100WomenChi: 006. Keisha Howard

Photo by Matthew Coglianese

Keisha Howard knows the power of stories.

It started with a spark of a story about herself. As a young girl, Keisha spent hours watching her older brothers play video games, guiding pixelated mighty men on their quest to save the world. Eventually, she started to play, too. She gained skill, and one day she realized: I can play better; I can beat them; I can be the hero.

Twenty years later, Keisha has built a life that embraces that narrative. She is the founder of Sugar Gamers, an advocacy organization that champions women, people of color, the LGBT community, and their allies in the gaming community.

Sugar Gamers started in 2009, originally intended to be a group of five female competitive video game players. Finding female teammates — especially female gamers of color — was difficult. Keisha knew they were out there, but there was no organized way for them to meet.

Soon, Sugar Gamers became that meeting space. Today, the organization has over 2,000 members nationwide, mostly concentrated in Chicago. Over the past nine years, Sugar Gamer’s mission has changed from simply connecting female gamers to more active advocacy for representation.

“These days, everyone knows that women are gamers. The next issue to tackle is women making games, women being executives at tech and game companies, and women being represented in marketing and in the stories being told.”

One of the most rewarding aspects of building this community is the ability to make real connections that propel women forward.

“I’ve built relationships in the tech, gaming, and geek world, so I’m been able to connect women to the opportunities they’re looking for. I’m very proud to see people grow in their career and their journey to discover what they want to do. Many people have started that journey at Sugar Gamers.”

Keisha thinks that this work is particularly important in Chicago. She notes that game-building skills are respected on the West and East coasts, where employers understand that they fall under the umbrella of STEAM. In places like San Francisco and New York City, young people are aware that gaining skills to build video games can translate to a rewarding career.

“Chicago doesn’t have an infrastructure for game development. We’re losing talent fast to the coasts. In Chicago, it’s not just issues of race and gender but also how we’re raised; young children just don’t know that they can go into game development. Video games are within the tech industry, as well as a form of artistic expression. I want more people — especially in Chicago — to know that.”

When Keisha speaks about the future of games and technology, it’s clear that she wants to see a wave of change, starting with herself.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t see women doing things like this. If I had, how sooner would I have tried to develop my interest in games into skills that were productive to my career? What if girls saw a wider definition of what interests can be relevant, attractive, and successful?”

At times, Keisha has felt dissonance when speaking about the importance of representation in games. She would point the work of others to contextualize her ideas — ideas that were deeply important and personal to her. Finally, a friend (award-winning producer and leader of Illinois Media Literacy Now, Alicia Haywood) helped her pinpoint the issue: to truly get her message across, she needed to present her own viewpoint. She needed to build a game.

Photo by Matthew Coglianese

So, Keisha and Sugar Gamers are taking their next big step. Work has already begun on Project Violacea, a Visual Novel PC game that leads the player through the lives of a group of rebels in a cyberpunk-meets-solarpunk world. Keisha’s team on this project has a tremendous amount of skill and a variety of voices.

“We have industry veterans who have experience working on triple-A titles; we have high school interns; we have everything in between. Our teams is half women, half men, half people of color, all from different walks of life. I am so proud of my team. This is what diversity looks like.

Keisha and her team are on a mission to use video games to tell new stories. Through advocacy and now their own creation, they are changing the narrative about heroes. The new heroes are heroines — their looks are diverse, their backgrounds are unique, their paths are unlimited.

Listen carefully, because these are new stories about who can save the world.

This article is part of 100WomenChi, a project aimed at interviewing the 100 most interesting women in Chicago.