28 August, 2018
There’s been a lot of talk about how the game industry excludes certain people, particularly women. There’s the perception that the game industry isn’t welcoming of certain people because bigotry is rife and people who don’t fit the specific concept won’t make it.
The reality is a bit more complex, and frankly a bit worse, than that. Let me share some of the dirty secrets of the game industry as I’ve experienced it.
The prototypical game industry person
The game industry runs on a certain cachet: that it’s cool to make games and worth making less money, working long hours, and having almost no job security. This means that a certain group of people tend to fit best: young, single, male, no family, middle class, college educated. On top of this, the developer is usually white, as many middle class and college educated people are, and straight.
If you go into most studios, or even look at a typical game studio photographs, you’ll see a sea of very same looking faces: guys in their early to mid 20s. You’ll often see a few different faces, but they are often notable for how rare they are. Even then these faces will look the same in many other ways, especially young and middle class.
Of course, some things change based on perception. If you worked on a hit game, then it’s fine to be middle aged, for example; it’s easier to accept such people because they have gained enough respect to “know what they’re doing.” Of course, this means that the people are still white, male, middle class, etc. because that fit in the group before.
The typical game designer
If anything, game designers tend to be even more homogeneous. The reality is that game design is an art, so what is “right” is often more a matter of opinion than of facts. One takes their experience and turns it into concepts that will work in a game. Someone who loves history will draw from that, someone who loves fantasy stories will draw from those stories, etc. The more these backgrounds are shared, the easier it is to share the ideas and use shorthand to convince others of the validity of the design.
And this goes even deeper. If you’re a young, white, straight, middle class, college educated male with no family, you’re going to relate to others who are exactly the same. Change a few things and suddenly things become much less certain. Take that same person but make him middle-aged with a family and there’s quite a bit different experience to draw from. Age and parenthood will give a different set of priorities, and this can feel strange to the young guy with no family, to the point that ideas feel foreign, even alien. Change anything else: gay and black, woman from a poor background, whatever… this is going to make it harder for the two to communicate easily. But this is no excuse, because learning how to get along and communicate with others is important.
And game designers will look for ways to show how “different” and therefore “wrong” someone else is.
Othering people to promote oneself
There’s the concept of “othering” people to make them less than you. This is generally done to someone who looks or acts different, but it can be done even without overt bigotry. If a designer sees someone they see as different, then they will often try to “other” them, make them appear even more outside the accepted norms.
I’ve had this happen many times myself. At one place I worked at, designers mocked me because I got a blend of regular and diet sodas at a restaurant as I was trying to consume less calories, simply because it was something to separate me out from the rest. It can seem like a small thing, but since I was approaching middle age at the time and that weight didn’t come off quite so easily anymore, it felt strange to be mocked for that. At the same place I was set apart because I had worked on PC games whereas most of the other people were console developers. It didn’t matter as we were making a web-based game, but the factionalism was still there.
And at another place I worked, I was singled out because I didn’t want to work the same long hours as everyone else. The company owner had promised the impossible: a deadline imposed arbitrarily and therefore he called for crunch: everyone was expected to work 60 hour weeks. Since I wanted to actually see my significant other (having a family, even without kids, was outside the norm), I wanted to leave “early” a few days of the week and then make up the time on the weekend when most people took off. But this was seen as not being a team player, yet another thing to drive a wedge between me and the rest of the team.
Tomorrow I’ll post what we can do about all this. But share your experiences below.