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Game Changers | Kirsty Kirby, Lab42

The studio operations and engagement manager talks about fostering a positive workplace culture, promoting knowledge-sharing, and facilitating support for neurodivergent workers

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GamesIndustry.biz Game Changers is a series of profiles on the groups and individuals going the extra mile to make the games industry a better place. These interviews encompass folks from around the world helping to improve conditions and attitudes towards diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility, mental health and more. You can read more Game Changers interviews here.

Kirsty Kirby admits to being rather embarrassed about being acknowledged as a Game Changer, and it’s not just her being modest.

“I advocate and cheerlead for the studio, promote other people's growth and learning, and that's what I do sort of in the background,” she tells GamesIndustry.biz. “For me, it's just part of my responsibility for the studio.”

As Lab42’s studio operations and engagement manager, Kirby is something of an unsung hero, in that there’s not one specific thing about her all-encompassing role that might make her stand out, but the studio wouldn’t be the same without her. Certainly, seeing that the Sumo Digital-owned developer has been recognised as one of GamesIndustry.biz’s Best Places To Work in the UK for three consecutive years, she’s surely been doing a lot right.

But Kirby doesn’t think of anything she’s done – which includes exposing colleagues to learning and development opportunities, outreach to schools and universities, and ensuring a safe environment for people to be who they want to be – as anything pioneering, nor the usual things that might garner recognition, though that’s perhaps also the point.

"We need to be more open-minded as an industry about who can transfer in from non-traditional backgrounds"

“My goal is to try and just generate an inclusive environment by baking it into the day-to-day practice, rather than making a big thing out of it,” she says. “I just want it to be a natural part of what we do and how we work at Lab42. Projects come and projects go, but the culture and the people are the constant. So it's really important that we work really hard to make sure it's a great place to work.”

Part of what makes Lab42 a positive working environment that has seen the studio have a high staff retention, besides a genuine commitment to work-life balance, is that it is a place where people feel like they are able to progress in their careers meaningfully. Kirby is an example of this herself, having joined Lab42 as a ‘late bloomer’ to the games industry in 2016.

“I started off as just a part-time office manager, so I've kind of worked my way up into a more senior role over the years,” she explains. “It’s been really cool because I’ve been given a lot of freedom to do what I want to do and implement a lot of my ideas.”

One such initiative has been a knowledge-sharing programme where members of the team are paired up with someone from another department to acquire or impart a piece of knowledge to one another. As Lab42 also has a rather flat hierarchy, Kirby also emphasises that this programme also isn’t based on seniority.

“It's about who's the expert; I've had tech artists pair up with a coder to learn something specific. I've had somebody that's interested in a design career that's in a different discipline pair up with the [design] director,” she explains. “I define Lab42 as a knowledge-intensive firm, and I think part of the appeal for people that may see themselves as having a barrier with not as much experience is that they do get exposed to learning opportunities here, so it's a good environment to grow in.”

Kirsty Kirby often goes to schools to encourage children to explore the different routes into the games industry, including those beyond development

Kirby’s role of facilitating opportunities for her team is also why she finds it important for her to be involved in the recruitment process to see prospective hires as well.

“Just to visibly see that there's a Black woman at the studio is cool anyway, but it's also really important for them to get a feel that they're going to be part of a company that will genuinely work towards exposing them to as much opportunity as possible,” she says.

It’s not just about championing diversity, but also about providing a broader picture of the games industry and how people can be part of it. “It's not all about the game dev – you can have a really influential role in the games industry through what I call support services,” she continues. “HR, marketing, finance, PR – there's loads of different career pathways in the games industry, which I don't think people fully appreciate, so I like to convey that when I go to schools.”

"I don't want to create silos, I want it baked into how we operate rather than creating a group that feels isolated"

The possibilities of careers in games also extends to the different pathways into the industry that she wants to see broaden out. Kirby herself is proof of this, having joined the industry after many years in various sectors from manufacturing to property management.

