"The industry hasn't changed enough -- not even close"
POC in Play's Chella Ramanan and Adam Campbell on the industry's response to the Black Lives Matter movement, and the effort needed to make a lasting change
The games industry is in a moment of self-reflection.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota on May 26 sparked protests and unrest in the United States, which quickly spread to dozens of countries across the globe. People in hundreds of cities united in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and continue to do so.
Inevitably, the corporate world has also joined the conversation, and the games industry has been as loud as any. Companies of every size and shape have now issued statements, some of them frustratingly indirect, many accompanied by donations to appropriate causes, but all of them insisting on the need for change, however vague their sense of how that will actually be achieved.
For Adam Campbell and Chella Ramanan, the last few weeks have been overwhelming. As the founders of POC in Play, an advocacy group created to increase the visibility and representation of People of Colour in the games industry, the period since May 26 has seen a dramatic increase in emails, phone calls and interview requests from people suddenly alive to an issue that was all too real before the tragic killing of George Floyd -- and the conversation on which this article is based is very much a part of that trend.
"We're having this conversation now, right? But why weren't we having it two months ago? Or last year? Or two years ago?"Chella Ramanan
"The conversations are being had -- it's when the conversations are being had that I have a problem with," Ramanan says, speaking to GamesIndustry.biz. "We're having this conversation now, right? But why weren't we having it two months ago? Or last year? Or two years ago?"
There is no good answer to that question. POC in Play was formed in February 2019, a piece of news to which this website devoted a small amount of coverage, but elected not to explore in detail. As editor-in-chief, that is very much my responsibility, and while it was by no means a malicious choice, in retrospect it has the air of comfortable complacency that many Black people and People of Colour have highlighted during this mass outpouring of concern.
The need for change is on everybody's lips now, in this moment. But what about in six months? What about in a year?
POC in Play is now an established advocate for racial diversity and equity in the games industry, after nearly 18 months of "socials" featuring expert panels and speakers, with attendees from across the UK and even as far as Germany. The driving idea is to work towards a more open and inclusive industry by embodying those ideals -- POC in Play's socials are open to people of every background, and even to those who don't work in the games industry.
"We tend to silo ourselves off quite a lot, and don't speak to people in other industries that are maybe further along in their diversity and inclusion initiatives," Ramanan says. "There's knowledge to be shared and gained there.
"Identity politics can become everyone in their own little pockets, arguing about small things, when really we need to be powerful together. So I think connecting with people, as we're seeing right now, how powerful that can be. Everyone's unified. That's important."
The industry is turning to POC in Play and similar organisations in great numbers, apparently eager to follow through on the sentiments expressed in their messages of solidarity and support. According to Campbell, one of the key ideas that games companies should carry forward is the need for persistent effort over time. The industry's problems with racial diversity and equity will not be solved any other way.
"We've been there, we've been working, we've been visible," Campbell says. "So while it's great that game studios and publishers have become aware that we're present, I think we should keep that energy going all year round. We're for life, not just for Christmas.
"I also want games companies to realise that this touches every part of their business. Conversations have been about: How many programmers do we have in our companies? Do we have production leaders? But you also need to start asking questions about how you treat your non-white customer base. We've seen plenty of statements about increasing moderation against offensive names and racial slurs, but that has been a problem all the time.
"We've seen statements about increasing moderation against racial slurs, but that has been a problem all the time"Adam Campbell
"It's just remembering that, when we talk about tackling issues of race, diversity and inclusion, it's right at the front of the products that we produce, but it's also behind the products that we produce, too."
The impact of this kind of neglect runs deep. An industry that requires global tumult to make a genuine attempt to eradicate racist speech in its online communities isn't likely to seem accessible to the People of Colour that play its games. Along with other organisations, POC in Play works directly with universities, attending career fairs, and meeting students to lay out a path into game development. It has seen the absence of that connection firsthand.
"It's not like movies, where you have the faces of the products," Ramanan says. "The people behind games are slightly more hidden, and the people who are prominent -- the creators and the veterans of the industry -- tend to be white guys. The characters in the games tend to be white guys.
"It's really interesting when you do go into universities, and you start speaking to... Black and ethnic minority students who never realised they could work in the video games industry -- it's something that wasn't for them," Campbell adds. "Not only do they get to see someone who looks like themselves, but they're also an industry expert who can pass on the relevant knowledge that they need."
While the industry certainly understands the need to work with universities to find and encourage new talent, it can do much more in terms of reaching Black students and other People of Colour. As Campbell highlights, that can mean ensuring diversity within the team that performs outreach, but it also means accepting that the issue cannot be fully addressed through universities alone.
