Diversity, equity and inclusion has grown ever more important in video games both in the industry and for its audience. Fortunately, recent years have seen the topic move beyond mere talking points, opinion pieces and panels to studios putting things into practice in their games.
At GI Live Online, game development and publishing consultant Jay Uppal from games market intelligence and analytics company Newzoo explored some of the trends and best practices of DEI implementation in games in recent years, while also underlining why this is important for both the industry and the growing global audience based on the company's recent gamer sentiment study. Here's what we learned.
The global gaming audience is diverse
Taken from Newzoo's April 2022 global games market report, the global gaming audience from the past six months alone has over three billion active players, with 54% of these players coming Asia-Pacific countries (albeit mostly from China), whereas Europe and North America only account for 14% and 7% respectively. Regions like the Middle-East and Africa, and Latin America are also not just similar in terms of player numbers; they are also the markets showing the largest year-on-year growth.
Uppal said all of this goes to show "how important it is to recognise how diverse games have become and how global it's become in terms of the reach that any game has the potential to have these days."
In terms of a diverse global gaming audience, it may be easy to just think of in terms of different ethnicities and cultures, but diversity is, well, diverse, so there are multiple identifying groups that shouldn't be overlooked.
One key metric from Newzoo's gamer sentiment study -- conducted in the US and UK with over 1,500 respondents -- is gender, with female players making up 49% of the gaming audience. This is lower when specifically looking at the PC and console space compared to mobile, although Uppal noted the former is still "starting to equalise a lot more than it has in the past."
"The old stereotype of games being just for boys or men just doesn't exist anymore," he said.
Of course, the study is not just taking into consideration genders or ethnicities, but also many other groups that are important in DEI. These include people who identify as LGBTQIA+ (13% to 16% of all respondents), people with disabilities (29% to 31%), people on different levels of income (affordability also being an aspect of whether or not a game is accessible), as well as people of different age groups.
The latter group Uppal finds especially overlooked, despite a separate Newzoo consumer insight report showing that 40% of baby boomers (between the ages of 56 and 65) are actually playing games. Rather than growing out of games, people are growing with them.
"My grandmother is in her eighties now, and I would definitely say she's also a gamer -- she spends most of her time these days just playing on tablet and mobile games the vast majority of her time," Uppal continued with a personal example.
"As we're getting older and entertainment becomes more interactive, games are going to be one of the main things that the older generation looks at."
Representation and inclusion in games and gaming communities needs improving
Although the gaming audience is diverse, players do not necessarily feel a sense of belonging in games or feel welcome in gaming communities, with these sentiments more pronounced from underrepresented groups.
In the gamer sentiment study, when looking at responses to the statements "I feel well-represented in the games I play" and "Gaming gives me a sense of belonging," it's notable that positive responses from female gamers are all considerably lower compared to male gamers from both the UK and US.
"My grandmother is in her eighties now, and I would definitely say she's also a gamer"
Uppal said that this can be due to games having a history of being predominantly male with games also being very male-oriented. While there have been attempts to balance this in recent years, a diversity in gaming report from DiamondLobby also shows that, based on the top ten best-selling games between 2017 and 2021, 76% of preset main characters in games were male, while 67% of game characters were male, which show there's still a lot more to be done.
This issue of feeling underrepresented and less of a belonging can also filter down into communities, with roughly a third of gamers responding that they did not necessarily feel welcome in gaming communities.
While Uppal noted that some of these are tied to highly competitive communities -- such as League of Legends, which has a reputation for toxicity that can be directed towards any newcomers that aren't playing at a certain skill level -- it's nonetheless the case that this feeling of not being welcome is actually higher among people from ethnic minorities or identifying as LGBTQ, so you can't really take one while discounting the other.
In the gamer sentiment study, feeling welcome in a games community is in fact the most important aspect of DEI for gamers, accounting for 43% of the responses, which actually ties with the values and ethics of the company. Nonetheless, representation of characters comes very close at 39%.
Uppal acknowledged that while DEI is important, with 48% of UK gamers and 56% of US gamers saying they were more likely to play games that actively support DEI, it's still not the dealbreaker for gamers, with affordability being the biggest concern.
"Ultimately, if your game is not affordable, especially when we're looking around the globe, if it's not price-normalised for a local region, or if this game is not well made, then people are not going to buy your game just because of the DEI elements incorporated in it," he added.
Mainstream games are setting examples for DEI initiatives
Where a lot of DEI in games have been previously in the indie domain, the big budget studios have begun to push the boundaries and innovate in terms of introducing a range of DEI initiatives, which has also inspired other developers to follow as best practice.
Instead of just representation, Uppal highlighted the huge strides in game accessibility in AAA titles, specifically with The Last of Us Part 2, which featured over 60 accessibility settings, allowing players to customise every little aspect, such as fine-motor and hearing or features to help low-vision or blind players. Of course, the game was also important for having Ellie as a female and openly gay protagonist, but Uppal finds that the accessibility options were even more inclusive.
"It also goes to every single gamer out there that they had an option to change the way that they could play and really orient the game to themselves," he explained. "Even if you don't necessarily say that you belong to one of these DEI communities, it was something that was beneficial for everyone."
While we have seen these principles applied to other first-party Sony titles, it's also worth noting how other studios have taken inspiration and expanded on accessibility, with Playground Games also adding sign language support in Forza Horizon 5.
"Where we see DEI elements fail is when it almost feels shoehorned for the sake of it. If you try and force it, it's never going to be accepted or even done well"
"This is going to be quite costly and not something that everyone can manage, but there are a lot of resources out there," said Uppal, especially if these studios are sharing their best practices and tools with the rest of the industry. "It's definitely one thing to look into if you're interested in looking at expanding the accessibility elements within your game."
