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How the games industry can put its diversity pledges into action | Opinion

The industry's diversity problems aren't new, but willing developers have all the tools they need to take action

Like many people, I've been heartened to see the steadily growing list of video game publishers and developers donating to groups such as Black Lives Matter and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. From the success of Itch.io's Bundle For Racial Justice and Equality with more than $8 million in donations, to charity streams organised by video game publications, it's been a strong show of support all around.

The money pledged is a great reaction to an immediate problem -- that of Black protesters and victims needing monetary support to fight for their rights. However, it makes me wonder if this momentum can be translated to an actual increase in diversity within the industry itself.

The numbers aren't good: In an IGDA survey from 2017, 1% of participants identified as Black, a figure virtually unchanged from the year prior. UKIE's own 2020 industry census offers higher figures overall, although those only narrowly break into double digits because the census collects different ethnicities under the BAME label. Diversity programs aren't a new invention, and yet the IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey 2017 found that 28% of studios haven't implemented any such measures at all. While in the same survey 96% of the companies using diversity programs reported them to be somewhat successful, the overall consensus across different industries is that measures such as bias training in hiring managers isn't successful.

It's not the number of available positions that makes it difficult for Black developers to be hired, but the bias against them

Diversity training fails because unconscious bias is often, well, unconscious. When assuming that it will take years for the industry to become more diverse, many people think it's because the jobs don't exist or people aren't applying for them -- like it's just a matter of white developers giving up their seats. In reality, many steps can be taken right now.

With many companies hiring on a project to project basis, and the workforce made up predominantly of young people, it's not the number of available positions that makes it difficult for existing Black developers to be hired, but the bias against them. When a company prescribes mandatory diversity training, it is often rejected precisely for being mandatory. Even when not outright rejected, diversity training is often a passive process where rules are taught but subsequently not put into action. Companies should keep a record of hiring processes to spot bias and regularly review their approaches, because internalising a pro-diversity mindset does take effort.

Attracting more Black people into the gaming industry only works with a proactive approach, as the message the overall industry often brings across is that Black people aren't welcome -- largely because there are disproportionately many white people. As a result of this, mentorship and networking are two possible avenues for individuals.

Diversity groups like the UK's POC in Play help connect people and projects quickly and provide a social space for people of colour

Diversity groups like the UK's POC in Play help connect people and projects quickly and provide a social space for people of colour

Networking should be done with intent. The lists of names on social media are impersonal and likely to be collected and forgotten about. Instead, developers interested in working with Black people should reach out actively and find out more about someone's resume and current projects. We remember people not by being a name on a list, but by knowing what they're actually about. Similarly, mentorship is more than offering people to message you. It means building a relationship with someone to the point you know them well enough to provide them with actual meaningful contacts, whether that's a company or a member of your network.

On a company-wide level, outreach to Black communities is just as important. Studios need to examine the availability of mentorship programs and internships, whether Black people are aware of them, and whether or not the language in your internship and job adverts is inclusive. Currently, the Canadian studio Capy provides a great example of an inclusive job advert with its new mentorship scheme. Racial diversity initiatives around the world, such as POC in Play in the UK, can also help connect people and projects quickly and provide a social space for people of colour besides.

A studio's willingness to inspect its company culture is just as important as hiring Black developers in the first place

The real problem doesn't lie with finding resources if a studio, publisher or individual is willing to put the time in. It's the refusal of thinking of diversity as an absolute necessity in the games industry that hinders its growth, a refusal itself based on the faulty assumption that consumers are predominantly white, or, perhaps more damaging, that Black characters and their storylines can be created by white teams without input from Black people. While sensitivity readers and community feedback specifically from Black players are vital tools at present to ensure accuracy, teams without any Black employees tend to unwittingly enforce stereotypes, as has just happened at the reveal of Neostream's Little Devil Inside.

The reaction by the development team has been great, but it underscores the need for Black game developers. Publishers could make it their goal to invite more diverse game pitches or work with more diverse teams, so that steadily more is done to normalise not only the existence of diverse teams, but diverse content as well.

A studio's willingness to inspect its company culture is just as important as hiring Black developers in the first place. The games industry is still a space with widespread racism. Riot Games exec Ron Johnson's inflammatory comment on George Floyd led to his resignation, but such a comment isn't an isolated faux-pas. Rather, the fact that Johnson felt comfortable enough to publicly utter it hints at systemic issues worth looking into. Thankfully, Riot Games took a stand, but this is a company that hired a chief diversity officer following allegations of sexism at the company. It makes me feel that the issue of diversity could use further investigation.

Neostream moved quickly to apologise for and pledged to correct the use of problematic racial stereotypes in its game, Little Devil Inside

Neostream moved quickly to apologise for and pledged to correct the use of problematic racial stereotypes in its game, Little Devil Inside

The case of Riot Games, and the lack of similar scrutiny around the allegations of a toxic studio culture at Quantic Dream, show studios do need to be held accountable on many issues, including diversity. Releasing low figures for Black game developers in a census isn't enough. Companies need to be open to feedback and more transparent about their culture, and industry bodies and journalists alike need to check in to see if measures for more diversity are actually being taken.

