Joe Tirado, a Latino game developer, has imposter syndrome.
He said as such, during his own talk on Latine representation at this year’s Game Developers Conference. In response to a question about his feelings on being Colombian in an industry where he largely lacks compatriot peers, he confessed to frequently thinking, “Do I belong? Did [my job] make a mistake in choosing me?”
Despite that self-doubt, Tirado is a long-time gaming journalist and entertainment professional in his own right, and now helms a successful philanthropic venture; he is both the Strategic Director and a founding member of Latinx in Gaming, a non-profit organization that has many goals, but one driving mission: to get Latino people hired in the gaming industry.
Being a Latino who has been hired to work on a video game is yet another statistically difficult feat that Tirado has accomplished; in addition to once covering games in media and now running a non-profit, he is Project Lead and Marketing and Communications Lead for System Era Softworks, where he works on the hit indie game Astroneer.
Today, this is the model for being a Latine in the video game industry; you must be excellent, and you must also create and weather the change you want to see in the world. And in doing so, you will likely become a role model in the process.
But it’s the model of tomorrow for being Latine in gaming that Latinx has its sights on changing. And it needs our help to do it.
How Latinx in Gaming was founded
Latinx in Gaming began as a small sub-group of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a special-interests organization guided by game developers. Only after being scheduled by IGDA to host a Latino-focused round table event at the 2019 Game Developers Conference (GDC) did the chasmal need within the industry fall at the feet of Tirado’s team.
“We were surprised,” Tirado says of that 2019 event when we caught up with him at PAX West 2023. They were expecting a small crowd for their then relatively unknown group. Instead, they were met with a packed room of curious attendees, many of whom came equipped with big-picture, tough questions about an industry that underserves and undervalues them.
The fervor from that meeting pushed the five co-founders to create Latinx in Gaming. In the intervening four years, the organization has incorporated into a full-fledged 501c3 non-profit, today boasting over 10,000 members.
Latinos play video games more than anyone
The vast need for more Latino spaces in gaming may have come as a surprise to Tirado’s team in that moment, but it is a fact that Latin and Hispanic people participate in the hobby at greater rates than anybody else.
At 10%, Hispanics are the second largest group of players in the world, after whites. More players exist across all of Latin America than exist in North America (of course the latter of which still includes Mexico). In July of 2023, Bloomberg reported on an annual industry report by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which found that just under 80% of “Hispanic” people polled in its yearly study claimed to play video games. (That’s a rise from Nielsen’s report of 72% in 2018.) That ratio of players to non-players is higher than all other ethnicity groups, including whites.
And yet despite that cultural embrace, the vast array of Latin American people are widely under-represented in the hobby, both in terms of what gets made, as well as by whom.
“I can count the number of mainline Latino characters in games on one hand,” says Tirado. One study once placed Latino representation within video games at 3% of all total characters. Meanwhile, a report from an American job agency estimates only 8.8% of all game developers are Hispanic.
Lacking fictional representation
In his 2023 talk at GDC, Tirado attempted to make a non-exhaustive but nuanced tally of all fictional Latin-based characters depicted throughout the history of video games. That’s 33 countries and multiple territories across two hemispheres. The results were dire.
A few literal dots in 1981’s Pele’s Soccer for the Atari notwithstanding, Tirado argues the earliest fully-formed Latino representation did not occur until the original arcade version of Punch-Out!! in 1984.
“The character that I submit as the first character, [a] human being that you can see and recognize as a Latino,” begins Tirado, “...was Piston Hurricane. Piston Hurricane was from Cuba, he’s an Afro-Latino.” Despite Punch-Out’s spotty record with cultural stereotypes, Piston Hurricane comes across as genuine to Tirado.
“I mean, if you know Punch-Out!!, they really lean into some terrible stereotypes for cultures in some of the later games. But he was a capable fighter, and he’s pretty chill, not cartoonishly weird or anything like that.”
Yet after Piston Hurricane, Latin representation in games jumps years, even decades in between notable characters. The vast majority of their inclusions are simply real-life athletes on the cover of sports games, as well as caricatured background characters. Latina characters are even less prevalent and are typically hyper-sexualized when they do appear. Tirado explains in his GDC talk that even the most celebrated, modern-day Latina characters, like Blizzard’s Sombra from the Overwatch series, often still tug at the common Latine tropes of taking on criminal anti-hero roles.
And even with these inclusions of flawed (but still important) representation, a gulf exists between the massive Latine player population and playable characters that look and act like them. “I think most Latinos are looking for that representation that’s authentic and feels unique. It hasn’t really come yet,” says Tirado.
The rarity of genuine representation, especially in playable characters, makes it rather potent whenever it does appear. This is emotionally illustrated in this viral clip by X user P1SMx playing Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a high-budget title starring Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino.
