Get ready, Player One: In a time of pandemic and depressing headlines, millions of Americans have turned to online gaming for a good time and an escape. But playing games is even more fun with friends, and for thousands of fans across the country, Briana Williams is that best buddy who can turn a gaming session into an actual Mario party. Better known as Storymodebae, Williams is one of a small, but growing number of Black women tapping into the multibillion-dollar online gaming business. Williams is an avid gamer, content creator, and Twitch ambassador. She has been profiled by InStyle magazine and Yahoo. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Williams about online gaming as a Black woman and how gamers like her are making the industry better. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason Johnson: So Briana, in preparation for this, I was on your channel and was following you as you were playing 50 Cent and G-Unit Presents: Bulletproof, which is a fun and ridiculous game. And an example of all the things that 50 Cent has managed to get his fingers into. Do you find it more fun when you get to play video games that are actually based on pop culture figures? Is a more fun to play Bulletproof because you listen to 50 Cent’s music, or is it more the gameplay and less the characters you get to play?
Briana Williams: I feel like it’s a little bit of both. So on my YouTube channel, I’ve been trying to experiment and figuring out what I want to do. And I’ve been playing a lot of PlayStation 2 games, not only is it nostalgic, it’s my favorite console of all time. I find it really interesting that there were so many older games with celebrities and pop culture references and based off movies and shows. And they don’t really have that anymore. Now with that being said, oftentimes these older games are clunky. The gameplay isn’t always where I would like it to be, but ultimately I had fun and it’s relatable because I listened to 50 Cent and G-Unit back in the day.
What are some of your favorite games? And for the people who view your content, what have you found is their feedback? Why do people like you and what kind of games do you like to play?
The name –Storymodebae– it comes from me loving to play story-based games. I love games with a good narrative. Something that makes you feel emotion, whether it’s sadness or angriness or happiness, something that captivates you. And as far as me personally, what to expect, I am just sometimes a ball of bubbly energy and I can’t help it. I do think I’m funny on occasion. I try to crack a cute little joke here and there. I might be a little corny sometimes, but ultimately I am a huge lover of video games, but pop culture as well. I am unapologetically Black in everything that I do. I feel like for so many years working jobs at restaurants and retail and even going to college, I had to code switch so many times. It’s like I had to hold back who I truly, truly was. And so with streaming and content creation, because this is me and my brand, you’re going to get all of me and you’re either going to like it and relate to it, or you’re not going to like it. And you’re going to click off and that’s fine too.
You created a show called This Is Dope. What made you decide to create this kind of show? Was it sort of a personal expression of what you saw lacking in content in the gaming industry? Or was it something that was requested by your fans and viewers?
This Is Dope was my first time hosting anything at all. I was completely nervous, out of my element, and I’m supposed to highlight so many amazing people and I don’t want to let them down. But once I found my rhythm during that first show and saw how it was being received so positively. And so many people were like, oh my gosh, yes. Where has this been? There’s such an issue on these online platforms with discoverability and being able to find, more specifically, Black creators for whatever reason. That algorithm—that’s a whole different conversation.
I want to dig a little bit into this, the algorithm, because I think even people who don’t know the gaming industry, many people are aware that Jimmy Fallon had on this woman, Addison Rae, who was a white woman, who is, like, the second-biggest person on TikTok. He had her on to do this history of dance thing. And basically she appropriated a lot of dances that had been made famous and gone viral on TikTok with mostly Black creators. And none of those Black creators got the shine, but she got to be on Jimmy Fallon.
So I think people are becoming aware of the fact that like, Yo, Black people are coming up with stuff and they’re getting overlooked. How has that looked in the gaming industry? How’s the algorithm been overlooking Black gamers, even though especially Black women gamers are an increasingly large part of the people that consume it?
With the Jimmy Fallon thing, I appreciate that so many people were speaking out and saying, like, “Ah, no, you need to credit the correct creators because she’s not even doing the dances right.” And honestly, I feel like it takes a whole lot of that. It takes a whole lot of pressuring these companies and these brands to do the right thing because nine times out of 10, they’re not going to do the right thing. With the gaming industry, and again, with that algorithm, it’s hard being a Black content creator sometimes because oftentimes people are going to look at your stream or look at your video and they’re going to see your face and say, “Oh no, I’m not clicking on her. She’s going to be too loud, too out of control. I’m not going to do it.” And I don’t know the science behind the algorithm, but again, I keep hearing these things on these different platforms, Twitch and YouTube and TikTok. It’s so often where Black content creators are not being shown. Why are you being hidden or shadow banned? It makes me feel a little funny if we’re being honest
We’re talking about the algorithm, in a colloquial sense—that is the mathematics behind where YouTube or where Twitter or any social media outlet sends you. And more often than not, even Black content creators who have huge following, the algorithm often doesn’t point to them. Now, the undercurrent of that, and you talk about this a lot in your programs, is you say, “Look, anybody who turns into your stream, there’s no racism, no sexism or hate speech.” How much direct racism and sexism do you experience?