Brass Lion Entertainment -- the new studio from Manveer Heir, Bryna Dabby Smith, and Rashad Redic -- made this point in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz in November last year. The games industry, Redic said, doesn't reach far enough into communities to ensure real diversity -- "They go to the major colleges...and that's where it stops."
"While there are things that affect People of Colour specifically, I also think we need to remember that we also experience all of the other issues and areas of exclusion that everyone else experiences too," Campbell continues. "There is an intersection between race and class.
"We already know that the video games industry is majority male and majority middle-class. There are a lot of industry leaders that have been to the elite universities -- not all, but many of them -- so if those factors also affect white working-class men and women when it comes to getting into the industry, then it's obviously going to affect those who have the fact of race in play as well."
"The hurdles facing white women are different to the hurdles facing black women or trans women or people with disabilities"Chella Ramanan
Both Campbell and Ramanan have worked in the industry for many years, in various roles and at a variety of companies. Their individual accounts of those journeys are punctuated by daunting leaps of faith, overcoming a dearth of clear guidance and role models only to find themselves in environments almost entirely composed of white men.
"I was frequently the only woman and Black person, especially in the press room and at events," Ramanan says of her time as a games journalist. "I think I was more aware of being the only woman, just because the games industry did not talk about race at all at that point."
That experience persists today. Diversity has been widely discussed in the industry for many years, but it is a broad term that is too often used to describe one specific kind of progress -- as Ramanan puts it, "bringing more white women into the industry, and that's just enough."
"The hurdles facing white women are different to the hurdles facing black women or trans women or people with disabilities... You're not focusing on your unconscious bias. You're just focusing on the thing you think is easy, that can fix your figures and boost your PR.
"You have to put the work in, and so you do have to focus on different groups, and what they need, and why they're not being reached, and why your communication isn't effective for a particular group."
POC in Play advocates for unconscious bias training to be a standard opportunity offered to staff at games companies, and especially those in leadership roles. According to Campbell, this would help to improve the amount of People of Colour who make it through for job interviews, but crucially, it would also ensure those companies "have more tools to deal with any potential situations that come in when you've actually employed them."
The lack of training in this area can have far reaching consequences. There is a significant issue with finding and nurturing diverse applicants, Ramanan says, but there is an equally troubling "exodus" of non-white talent who grow frustrated with their opportunities and the culture of the companies they work in.
"Just from people being tired -- of having to fight for their voice, of being spoken over, of being overlooked for promotions, of their perspective not being valued... All of those things, and you just think: You know what? I'll go work somewhere else that does value me and my talents."
"There are good people fighting to get this change made, and they have to fight -- I know this from speaking to people who've done it"
Over the last five years in particular, the games business has been pushing toward a more open and welcoming environment for women. That is certainly notable, but it is just one of several areas in which the industry's record on diversity has been sorely lacking. Both Ramanan and Capmpbell note that representation of People of Colour remains low, and Black people are an even smaller percentage within that group. More to the point, neither situation is improving as quickly as they might reasonably expect.
"There are good people fighting to get this change made, and they have to fight -- I know this from speaking to people who've done it," Ramanan says. "It has to be that good person who's put themselves on the line, and it shouldn't have to be like that. It shouldn't be that hard for someone to hire a diverse team with different perspectives to make games better, to make the industry better.
"But it is that hard. It seriously is. The industry has changed a bit, but it hasn't changed enough -- not even close."
The question, then, is whether the flurry of statements and donations from games companies signify a true shift in attitudes, one that will endure when the protests recede and the focus shifts from Black Lives Matter. Campbell and Ramanan admit to their scepticism about the industry's long-term commitment to solving the knot of problems that comprise its issue with racial diversity. The pledges have been made, but will the responsibility of change continue to fall on the shoulders of groups like POC in Play?
"You always have to err on the side of caution with these events, because there is an outpouring of support at the moment, but it's very easy for that to fizzle out in two weeks or a month's time," Campbell says.
"That being said, it's probably the first time I've ever seen in the games industry where it has really shaken everyone. Even though the tragic death of George Floyd wasn't really related to video games, it did speak to people's humanity, and it does make people look at themselves and the environments they're in. We are ultimately trying to tackle systemic oppression and racism, and in order to address that you do have to look at every aspect of society, and video games are no different."
"It has to lead to change, surely," Ramanan adds. "What more has to happen? Watching a man die on camera -- what else is going to galvanise people?
"We have to sustain this interest and this energy. Even if you're just doing it for the money, because diverse companies make more money. If that's what speaks to you, then do it for that. But let's just do it."