A review of Affirmation 2.0, a video game promoting mental health for Black women and children, developed by Diamond E. Beverly-Porter
Affirmations 2.0: The Politics of Liberation and Exploration of Healing in Digital Games
Diamond E. Beverly-Porter, Washington State University
Taylor Hughes-Barrow, Michigan State University
Diamond E. Beverly-Porter
Affirmations 2.0 explores the affordances of a digital game as a communally situated coping mechanism and critical making technology for Black women and children. Through the game, players encounter intrusive thoughts and reflect on how the central conflict within oneself is rooted in the internalization of systemic oppression. This project directly addresses the concerns of mental health perceptions in the traditionally underrepresented group of Black women and children by highlighting the contributing factors of internalized systemic oppression. By engaging with the game’s infrastructure as a critical making technology, the player will complicate their perception of their internal voice and understand the outside factors that affect individual and community health.
Affirmations 2.0 utilized the Unreal engine version 4.23 in the creation of the game. The game production process used a 2-3-2 ratio of production with two days of work, three days of rest, and two days of reflection. Signs and environmental storytelling in the different levels in Affirmations 2.0 encourage narrative gameplay by designing culturally relevant spaces for the intended audience and provide the tools for players to enact and create important discussion places while collaborating with the game designer. The hub world is the connecting point between all levels and features the journaling prompts. Scenes from my childhood were also prominent points of reference. The color pallet for the levels and hub world replicates the passing of day to night, with level one being early morning and the night sequence being the player’s entrance into the hub world. This world is designed to replicate a childhood dreamscape realm with floating cardboard castles and stuffed animals. Each journal prompt coincides with the level the player has previously finished. In this way, Affirmations 2.0 uses a type of indexical storytelling, which makes the game more of a story-building tool. This emphasizes and creates a tangible relationship in the digital realm by providing each player the place to add culturally relevant experience. The video game Child of Light informs my aesthetic interpretation of the game world. As this is a game with a target audience of Black women and children, the aesthetic of the game world factors into the overall experience and longevity of the game.
I ground Affirmations 2.0 in the works of theorists adrienne maree brown, Amanda Phillips, Sasha Costanza-Chock, and Kishonna Gray. In the production and development of Affirmations 2.0, I combine different methodologies and game design techniques, including critical making and play to reflect on and deconstruct my Black experiences. In my practice, critical making is defined as engaging with technologies and mediums that are combined with critical thinking and social reflection. My Black perspective informs the production process, gameplay experience, and reflection for Affirmations 2.0. By situating the core concepts at the intersection of Black studies, game studies, and disability studies, I can better encompass a nuanced view of my perspective.
The core mechanics of the game are the player dialogue options and a non-lethal combat function. Players are offered opportunities to rehabilitate the perceived enemy through in-game actions and dialogue cues. This lack of an option to annihilate the enemy offers a critique of the traditional combat options in games and gives the player a space in which they reconcile with the perceived enemy. Once the player enters the main game hub world, they have access to journal prompts that coincide with each of the three main levels and allow for a reflection point outside of the game narrative. Journaling prompts are available in the hub world. The game’s run time is structured to be 10 minutes, with the level narratives reflecting my personal experiences.
In sum, Affirmations 2.0 was designed to contest the idea that Black experiences are illegitimate, precisely because they are illegible to whiteness. This work is adding to the larger conversation around how structural whiteness in gaming acts as a central tenet of white supremacy. This game actively works to challenge the centering of white cis-abled male bodies by unpacking the need to make that which is illegible under structural whiteness palatable for the white audience and for the sake of being legitimized within academia. By reexamining the development process for game design and rethinking how to center people over the product, I place Affirmations 2.0 as an alternative to mass-produced games that instead center traditionally underrepresented perspectives. Drawing from these experiences, Affirmations 2.0 is a love letter to my community and that young Black girl who was told she was not smart enough, not important enough, not valued, and not welcome in spaces not built for her.
In the video game Affirmations 2.0, Diamond E. Beverly-Porter highlights the contributing factors of internalized oppression on the psychosocial development and self-consciousness of Black women and children. The video game was designed by Beverly-Porter to digitally reflect on her own experiences of being a Black woman. Her use of theoretical frameworks such as design justice (inspired by Sasha Costanza-Chock) and pleasure activism (inspired by adrienne maree brown), offers a vital social critique of Western game development practices that center on whiteness.
Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have had to navigate a society that has historically and systematically excluded them. Socially, politically, and economically, race and gender have been constructed to categorize humans to weaponize their identities against them as ways of disempowering marginalized communities. In turn, these phenomena plague one’s self-consciousness with negative thoughts that are internalized as a result of systematic oppression. BIPOC are left to internally process the weight of generations of oppression throughout their everyday lives thus impacting their sense of self. Affirmations 2.0 challenges neoliberalist perceptions of mental health through this immersive digital game that explores self-care as a reclamation of the sense of self for Black women and children through healing, and community.
Affirmations 2.0, hosted on the indie game website itch.io, is a short game designed for players to interact and engage with their environment, non-playable characters (NPCs), and negative thought enemies to complete a task to progress to the next level before the time runs out. Beverly-Porter designed the first level to reflect her experiences throughout elementary school. The character is faced with microaggressions when engaging with the NPCs, as well as negative thought enemies that are reflected to look like the character. The layers of intention in exploring the roots of negative thoughts on each of the three levels are brilliantly executed.
The player is able to immerse themself through gameplay while simultaneously being confronted with the difficult reality many Black women face throughout their childhood. When confronted with the negative thought characters in the game after interacting with a microaggression, the user is directly confronted virtually, as well as internally by visually processing how their own negative thoughts are rooted in similar experiences. Beverly-Porter allows the player to sit with these messages rather than combat them physically.
This digital game offers a space for Black women and children to unpack their experiences while also providing them with affirmations in the hub world that connects all of the levels. The hub world was modeled to reflect a childhood dreamscape with soothing colors and visualizations inspired by Beverly-Porter's childhood. The setting allows the user to feel a sense of comfort through familiar child-like materials and structures. There are journal prompts available for each level that engages the user to reflect on these questions in relation to their own experiences. The game allows players to immerse themselves through play as a technological wellness resource. Beverly-Porter has designed a digital space for Black women and children for much-needed reflection and healing that offers an insight into how negative thoughts can manifest due to external factors.
Beverly-Porter's use of a communicative medium to center Black feminist thought directly opposes neoliberal approaches to health and wellness as an individualistic approach. Redefining how technology is designed while also challenging digital practices that center on whiteness is crucial towards developing a more inclusive, equitable, and diverse digital atmosphere for BIPOC individuals and communities. Inspired by theorists such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, she offers a re-imagining of how to utilize technology as a form of resistance and healing to support Black women and children’s mental health. In removing the barrier between game developer and player, Beverly-Porter allows the user to not only experience the game, but to engage in the unfolding of their own story. She emphasizes the concepts of pleasure, rest, and community as a form of resistance. Her use of technology to encourage play through critical-making game design is a fantastic tool to support BIPOC mental health.