Online gaming is just, it’s just messy. Sometimes, you log into a server and they’re calling you X, Y, and Z. I love who I am, but with content creation and streaming and gaming in general, I feel like I already have two strikes against me. I’m a woman and I’m Black. So you’re getting racism, you’re getting sexism, all of that. So as far as streaming goes, I feel like I’ve tried to protect my safe space as much as I can, blocking out words that I assume people are going to call me. On Twitch and maybe YouTube too, you can type in specific terms that you want automatically blocked out of your channel. So if someone types that, they’re automatically going to get deleted or whatever it is. And so even being a Black woman that has to type out 50 different creative ways someone can call me the N-word is, that’s something within itself.
I hate to say luckily, but I don’t really encounter that much on my channel. I definitely do on occasion. And when I do, I love to talk mess to people. You’re going to give it to me. I’m going to give it to you right on back. So I don’t want anyone to think that they can get a reaction out of me because ultimately that’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to get you riled up. They’re trying to make you mad or make you cry on camera. So now I’m going to talk mess right on back. Me and the community are going to laugh it off. And that’s just what it is. We’re going to move on. And then honestly, maybe it’s just me growing up with the internet, so to speak, but y’all are not going to say this to my face. You’re really not. You’re going to hide behind your keyboard because you think you’re safe. And I’m really not going to give it the time of day, as much as I can.
You’re part of an organization called Black Girl Gamers. What does that group actually do? And also in general, what’s your mission as far as building up gaming in the Black community?
So with this group, it really has so many amazing women and people that do play games and they want to have that fellowship and sense of community. And, oh, let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about that. Can you help me with my stream setup—different ideas and things like that. And you can ultimately be in an area with people that you can trust, that you can relate to who are going through the same things that you’re going through, Black women in gaming. We’ve been here since the beginning, whether you choose to look out your basement window or not. We’ve been out here, and we’re going to continue to show that.
Where do you see representation in gaming going? Is it still a constant struggle to say, “Look, there should be more than one Black character in this game. There should be more than one Black female character that we can choose from.”
I think that developers are starting to understand, but we still have a long way to go. I have a love-hate relationship with social media because oftentimes it seems like everyone’s mad and angry and upset. I was like, OK, let me go ahead and log off. But then on the other side, it really allows people to voice their concerns and say, “Hey, why is it that there’s no Black characters in this game?” Or, “Why is it that there’s a Black character, but the skin tone is ashy. Look at the hair. I could see the scalp.” Like, you can’t give us Black characters as a way to say, “Here, y’all go. Stop complaining. I gave you all a Black character.” Oh no, you’re going to hear if we don’t like that Black character. I think that developers are understanding because people have been so vocal about what they do and don’t like. Ultimately I think we still have a long way to go.
What would you tell someone who’s interested in gaming? They really like it. And they want to turn this into a real job. What advice would you give them for where they need to go, how they need to start and if not follow your path, what’s a good path to follow?
Well, first, I say, just give it a try because you never know what’s going to happen. When I first started, I was streaming off of my PlayStation 4. I didn’t even know that was possible. I thought I needed all this fancy hardware and this equipment, but nope, I was just streaming straight from the TV. But in the same talking of “just give it a try,” I almost want to say you can’t expect too much. Don’t go into streaming thinking, OK, well, it’s been a month: Where’s the money? Where’s the people? What’s up? It takes time to build that audience and network and put yourself out there and promote yourself on social media. You have to be your biggest fan for a very long time until people start understanding why you are so amazing. I also have to say: Don’t try to follow anyone else’s path. I know it’s so natural for us as humans to compare ourselves to other people and say, “Well, they’ve been doing it for this long and they have this. Why don’t I have that?” But honestly, everyone’s path is so unique and you just have to trust the process. And if this is something that you want to put time and money, and really invest in, you have to take those steps and take that time to really build yourself up. It’s not easy when you’re putting yourself out there on the internet, but if you really want to do this, just understand that it takes time, start slow, but you never know what could happen.