How growing up Black and gay in a Brazilian slum made this gaming CEO want to help LGBT+ youth
Dan Bernardo, founder of Playtra Games, understands the power of video games. Playing Final Fantasy VII as a child was the first piece of media that made him sob.
And it’s that mantra of making people feel something that’s at the core of the developer’s forthcoming debut, Grid Force.
“We don’t want to create a piece of media that patronises people, we want to create a piece of media that makes people feel something,” he says. “And then this will hopefully feed internal questioning of why I feel the way I feel and try to find a better path of how to live.”
With Grid Force, Playtra Games are partnering with LGBT+ non-profit the It Gets Better Project to support LGBT+ youth through video games.
In tangible terms, that means including the project logo in the game with a direct link to get help and support. The end of game development will also include a charity fundraiser to pass on any proceeds.
But through strong representation, video games can inherently support LGBT+ people. And with Grid Force, Bernardo and his team are creating a game that thrives on inclusivity.
The aim of Playtra Games is to create video games with a social message. And at the core of Grid Force is the idea of “what makes you a valid person? What makes you a heroine? What makes you special?”
Inspired by the Megaman Battle Network games, Grid Force has battles that take place on (what else?) a grid. Players can switch between multiple characters as they move around the grid in real time, shooting at enemies on the opposing side.
Those characters are all women – all 45 of them – and together they reflect “the spectrum of female heroines, where anyone from any walk of life, of any kind of personality, can identify themselves”.
“All of us had a female, a very strong female person, who taught each one of us messages about perseverance and survival,” says Bernardo, explaining how the team decided on the all-female cast.
“We decided it has to be a story about female experience.”
That of course meant hiring a female writer and female artist to ensure authenticity. The result is a diverse mix of women in the game, each with their own story to tell. And those stories are key to the experience.
“Each one of these characters has her own story and her own reasons to join your cause. So it’s about going around the world, trying to understand the story of these women and trying to connect with them,” says Bernardo.
“And so the idea is, I’m not trying to get the most powerful unit that I can, but I’m trying to make friends or try to understand what makes these people tick.”
That of course includes LGBT+ stories as part of the narrative. But the game isn’t aimed solely at an LGBT+ audience. First and foremost, the game is about having fun. From there, it’s a way of subtly teaching players to accept and understand different perspectives.
“What the team feels very strongly is we are living in a time where people stop talking to each other, they stop listening to each other. It’s not seeing other people’s perspectives,” says Bernardo.
“So the idea of the game is to allow people who play the game to identify themselves, or understand the people they don’t like and then create some kind of connection. That is much easier to do in a video game because you are actually making decisions yourself.
“We want people to play the game because the game is fun and then get something out of this at the end of the day.”
It’s also a game about love, in many forms. “We explore the fraternal love, the motherly love and the romantic love, and how those things evolve with time and how you sometimes feel that you are in your family and you are alone, but actually you have points of connection with different people,” says Bernardo.
Bernardo understands well why representation matters. He grew up in a slum in the Brazil of the 90s that was “a very homophobic, very misogynistic, very sexist place”. And as a Black, gay man he’s struggled not only with a lack of representation in video games, but with a lack of support in the industry.
Growing up, he was always the villain when playing with friends “because there was nobody that looked like me, there was nobody that I could find myself with”. Adam from Streets of Rage was the first time he recognised himself in a game, a huge moment for him.
“This is an emotional thing, you feel included, you feel part of the conversation, you don’t feel ashamed of what kind of stories are told about you,” he says.
It’s the leadership of games companies that needs to change, in Bernardo’s view. Developers may have good intentions with representation, but they lack diversity in key positions to ensure authenticity.
“There is curiosity, but there’s no understanding,” he says. “Like, I want to explore the stories. But I don’t really care what it means to other people.”
He’s also seen obstacles in funding, due to his background. That’s a large reason why Playtra Games will be self-publishing Grid Force. And by hiring a diverse team, he hopes to be part of a shift in the industry.
“There’s a lot of interest in the industry right now about diversity, but not enough effort to open the doors to these people. So there’s a lot of conversation, but very little action,” he says.
What would that action be? “Understanding that there’s a reason why there are much more qualified, white male developers,” he says.
Too often people from minority backgrounds are not afforded the same opportunities. That’s something the industry needs to be mindful of. And the result will be a wealth of new stories being told.
“I suspect that even the white straight audiences will enjoy something new.”
Grid Force will be released in early 2022. Check out the trailer below and add to your Steam wishlist here.
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