As Black celebrities like Megan Thee Stallion and Michael B. Jordan have become increasingly vocal about their love for anime and gaming, Chicago-based game designer Derrick Fields (he/they), founder of Waking Oni Games and the president of the Japanese Arts Foundation, is here to ensure that Black people can see themselves more and more in the genre.
Fields was a full-time team member of a cosplay wig company and struggling to find a job in the gaming industry when he founded the gaming company, Waking Oni Games. His first project, Onsen Master, was created with only a three-member team: himself, his roommate, and a friend. Onsen Master, released in September 2022, is a one-to-two-player game played on Nintendo, Xbox, and PlayStation with six levels where users play as the character Mu, whose task is to bring back peace to hot springs on the island of Izajima amidst spirits called yokai stir up trouble after the sensei of the springs, disappears.
Fields sat down with The Root to give some insight into his world as a Black game creator and consumer and his journey to help Black gamers like himself feel seen when they play anime-influenced games.
Over the years he spent developing Onsen Master, Fields turned a page in his purpose for creating the games due to tragedies in America. “We went through a pandemic, we went through Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, and these events really gave me the space to focus on what type of games I would like to create and what that means for the studio,” he told The Root. “My two team members at that time, close friends of mine, did not come from Black backgrounds. I candidly said I feel very passionate about wanting to create a studio that is telling predominantly Black stories and doing it at the hands of predominantly Black individuals.”
The team ultimately decided that after Onsen Master was released, they would part ways to work on projects that they saw fit for each of their backgrounds. Now, Fields is working full steam ahead to bridge the gap between Japanese and African-American gaming communities with a predominantly Black and predominantly woman-led team at Waking Oni Games, working in pre-production on an unnamed project.
One question for Fields was how he avoids cultural appropriation in this space as a Black man creating games based on Japanese culture. His approach? Recognizing intersectionality by creating explicitly Black characters and Black stories that represent both Black and Japanese cultures.
“I don’t want to make coded characters,” he said. “I want it to be obvious and right in front of the viewers so that they can make the connection and not have to take so many steps to make that connection. The goal with Waking Oni down to its name is to explore these cultural intersections and create visibility within games giving predominantly Black individuals who are fans of anime a space to say, ‘This game was made for me.’ We are not a Black studio that’s telling a Japanese story about a Japanese individual.”
Growing up as an anime fan, Fields would discuss with fellow fans some anime characters that were coded Black but not outwardly confirmed to be Black, such as his example of Piccolo from Dragon Ball-Z, who some people believe shares characteristics and remind people of a Black dad and grandfather.
As Fields has grown older, more shows now have outwardly Black characters and Black cultural influences proving that there is a connection between Black and Japanese communities.
“Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of Cowboy Bebop, has always used Black music to characterize some of the most impactful moments in its shows. He uses jazz in Cowboy Bebop, he blatantly uses hip-hop in Samurai Champloo and then carries it a step further for a show like Carole & Tuesday, which has a Black main character (Carole), and then he collaborates with Black artists like Denzel Curry and Flying Lotus.”
As the popularity and appreciation of anime and Japanese culture grow, so does the influence of Black culture on the genre, from new Black characters to the music. Fields believes that this is the perfect time to bring his and many more Black people’s skills to make a space within the genre as well.
“It’s incredible to see these intersections come to fruition and really say, ‘Yes, you are influencing this medium,’” he said. “There is a sort of cultural exchange that’s occurring and we’re recognizing that more.”