ural Garrett Freelance video game & music journalist
(ign/ mtv news/ complex/ project manager & social media manager for will i am multimedia production company I AM Media) @uralg twitter

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