Akil Finbar Fletcher

On May 23, first-generation graduate student Akil Fletcher added another impressive milestone to his CV with the successful defense of his dissertation, “Playing in Color: An Exploration of Black Gaming Communities and Practices.” Officially part of the UCI Ph.D. class of 2023, the anthropologist will be joining the Society of Fellows at Princeton University in the fall for a three-year postdoc where he’ll lecture and teach out of the anthropology department and continue his research on Black gaming community and practices. Below, the newly minted grad shares what brought him to UCI after earning his associate degree from Kingsborough Community College and bachelor’s from the City College of New York, and how he hopes to make an impact in the very space he studies.

What made you decide to pursue your current field of study, and specifically at UCI? What interests you most about your work?

I decided to pursue my research on Black gamers to dive deeper into my love of video games. I chose UCI specifically for its thriving gaming community and the many sites and faculty members who focus on games research. Among them are the esports center and the informatics department. Tom Boellstorff in the anthropology department was my main draw as his ethnographic work in Second Life was a wonderful example of what I could study.

Tell us about your research. What problem will your findings help solve?

My dissertation, “Playing in Color: An Exploration of Black Gaming Communities and Practices,” is based on two years of field work conducted between 2020-22. In it, I explore how Black individuals use online video games to build out forms of community and identity that allow them to exist in often anti-Black gaming spaces. But, in doing so I also explore how Black gamers come to develop alternate community formations from that of the larger gaming industry. This work helps to provide possible solutions and methods for dealing with racism and anti-Blackness online and identifies opportunities to help strengthen minority communities in online spaces as well as improve diversity in video games.

Where can your work be found if someone wanted to learn more about your research?

Anyone who wants to learn more about my work can visit AkilFletcher.com where I have multiple links to work I have published or they can simply type my name into google scholar and there can find two articles I have written and a roundtable discussion. 

Two more prominent pieces are:
Esports and the Color Line: Labor, Skill and the Exclusion of Black Players
Black Gamer's Refuge: Finding Community within the Magic Circle of Whiteness

What organizations and/or foundations have funded your research while you’ve been at UCI? 

Thankfully, I have been funded by multiple grants, fellowships, and other sources of funding such as the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), the National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grants (DDRIG), the UCI President Dissertation Fellowship Year, as well as multiple funding sources from the School of Social Sciences such as the Nevin Graduate Endowment Fellowship, Social Science Merit Fellowship, and a Diversity Fellowship.

What do you consider among your UCI accomplishments?

In addition to the above, I have also worked to expand gaming and esports opportunities to youth in Kentucky by co-developing an esports summer camp called Camp Kiki with Dr. Kishonna Gray from the University of Kentucky. Through our work with the camp, we offer a free experience to children to allow them to engage with popular games, have three meals a day, and get hands-on experience with the tech and careers of the gaming industry.

Who have been your faculty mentors while here, and what impact have they had on your graduate career?

Tom Boellstorff and Damien Sojoyner (UCI Department of Anthropology), and Kishonna Gray (University of Kentucky) were all essential to my success here at UCI. Their expertise as my committee was invaluable. My undergraduate mentors - Edward Snajdr and Shonna Trinch from John Jay College of Criminal Justice – also deserve mention for the advice they have given me across the years. Not to mention the entirety of the UCI anthropology department which worked to support me through course work and communal scholarship.

Any unique life experiences that have guided your educational journey? Give us some background.

I’ve worked for quite a while to support my family and children. The stamina and effort I have used to survive the night shift as a security guard, or the 60-80 hours of work spent behind the front desk of a hospital, is the same mindset I utilized to succeed in my program. As an immigrant from Trinidad who came at a young age and grew up in the U.S and had kids at a young age, there was little option but to succeed. Graduate school was one of the few ways I could pursue what I love (video games) and I wasn’t going to squander that opportunity.

Any other tidbits you’d like to share?

I would love to highlight the Black Gxming Society (BGXS), for the fantastic work they do on campus. It has been an honor to support them in any way and I hope to support them further even once I leave the campus.


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