If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

"More inclusive development is better for everybody" - Sledgehammer

Sledgehammer Games co-founder and studio head Michael Condrey on creating more diverse teams

According to a report from the International Game Developers Association, in 2005 people making games were mostly white (83.3 percent), male (88.5 percent), and heterosexual (92 percent). As of last year, 75 percent of developers were found to be male, 76 percent were white, and 73 percent were heterosexual. "This data presents the prototypical game industry worker/developer as being a 32-year-old white male with a university degree who lives in North America and has no children," the report noted.

So here we are a decade later and there's been only marginal progress in increasing the diversity among game developers. It's something studios across the industry should be thinking about, and it's a point that Entertainment Software Association (ESA) head Michael Gallagher recently stressed at the DICE Summit. One studio that's decided to take an active role in leading the discussion around diversity is Activision-owned Sledgehammer Games. Studio head Michael Condrey hosted a roundtable on the topic at DICE, with a specific focus on becoming better at attracting and hiring a more diverse pool of candidates. While all roundtables at DICE are closed off to the media, GamesIndustry.biz chatted with Condrey about the discussion the day after.

"The roundtable yesterday was great. I really enjoyed it. This has been a topic that's been near and dear to our hearts at Sledgehammer Games for a long time," he said. "It's something we talk about a lot living in the Bay Area. I've been in the games industry for 20 years and it's an opportunity for us as an industry to get better."

"It's fairly well established that you act on behaviors that you're not even aware of to maybe select out candidates that are different than yourself"

For Condrey, the topic is a personal one, he said. His wife is an engineer and a minority and he has a daughter in Silicon Valley, so the discussion about diversity in tech, not just in games, is something that directly affects his family and day-to-day life.

"Diversity in our industry is important to me on two levels. First, I believe that a diverse work force brings creative and innovative ideas and perspectives to our games and business, and that gamers benefit directly by having highly inclusive development teams. Second, I believe there exists an unconscious or hidden bias in our human nature that works against inclusivity in the work place," he noted.

"I'm surrounded by brilliant women in my professional and personal life, and I live in one of the most culturally rich and diverse places in the country. We have an obligation to be advocates for a future that is better than the ones our parents provided to us, and an industry with improved workplace diversity and equality are areas that I hope our studio can help realize that better future."

Eliminating hidden biases from studio culture and hiring practices was a major part of the roundtable discussion and it's something that Sledgehammer Games and all studios could probably improve. "We, as a group, talked a lot about the selection criteria and the hiring mechanics and the unconscious bias that you have. And that's sort of a human nature thing. It's fairly well established that you act on behaviors that you're not even aware of to maybe select out candidates that are different than yourself," he said.

"The question is how do we draw more people, how do we make people feel comfortable and want to be part of these opportunities in the industry? And so it was small things like just the way you present diversity within your studio cultures outward facing; talented candidates with a lot of opportunities are just going to start by looking at the culture that's represented on your studio's webpage and so to highlight the activities and diversity within your studio [is key]. I found it really interesting that a senior developer said 'I don't want to feel like an outsider when I show up to a day one interview alone. Help me feel comfortable coming in to a diverse organization that will allow me to find all kinds of opportunities to surround myself with diversity.' So the more diversity you can present, even at the initial interview stage and the culture that you present on your webpage has an impact on whether people are going to be interested and willing to join your team," Condrey continued.

"Diversity in general makes us stronger - stronger teams, stronger cultures, stronger games, better perspective... I hope other industry leaders are rooting out anything that might be a toxic part of an interview process"

Playing devil's advocate for a moment, we asked Condrey what he thought about the notion that some studios may feel "forced" to become more diverse and may not always hire the best candidates in an effort to reach that goal. He didn't buy into that argument, however.

"We want the best talent to bring the best ideas. I don't think that goal is mutually exclusive to hiring a more diverse development team," he countered. "There is no hard rule or policy at Sledgehammer Games to force any hiring actions that are aligned with this goal, but we are actively working to ensure that we understand how hiring biases exist within the industry, and our own culture, and then being critical of addressing it within our recruitment and promotion policies."

Looking back at the wave of harassment and misogyny that the game industry suffered through over the last year or so - with some women developers receiving rape and death threats, leading them to feel like they'd be better off taking their talents to industries that are more receptive than games - Condrey described the situation as "deplorable."

And while there may be some irony in a Call of Duty developer looking to draw more women into the industry, Condrey stressed that Sledgehammer Games has several key female and minority leads at the studio and that when developing Advanced Warfare the company wanted to make sure to depict a military with women playing very active roles - which is why Ilona (a Tier One operator) was an integral part of the plot.

"We've tried to do a lot at the studio to present strong women in our games... You've seen it today, that the role of women in the military is important so we tried to represent that in Advanced Warfare as a way to show that we believe there are women gamers who want to play, there are women gamers who want to develop games, there are women gamers in the military who are part of real combat around the globe, keeping us safe. So at Sledgehammer we want to do our part to honor and respect and show that [side of the military]; it's something we've tried to do and continue to do in Call of Duty," he said.

Condrey said he takes a lot of inspiration from women leaders in Silicon Valley like Sheryl Sandberg (COO at Facebook) or Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo).

"I look at the strong women leaders and minority leaders in Silicon Valley and it's incredible... there are a bunch of examples where women in a position of change at large organizations are doing amazing things and we know that there are a ton of women gamers and some would say that half of all gamers are women now," he remarked.

Condrey referenced University of Southern California's game design program where women actually outnumber men by two to one. "There's a big percentage of women candidates coming out of the USC games program. So it's clear that they play the games, they love the content and the more we can get a more inclusive development model in place the healthier the whole industry is going to be so I'm excited for that and not just women but diversity in general makes us stronger - stronger teams, stronger cultures, stronger games, better perspective. So I certainly believe in it and I hope other industry leaders are rooting out anything that might be a toxic part of an interview process that would prevent talent from wanting to join us," he said.

Another interesting point from the roundtable discussion was how studios can actually get more diverse from the global perspective. Diversity doesn't have to mean women, minorities and sexual orientation - it can also mean having developers with a multitude of geographic backgrounds. The fact is that some very talented people in other countries may end up in fields outside of games, but they can be assets to game studios.

"There's clearly such a passion for games across a diverse audience so let's service them better by having more diverse teams as well"

"There were a number of people there from around the globe so it was a very diverse table and they were talking about things like, 'hey, look, gaming as a profession outside North America is not viewed as a credible profession.' If you're looking to get a degree in computer science in [some countries] parents and families who are a little older don't understand gaming is a real destination for a career. We had a fascinating conversation with a gentleman whose brother graduated [with a computer science degree] and his parents encouraged him to go work creating software for a municipal subway company. And he did that instead of going after his passion, which was gaming, because his family felt like gaming wasn't a true profession," Condrey described.

"We had a long discussion about just how exciting it is in the games industry to be able to sort of wear many hats. It's a very dynamic industry. Just in computer science alone, you could come in as an engineer and you could work on AI or you could work on an animation system or you could work on rendering or maybe you're working on some network code or maybe you're doing all of those over the course of a project... So we just talked a lot about how to educate more broadly about what it means to be in the games industry, how exciting it is to talk about the growth and talk about what it might mean to students who are about to graduate to take the opportunity as serious as it is. So we talked about how to engage schools both locally in America and more globally so people understand it's a rewarding and dynamic and fun place to be."

Ultimately, games are universally enjoyed by all kinds of people so it behooves the industry to make games for everyone. "There's clearly such a passion for games across a diverse audience so let's service them better by having more diverse teams as well," Condrey said.

Related topics
James Brightman avatar

James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.