Xbox's Gaming for Everyone: "Diversity has always been here"
Senior community program manager Benjamin Williams on ensuring the industry's diverse voices feel welcome enough to stay
As hiring for diversity becomes a more visible and discussed issue, Microsoft's Benjamin Williams also wants to address a related problem: once members of marginalized communities get hired into the industry, how do we keep them here?
Williams is the senior community program manager for Gaming for Everyone, an Xbox program that works toward inclusivity both internally and externally. The tagline and ideas behind Gaming for Everyone appear with some frequency in various projects, public statements, and other initiatives at Xbox, but Williams' main job is to coordinate several events at GDC in San Francisco each year to bring together various marginalized communities for talks, dialogue, and networking.
"GDC is always my biggest project and the one that I love," Williams says. "The work we do at GDC is about amplifying the voices of under-represented people to let them know we want them in the industry, we want them to have their projects become a reality, and we want everyone to be able to make awesome stuff so that everyone can enjoy it."
At GDC 2019, Microsoft celebrated six different gaming communities at six different events. Women, blacks, Latinx, LGBTQIA, and disability communities each had their own receptions, with a final event focused on Gaming for Everyone as a whole.
"We've always been here and we've always had an impact, but that impact hasn't necessarily been seen or felt by everyone else"
Although Williams has been with Microsoft and Xbox since 2016 (having joined the company in his current role after nearly a decade in academia), many of the events he now organizes have been around for far longer. Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Women in Gaming rally, as well as the 15th anniversary for the Black in Gaming Green Room event. Williams says these two long-running examples demonstrate that the communities they celebrate have always been a part of the industry, but he wanted to expand Gaming for Everyone events to other underrepresented groups -- such as the LGBTQIA and disabled communities, which just celebrated their third and second annual GDC events respectively.
"[Marginalized communities] have been a part of the gaming industry since the gaming industry was a thing," Williams says. "We've always been here and we've always had an impact, but that impact hasn't necessarily been seen or felt by everyone else. So while those communities have always been here, Gaming for Everyone is here to help amplify their voices.
"We do that by providing a space for everyone to gather and succeed through networking, professional development, and things like that. We sponsor professional development scholarships through the IGDA and through partnering with other companies who are also interested in this work."
Specifically speaking about the LGBTQIA in Gaming reception, Williams says that some of the inspiration for its focal points came from existing events, such as the social events thrown by Gay Gaming Professionals' founder Gordon Bellamy. While he emphasizes the importance of events like that, Williams also didn't want to step on any toes by copying what already existed.
"We didn't want to just throw yet another social event. So how can we provide added value? Our event focuses much more on networking and providing professional connections, where he provides social moments. I use that as an example to highlight that I want to make sure everyone in the industry -- all the different companies, all the different employee resource groups -- feel a sense of trust and collaboration, that they can talk to each other and make sure we are all able to have the biggest impact in the time that we have available to us."
"If you show up in the place where people are, you can successfully recruit them. But what we've found is that they don't stay"
GDC is the main event of the calendar year for Williams, though Gaming for Everyone is also present at other major gaming events, such as the Brazil Game Show and E3. But the reason GDC is the group's most important moment is because of its focus on developers from around the world. It's the best place, he says, to make sure they include as much of the development community as possible.
"I had a developer from Latin America tell me that he comes to GDC specifically to one of our events and meets more developers from Latin America at our GDC event than he does going to networking events in Latin America. I don't say that as a point of pride, like we're doing it better than anyone else, but it's to highlight that GDC is one of those really big moments no matter where you are in the globe.
"We do recognize that not everyone has the funds or the time or the privilege to be able to get to San Francisco and GDC, so we also look at other opportunities to reach people."
The focus on networking and connection is an effort to alleviate the feeling of isolation many members of marginalized communities might feel. Because the industry, its communities, and its discourse has an unfortunate history of making members of certain groups feel unwelcome, Williams says, Gaming for Everyone wants to offer a space for people to network and meet others with their same concerns and interests. That way, they can not only feel that there is a place for them in the gaming community, but also potentially find places for their projects and ideas with others who are interested in promoting the work of fellow creators.
"There have been diversity and inclusion initiatives in tech and gaming for decades, and those initiatives generally focus on hiring and recruitment. Those programs are absolutely successful and they have metrics to show that, yes, if you show up in the place where people are and come to them on their terms, you can successfully recruit them into the industry. But what we've found is that they don't stay. We are on that journey of finding ways to entice people to stay and have an impact.
"I always joke that it's very difficult to measure success in my job because all of my key performance indicators are feelings. How do you measure a feeling of identity? When I feel I'm succeeding at my job is when people are able to say they feel like they belong, that they've found a support network, that they found where they can go to for jobs, for professional development, for emotional support and impact.
"That is where my focus is, and that is what I feel will get people to stay in the industry. And if they stay in the industry and succeed, they'll have an impact on its products and futures."