By Minh Nguyen
Lateef Martin is a man of many talents: he is an illustrator, a musician, an instrument builder, a voice actor, and a video game maker. The 46-year-old Black Canadian juggles between all these roles as the founder of the Montreal-based multimedia studio Miscellaneum Studios.
His motivations? To not get bored, and to fight for more Black representation in video games and other forms of media.
“Black people are usually just sidekicks, pimps or thugs. I don’t often see myself reflected in the media.” – Lateef Martin
In a white-dominated video game industry, Miscellaneum Studios seeks to promote diversity and give voices to the marginalized groups through their products - and work environment.
Founded in 2013, Miscellaneum Studios currently has six members scattered across Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, and even in the United States.
Their current projects include the post-apocalyptic comic series Z’isle, with six volumes currently available on ComiXology; Abdul Lateef and the Distraction Machine, a music theatre production; and The Distraction Machine, an in-development video game that acts as a prequel to Z’isle.
The team garnered funding for the comic book series on the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, where supporters could create their own character profiles.
“Finding funding has always been hard,” said Martin. His first project, a sci-fi video game about firefighters on Mars named The Firemasters, had to be put on the backburner - (“No pun intended,” laughed the studio owner) - due to the lack of funding.
“I think about that project everyday.”
Another challenge is cultivating interest through social media. Martin’s Instagram posts of him building his own instruments for the theatre production, which includes a bike harp that he calls “Lethelium,” received attention in the past. Now that the algorithm of the platform has changed, it is getting more difficult.
Nonetheless, the core of Miscellaneum Studios stays the same: to feature characters that represent minority accurately.
“Stereotypes serve their purposes sometimes, but my problem with them is that they don’t humanize the characters or give them agency.” - Lateef Martin.
His role model is African-American actor Ernie Hudson, who played Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters (1984). “He didn’t fit into a stereotype,” said Martin.
The video game industry in Canada lacks representation. As profitable as it is - contributing $5.5 billion to Canada’s GDP in 2021 - 56% of the companies have not developed any program to support equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI).
According to a Developer Satisfaction Survey (2019) conducted among game developers in the United States, African-American or Afro-Caribbean people only represented 2% of the workforce.
One of the reasons is the idea that Black people do not suit the company’s culture fit. When a company is dominantly white, they might be hesitant to hire someone who is outside of their work circle or does not look like them.
Miscellaneum Studios do things differently: they hire people based both on their skills and races. In terms of producing their works, they also reach outside of their team and consult people of marginalized communities for their inputs.
How do they deal with tokenism, in which companies only hire people based on their skin colours? Martin said it depends on the core values of the company.
“If you hire a minority person and even put them in a leadership position, you still put them in an already violent, hostile culture.” – Lateef Martin.
Toxic work environment has been a problem in the video game industry. In July 2020, sexual harassment allegations have resulted in the departure of three executives in Ubisoft Montreal, one of the largest game studios in the world.
Miscellaneum Studios has maintained a safe and comfortable working environment. Art director Izabelle Duguay, a 40-year-old white artist who joined in 2013, used to decorate their studio in downtown Montreal with Martin to provoke a “cozy, supernatural, inspiring” mood.
Now that the team corresponds over Discord, the work meetings are still casual and productive.
“I feel secure. I feel like I can go beyond myself [in this environment],” said Duguay.
Miscellaneum Studios received funding from Coalition of Innovation Leaders against Racism (CILAR), a non-profit organization that worked with Facebook Canada to launch a Grant program for Black-led businesses, and Black Opportunity Fund, a charitable organization who seeks to dismantle anti-Black racism, last October.
They spent the $5,000 received hiring their community manager. This is just another step in reaching Martin’s ultimate goal: becoming the next Lucasfilm, with multiple multimedia projects.
His other goal is to change the industry and make an example of a safe, responsible and inclusive company.
“A salad isn’t just lettuce; you need to mix things up to be interesting,” said Martin.