Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Written by Shania Kuo Edited by Brittany Eide
Quarantine opened up time for busy gamers to enjoy games again and even launched studies on how beneficial video games can be for people. With rising attention on the video game industry and the recent outspokenness of racism, it is important to consider the lack of diversity and inclusion which shapes how future video games and future game developers.
We broadly define diversity as the range of identities, perspectives, and ideas while inclusion is when any individual is made part of a group. The global game industry remains predominantly heterosexual (79%), white (81%) men (71%) (Weststar et al. 2019) which often culminates a culture of aggressive masculinity. This is commonly referred to as a “bro culture”, and at Riot and other gaming companies, the bro culture takes the form of male leaders supporting other men and oppressing the voices and ideas of those who do not fit in, women being the most prominent targets (D’Anastasio).
The industry’s lack of diversity stems from the fact that many mainstream games portray heterosexual, white men as the heroes. Mark Rosewater, the Head Designer of Magic: The Gathering, revealed in a Tumblr post that “...every time we branch out (and I’m not exaggerating, every time) and represent a new segment of people, I get heartfelt messages from them about how much it means to them to see themselves in the game” (2018). There has been an upstanding tradition of excluding underrepresented communities, garnering attention whenever there is one. Most of the attention focuses on whether the character is done ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, however. This kind of attention appears to be progressive, but really results from the deep-seated issue of generalization and exclusion. That there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to portray people considers the fact that there is an identity that underrepresented communities have to conform to in games. The identity people have in their minds often stem from the fact that people generalize views of others. By diversifying characters, the generalized connotations people have of underrepresented individuals can change.
This doesn’t mean carelessly throwing in underrepresented characters. Misrepresentation of underrepresented people in games is a surefire way to breed further stereotyping and prejudices. Yes, there is representation in older games and some games continue to create underrepresented characters, but just including people doesn’t mean it’s inclusive. An example of problematic representation are older games in how they presented LGBTQ+ people. In many games, LQBTQ+ people are hypersexualized, reducing queerness to one trait and revolving characters around that one trait. It feels shallow and in no way tries to relate to authentic experiences.
A huge reason these experiences aren’t authentic is because there aren’t enough people in those underrepresented communities voicing their opinions when developing these games. However, underrepresented individuals don’t join the game industry in part because of cyclical exclusion. To illustrate how cyclical exclusion works, Crevoshay et al. discusses why sexism persists in terms using this concept. The idea starts with how people perceive video games as male activities and thus exclude women. From there, women are less motivated to take part in game-related activities. This leads to an absence of women in the game industry which creates gendered game content and cultivates sexists beliefs and attitudes that continue in the workplace (2019).
In 2018, a Kotaku article written by Cecillia D’Anastasio revealed the sexist nature of Riot Games’ workplace. An example from D’Anastasio’s article discusses an incident regarding a woman called “Lacy” in the article. Lacy had presented an idea to her colleagues, which was not well-received. However, when she asked a male colleague to present her idea, everyone applauded him despite Lacy having presented the same idea. Unfortunately, D’Anastatsio reported more forms of harassment such as crude remarks from male colleagues in an email imagining what it would be like to sleep with one female employee. The pronounced “bro culture” of Riot affects men as well where a source, regarding a senior leader, said that “If he [senior leader] walked into a meeting with no women he’d just fart on someone’s face” (D’Anastasio 2018). Sexist behaviors are not exclusive to Riot workers either, as the League of Legends community is infamous for toxicity and rampant sexism. Since Riot’s hiring practices prioritizes people who play League, many of their workers are coming from the game culture of sexism.
The bro culture of Riot is not a contained issue. It is prevalent in the tech industry as a whole, and, for gaming, it prevents women from advancing or entering. This keeps their voices and ideas from being heard, resulting in the same hyper sexualized narrative in games.
Ideas, however, don’t give the okay to push a game for the final stages. Investors allow for the final stages, and, according to Jay Chi, the founding partner of Makers Fund who has invested in Bossa, Typhoon, Tiny Build, etc., the traditional investment community doesn’t understand the game industry which makes them reluctant to invest (Sinclair 2018). It’s only when companies have grown larger that investors will fund them. Since investors don’t play games, they don’t understand the constantly changing tastes, who is best adapted for the kind of game, and what games are good either. So, in order to keep in the good graces of the investors, game developers avoid controversy and criticism by using subtexts instead of explicit messages. Even though some progress has made their ways into big studio games such as Overwatch, who has implemented queerness into some of their characters’ backgrounds, indie games have taken more liberties in incorporating underrepresented communities into the story of the games such as Dream Daddy which released in 2017.