Following the 2020 UKIE census, several companies have made pledges for greater diversity, and we need more metrics than just the mere existence of Black developers to see whether such pledges are being upheld. Studios need to be monitored from the outside rather than the inside, because Black people who speak up against the potentially racist culture at their own workplaces are at risk of falling victim to bias. No matter how open-minded company leadership may be to the idea that racism exists, bringing it up is always a potential point of conflict. Just speaking up as a minority holds the risk of being singled out or simply ignored.

That's why I also see studios with a co-op model as a great way to ensure equality and give black developers a way of speaking up without having to fear the repercussions intrinsic to a top-down company structure. Co-op game studios exist in developers such as Infinite Fall and KO_OP, but I'm not aware that they have any Black people or people of colour in general working for them. It's also worth highlighting in this case that both Infinite Fall and KO_OP did release statements supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement, and had their games in the Itch.io Bundle for Racial Equality.

Many Black creatives become independent from AAA companies because those companies at large are still failing them. It's evident in all manner of things, such as the pay disparity evident in the #GameDevPaidMe hashtag on Twitter, big companies like Valve not releasing statements in solidarity with Black people to little backlash, no Black CEOs in the AAA space, and the lack of Black designers showcasing games at presentations, as the recent PC Gaming Show demonstrated.

Being a Black developer in a predominantly white space is lonely. The only show of solidarity that they profit from is a commitment to examining systemic racism in the gaming industry and eradicating it.

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Latest comments (4)

Angi Cividino Content Editor, Manager & Writer 3 months ago
Insightful article, Malindy. On being a 'Black developer in a predominantly white space'... I share your 'lonely' feelings. I'm pretty sure I'm color blind. Am I white? I know I'm female and I know I've never been to school or lived or worked where there hasn't been other people of other ethnicities or abilites / disabilities siting nearby. Is that a Canadian thing? Trying to BELONG to any one group at any point in my life -- EXCLUDING gender, race, skin color, heritage, disability, financial or social status, education or athletic success, political affiliation, etc. -- is my LIFE STORY. The past couple of years? Ugh. But this pandemic 'thing'... and what it's doing to employers, management and the gaming industry? Okay. Full Disclosure: MONTHS before self-isolation was trending on social media or before WFH quickly became WTF ..it was early afternoon, I arrived at my desk after seeing a mental health professional. To lighten up the mood... I wore a medical face mask (and brought one back for a coworker). We shared a giggle then threw our masks into our recycle bins. True story. Everything else (besides the actual horrors of the coronavirus), feels like 'Groundhog Day'... it's exhausting. :(

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Angi Cividino on 23rd June 2020 12:47am

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Christopher Barnes Game Designer 3 months ago
In many cases it is a matter of statistical impossibility. Norfolk is nowhere near as diverse as London. Statement of absolute fact. The reasons are unimportant, but there is very litlle diversity where I live compared to anywhere else in the country, yet it is still thrown at us like there is anthing we can do to avoid it. Like its all about poor decision making or racism and prejudice. Have you ever spoken to a manager or a member of HR in the Games industry responsble for hiring talent who was actually racist or sexist or ageist or whatever? I have never heard of this. Maybe, just maybe the numbers are what they are because we live in non uniform world where 'equally diverse' is as much a statistical anomoly as it is a contradiction of terms. Nowhere on earth is perfectly diverse and no where ever will be. We should stop counting people and colours and just get on with making awesome games.
Rant ended.
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Brendan Sinclair North American Editor, GamesIndustry.biz3 months ago
@Christopher Barnes: Never heard of it? I mean, there's this: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2020-06-22-former-microsoft-employee-accuses-mixer-manager-of-racist-comments

And this: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2020-02-26-panic-art-studios-ceo-in-racist-twitter-thread-fiasco

This: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2020-06-10-riot-games-executive-placed-on-leave-following-social-media-post-blaming-george-floyd-for-his-own-death

Don't forget this: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-01-09-former-blizzard-employee-alleges-racism-and-discrimination-drove-him-to-leave

Or this one: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-10-03-kixeye-hit-by-racism-allegations

Sometimes the racism is grouped in with other ugliness: https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-12-16-ben-judd-departs-dangen-ddm-amid-accusations-of-sexual-harassment-bad-business-practices

If you've never heard of this, you might be going out of your way not to hear it.

And that's just what we've reported on this site. If you can't believe that there are other instances that go unreported, that get quietly settled, that don't find their way into your view, I'm not sure what I could possibly tell you to change your view.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brendan Sinclair on 23rd June 2020 4:10pm

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James Coote Independent Game Developer 3 months ago
Norfolk is hardly the ends of the Earth. People might be willing to relocate.

Most companies put a lot of effort and thought into recruitment, so it's not a big ask to spend just a bit of that time thinking about how to attract a more diverse range of applicants.

If the best candidate turns out not to be from an underrepresented group, that's still ok!

The point is you've got to be willing to try. And if everyone puts in a bit of effort, it will make an immense difference!
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