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Overcoming unconscious bias in the games industry

Diversity advocates Cinzia Musio and Leon Killin discuss the dangers of unconscious bias, and how to foster an inclusive studio

The games industry often prides itself on diversity and inclusion. Although a heavily male-dominated sector, it's also a forward thinking one that makes conscious efforts to recognise and address its shortcomings.

As a creative industry, the need for new voices is vital. Demographics have changed wildly in recent years, and it's been a long time since games were just for young boys. An inclusive studio helps foster diverse ideas, and new stories and perspectives that can help elevate the medium.

Leon Killin is founder of diversity consultancy service Balance Patch, which works with game companies to create healthy and accessible work environments. He came out as trans in his early 20s, while at university, and spent ten years working to improve the frontline experience of marginalised people in work and education spaces.

Through his more recent work in the games industry, he found that fear presides when it comes to fostering inclusion. It's an industry of "generally very well-meaning people who don't know what to do," he says.

"There is a lot of conversation from devs about inclusion, equality, diversity, and a lot of fear. It's refreshing, weirdly, because what I'm used to dealing with is dinosaur institutions that will sigh and know they've got a legal obligation to do some of these things."

Cinzia

Cinzia Musio, Splash Damage

Cinzia Musio is operations project manager at UK developer Splash Damage, and also runs unconscious bias workshops. In some workplaces, this fear of "getting it wrong" can prove toxic, but there are ways to overcome this, and foster an inclusive, blame-free workplace.

As Musio explains, unconscious bias comes from us "living as primitive humans, where we had to react to danger in a second." Essentially a quirk of human evolution, we use categorisation to help us process the world and our environment. People and things alike get placed into categories, which our brain then files as safe or dangerous, normal or abnormal. This leads us to making snap judgements of people based on preconceptions, and is why negative stereotyping in the media can be so harmful.

"So you see that affecting us a lot, especially LGBTQ+ people, where if you're not straight or you don't identify as the gender you appear as, then people are going to be thinking less of you," says Musio. "And it's just that thing which is triggered in your brain, that you need to consciously think about. Think about the fact that you might be affected by it."

When our preconceptions are challenged, this creates cognitive dissonance, which can be uncomfortable and difficult to recognise. By examining these feelings, it's possible to change our preconceptions, though it often comes at the terrible price of admitting we were wrong. Musio says that by approaching these challenges from the perspective of unconscious bias, it's possible to remove blame and simply recognise the flaws in our own psychology and social structures.

"I'm lucky. I'm lucky and I know that. I'm in a very privileged position where I can speak this relatively safely"

Leon Killin, Balance Patch

"You're already removing that personal feeling from things, which helps with conversation, because you're not pointing the finger at anyone for improving," she adds. "But also it helps the idea you can change things, and you're not going to be feeling defensive about it."

Earlier this year the BBC revealed that the number of transgender hate crimes had risen by 81% in England, Scotland, and Wales. LGBTQ+ rights charity Stonewall said it showed the "consequences of a society where transphobia is everywhere."

And transphobia is endemic to any society where unconscious bias goes unchallenged. Politically charged debates around bathrooms or what children should be taught in school have only served to fan the flames of hate. Meanwhile, there's the wider cultural acceptance of casual transphobia in the form of slurs, offensive jokes, or fetisihisation.

Considering the wider cultural problems around transphobia, the need for individual sectors to foster diversity and inclusion only grows.

"Black trans women remain one of the highest proportions of people who end up murdered each year, and trans women in particular are generally at risk," says Killin. "And when you overlap that with things like disabilities and socioeconomic class, we are an at risk population. But I can also say I'm trans, I'm out, and thankfully so far -- touch wood -- I've not had my face kicked in. I'm lucky. I'm lucky and I know that. I'm in a very privileged position where I can speak this relatively safely."

Through his experience, Killin found that "a lot of systems and general life experiences just aren't set up for trans people." His university changed over its mailbox system partway through his time there, which reverted his details back to his dead name. Killin says it has been a personal and political choice to be very open about being transgender, but that he has always "been able to pass quite easily," meaning he can "move throgh spaces with a lot of privilege and security."

"It is safer in an emotional sense to not try"

Leon Killin, Balance Patch

"Some people are not in an accepting environment and this oversight could quite literally cause them a safety risk," he says.

Cisgender experiences are not reflective of how everyone lives their life, and so it's easy for people to overlook details, or enact a shortshighted policy that has unforeseen and potentially dangerous repercussions for transgender people.

When considering how to make game companies more inclusive, Killin says it has to be a "very holistic and joined up way of thinking."

