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Bonnie Ross: "Diversity attracts diversity"

343 Industries boss on the need to present technology as a creative field to more young women and minorities

The games industry's lack of diversity -- in terms of gender, race and almost any other criteria you care to mention -- has been well documented. Yet still the conversation rages on (as it should).

One contributing factor to the industry's problems boil down to the breadth of people seeking a career in games, whether that's making them, selling them, writing about them or whatever discipline requires fresh talent. While there are plenty of initiatives attempting to remedy this, there is still room for improvement.

For Bonnie Ross, head of Halo developer 343 Industries and corporate VP at Microsoft, the solution is simple.

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Bonnie Ross, 343 Industries

"If someone can see someone that looks like them and they can relate to -- whether that's a character or a developer -- it will have a two-pronged effect inspiring more people to pursue gaming as both a player and as a career," she tells GamesIndustry.biz.

"By prioritising the fostering of unique perspective and voices, we can greatly impact the future of our industry. This is true in both education and representation -- we have to talk the talk and walk the walk."

While the solution may seem simple, realising it will be hard work and Ross herself has dedicated much of her time and energy to doing so. Working with fellow Microsoft exec Shannon Loftis, she created the Women In Gaming luncheon as far back as 1997. Initially only attracting 20 people, the event has since expanded with attendance of up to 1,500 people.

She also plays a role in The Ad Council's 'She is STEM' campaign, and is a frequent speaker and advocate of diversity at various gaming events. In fact, her efforts -- combined with her accomplished career -- won her a place in the AIAS Hall of Fame last year.

Ross is keen to stress that her employer has also supported the causes that are close to her heart, with programs like DigiGirlz, TEALS and the Gaming For Everyone initiative. It's through efforts like this, and internal research, that Microsoft has learned 91% of middle school girls in the US "view themselves as creative, but don't view technology as a creative field."

"If someone can see someone that looks like them and they can relate to - whether that's a character or a developer - it will inspire more people to pursue gaming as both a player and as a career"

"It's incredibly important to bridge that gap - helping young women and minorities to know that technology can be used for the purposes of creating art and entertainment," says Ross.

"From my personal experience, I'm so glad that I found gaming because it allowed me to pursue my creative passions through technology, so I'm deeply invested in promoting STEM so others are able to connect the dots and bridge that gap.

"From an industry perspective, gaming will continue to grow and evolve with the help of a wide range of diverse perspectives and creators. We've made a lot of progress, and I'm looking forward to watching the industry continue to embrace news ideas and new people for the betterment of all."

It is challenging, to say the least, to present video games as a welcoming industry. Not only is there the well-established gender imbalance (as just one example), there is also the stigma about working conditions -- particularly in development.

Last year's debate around Rockstar's 100-hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2 may have come as no surprise to some already working in the industry, but to those still evaluating their career plans, it's almost certainly a deterrent.

But Ross believes it's important to continue that discussion: "Crunch is certainly an issue in the industry, and one that I'm glad we're bringing into the spotlight. At 343, we're making strides to improve our work experience by improving our development tools. With the Slipspace Engine announced at E3, our goal was to make it easier to develop Halo while realizing the technical prowess of the franchise. The first step of solving this issue is to talk about it, and we're making progress."

Under Ross' leadership, Halo could become a key franchise for promoting diveristy -- both in-game and behind the scenes

Under Ross' leadership, Halo could become a key franchise for promoting diveristy -- both in-game and behind the scenes

It could be argued Ross' role on Halo is also a significant part of her contribution to promoting diversity. She has become the face of this world-famous franchise, one that (like most blockbuster games IP) has historically been targeted at a primarily male audience.

The diversity both behind the scenes and within the games themselves is something Ross is keen to explore - showcasing this in a franchise as visible as Halo could help shift perceptions of video games and their validity as a career path.

"To us, the Halo universe is our central character, and the original Halo trilogy was only scratching the surface of the stories that we could tell," Ross explains. "At its core, Halo is about the enduring strength of humanity, which is an idea that is relatable to all of us.

"I'm so proud of the team and what it looks like - diversity attracts diversity. I'm a proponent of diversity of thought, as we have so many incredible perspectives that we are able to weave together for the better. I hope that others across the industry can learn from this approach and strive to continue to build the industry for the better."

It's important to remember, Ross tells us, that the industry has made a lot of progress over the years. The diversity of characters is improving and there are more women in the industry than ever before, but -- as has already been mentioned -- there is always room for improvement. And for Ross, that stems (no pun intended) from the need to inspire creative people from all walks of life as early as possible.

"We need to prioritize exposure to computer science at a younger age," she says. "Gaming can be a huge part of this as it is something that kids inherently understand, as seen with Minecraft's education initiatives. If we help connect art and technology for kids at a younger age, we can foster diversity and growth for the gaming industry as a whole."

She concludes: "The first step to solving any problem is to acknowledge that there is a problem, and I believe the industry is making great strides at this across a variety of different areas."

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Latest comments (4)

Laura Millar Artist / CoFounder, High Tea Frog Ltd2 months ago
I never played games for characters who look like me, and it never put me off a career in the games industry! Fun games are still fun, the character you play as is secondary.
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Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee2 months ago
@Laura Millar: Most people don't but the effect of representation does have a real affect on people pursuing industry, particularly if they haven't already decided to work in games.
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Laura Millar Artist / CoFounder, High Tea Frog Ltd2 months ago
@Adam Campbell: I'd absolutely love to see some stats on that! There are a lot of people talking about this but I have doubts it would make a difference. I think more people are put off pursuing a career in games by complaints of crunch and poor conditions, than would potentially be attracted into it with the addition of more diverse characters.
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Adam Campbell Game Manager, Azoomee2 months ago
@Laura Millar: I started 2018 speaking to audiences of over 100 black people for example, most neither realised other black people worked in games nor that their own skills and interests could apply to the UK's biggest entertainment industry. Like I suggested, if you already had an interest in working in games, representation in the games or as mentioned the people working in studios (which is as if not more important) may have mattered less. For many, this is quite a big factor in their career decisions and their perceptions of being able to make a success of themselves in life. It comes down to lived experience.
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