Promoting Empathy in Video Games with Toronto-based Game Developer Royel “Rokashi” Edwards
By Minh Nguyen
For some, video games are a form of entertainment; for others, they are a means to escape reality. For Royel “Rokashi” Edwards, video games are more than just that.
The 31-year-old Queer Toronto-based game designer has made a few games about mental health. However, Edwards does not want to stop there; they have gone on panels and interviews to talk about how easy it is to make video games. Their first game, after all, was a text-based adventure game on Twine, an open-sourced program that requires no coding, that harvested compliments.
“I want to see marginalized people create games based on their culture. I’ve been trying to get more people, no matter how much experience they have, to make more of those games and educate people” – Royel “Rokashi” Edwards
Edwards seeks to promote Queer representation and mental health awareness through both their games and their efforts in connecting to other people in the gaming sphere.
After graduating from the Journalism and Broadcasting program in Humber College in 2013, Edwards, who is of Jamaican roots, covered local events and press releases from reputable game companies like Sony and Nintendo.
In 2015, they attended the Toronto Game Jam, an event where indie developers had to make a game in three days. Hesitant at first, Edwards ended up joining and churning out I’m Fine, a game about a man struggling with his suicidal thoughts.
When asked about how journalism has helped them with writing video games, Edwards said they are both about storytelling. “I went into journalism to tell stories about interesting people,” and now it is the same thing with video games.
Since then, Edwards has made two more games and is now working on their fourth, Faraway Fairway, a golf game. They collaborate with Sam Webster- a music maker, and another programmer both based in Toronto.
“Edwards communicates with clarity and are genuinely open to any thoughts/ideas Taylor [the programmer] or myself have about design/music,” said Webster. “They've really honoured my creative voice and given me lots of room to experiment with different musical styles for [Faraway Fairway].”
“I want to support local people and see their faces,” said Edwards, darting their eyes to somewhere beyond the camera, pondering. When they speak, they put weight in every word.
Besides being the communication managers at Hand Eye Society, a non-profit video games-focused art organization, Edwards also works as the narrative designer at Glow Up Games, an American game studio. To the Black game developer, the best thing about working there is seeing people of their own colour.
“There’s no disconnect; when you say something, they know what you mean.”
In video games, what Edwards would like to see more is Queer representation. They have not been impressed with AAA game studios’ attempt at promoting diversity so far.
An example is The Last of Us Part 2 (TLOU2), a 2020 action-adventure PlayStation game. While it might seem “ground-breaking” to feature the female lead, Ellie, on the game’s cover, “it’s actually not,” said Edwards.
The game’s developer, Naughty Dog, did not do the same thing with Abby, the other playable character who is a female-to-male transperson. She drew criticisms for looking too masculine for a female game character.
Abby was one of the controversies surrounding TLOU2, besides the game’s narrative decisions, leaked months before its release in June that year, and Naughty Dog putting restrictions on reviewers’ actions in the early copies. The backlashes were so intense the crew received death threats.
“Some people say [media companies] are shoving queer culture down our throat, but on TV it’s mostly heteronormative culture everywhere,” said Edwards.
According to a 2015 Nielsen report, 65% of LGBTQ+ gamers do not feel like they are represented enough in video games. Moreover, in video games, queer characters are mostly minor, or the queer dialogue options are not accessible enough.
To make people understand characters like Abby more, Edwards thinks more people should play games that feature Queer characters.
“Make those people seen in games, not forgotten.”
Are there enough Queer video game makers?
“It’s not that there aren’t enough Queer people making video games, it’s just that you have to dig deeper,” said Jess Go, a non-binary Canadian video game streamer.
Go, 34, also thinks some Queer stories focus too much on the tragedy and not enough “joy, happy moments and successes.”
Good writing is also important. “You can tell when a character has zero development or personality,” said Edwards. A good example is Stardew Valley, a farming simulator developed by a straight man that allows players to date an in-game same-sex character.
Above all, LGBTQ+ people need to “tell their own stories,” said Go. Big game studios also have to give platforms to Queer developers and moderate spaces to repel hate speech.
In Toronto, Toronto Gaymers provide social events and a safe space for LGBTQ+ gamers. Dames Making Games is a non-profit organization that hosts gaming workshops to Queer and marginalized up-and-coming developers.
As an indie developer, Edwards wants to focus on inspiring empathy and knowing other people’s experience through their works.
They compare their upcoming game Faraway Fairway with taking a vacation. While some people do so to recharge and face reality eventually, others see that as a time to self-reflect.
“I want people to know that they’re not alone in their thought processes. If I speak about mental health, it would lift people up and bring them along,” said Edwards.