Ensemble exhibition returns to demonstrate "there's no shortage of talent in the industry"
Curator Sharna Jackson talks us through the process and the impact of this annual diversity awareness initiative
The 2022 cohort of Ensemble, an exhibition showcasing Black, Asian and underrepresented ethnicities in the UK games industry, has been unveiled.
A stable of the London Games Festival, the initiative will display portraits and profiles of eight developers and creatives in Trafalgar Square at the heart of the city from Friday, April 1 to Sunday, April 3, before the exhibition is moved to new games expo WASD at Tobacco Dock from Thursday, April 7 to Saturday, April 9.
This is the fourth year of Ensemble, which is led by festival organiser Games London, supported by the Mayor of London and PlayStation, and curated by best-selling author and artistic director Sharna Jackson.
We caught up with Sharna Jackson during the portrait photoshoot earlier this month, who reflected on how the exhibition's profile has grown over the past four years.
"The response gets more and more positive every year," she says. "And actually, one of the participants this year was saying how inspired she was by the 2018 Ensemble exhibition -- that's when she realised games were for her. People who walked through it are now part of it, which makes me feel great. People are seeing that, and thinking, 'Oh my God, I could be in games as well, even though I don't come from a traditional background. It's something that's for me.'
"That, for me, is this year's success story. And it's really nice that we get to be in a location like Trafalgar Square. It's a prime location, excellent photography, and with their bios on the back describing their work and their finest moments. I'm really, really lucky to be able to be part of it."
This year's Ensemble Cohort includes:
- Adam Campbell, director of product at Azoomee, co-founder of POC in Play, UKIE board member and founder of Studio AC Games
- Haroon Thantrey, sound designer with credits on games such as Dirt 5, Grid Legends, Sniper Elite 4, Madden and Battlezone VR
- Jay Shin, co-founder of indie studio Arrogant Pixel, course leader and senior lecturer at University of West London, UKIE board member, and Women In Games ambassador
- Jay-Ann Lopez, CEO and founder of Black Girl Gamers, an online safe space and platform that raises the visibility of Black women in gaming
- John Lau, producer, designer and developer, having worked on State of Play's South of the Circle and now senior producer on Ustwo Games' next Monument Valley title
- Leah Muwanga-Magoye, writer and narrative designer, currently story lead at Die Gute Fabrik while also working as a narrative designer for various Netflix projects
- Lili Ibrahim, artist and art director, currently lead artist on Ustwo Games' next Monument Valley, with previous work for Fantasy Flight Games and Nintendo
- Taiwo Omisore, self-taught indie developer who most recent releases include puzzle games 1 Chance and TaiWord
Jackson tells us this year's Ensemble cohort demonstrates how the initiative has changed since we first spoke to her ahead of the 2018 exhibition. While the structure remains the same -- eight people per cohort -- the types of roles held by the people featured have varied, as have the number of responsibilities any given member might have.
"The response gets more and more positive every year. One of our participants was inspired by the 2018 Ensemble exhibition - that's when she realised games were for her"
This, she says, is vital to showing the many different paths into the games industry -- something we've explored through the GamesIndustry.biz Academy -- especially for those from underrepresented backgrounds.
"The creation of games is such a collaborative process that it's really important to show the component parts that make up that process," she explains. "I think if you don't know what goes into making games, you just might assume it was all coders, an illustrator and a director.
"People outside of the industry don't think about marketing or testing, they don't really think about [audio] roles -- they assume you just buy it from, I don't know, audioclips.biz or whatever, but you don't. There's a lot of really talented people all coming together to make something great. So it's really important for me that I show people the different types of roles every year, so people who are at the start of their careers can go, 'Wow, I didn't know that that was a pathway for me.'"
She continues: "There's no wrong or right way to enter the industry. There's nothing wrong with starting off in QA and then going to writing, and then becoming a narrative designer, and then becoming a director of a studio. Any way you start is valid. And, yes, just see the multitude of the roles and the experiences for everybody. It's great."
As the initiative grows older, the impact it's having becomes more apparent. 2020 cohort member Corey Brotherson declared earlier this year that it "changed [his] life for the better on multiple levels," while Jackson reports that some previous cohort members have even gone to work with or hire their fellow Ensemble honourees.
"What's great about the day of Ensemble actually is it's not just about taking photos and having a chat and having nice food," she says. "It's actually the conversations that they can all have together, and they can talk about where they can connect, and what projects they're working on. Maybe they can bring that person to their circle for a project. It's all about creating networks."
The announcement of this year's cohort marks the end of a long process for Jackson, but one that has already put her in good stead for future years. When asked about how Ensemble is put together, how the cohort is selected, Jackson tells us it begins with a call for participants, as well as asking previous members for suggestions. She will also do her own research into people she has met or works with, although the nature of the games industry's working process can throw up barriers.
"The thing is, when you work in games it's quite difficult to see what games people are working on, because things are under NDA for a long time, so it's quite tricky in that way," she explains. "If anybody applies, I take as much from their profile as possible, look at their Twitter, seek some advice.
"You've got to champion yourself, and there's no shame in doing so"
"Then I come up with a group of eight, and I try to have a balance of backgrounds. I look at job roles as well, and think, 'Okay, this eight is representative of what's happening this year.' It's a lot of looking and unfortunately having to turn quite a few people down each year, which is really disappointing. And there's people who I know that I want to be in it, who should be in it, but I have to just go, 'Okay, 2026.' I'll get through it. There's no shortage of talent, which is really incredible."
Perhaps the biggest challenge in encouraging the unsung heroes to actively take part in this sort of initiative. Typically if you rely solely on people putting themselves forward, they don't. Jackon, however, is keen to encourage more future Ensemble members to reach out.
"It's difficult," she acknowledges. "If you're not a CEO, if you're quite junior, where do you get the confidence to do that? I think that actually comes from the games companies or the areas that they're working in for their seniors to be like, 'This is something that you should do.' That's quite a tricky one.
"But you also have to be your own advocate. It's really hard, and I know it's kind of cringe sometimes to be like, 'Actually, yes, I am good.' But you've got to champion yourself, and there's no shame in championing yourself. When I see someone who's put themselves forward, I never feel like, 'Well, how sad. How tragic for you.' It's not that at all. If you don't back yourself and be your own number one, then we can't expect anybody else to, so absolutely come forward.
"There's another side to it: outreach, and making sure people see it. Things take time to embed. We've been doing this for four years, so people know it now, so it's kind of an easier sell."
We spoke with several members of this year's Ensemble cohort about the work they do, so keep looking out for those interviews in the coming week. You can also read our article about the return of the London Games Festival right here.