She Sees the Magic in You

How Lauren Brown fosters diversity in Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells.

Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells

A Match-3 celebrating Hogwarts


Powerful incantations abound in Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells, but this puzzler’s most potent magic might be how it empowers you to see yourself just as you are in the Wizarding World.

Thank Lauren Brown for that. As associate art director on Zynga’s match-3 game, Brown and her team ensured that players of all ethnicities could craft an avatar that captures their real-life look.

A graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, Brown honed her skills working on animated TV shows like Archer before moving into gaming. Now she’s made representation a mission. We spoke to Brown from her home in Austin, Texas, about what it took to make players feel welcome in the game’s hundreds of puzzles.

What challenges did you run into when you started revamping Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells’ avatar system?
I noticed it was very unflattering for a lot of darker skin tones. I tried to represent myself in the game, and I was like, I don’t know if I like the way this looks. I want there to be blood in my cheeks. I want to see a little bit of variation.

The variation in the game is really impressive now—especially all the hair options.
We have about 40 hairstyles that I categorized as straight, wavy, curly, or kinky. Then each of those categories has the right hair-texture options. We did a full gamut of textures. We did the same for eye shape, eyebrow shape, nose, lips. Instead of creating a long inventory, we created a balanced one.

Light blue hair? Why not? Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells’ character creator lets you express yourself however you see fit.

Did you work on any specific ones yourself?
I divide everything among different concept artists on our team, but I wanted to be responsible for the kinky hair options, so I painted all those!

Was it a challenge to represent Black hair texture?
It was a fun challenge to figure out how to represent a hair texture in a way that looks realistic. Often artists will fall back on a shorthand—making a curl pattern much looser—because that’s easier. But it’s definitely possible to represent these textures. If I can do it, so can everybody.

How else did you improve the avatar system?
Early on, a lot of the features were from the actors in the movies. There’s nothing wrong with that, but our players are everyday people like me and you. I want players to be able to represent Harry and Hermione, but I also want them to represent themselves.

I want players to be able to represent Harry and Hermione, but I also want them to represent themselves.

What are some common designer pitfalls when creating an avatar system?
They usually start with an internet image search—let’s say for an Indian woman—and often the first results are people with more Caucasian features, which is not representative of the country of India at all. Designers tend to not dive in and find a sample of features that may be more authentic.

As a gamer your whole life, have you felt underrepresented?
It’s not that I felt unwanted when I played games—a lot of them were about plumbers and monkeys. But in games where players can represent themselves, it’s important that everybody feels they can be themselves.

“When you don’t see yourself in a space, it’s very difficult to believe you belong there, to think you will have the support to get there,” says Brown.

Why do you think it’s important for games to be representative?
If you see yourself in a game in an authentic and thoughtful way, you’ll think, “Oh, maybe somebody who looks like me is actually making these decisions.” It makes you feel you’re part of this culture of gaming rather than an outsider looking in.

You’ve been able to make a real impact for diversity in your position at Zynga. How did that come about?
I stated my case as soon as I got in those doors: “I’m going to be an advocate for representation, inclusion, and diversity and make sure our games are really representing players.” And everybody who interviewed me at Zynga said, “Yes! We’re on board with that. We would like you to join our team.” I’m continuing to hold myself to it and hold other people to it.

    Harry Potter: Puzzles & Spells

    A Match-3 celebrating Hogwarts