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"Make yourself undeniable" ⏐ Black Voices Progress Report

This interview is part of’s Black Voices Progress Report, offering insight into the different experiences Black professionals have in the games sector. You can read more about the project and check the other entries on this page.

It’s no small feat to stay in the industry for 14 years, especially not as a Black developer but Del Walker has achieved it. Previously senior artist at Naughty Dog and now principal artist at new studio Wildlight, he has built an impressive resume that includes work at studios such as Creative Assembly and RockSteady along the way.

Immediately at the beginning of the conversation with, Walker makes it clear that he’s been just as affected by issues Black developers in the industry face as any of his peers, but that his standing and experience in the industry, along with the fact that he’s a man, now mean he’s in that situation far removed from that of many of his Black peers, particularly women.

Walker entered the gaming industry in 2010, having switched specialisations from graphic design to game art at De Montfort University.

“I initially studied graphic design, and I transitioned to a course that would be called Game Arts. I didn’t really understand exactly what it was, but I understood that it was linked to entertainment and games and I was good at art,” Walker says.

Eventually, it was early mentorship by an artist working at now-defunct Tony Hawk’s developer Neversoft that provided a career direction for Walker.

“I met this gay artist who taught himself 3D programs, and I guess he saw something in me and we shared an affinity, because as a gay man and a Black man we both probably weren’t exactly the poster image for the kind of people who make your games.”

Networking opportunities weren’t as easily accessible in 2010 as they are now, with social media and smartphone ownership still in its early stages, which is another reason Walker considers the chance meeting with his mentor as very lucky.

“It was much easier to imagine how to get to the job because I met someone who did it,” he says. “A lot of the time now I hear that the way in for people is having a mentor who can assess their progress.”

Walker also spent a lot of time teaching himself with the help of peers online, finding both mentorship and community at an artist forum called PolyCount, which is active to this day.

“You could post something on there and get feedback from a community of people, both hobbyists and professionals, effectively it was crowdsourced mentoring. And without PolyCount, I wouldn’t have developed the skills to not only get into industry, but to keep improving while I was in it.”

Of course, the problems for marginalised people don’t stop the moment they enter the industry. Due to missing representation in the industry, Black game developers often find themselves alone at their respective companies, feeling othered. Walker describes similar experiences in the industry.

“Being a Black man in the games industry requires me to be very comfortable and get very practised being around people who are nothing like me. That took a long time to get good at. That’s one of the major factors, understanding that you’re the other,” he says.

“You have to get used to not really knowing who has the same level of comfort around you as others. And there are a lot of people who think they’re comfortable around you, but their actions are showing that they treat you slightly differently than people who don’t look like you, while many other white people in the industry… I don’t want to say they don’t see colour, but they’re far more comfortable. There’s no way for me to ever prove that that person’s feeling this way. If you highlight the problem, it may be acknowledged, but often it will be solved by trying to control your sensitivity level, rather than making an attempt at altering the behaviour.”

Systemic racism can also lead to Black industry professionals developing their careers at a slower rate than their peers, but Walker is careful to not fully blame systemic issues, even though he acknowledges their existence.

“I’ve been in the game industry for 14 years this year, many of my peers are directors now. I’m very senior, but there is no real opportunity for me to go into director roles in the same way as my peers, despite my expertise,” he says.

“Peers who have been in the industry for just as long, who are directors now, have completely different backgrounds. I’m a Black kid from South London and I wouldn’t say I grew up in poverty, but we were relatively poor. My first job out of university was at a tiny studio that paid me less than working at Topshop would have. A lot of people in leadership positions don’t know what that’s like.

“My expertise is, quite frankly, top level. You don’t get into Naughty Dog and work on characters unless you’re at the height of your expertise. But for another opportunity, when it came to leadership, I did feel my skill set was doubted a little bit – I’ve led a successful project before, but was told elsewhere that I didn’t have leadership qualities. I can’t attribute people hesitant to acknowledge my Leadership experience as a Blackness thing. I can only suspect it contributes.

“When I leave a company though, it’s because I feel there’s a glass ceiling, and half the time when I’m leaving, the conversation will be like ‘but if we gave you that promotion, would you stay?’ and that tells me okay, you’ve confirmed for me my initial fears that you felt I was capable, somewhat, but you had made other decisions as to not give me that role.”

Walker is open about how his experiences now likely don’t compare to that of his Black peers, and that he now has certain privileges, both because of his level of seniority and, to his surprise, his British background.