Even as more steps are taken to increase diversity, discrimination, intentional and unintentional, is damaging for underrepresented individuals. In the Take This 2018 report, a developer of color said, “It’s a daily process - there’s a lot of code switching that happens. How do I present myself to people to get through the day with the least amount of stress?” Code switching is a common strategy that underrepresented individuals employ in order to better fit in with their surroundings whether that be from changing how they dress or how they speak to who they speak with. For underrepresented individuals in the game industry, there is always some amount of stress involved with portraying themselves to be in line with the industry norm or else they risk facing discrimination from their peers. This lack of diversity in the workplace results in generalization where people look up to one individual of a community to represent the entire community. According to a female HR manager, with personal and professional experience, who spoke with the Crevoshay et al. said,
On the negative side, your difference is being weaponized against you because people are not familiar, thus they exclude you and make you feel like you’re not a part of the in-group because you are different. On the positive side, where they want to embrace diversity, and want to appreciate the fact that you are the other and want to include you because of the fact that you are different, [and] there’s undue pressure to educate them on your perspective and what your experience is. (2019)
While this comes from good intentions, it is not the responsibility of the individual to speak for everybody when they are only one individual of a demographic. This would not even be a near accurate measure as well since members of the industry expect underrepresented individuals to conform to their standards. Generalization places a high burden on the individual, but, according to a study on the U.S. state-level employment nondiscrimination acts, when there is more racial and gender diversity in employment, innovation increases (Gāo and Zhang 2017). This increase in innovation and diversity allow for a more broad range of perspectives that increases the quality of the games produced.
There are companies who have recognized the diversity issue within the gaming industry, and are working to improve the issue. Big Huge Games is among one of these companies. Zoe Bell, the Lead Producer at Big Huge Games discussed sustainability and leadership. Bell is a strong advocate of diversity and inclusiveness which she believes is good for business and sustainability. She says, “I think that it's certainly more pleasant and more interesting to work on a more inclusive team, and so for that reason alone, we should do it” (Brightman 2018). An example of how Big Huge Games managed to promote diversity was its choice of location. Most game companies are in California which has a high cost of living, only permitting a less diverse demographic to work for these companies. Big Huge Games is in Baltimore, which is much more affordable and has a culture of long-term commitment compared to the Bay Area where people move around companies often. When game companies are deliberate and informed in how they promote diversity and inclusion, they can keep their employees loyal to the company.
Although there are companies within the gaming industry who actively adjust their policies and try to promote diverse and inclusive workplaces, other companies have not. On October 8th, 2020, GamesIndustry.biz published an article, written by Brendan Sinclair, detailing former employees’ experiences of sexism, racism, and abuse within Twitch. These employees worked during separate eras of the company, dating back to when Twitch was known as Justin.tv.
A common sentiment shared among the employees is that Twitch is not welcoming towards women and that it has an “explicit tolerance for misogyny.” For example, it is common for women to be referred to as “bitches” in the office. After Amazon acquired Twitch in 2014 for $970 million, Twitch hired more women and marginalized groups, but Amazon's changes could not fix the inherent issues within Twitch . According to one employee, “The women on the platform were held to extreme standards, and it was always blamed on them if they used sexuality as marketing, and it was deeply degrading.” None of the employees who reported formally to HR or senior management members felt that their concerns were addressed and a number said they did not report out their incidents because they knew Twitch would not do anything.
In terms of racism, Twitch was not overtly racist so much as tolerant of racial slurs and racist attitudes on the platform. One executive made repeated racist comments towards Asian women on the team. Another example was the the year long fight in the company to get the n-word on the global ban list. A few years ago, Twitch released a global emote of a raccoon that was used to harass black people. A former Twitch product manager, Olivia Grace, noted that even though the emote “was being blatantly widely used for racist harassment,” (Grace 2020) Twitch CEO Emmett Shear refused to take the emotes down. Shear’s actions reflect that huge companies in the game industry, such as Twitch, encourage unsafe workplaces by neglecting to hold abusers accountable. In order to protect workers and prevent further normalization of abusive practices, consumers need to hold company executives to high standards and demand preventative actions.
Beyond the high racial tensions that have erupted this year, there needs to be substantial change in the game industry. The changes that the game industry has taken have been steps forward, but there needs to be more for there to be substantial change. The industry needs to hire diverse voices and also treat them better. When companies can be inclusive of people in the workplace and in their games, then consumers can see the substantial positive impacts of games.
Edited on 10/14/20: Added statements about Twitch following publication of a GamesIndustry.biz article regarding various workplace abuses.
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