"I will definitely do the trans thing, the gay thing, but as far as I'm concerned it's no good talking about just those things. I need to also be thinking about that in conjunction with disability and race and religion and socioeconomic class, because all of these things really overlap and interlock in complicated ways. So I tend to not talk about them in isolation."

Considering how the games industry can grow and improve in this area, it all comes back to fear. More specifically, the fear of getting it wrong.

"There needs to be a different conversation that puts aside how scared you are. You have to have the willingness to roll up your sleeves, and it might be a bit messy"

Leon Killin, Balance Patch

"This is a very emotive industry, and I mean that individuals are very attached to their craft, to their creative process," he says. "They are very attached to their product, and [affected by] the kind of systematic critiques or criticisms that are nothing to do with them as people or the work they do. There is a tremendous amount of sensitivity to what is perceived as being wrong or not knowing, or feeding into what I think is this dreaded imposter syndrome that I see is endemic in this industry... I think that feeds into this anxiety around wanting to do well but not wanting to fuck it up, so they don't want to even try because it's safer that way.

"And I do get that; it is safer in an emotional sense to not try. And we are also an industry that feels more and more like an aquarium, where the work that's being done is directly accessible and watchable by the consumers, the people who press up against the tank saying, 'We can swim better than you'."

Working in the games industry comes with a certain degree of exposure which is not replicated in many other sectors. As a cultural and creative industry, game studios rightfully face criticism when it comes to visibility and portrayal of marginalised characters. However, as Killin points out, this criticism comes in the polarised forms of both members of marginalised communities, and the vitriolic hate of Gamergate-style reprisal.

"I think that's games now," says Killin. "That's unfortunately something that has to have its own conversation when it comes to your studios, and how people in those studios are able to do their work comfortably. There needs to be a different conversation that puts aside how scared you are. You have to have the willingness to roll up your sleeves, and it might be a bit messy."

"Go with your instinct, but you have to justify it"

Cinzia Musio, Splash Damage

For game companies looking to be more inclusive, Killin says the ethos needs to be more substantial than the classic, "We want to make great games." Equality, inclusion, and accessibility need to be baked into the company, rather than just lip service or an afterthought.

"Generally speaking studios do want to include that as part of the culture of their studios and organisations, because they want their place to be happy. We're in an industry that seems to, rightly or wrongly, have very close professional relationships go on in the workplace. On the one hand that's fantastic, and on the other it's sometimes a bit fraught. So the question of if you want people to be happy and be friendly and get along, who do you want to be able to do that? Is it only certain people who can probably walk into almost any workspace and feel comfortable, or do you want to open your doors a little bit wider to people who have difficulty getting through them in the first place?"

When it comes to letting people through those doors, Musio explains unconscious bias frequently leads to us making decisions based on feeling. While this is not an entirely bad thing, when it comes to hiring and creating a diverse workplace, we are inclined to hire people that feel right. Almost always, this means someone who is like us, and in an industry dominated by white men, this unconscious bias will only propagate. It's important to note that good candidates do often feel right, but Musio says that when hiring it's important to examine why.

"Without challenging it, you're harming the studio and ultimately harming the industry"

Cinzia Musio, Splash Damage

"If you think that someone feels right, you've got to justify it and hold yourself accountable," she says. "If you don't have an explanation, it could be rooted in unconscious bias, and it's really that you just identify with the person you're looking at. If you have a lot of reasons that are rooted in logic, it's about being able to justify yourself. Go with your instinct, but you have to justify it."

Musio says there are a number of other things studios can do to help overcome unconscious bias. Attending workshops is perhaps the best place to start, and there are plenty of free ones available for studios on a budget.

Beyond that, don't assume what people are capable of, but speak to them instead; in meetings, make sure there is an agenda, and have a facilitator who ensures everyone gets a chance to speak; embrace failure, and allow people to fail without judgement; put things in context and explain why things are the way they are, presenting a solution rather than a problem; address toxicity within your game communities; and encourage an atmosphere of accountability, where it's okay to challenge ideas.

Without taking steps to tackle unconscious bias, Musio says you'll most likely just lose your underrepresented groups and the value they bring.

"You're more likely to have a high turnover because people won't feel welcome, they won't feel that their voice is being heard, that they get to say what they want," she says. "It's going to be a very top-down driven studio because it's always going to be the same loud voices that get to speak. Ultimately they're going to be at the top level of the studio, with the same kind of thinking, and you can't be successful that way because no one is going to challenge each other, or they will but it will be in a very toxic way, and no growth is going to come from it.

"Without challenging it, you're harming the studio and ultimately harming the industry, because we'll be back where we were a few years ago where everyone at the top is the same person basically... You can't innovate if you don't have people challenging. And you need people to address that it's okay to speak up, to be able to challenge the status quo; it's going to be vital for us to grow as an industry."

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