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Glow Up Games on bringing Black stories to games and why AI doesn't recognize rap

Glow Up Games is one of the first all-women-of-color companies to have raised over $1.5 million in funding.

This was revealed by co-founder Dr. Mitu Khandaker on stage at DICE 2024 during the studio’s keynote, where she explained that the five years since the studio’s establishment has been a multifaceted learning lesson for development and creative intention.

“We love games and were realizing that as we grew up and really wanted to see ourselves, and that games did not really love us back,” Khandaker said.

Over the years in their respective careers, both Khandaker and fellow co-founder Latoya Peterson examined gaming’s lack of diversity and inclusion for brown girls and women. This provided the foundation of Glow Up Games.

Khandaker explained, “We started Glow Up to answer our provocation. Tell our own stories and see ourselves to create the kind of representation we want to see in games. Not only for what’s on the screen but who’s behind the scenes.

“It’s a love for games and what they can be. Love for those like us that want to be seen by the medium. Also, a love for the parts of the culture that don’t get seen by games.”

The CEO pivoted to its unique challenges when representing hip-hop culture and how to incorporate that into a game.

One of those challenges was creating a rap mechanic for Insecure: The Come Up Game, based on the HBO show starring Issa Rae, which launched in 2021. The development team built a game of a recurring theme in the show, in which its star would freestyle rap to herself in the bathroom mirror.

Part of solving that game design problem was employing the help of Dr. Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo. Lumumba-Kasongo, stage name Sammus, serving as chief rap officer and as a career artist proved beneficial. The team still found itself considering more developmental decisions.

“What if we could invent a whole genre of game around this mechanic?” said Khandaker. “How do we continue refining the systems to make them feel more expressive for the player? How do we localize non-English languages, and how do we think about the content delivery that helps us bring a plethora of other artists and rappers?”

She explained that the development team then proceeded to implement the use of AI-generated content for the game project. However, this created another problem to solve.

“How do we replicate the specific nuance of how Sammus raps? How do we capture their voice and the nuance of other rappers in that style?” she said.

Peterson then explained that rap-based games are limited within the game landscape. She noted that they’re released approximately every five years or so.

The co-founder explained that despite these few releases, hip-hop is still pop culture and a part of the zeitgeist. Which she said ran counter to potential investors that told Glow Up that their ideas were “too niche.”

Explaining cultural impact also extended to the HBO show and its lead actress that the studio’s game was based upon. During investor meetings, Peterson said she would hear, “Who is Issa Rae? We never heard of her. What is Insecure? At the time on HBO is was the second most social engaging show outside of Game of Thrones. We needed to conceptualize quickly what we were trying to do and showcase the uniqueness of this opportunity.”

Peterson explained that the development team worked on various prototypes over the years. They created large datasets in an effort to improve the game’s ability to predict nuance and language from the player’s choices.

“How do you parse in a computer the right way? What is the difference between saying, ‘oh, I’m hot,’ [in regards to] heat? Or ‘I’m hot and I feel sexy’? How do we explain that? How do we understand when the players select one versus the other and support the context correctly?” she explained.

While the work continued, Peterson explained that AI development tools still did not recognize raps.

Peterson added, “AI does not hold the answers for this level of composition. It’s a tool and can be very helpful, but it lacks the capacity for higher-order rap skills, complex storytelling, extraction, and multi-figurative language.”

However, given their backgrounds, AI’s limitations were not new to the founders. Khandaker previously worked at Spirit AI and Peterson worked with machine learning resources as a journalist at ESPN.

Peterson explained that while resources such as ChatGPT did help development, it was still limited in understanding the nuances of African American Vernacular English (AAVE). She noted that AI uses text-to-speech datasets from platforms such as Reddit and 4Chan, which have been known to harbor anti-Black sentiment.

Peterson also explained that the studio acknowledged that hip-hop culture and its artists have been commodified across entertainment mediums for years.

Quoting Lumumba-Kasongo, Peterson said, “We wanted to approach game design centered on gamers pushed to the margins. Negotiating the deployment of language that falls into the gray area. In terms of creating pleasure or pain for Black women. Incorporating a black feminist disability framework.

“Hip-hop feminism can attract the spirit to lead towards our process, creating multi-pieces for the conceptualization of our characters and creating a community outside of gameplay — one adopting a digital hip-hop feminist sensibility.”

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