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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

'Insecure' Is Getting a Mobile Game Made by a Woman-Run Studio

If Issa Rae's Insecure character, Issa Dee, were to have a favorite phone pastime, it would probably be The Come Up Game. Developed by indie firm Glow Up Games, it lets players rap, create their personal style, and interact with the kind of friends Issa would have. Actually, they're the exact friends Issa has—they were created to reflect her experience, something very few games have ever done before.

That's exactly what Insecure: The Come Up Game was designed to do: be a game by, for, and about women of color. Ever since it was founded last year, Glow Up has made it their goal to make games and other storytelling experiences that center on marginalized stories. So when the founders pitched HBO on making something for one of their series, adapting Rae's comedy-drama into a mobile game was a perfect fit. It was also something the three women behind the company wanted to make sure to get right.


"When we approached Insecure, the stakes got high. You don't see a lot of of-color IP being adapted into the game space," says Glow Up cofounder Latoya Peterson. "It doesn't mean that shows like Girlfriends, Living Single, and Martin don't deserve games. Or, you know, Atlanta or Black-ish. But they just don't get them. We knew this was going to be a high-profile adaptation."

High-profile, and in the eyes of the show's creator, highly successful. “The Come Up Game is a perfect, natural extension of Insecure," Rae said in a statement. "It was such a rewarding experience to create this game alongside an all-women-of-color-led team.”

The way the team at Glow Up sees it, the videogame industry hasn't seen the same advancements in representation that film and TV have—and even those industries are still lacking. That's why Peterson and cofounders Mitu Khandaker and Tara Mustapha started their studio: to make games, AI, and VR/AR for diverse audiences. "We recognized that, if we're to make a change in how videogames look in terms of both representation and behind-the-scenes in terms of developers," Khandaker says, "then we were the ones to do it." Between the three of them, they have decades of experience in the games space—Khandaker as a designer, programmer, and academic; Peterson as a writer, journalist, and producer; and Mustapha as a designer and developer in a variety of segments of the games industry. And, as their website puts it, they're "also women of color."

"It's really cool that the film and TV industries are all having these amazing moments of recognizing that, hey, telling diverse stories and stories about characters of color can be super impactful and really good business," Khandaker adds. "We recognize that games, while they're getting better, certainly, in terms of general female representation, are not having that same realization about characters of color."

To create Insecure: The Come Up Game, which will be released around the end of the show's fourth season in June, the Glow Up team knew they had to make something that reflected the show, reflected characters like Issa and her friends—women who are figuring things out even when it feels like the world is falling apart. To do that, they decided the game had to be a sort of messy-life simulator, something in the vein of The Sims or Animal Crossing that allowed players to manage an individual's life choices and relationships.

It also, of course, needed rap. Issa's mirror freestyles are one of the hallmarks of Insecure and, as Peterson notes, one of the things that "really makes the show shine." When they began discussing the addition of a rap mini-game, they realized there probably hadn't been a great rap game since the late-1990s computer game PaRappa the Rapper. To make one of their own, the team enlisted Sammus, aka Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo, an underground MC well known in the games world for creating an entire concept album about Metroid, from which she also takes her stage name. "She's amazing," Peterson says. "She's a gamer. She's an Afro-futurist. She's just a legend in her own right. We recruited her early on to say, if we wanted to take a game and put this rap element in, how do we approach that from a rhyme creator's perspective?"

With Sammus signed on as the game's audio director, Insecure: The Come Up Game took shape. It's a game about living a complicated personal life in an evolving world, undergirded by hip-hop and full of the characters and mood of Rae's show. It also has an unlikely inspiration from another kind of phone-based medium: the self-care app. The three women behind Glow Up are all fans, and they wanted the game to offer a similar kind of respite. "The idea that there's a space on your phone that's a break from your day" was key, Peterson says. The hope is that The Come Up Game's layer of self-expression, in terms of fashion, rhyming, and character agency, will create that sort of player oasis. "The idea is that using that rhyming mechanic, like Issa does in the show, you're hyping yourself and that gets you through the choices that you make throughout your day, whether it's in work or your relationships," Mustapha says.

Ultimately, Glow Up wants to provide a novel mobile experience that draws in players that aren't represented in most mainstream titles. Women of color are so underserved in the industry that, the founders explain, reliable market research on the demographic didn't even exist when the game was in development. With Insecure: The Come Up Game, Glow Up and its collaborator, HBO, are gearing up to court and empower that audience by showing people of color in a way they're not normally seen in games: complexly.

"One of the reasons we were drawn to the Insecure universe is because one of the things the show does so well is show not only the struggles but also the joy of being a woman of color," Khandaker says. "We want to create opportunities for joy in people who don't often get to see themselves represented in games."

Updated 3/27/2020: This story has been corrected to reflect that Insecure: The Come Up Game will be released near the end of the show's fourth season.

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