“It doesn't always necessarily have to be the traditional graduate,” she adds. “We've got quite a few folks at Lab42, somebody in coding who came to us when he was 17, because he had the skills and could demonstrate them, and we’ve got people that have been in education like an ex-teacher and ex-lecturer. We just need to be more open-minded as an industry about who can transfer in from non-traditional backgrounds, which is why I like to get involved in the recruitment process because a lot of it's about recognising potential.”

One particular area that Kirby is kickstarting at Lab42 is laying the foundations for how to support neurodivergent people at the studio. The initiative had sprung from the data in UKIE’s 2022 census that showed the games industry has more neurodivergent people working within it than the working age population. 18% of respondents identified as neurodiverse, while 4% considered themselves as disabled.

“It was a bit of an eye-opener reading that,” she says. “To me, it seemed like a logical area that we should be looking at, so I took it on myself from there to try and see what we could do to investigate it further from there.”

The work has only really just begun but Kirby’s aim is that any improvements that help support neurodivergent people, whether changes in the physical environment, changes in communication or management style, or simply making it safe for people to come forward as neurodivergent, are also taken on board in the overall culture of the studio.

“I don't want to create silos, I just want it baked into how we operate rather than creating a group that feels like they are isolated or different in some way,” she adds. “We work together as a team, and we conduct ourselves in a way where everybody feels that they can be who they want to be. It's not rocket science.”

In addition to work at schools, Kirby has already run internal workshops to better identify how Lab42 and other Sumo studios can support neurodiverse people

Kirby notes that she doesn’t personally identify as, or felt that she might be, neurodivergent, so knew right away it was important to consult with the right experts. Working with SIC, a local organisation supporting disabled professionals founded by people who have experienced disability firsthand, the studio had a workshop with all of the producers and line managers. This was followed by a survey within the studio, where 29% of respondents identified as neurodivergent while, interestingly, 26% said they weren’t sure.

A focus group is also being set up, which Kirby is facilitating but ensuring other neurodivergent members of the team are leading on. An even greater opportunity presents itself with a new studio space set to open in Leamington Spa later in the year that Lab42 will be sharing with other Sumo studios. This gives them the opportunity to look at the physical environment and plan how to implement good practices to support neurodivergent workers from the get-go, whether that’s with the lighting or available quiet spaces.

Because it’s being shared with other studios, it also means Kirby is able to encourage these practices to be implemented across Sumo Digital as a whole. Indeed, the company has recently conducted its own EDI survey to help it better understand the demographics of its workforce across its studios, which Kirby believes is a positive step.

"It's important to do something even if it's not perfect. The fact you're listening and trying goes a really long way"

“I'm hoping that by being at the forefront of stuff, by leading on these things and hopefully continuing to be a great place to work, this will roll out across the industry,” she adds. “There's quite a concentration of game studios in [Leamington Spa] and when there's a greater good, something that's bigger than our individual studios, it's important to work as a collective to promote that, get over ourselves in terms of competitors. Diversity, getting into schools, talking to girls – this is a bigger cause. We work together and that's really important.”

Through all this, Kirby humbly describes her role as facilitating and implementing, so that the experts can go and do their bit.

“For me, it's all about our people, it's all about our line managers, and filtering that culture through the business,” she says. “I know that I can rely on my team to carry on that culture and for me, it's as important as whether somebody's got the right skills to do their job.”

But if there’s one thing that she will proudly admit to setting her apart from others is that she will actually go out and get things done. “We can chat about it, but what are we gonna do? It's no good just having a workshop and saying we’ve ticked the box, it needs to be baked into what we do,” she says with her concluding advice for others in the games industry.

“I think it's important to act and I think it's important to do something even if it's not perfect. I think that the fact that you're listening and trying goes a really long way with your team. If you get that right, the team will help support you in moving things forward.”