When it comes to representation, Uppal cited examples in the LGBT+ community where it's not only game characters but lead protagonists that are diversifying, such as Tell Me Why's Tyler Ronan as the first transgender protagonist in a mainstream game or Alex Chen as a bisexual protagonist in Life is Strange: True Colors. Games are also examining issues these communities' experiences; The Last of Us Part II, for example, explores transphobia and homophobia.
Queer characters not only empower and give a voice to LGBTQIA+ audiences, but it's also helped by new publications such as Gayming Magazine, "the home of queer geek culture", which shines a spotlight on LGBTQIA+ friendly games, creators and streamers. On evidence of the accolades and awards received, the above titles also demonstrate how DEI elements succeed when they are authentically representing the experiences of people in a specific community.
"Where we see DEI elements fail is when it almost feels shoehorned for the sake of it," said Uppal. "If you try and force it, it's never going to be accepted or even done well. That's going to come across by the player feedback that you're going to see, so it's better not to force it or even have it if you haven't properly done the research and executed it in a meaningful and respectful way that will engage with the audiences out there."
Total War Three Kingdoms: When diversity is done badly
Pivoting away from the advances in DEI initiatives in games, Uppal also used Total War: Three Kingdoms as a case study in how not to implement DEI. It's an intriguing example because this was an instalment that was explicitly appealing to the franchise's strong Chinese playerbase who are fans of strategy games and the Three Kingdoms era that is hugely popular in Chinese media.
While the game was commended for its localisation, respectful to the culture it was trying to portray, made the Top 20 Steam launches of 2019, and was actually well-received by Western audiences, it ultimately failed to land with its intended East-Asian audience, which suffered a steep decline following launch. Why? Because Creative Assembly, a UK developer, failed to understand the cultural expectations the studio was building this game around, according to Uppal.
"Being Indian, and having lived in Germany, the UK and the Netherlands, diversity is one of the key things I look at in a workplace. I need a very diverse group of people around me"
"The game itself was actually set as a prequel to The Three Kingdoms era, without actually being mentioned in the marketing itself," he explained. "So when Chinese players started playing it, they were a little bit disappointed."
Being known for a long post-release development, some were nonetheless hopeful that the game would eventually progress towards the Three Kingdoms era. Unfortunately, DLC released for the game were also set in different eras, once again not matching the Three Kingdoms fantasy players were expecting, causing the playerbase to dwindle and then completely collapsing in May 2021 when the developer announced it would completely discontinue support for the game.
"This not only alienated people from the Three Kingdoms game, but it also led them to review-bombing other associated games from Creative Assembly," Uppal continued, although noted Chinese players nonetheless did still enjoy the studio's other strategy games and continued to play them.
"[Creative Assembly] actually built a Chinese faction in Total War: Warhammer 3. Unfortunately, that game was not very well received because of its buggy nature. Part of that was also on the Chinese faction side -- players were again very disappointed."
Apex Legends: Diversity done well but differently
Coming back to good examples of DEI in games, Uppal looked at Apex Legends, which isn't just one of the most popular games in the world but also has one of the most inclusive, with over 75% of players saying the game has moderate to very high inclusivity. Diversity is also not seen as being off-putting or shoehorned in, when looking at the most popular characters.
"We can see from the top five picks, two are women -- one being LGBT -- two are men, and the last one is actually gender neutral," he said. "Each of these characters offer something unique and have unique traits that really make them popular with their players."
In terms of player share, the US is the most popular market, followed by Japan -- which is interesting given that the developer added Valkyrie, a new Japanese-American and LGBTQIA+ character, in May 2022.
In some ways, this went against player expectations, especially from the core Japanese demographic, who Uppal noted in general as being "very conservative". Although the marketing leaned towards Japanese themes and side events were also Japanese-orientated, ultimately Respawn's goal was to create a character that appealed to the Asian-American demographic, "catering to the US playerbase in a diverse way".
According to US revenues, it also paid off, with Apex Legends seeing huge boosts in revenue on both PlayStation and Xbox with Valkyrie's introduction, who is also among the top five character picks.
However, Uppal added: "I can't say that's all DEI. The character and the season were extremely well designed as well, and very well received by the player base. So that definitely also has an impact on seeing these kinds of rises."
Better DEI representation in studios will lead to games with better DEI
"Being Indian, and having lived in Germany, the UK, and the Netherlands, diversity is always one of the key things I look at in a workplace," said Uppal. "I need a very diverse group of people to be around me."
"When we're looking at DEI, social issues, crunch, and some of the more negative stances in the games industry, gamers like to see studios doing something actively behind these"
Based on an IGDA survey, the industry is getting better representation; in 2017, 75% of the workforce was male, but in 2021, it was 60%. Meanwhile, a GDC State of the Games Industry survey from 2021 showed that about 60% of game developers had said their studio focused on DEI initiatives, while 72% said that DEI initiatives have been successful and well-received.
Where diversity is still an issue, however, is in the upper management levels -- although Uppal conceded this is an issue in society as a whole for marginalised groups.
"We still need to keep in mind and take a look around, he said. "Is everyone you know in a management or senior position essentially a white man? Then you can see quite clearly that there is still work to be done there. But I'm happy to say that this is still an issue that's been looked at and is slowly improving."
These are issues that gamers are supportive of as well, which is just as important, and Uppal said they like a company that has a clear stance on social issues -- albeit less so when it's explicitly on politics.
"Gamers prefer companies and workforces that have better DEI representation in them, so studios looking to hire more inclusively and looking to bring in a more diverse workforce will really help them bring in these DEI elements automatically," he concluded.
"When we're looking at things like DEI, social issues, crunch, and some of the more negative stances in the games industry, gamers like to see that the studios are doing something actively behind these."
You can watch the full presentation below: