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Building a better world through games

Riot's Soha El-Sabaawi, Microsoft's Gabi Michel, Tru Luv's Brie Code, and Ubisoft's Kaitlin Tremblay discuss challenges and strategies for making the industry and the world beyond it a better place

International Women's Day is tomorrow, but Microsoft's Women in Gaming initiative celebrated a little early with help from Ubisoft.

Yesterday at Ubisoft Toronto, the companies put together a panel on Building a Better World Through Games with the help of Riot Games diversity and inclusion lead Soha El-Sabaawi, Microsoft Devices senior hardware program manager Gabi Michel, and Tru Luv CEO Brie Code. Moderating the panel was Ubisoft Toronto narrative designer and Dames Make Games co-director Kaitlin Tremblay.

Tremblay wasted no time in addressing the main topic of the evening, asking each of the panelists what the idea of building a better world through games means to her.

"For me, it means that we as an industry own the fact that we have a social responsibility to give back to the world," El-Sabaawi said. "If you don't realize that, everything else you do will not make an impact. [Riot wants to] make people come together and not only enjoy playing games but actually learn something about themselves while playing games. We believe in games as a service. We bring people together, unite them and expect them to cooperate, but how do we expect them to cooperate if our purpose isn't about making sure they're cooperating in a way that makes their lives beautiful every single day?"

From left, Tremblay, El-Sabaawi, Michel, and Code. (Photo: Jordan Probst Photography)

Michel, who led development of the Xbox Adaptive Controller for Microsoft, pointed to the controller's marketing slogan, "When everybody plays, we all win," saying it doubled as the motto of the team during its creation.

"Games are social," Michel said. "It's a way for people to interact, so if you have people who can't interact normally in society for one reason or the other, you put them in a video game, and they're not different in a game. That to me is how we build a better world, adding that inclusion to allow everybody to have that social aspect, to share the world of video games.

Code's answer was a little more specific, as she spoke about trying to push game design away from adrenaline-based fight-or-flight scenarios and toward oxytocin-producing tend-and-befriend alternatives. It's the approach she's taken with Tru Luv's #SelfCare app, and something she has previously described in greater detail for Although Code conceded the bigger picture impact of such a shift is speculative, she's hopeful it could ultimately change player behaviors in the real world.

"What's interesting about this is we can kind of cultivate which stress response is your dominant one according to my neuroscientist I work with," Code said. "So if you're exposing yourself a lot to fight-or-flight loop, you might be more likely to respond by trying to dominate things in your life."

"You don't get what you want right away [with diversity and inclusion work] because you have to convince 3,000 people that what you're doing is good for them"

Soha El-Sabaawi

While the panel was largely positive in tone, much of the discussion came amid a larger context of negativity. For example, El-Sabaawi's answers to questions about changing cultures, professional challenges, and personal successes were all rooted in Riot Games' struggles with a hostile work environment, particularly after an in-depth Kotaku report last year.

"As a lot of you who are in this industry know, Riot went through quite a change last year," El-Sabaawi said. "That actually narrowed my focus. At first, going in to Riot, I wanted to make sure we were cultivating a space where everyone feels like they can contribute. Now it's kind of like no, I won't rest until every single person feels psychologically safe and feels like they can have the best career as long as I'm part of the company. It's always been a backdrop of making room for everybody, and now it feels like this is the moment of paying it forward."

Despite that focus, El-Sabaawi acknowledged her efforts to improve the company's culture aren't uniformly successful.

"You don't get what you want right away [with diversity and inclusion work] because you have to convince 3,000 people that what you're doing is good for them," she said. "So you're like, where are the shortcuts? If I can't change everything, what can I start changing? It's not necessarily a failure, because you can only work with what you have, especially when you're trying to build up credibility.

"Leading up to the crisis that we had as a company, our failure was we were building a really fantastic diversity and inclusion strategy, but it did not go deep enough to actually change critical components of our culture that we just assumed were untouchable, that they will be permanent. But culture is not permanent. It's never permanent. And even if you're so attached to it, you can still watch it grow and evolve into something you didn't think it would evolve into but can still be super proud of."

The other panelists similarly emphasized persistence as a key trait in tackling cultural issues at a company, but focused on the importance of working on an individual level.

"Culture is hard to change, especially at a company as big as Microsoft," Michel said. "So sometimes when I run into a hurdle with a specific person, I'll try to do a one-on-one with them, just sit down human to human... It's amazing what just 30 minutes talking human-to-human can do, and getting them out of a room where they feel like they have to prove something."

Code noted that it's important to realize those individuals can change over time just like the cultures they comprise.

"The first time you have a conversation with someone, they might throw a lot of really terrible stuff in your face and really bad opinions," she said. "And maybe even though they didn't listen at the moment, they do [hear you], go and ask other people they know what they think, then slowly start to see the bigger picture over time."

"Hire women. Let them talk... Let them be present, because women and marginalized people aren't going to go places where there aren't women or marginalized people"

Kaitlin Tremblay

During a post-panel Q & A session, one audience member said his company had been having trouble with recruitment efforts, finding that women in collegiate STEM programs were often specifically avoiding jobs in the games industry because of well-documented harassment campaigns and frequent reports of various companies' inclusion struggles.

Tremblay was quick to answer, saying, "Hire women. Let them talk. Let them be part of the recruitment process, let them be part of the interview process. Let them be advocates for the game. Let them be the spokespeople. Let them be present, because women and marginalized people aren't going to go places where there aren't women or marginalized people."

El-Sabaawi said in the wake of last year's scandal, Riot's strategy was to be direct and open with all prospective recruits about what had happened.

"We told recruiters to be very honest about where we're not good and how they're feeling," she said. "And we had our recruiters start the conversation. So when an article came out about us, the people who were recruiting that day would say, 'Hey, you should know this article came out about us, and we want you to know that because we realize this will probably affect whether or not you decide to join the company.'"

Lots of recruits appreciated the honesty, she said, and some who eventually joined the company told her those talks gave them confidence that the company was making an honest effort to improve.

"We're going to own this," El-Sabaawi said. "We're not going to pretend it's not happening we're not going to bullshit about where we need to improve. I think when you start with that level of honesty, it's at least likely that you get this is painful, you get this is a problem, and you're at least willing to face it instead of sell me something that isn't true."

However, Michel stressed that it doesn't do much good to attract women into the games industry if they can't be convinced to stay there.

"On a bigger scale, especially in the women and STEM area, there's so much focus on getting women into STEM and there hasn't been until this point -- although it's starting to change -- enough focus on keeping women in STEM, making the culture safe, making it something where we can all succeed," she said. "Because that's what I've seen a lot of. For a lot of different reasons -- culture, benefits, families -- women leave STEM and they never come back. So you do all this work to get them in, and then you push them out."

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