Dani LaLonders (she/they) vividly remembers when “Lizzie McGuire: On the Go” first came out on the Gameboy Advance in 2004, joking that she was “probably one of five people” who played the game. The Chicago-based creator holds fond memories of various video games that inspired her throughout her childhood.
“I played a lot of girly games like ‘Barbie’ ‘Tomodachi Life’ and ‘Sims,'” LaLonders said. Indeed, she has since has come a long way since her hand-held gaming days.
Lalonders is now a lead developer and co-creator of “ValiDate,” a visual storytelling-style video game about 13 individuals navigating the burdens of dating and loving life in their 20s. She was also recently featured in season 2 of GLAAD’s Webby Award-winning web series “Changemakers,” a YouTube series highlighting Black LGBTQIA+ individuals pushing the creative boundaries of their community.
LaLonders hopes she’ll effect change by tackling the issue of Black and queer representation in the gaming industry. Although there are efforts to create more diversity, video game developers have historically done a lackluster job with Black gamer inclusivity. For gamers of color, it is not uncommon to have to customize or purchase a “skin” to get a character that matches darker skin tones. There are few pre-programmed options for Black gamers, let alone Black women gamers.
“I started playing ‘Overwatch’ [a popular hero-based shooter game] in 2016—and I loved it,” said LaLonders. “Unfortunately, I realized that, although ‘Overwatch’ has a lot of diverse characters, it had no Black women characters.”
“Overwatch” did eventually add a playable Black woman character named Vivian “Sojourn” Chase, but it took almost six years. The lack of Black character representation, especially for Black women and non-binary gamers, had a lasting impact on LaLonders.
Then, in 2019, LaLonders and her friend, Haven Vintage Foods, began brainstorming an idea: What if they created their own game? LaLonders felt that she could primarily steer the writing/development and that her friend, a digital illustrator, could oversee the artistic vision. The pair had never taken on a project of such magnitude and were starting from the drawing board.
LaLonders and Foods came up with the concept of creating an interactive character-led game about “normal people,” based on their own friends and social circles. LaLonders recalled, “We wanted to tell a story about dating, coming to terms with growing older, battling the job that you really hate. Battling insecurities, your mental health, battling your sexuality, your gender crisis, because those stories are usually only told for white people.”
Having no prior experience in game development, LaLonders began researching accessible programming tutorials on YouTube and seeking out help from outside resources.
Eventually, they landed on utilizing the programming language Python for “ValiDate.”
“It’s an accessible language, and it is also used to make Tumblr blogs, so I was pretty familiar with it,” according to LaLonders.
“ValiDate” started to come to life soon after. Many of the characters were inspired by close friends or people they had previously dated. One character, Yolanda, is loosely based on LaLonders herself.
“Yolanda is very personal to me,” said LaLonders. “I wanted to see more alternative girls in games…Black girls who listen to different music and have different interests.”
The story and characters behind “ValiDate” were purposefully rooted in realism. LaLonders highlighted the importance of people of color being able to see themselves in “real life” situations, not just fantasy ones often at the center of games: “Realism makes the player say, ‘Hey I went through this too…I’m just like this character'”
LaLonders, who refers to herself as “a realism girly,” even hinted that her next game is going to be a combination of realism and fantasy, explaining that, “It’s going to take place in Chicago, but in a world where vampires and humans coexist.”
Gaming is making progress toward better representation, but it remains a relatively white, male-dominated industry. “We are definitely shifting towards giving people of color, especially younger people of color, more opportunities to make change in the gaming industry,” said LaLonders. She credits this shift to the fact that indie games are now garnering a lot more attention and support, whereas AAA games—high-budget, high-profile games that are typically produced and distributed by large, well-known publishers—have dominated the market for years.
“You have AAA games that people have seen a million times before,” LaLonders said, adding that producers of high-profile games often focus on pushing out content instead of improving gameplay or creating original material. That focus means independently-produced video games like “ValiDate” have vast potential in an industry that is constantly churning out recycled storylines, “ValiDate’s” creators focused more on quality, LaLonders emphasized. Independent production also gives more creators of color an opportunity to be involved in gaming design and development.
LaLonders maintains that young people who are interested in game development should push themselves to try it, even if it feels intimidating or tedious at first: “You have to keep doing it until you get better at the work. … Only we can tell our own stories in the way that we find fit.”
Michelle Zacarias is an award-winning Queer/Latinx journalist & Adjunct Instructor.
This story is made possible with support from Comcast Corporation.