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Microsoft: "Representation isn't just good common sense, it's good business sense"

At the DICE Summit today, Phil Spencer urged the industry to pursue diversity and inclusivity or risk missing out on the growth opportunities to come

Phil Spencer invited the attendees of the DICE Summit to consider the importance of inclusivity and diversity at their companies. A failure to adapt will not only allow current injustices to persist, he argued, it will also harm the future growth potential of the games industry as a whole.

In his keynote address today, Microsoft's executive vice president of gaming described Satya Nadella's tenure as CEO as a time of unprecedented self-awareness and self-improvement at the company. Over the last four years, Microsoft has tasked its leaders to analyse, "The way we build teams, the way we run projects, the way we commit every single day to making Microsoft a safe and inclusive place for all.

"This was - and is - a deliberate, 100,000-person strong undertaking: to craft the most innovative, the most effective, and the most representative culture that we can, so that we can do our best work together. This isn't culture for culture's sake. This is culture for collective impact."

"The time to get our culture right is right now. Our reach and impact can be so much greater, if we're ready"

Achieving this goal requires a "growth mindset", Spencer said, because creating a culture that represents and treats everyone fairly is a process that never truly ends - and one in which failures are arguably more important than successes to defining the next step to take. Indeed, he admitted that, even after four years, progress can feel, "incredibly slow, and [it can be] incredibly painful to get everyone on board, much less to admit your own biases."

While listing the key lessons he'd learned over the past four years, Spencer recalled the notorious Microsoft party at GDC 2016, which featured female podium dancers clad in suggestive school uniforms. It was an "unequivocally wrong, unequivocally sexist and unequivocally intolerable" choice, Spencer said, and one that happened at a time when Microsoft as an organisation was fully engaged with pushing the opposite message to the one those dancers appeared to represent.

"We communicated that we don't tolerate any employee, or any partner, who creates an environment that enables or offends others," Spencer said of the company's response to the criticism it received. "We bet on our own culture, and we communicated that we stand for inclusivity. And I personally committed to doing better. For me, it's a leader's job to absorb the hit, and take personal accountability.

"What made it easier for me to hold myself accountable was really believing in the growth mindset; believing deeply that failure - even an especially public failure - is the source of our greatest growth."

The renewal of its internal culture remains very important to Microsoft, but Spencer also argued that it will be vital for the entire industry to do more than pay lip-service to solving these problems if it is to keep growing. "The time to get our culture right is right now," he insisted. "Our reach and impact can be so much greater, if we're ready."

In part, this growth will be down to games being a common entry point for people when engaging with new technology, and the growing "ubiquity of and access to screens" in markets that the games industry doesn't always think about serving. Spencer mentioned the rising number of gamers in Brazil, India, and in countries throughout Africa.

"We're going to see increasing opportunity, with increasing responsibility to make gaming for everyone"

"One estimate has the number of gamers growing to more than two billion people worldwide in three years," he continued. "I think the question we need to ask is this: How do we transform our industry to prepare for this massive growth opportunity? We're going to see increasing opportunity, with increasing responsibility to make gaming for everyone."

Spencer reflected on 2017 as a year in which the film industry - so often used as a reference point by games companies - released a string of major hits that displayed a strong commitment to representation of under-served audiences: Wonder Woman, Get Out, Coco, and most recently Black Panther.

"These movies advanced a new and arguably more accurate way of seeing and relating to people in the real world," he said. "They showed that representation matters; not just for the community [the films] represent, but for the world at large... These commercially and critically successful films won hearts, minds and, yes, box office. Representation isn't just good common sense, it's good business sense."

The point about "business sense" is important, because the potential for commercial failure has often been used as a justification for playing it safe in terms of representation. Successful entertainment products like Wonder Woman and Get Out are hard evidence to the contrary, and Spencer believes that gaming - with its unique ability to immerse the user in a new experience - can be an even more powerful platform for that kind of story.

"This is why gaming can be one of the great equalisers and the great unifiers for society," he added, but reaching that point will take broad changes in two different cultures - the first of which is the culture of the studios and companies that comprise the games industry.

"I think it starts with honestly assessing what core mechanics are working in our own culture, and what's not," he said. "Our language, our communication, our leadership, our talent pipelines, the way we do things, the way we talk to each other; at the most macro level, in the corporate world at large, the studies are sobering, because corporate culture is not set up for everyone to succeed."

"The sad truth is that the people who are harassed online today start to avoid gaming, and then they start warning others to avoid gaming"

Spencer cited the work of Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which has showed that female leaders are generally "devalued" for speaking up in the workplace, while a male leader will be assessed in a positive light for doing the same. If the woman in question is black - a "double minority status" - her share of the responsibility for a failure would be disproportionate to that of those in majority groups. These are just some examples, Spencer said, and there are many more that people face in workplaces every day.

"We can do better. My team and I need to do better. We as an industry must commit to doing better, and eradicating this piece of our culture. And we've got to figure it out, because study after study after study shows that the teams with the most representation are the most creative, the most innovative, and the most undaunted by big problems. In other words, we do our best work when the people on our own teams can expand each other's worldviews."

Spencer said that he will be very engaged with this area in the year ahead, resolving issues around recruitment and retention of staff, the identification and development of high-potential talent, and how to attract and track new candidates.

"Data shows that we can be as aggressive as we want to be with recruiting diverse candidates, but if the work environment in our own teams isn't welcoming, they'll leave," he said. "So what are we doing now to ensure that everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, race or physical ability, can feel safe and inspired to do their best work?"

The second problematic culture to address exists in communities online, which Spencer has witnessed on a regular basis in his time working with Xbox.

"99 per cent of the time my job is great - until it isn't, and that's usually when I hear about an experience on our platform that's just disturbing," he said, referring to players who elect to hide their race or gender to avoid verbal abuse and unfair treatment in-game. "This is a failure. The sad truth is that the people who are harassed online today start to avoid gaming, and then they start warning others to avoid gaming... Honestly, toxic behaviour doesn't just hurt the individual; it hurts the entire industry."

Spencer encouraged the industry to come together to solve problems in the communities that surround their games, which can so easily be spoiled by even a minority of toxic players. He cited the work of Riot Games and, in particular, Jeff Kaplan and the Overwatch team at Blizzard as worthy of close attention.

"In a world where we have 7.6 billion people, where over 4 billion people are connected, and where more than 2 billion are expected to play games within three years, the future of gaming is why getting our culture right is important now," Spencer said. "This isn't about culture for collective impact today; this is about investing in culture for global business impact tomorrow."

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Matthew Handrahan


Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.