Diversity and inclusion isn’t just about an initiative or program that serves a specific function for a specific underrepresented group of people in a given industry. D&I is meant to be a holistic model that desperately needs full saturation in every facet of every industry. In this particular panel during GamesBeat’s Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse in partnership with Facebook, we move beyond the Diversity 101 rhetoric and dive into a much more meaningful conversation about what we can do to support diversity and inclusion in gaming today.
During “Moving the Gaming Industry Forward: Impactful D&I Initiatives,” Nene Kalu Schaffert, the strategic partner manager for Adtech Partnerships at Facebook, spoke with Ayanna Smith, the head of corporate partnerships at Ureeka, about opportunities missed and why diversity and inclusion is “smart business.”
Schaffert began the conversation in a place where many opt not to: calling attention to the myth of “there are no marginalized people in the game industry.” The purpose of the question is to figure out the ways in which the entire industry can combat that myth together, instead of being the responsibility of said combat being on marginalized voices to begin with.
“When we talk about diversity and inclusion in gaming, we’re talking about black and brown developers, women, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities,” Smith reminded us. “So, it runs the entire gamut. I think that part of the perception of ‘we’re not here’ is that you only see 7% of game developers being Latinx and only 2% being Black or African-American. Part of that perception is that we’re only here in small numbers, but we are here.”
There’s also the issue of missed opportunities to spotlight the people who are present in the game industry. All throughout the industry, there are a smattering of special interest groups within large publishers, including EA, and some excellent programs to lift up Black and brown game developers. But because these programs aren’t as accessible or as prominent as is necessary to create visibility for these creators beyond specific circles, Smith noted that there continues to be missed opportunities to spotlight the people who are already here.
“We also have the issue of there being a lack of leadership of underrepresented people,” Smith affirmed. “I think all of these things feed into the perception that this is not a very diverse industry. And it is; there’s so much room for growth.”
But even though diversity is much more of a consideration than it had been prior to 2010, or even 2015, it still lacks the inclusivity portion of D&I. As such, Black and brown developers have told Schaffert and Smith that they often feel like they don’t belong. And if they feel as though they don’t belong, why would they try to make an often hostile industry carve out a place where they could feel like they are valuable and necessary?
Why would they bother, let alone why would they stay?
“One of the barriers to entry in the industry is sometimes self-sabotage,” Smith explained. “There [is] the feeling that we don’t belong. So, I talk about the feeling like, if you were show up at a party and everyone were to show up in expensive cars and expensive clothes and you showed up in your Honda Accord and your clothes from Marshalls, you may not feel like this party is a place where you belong … despite the fact that you were invited.
“It’s just natural for people to feel like they don’t belong in places where they don’t see a lot of people who look like them. So, I think that this ends up being a barrier in entering the industry for a lot of people. Then there are also those barriers that come from a lack of access, the lack of exposure, to the industry. When you think about Career Day at your school when you were growing up, how often did you see a game developer show up at Career Day and tell you how you could be a part of this industry that you loved so much? I don’t recall ever meeting a game developer when I was a child.”
This lack of information about how to enter the game industry, in any facet, reinforces that making games isn’t as inclusive as we may want it to be. Smith asserted that young people simply don’t know what they don’t know.
“There are so many different elements to creating a game and so many places that young people can fit. I don’t think that is well known or well advertised.”
“One type of initiative that companies could do is to definitely have the pipeline going from historically Black colleges and universities or groups focused on game developers working and partnering with these organizations to really get people to understand the opportunities that exist within the industry,” Schaffert offered.
“Kids should know, as early as they start playing games, that there’s a place for them in the gaming industry,” Smith stressed. “Just about any skill that they have, just about anything that they’re interested in, can fit in the industry. There’s a place for you. That is one of the main messages that we want to send out. If gaming is something that you love, there’s a place for you in the industry.”
That’s where Schaffert’s pilot program at Facebook, Game Dev Alpha, comes into the picture. Signups for Game Dev Alpha open up in February and will be available for underrepresented American game developers who want to spur their gaming project(s) along, but may not know how or have the resources to do so.
“I wanted to use Facebook’s resources and the partnerships that we have to really put the resources that we have with the people who have these ideas, but might not be able to move it forward on their own,” Schaffert explained. “So, we will have training for them, we have business coaching for them, we’ll have experts from the Facebook side talk about user acquisition, monetization, storytelling, you name it.”
Facebook wielding its exceptional resources to create a small place where underrepresented developers might be able to get the funding and support they need is a good step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough. Smith underscored the importance of ensuring that game companies do more than the bare minimum to attract, cultivate, and enrich underrepresented game makers.
“Even establishing an internship in your corporation, an apprenticeship program, a mentorship program, [would help],” Smith said. “We not only want to see underrepresented developers make their way into the industry, but also to find their way into leadership positions.”
Inclusion within the workplace isn’t the only thing that matters when engaging with the importance of D&I in the game industry, either. It all comes down to making better experiences for the players, too. Those that have been banging the D&I drums for years, like Schaffert and Smith have, know that by having a diverse group of developers working on a game, you’ll be able to spot problems before they’re problems for your audiences.
“You can have people on your team with these lived experiences, who understand what your users are giving and are able to spot those issues before your product or your game makes it to market,” Schaffert said.
Inclusivity includes content
She then shared a story about one of the top apps in the App Store, Project Makeover, that has had a number of its own issues around inclusivity because of the approach to the content.
“So one of the first actions of the game is to remove glasses from that avatar so that you can continue with that makeover,” Schaffert explained. “Some people have actually commented in the App Store about this issue, saying ‘Why must her glasses be removed in order for you to do this makeover? Does this mean that she’s not pretty because she has glasses?’”
Again, these are the kinds of things that could be caught by someone who is more aware of how that plays out for a woman who has glasses, for example, if a glasses-wearing woman were in a decision-making role on the development team.
“You turn your users away from your game before they have a chance to engage [when things like this go unaddressed],” Schaffert concluded. “You might say, ‘Well, I can’t account for people being offended.’ That’s true, but you can definitely mitigate the risk. What D&I does is combat the chance that user experience can be impacted.”
“And to enrich the user experience as well,” Smith added.
To round out the conversation, Schaffert added one more nugget of wisdom for companies looking to shore up their own D&I efforts: bring your diverse teams to the forefront of your organization and give them the spotlight.
“… Highlight the great work that they’re already doing,” Schaffert said. “We want to know about them. I think that it not only helps your company and your business, but it also helps those folks who are coming up, who are thinking about gaming or play games all the time and wondering how they can turn it into a career. They see someone who looks like them, or someone who’s had the same experience as them, they’ll be more apt to join the party.”
The most important gem from this panel isn’t just about how to do D&I better, but how to understand it in the first place: “Diversity and inclusion is not charity work. You’re not doing us a favor. It’s smart business.”