Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

29 August, 2018

Making the game industry more inclusive
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:55 PM

In yesterday’s post I gave a perspective on the exclusion of the game industry. It’s no secret that a lot of the game industry looks the same, but homogeneity goes deeper than that. It’s about accepting others who are just like the existing group. This leads to a lack of diversity in these companies.

So now let’s look a bit closer on what we can do to make things more inclusive.

Exclusion and othering

To summarize and expand upon what I said yesterday, game developers and particularly game designers tend to be homogeneous because it’s easier to get along with and relate to others. The more similar a group is, the more shared experiences and shorthand they can use. When life experiences are generally the same, it’s easier to have the group cohesion and chemistry needed to do the hard creative work of game development. People seen as outside this group are shunned not because they are hated, but because they are different in enough ways to make it harder to relate to them.

And people will seek to exacerbate these differences to “other” people. Seemingly small differences are seized upon and made into larger issues, forcing the person away from the consensus of the group when they offer their creative work. It makes it easier for others to agree to their own ideas, which are likely similar given their similar backgrounds. Even older members of the group will likely have been the same as others when they were young, making the younger “in group” seem more familiar. But there’s nothing to say that only the group in power is the only one likely to be exclusive; you could have any relatively homogeneous group that excludes those who are different.

The wrong approach

So, on the surface it’s easy to see that game companies don’t hire women and then say, “Oh, game developers are misogynist!” Or note the lack of ethnic minorities and accuse them of racism. But as I point out, it goes deeper because many teams don’t hate women for being women, or minorities for being minorities, rather they dislike them because they are different than themselves. These people have different experiences, bring different points of view, and therefore can challenge the developers and designers in ways they don’t know how to handle.

But it’s easy for someone in one of these underrepresented groups to focus on this to give themselves an advantage. “The game industry is misogynist, so they should hire more women like me.” Or “The game industry hates ethnic minorities, so they should hire someone like me!” This tends to be a rather selfish attitude and treats the symptoms in a way that doesn’t really address the underlying problem. It also lets certain groups fall under the radar that should be accepted: people from working class backgrounds who haven’t become fully middle class, for example. It also brings the assumption that a white guy has an “easy” time getting into the industry when this is not always the case if they are different in some other way.

The reason why this is the wrong approach is because it treats the symptoms, not the problem. The older white guy leading a studio full of white guys can say, “let’s hire some women” or even “If two candidates are the same, I prefer to hire the woman,” and think they’re addressing the problem when really they’re bringing in token diversity at best. The design group can still be all young white guys under that old white guy, thus maintaining the status quo.

What can be done?

The first step is to understand the root cause and understand it and not just do meaningless fixes: token diversity or simply changing one “in group” for another. Hiring exclusively for one group (“we’re only hiring (white, middle class) women!”) doesn’t help get a diversity of voices that we should all want, it just gives a voice to another group to impose their narrow experiences on the creative process. So we should focus on true diversity, not just focusing on outward appearance but also in areas like socioeconomic background.

It’s also important to prepare for design to require more work in the future. As you get a true diversity of voices you have to work harder to build bridges between each other to understand each other. More importantly, we need to change the design process because it is a potentially difficult place. The reason why we have the in group of homogeneous people is to make it easier to agree with each other. When there are conflicts in design, there’s usually a hierarchy where someone higher up decides something, or it comes down to personal charisma or ability to win people to your side. One lone person against a group will probably not be heard as others appeal to the higher ups or form groups who “all agree” to something.

I was talking with an indie designer friend of mine a little while ago who commented on this, that we need more rules for how to engage in design. She said that we might look to lawyers and how legal cases are argued for inspiration. There are rules for how to engage, what evidence is required, and what bodies of work can be referenced. By having a more structured way to discuss design we can let a variety of voices, particularly those who have been marginalized in the past, participate in the process without having to form entirely new in groups.

I think this is how the game industry can mature and truly become more diverse. But as with most things, you need to convince those currently holding power that this is a better idea than what they have now.

So what do you think? Do you have any experiences with this? Do you think the game industry could use a wider diversity of voices? Or are you happy with the same games being made by the same people over and over again?

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  1. I largely second this, with one distinction – not exception, just a different emphasis, really.

    You’re right that token hiring practices don’t fix things. What I would view differently, though, is that they’re still necessary.

    The logic is really pretty simple: if you discard the baby steps and focus on a faraway “true diversity and change in rules” goal, you’re prone to never reaching it. Worse, you may overlook opportunities for small changes along the way when your focus is that idealistic.