“I have a colonial accent and I get treated more favourably for it in the US,” he says. “It’s also important to point out that I live in a good neighbourhood, I make more money than I would have in the UK, even factoring in a higher cost of living…it’s really different here. I did leave the UK because there was no way for me to thrive there, and this was a decision I was able to make, but I wouldn’t want to be, say, a Black woman who’s very junior in the industry right now.”

Many Black developers, voluntarily or involuntarily, end up becoming advocates in the industry to point out the lack of diversity in both games and studios and the problems Black developers face. Advocacy is a difficult subject — not every developer wants to take up the role of educating on their own marginalisation, and even more simply, not every developer wants to engage in advocacy. Walker is one of them, and he has a specific reason why he focuses less on problems to do with racial marginalisation.

“There is a danger of your Black identity becoming your whole identity to people in the industry,” he says. “There are pros and cons. You might feel that [advocacy] in the short-term helps your mental well-being, but I don’t know if your career is going to be as smooth the more you loudly identify with your background in a way that doesn’t allow people to learn that you’re a person. I’m going to be careful in the way I choose my words here – there is a difference between having a voice and being a voice.”

Walker undoubtedly has a voice – he’s a BAFTA games committee representative and judge, he has been a curriculum advisor and guest lecturer at his alma mater De Montfort University and he has a large social media following, but he wants to use that voice to help people to get better at the craft of making game art. As an example, Walker names a BAFTA panel on the representation of Black people in games, which he agreed to take part in because, to his mind, it allowed him to talk about the craft of character design as much as representational issues, without putting too much emphasis on Black identities.

“I have made it my business to brand myself as good at my job, not a Black person in this industry,” he says. “I’m not saying you can’t do both, I don’t know if that’s possible or not, but the more you focus on your skills, the better of a time you’ll have. There are things I can do to make sure people understand I’m multifaceted and an expert in my field who’s also Black. So, yeah, I’m trying to control how much of my personal brand is Black Guy.”

Walker does acknowledge that the threshold of what being good means is different for Black people, who, as the adage goes, often have to work twice as hard to make it.

“If you want to be a writer in the games industry, you have to write a successful short novel more so than someone who doesn’t look like you, but that means when you do get in, you’re operating at a higher level. It’s almost like you’re given weights on our feet, like an entry handicap, but once you’re on the way they come off and you’re operating at a slightly higher level than someone who had this opportunity before you. Entering the industry is hard, more so for people who look like me, but the people that successfully did that made themselves a little bit undeniable before. You have to make yourself undeniable.”

It’s important to note that a lot of the opportunities to talk about the Black experience, as well as specific communities within the industry, simply didn’t exist early in Walker’s career. To him, the gaming industry has undoubtedly become more diverse, and better for it, but he again cautions against making being a part of it too much a part of your identity.

“For a long time, I didn’t want to openly admit I was part of the game industry. I’m not really sure, but for a long time I was not really in love with the industry. I still don’t think I am, especially with infinite layoffs happening literally every time you turn on any sort of game-related news,” Walker says.

“I think what’s different now is there is a community of developers. I’m proud to be part of that community. Like there is a real community. Yeah, eight years ago, I couldn’t pick up the phone and call one Black developer, but now I can have access to like 25.”

Walker thinks there’s real value to being part of communities, but only if you really mean to be part of a community, rather than using it as a career progression tool.

“I don’t know how real networking was when I started 13 years ago. Networking was more getting the email of someone who works at a studio and maybe send them some work in the hopes they’re interested in giving you an internship,” he says.

“Networking is really important if you understand that it’s just about creating a connection — that means that you have visibility of each other. So if you network with someone and then you go on to do great things, you reach out in case an opportunity aligns with both of you. Networking is not ‘let’s stay in touch so you can get me a job’. Instead, I think of it as something you have to have in your toolbox – you have to know how to present yourself and how to talk to people.”

When asks Walker what would make the industry more easily accessible to Black people, his answer is immediate.

“All the industry has to do is find budget for junior roles,” he says. “As the industry became more serious, the focus became hiring people who already had senior skill set. The problem is, once you make a decision that you’re only going to hire senior skillset, that means you’re only looking for people who have been in the industry for, let’s say five years, when there were way fewer Black people, way fewer women.

“So just by your hiring practice being we need more senior people, you have closed the door to anyone who is marginalised or the pool is way, way tighter. Whenever a senior leaves, they take all their knowledge with them, whereas there are many benefits to hiring juniors, and one of them is that you’re automatically solving your diversity issues.”

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