“My favorite kind of representation is the kind where they are Latinos, but it’s not the only thing that they are,” says Tirado. In Spider-Man, Morales is a superhero first and foremost in all of his depictions. Adds Tirado, “I like Dom from Gears of War. He’s kind of Latino-coded, but they don’t lean into [stereotypes]…he is in a fictional world, but he has a Latino accent and he’s played by a Latino person.”
This generally is the blueprint for any complex character, yet it continues to elude many game studios that create Latino game characters.
“You don’t want [characters] to just fall into that bucket of what Latino is ‘supposed’ to be.”
How Latinx in Gaming is changing things
To help instigate change in both the volume and authenticity of Latin-related media, Latinx in Gaming offers multiple ways to help.
One of the group’s recurring events is called 'Conexion,' a free, professional networking event with webinars, resume reviews, and mentorship opportunities for any Latino and Hispanic person who is interested in the gaming industry. And it’s all virtual, which means it’s globally available. These events also help fuel candidate pools that Latinx in Gaming maintains, in order to provide game studios with qualified candidates.
For Latinos who are already creating things, there is also 'Unidos', a month-long showcase taking place during Hispanic Heritage Month in September, also running through October. Unidos celebrates and connects Latinx talent across the gaming industry, with opportunities ranging from sponsorships of Latine gaming tournaments with prize pools for participants to special Twitch streams where Latine game creators, writers, or virtually anything can submit to present their work.
And this year, Latinx in Gaming announced a unique partnership with Google. “They gave us a decent amount of money to do it,” says Tirado. Called 'Con Latinidad,' it’s a mobile game jam where participants are tasked with creating a mobile game in a judged competition for a $30,000 prize pool.
These and other opportunities are discussed daily on the organization’s Discord channel.
Finally, one of the greatest needs Latinx Gaming hopes to fill is education. Available completely for free on its website, 'La Escuelita' is a compendium of tips, must-knows, and general knowledge on all things software development — written in Spanish. Tirado explains, “...we get people to write articles or chapters on what they do in the industry, but purely in Spanish. That way, people who might be in Mexico or in Central America, they can read that, and start learning.”
How Latinx in Gaming receives help
La Escuelita is a unique way to help the group's cause. Thus, in addition to companies offering sponsorships for its events, or people simply giving donations, Tirado wants more industry veterans to offer their knowledge.
“You, the AAA producer person, I want your time, but I also want you to feel compensated…it’s not easy work to write a whole bunch of documentation"
“We’re always looking for people to do features, even in English. We can do the translating.” He stresses this isn’t a matter of donation, but a paid opportunity. “You, the AAA producer person, I want your time, but I also want you to feel compensated…it’s not easy work to write a whole bunch of documentation for best practices for production.” Any industry insider can email the organization to take them up on his offer.
Mentorships are also badly needed. “I literally can’t get enough mentorship for people,” explains Tirado. “If anyone is reading this and they have (industry talent) they want to share, you should definitely reach out to us, because I can find the budget to pay you to do that kind of thing.” Tirado further contextualizes one of the team’s bigger needs: “I’d love to work with a data scientist.”
New games begin with new game designers
Representation in media begets cultural change, but representation can't exist without some kind of bridge. Latinx in Gaming is building those bridges, in many forms.
One type of bridge is simply having a community, which Latinx provides through online channels and gaming events. Or it could be monetary, such as through sponsored game jams and gaming tournaments, or through resume referrals. And often, it's through education and mentorship. All are important needs Latinx's team strives to provide.
It's the absence of any and all of those things that act as a moat separating Latinos from an industry they support as much as anyone else in the world.
To that point, Tirado relishes one of his favorite anecdotes about his organization, in which a young fan happened upon a panel at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX), back in 2019. “They asked a question…and then afterward they came up to us and were like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool, I didn’t know Latinos came to PAX!’”
He and his team welcomed that fan into the organization, eventually exposing their resume to employers. “Now they work at Microsoft as a writer working on some unannounced project. It’s mind-blowing.” This illustrates exactly how bridges can work in the games industry; the latest Latinx in Gaming career fair saw about ten hires in the industry as a result. “All we did was refer them to some people that we knew. They’re just talented on their own. They have their own skills and their own drive.”
From the minimal representation between Piston Hurricane and Sombra, to single-digit percentage Latine game makers, these are the realities Tirado and his team want to change.
In one of the final bits of advice at his GDC talk, Tirado had this to say to Latinos in or on the cusp of the gaming industry: "The thing that you have is actually pretty valuable. A lot of people look at their Latino culture, name, or accent as something that is not an asset, and I think you should look at it [as an asset].
"You bring something to the table that a lot of other people could never bring."
If you're keen to find out more about Latinx in Gaming, you can find them on Twitch, Discord, on Twitter (@LatinosinGaming), Facebook, LinkedIn, PayPal (should you wish to consider donating), or you can make contact via email on the LXIG website.