    But I do second that you can’t make token diversity hires and think you’re done!

    Comment by unwesen — 29 August, 2018 @ 11:28 PM

  2. Your final question is very hard to answer because of the way it’s phrased. I have absolutely no knowledge of the ethnic, gender or any other demographical make-up of gaming companies, but taking your assessment as accurate then I would agree with much of your analysis and some of your solutions. However, if you ask me “are you happy with the same games being made by the same people over and over again?” then, to say “No”, I would have to be unhappy or unsatisfied with the current offering, which I’m not, and I would have to believe that the changes you propose would result in more games that would be to my tastes, which I don’t.

    The games I most enjoy were made at a time when, I would imagine, the diversity was even smaller and the demographic of games developers even closer to the stereotype you describe. Most of the early and mid period MMOs would have been made almost exclusively by those people and those are the kinds of games I want more of. To back greater diversity would seem to be backing a further decline in production of the kind of games I prefer and possibly an aceleration in change to the ones I already play, which I would prefer stayed as they are.

    A better question would be “Do you think these hiring practices are socially acceptable”, to which I would unequivocally say “No”. Just because it would most likely be bad for me as a consumer doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen.

    It’s a lot easier to say than do, though. Turkeys, as they say, do not vote for Christmas. This is why I’m generally in favor of a top-down, legislative solution to diversity issues rather than a “we’ll do better” voluntary, bottom-up one.

    Comment by Bhagpuss — 30 August, 2018 @ 12:33 AM

  3. unwesen wrote:
    “[Token hires are] still necessary.”

    I disagree. Allow me to give an anecdote from the last place I worked. It was a small team and there were a few women on the team. Two in particular who were artists. One was the type who showed up, quietly did her work, and then went home promptly when work was over. Rarely participated in events outside of work. Ate lunch at her desk. She seemed nice, and perhaps this was a defensive measure she learned in other studios, but she didn’t really contribute much to the company culture.

    The other one was outspoken and very much a tomboy type. Willing to hang out with the guys and have fun. But I remember when one of the management commented about her referring to a fetish club once, a wink and a nod that she’s obviously “one of those” and all that implies. She also said some vaguely inappropriate things as well, maybe to fit in with the “good old boy” culture that was there. This hire didn’t change the potentially toxic culture of the company, and if anything provide a focus for the more puerile elements of the company.

    There needs to be more fundamental changes to the industry, otherwise we’re going to get hires who “won’t rock the boat” or even contribute to it while making us think we’re making progress.

    Bhagpuss wrote:
    To back greater diversity would seem to be backing a further decline in production of the kind of games I prefer and possibly an aceleration in change to the ones I already play, which I would prefer stayed as they are.

    I’m not sure this is entirely true. While we probably would see a wider variety of games made, I don’t think we’re going to suddenly see Call of Duty or Fortnite not be made. The idea here would be to expand the games offered, allowing us to grow the overall audience of game players. I think people might be more pleased with existing games as well. I’ve said that having more Socializer- or Explorer-focused MMOs would lead to them being better games overall; it’ll take people breaking out of the current mindset, which could happen if we had more voices to contribute.

    This is why I’m generally in favor of a top-down, legislative solution to diversity issues rather than a “we’ll do better” voluntary, bottom-up one.

    Oof. The problem is that the law and justice systems are blunt instruments. Enforcing hiring quotas or whatever doesn’t help because it doesn’t require a fundamental change in the attitudes. It would cause a lot of harm in the short term, and I’m pretty sure there would be massive lobbying efforts against it from may different industries.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 August, 2018 @ 7:23 PM

  4. There’s been a bit of furor lately where Riot at PAX West decided to exclude men from their presentations and resume and portfolio screenings:

    Of course, this is drawing howls of protest about “sexism” and the like. But the real problem here is exactly as I describe above: this does nothing to change the culture, it just gives space for them to bring on women and then indoctrinate them into the toxic culture there, as if hiring women will magically change things. One person on Twitter quoted in the comments even says as much: that women need to be surrounded by their own kind to “grow” as developers.

    But will Riot do the same for other underrepresented people? Bar white people, Christians, people under 40, people born or who currently are middle class? There are a lot of underrepresented groups that would benefit the development process. As I said above, this isn’t how to fix the problem, because these people will likely burn out if nothing changes.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 August, 2018 @ 11:12 PM

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