Video game developers have a serious diversity problem — and the excuses aren't going to cut it anymore.
A 2016 survey from the International Game Developers Association found that approximately 72% of people working in the game industry are men, and 75% are white. As we've written previously, developers can begin tackling this problem by publishing diversity reports that show the demographic breakdown at each level of the company through hard data. But because these reports don't actually cause change in and of themselves, they're just a first step.
The next step is the hard part: hiring more underrepresented groups — women, people of color, LGBTQ folks — and trying to make sure employees reflect the demographics of the world at large. Convincing industry leaders to pursue that goal can be even more of a challenge. Over and over again, the refrain is the same: Diversity is at odds with quality.
But it's 2017, and that excuse doesn't hold water. Here's why.
The beloved meritocracy excuse is utter nonsense.
Most rebuttals to calls for more diversity go something like this: We should hire people based on their skills, not their gender, race or sexual orientation, right? Isn't the tech industry a meritocracy, where the best people succeed, period?
Former Blizzard Entertainment developer Mark Kern tweeted as much in response to Mic's earlier article on the lack of diversity in game development:
That's a nice idea, in theory. But the numbers demonstrate that game developers aren't hiring based on skill alone — that is, unless Kern believes white men are simply better at making video games than everyone else.
Clearly, there's something else going on. Say, maybe, toxic work culture or hiring discrimination? Which means people like Kern — who claim to care about skill above all else — should be concerned about the gaming industry's overwhelming majority of white, male employees. What if the best programmer in the world is a queer woman of color who felt unsafe in her first internship and quit the industry? A true meritocracy would allow someone like that the chance to compete for a position based purely on their skill level, and assure that they wouldn't have to endure an uncomfortable work environment if they got it. A gaming industry focused on rewarding merit would look more like the people who actually play these games.
The tech world likes to blame the "pipeline problem," the idea that they would love to hire minorities, but minority candidates simply aren't applying or don't exist. The bigger problem, though, is those who don't fit the industry's cultural stereotypes — who aren't straight white men — are discouraged from joining that world at every turn. For many applicants, discrimination begins before they can even get through the door. That's why it's important for companies to make diversity a priority and actively seek it out — and create welcoming work environments for diverse employees — rather than expecting it to fall into their laps.
Diversity benefits a company's bottom line.
Diversity isn't some amorphous, pie-in-the-sky goal that lacks tangible benefits, aside from giving people other than white men a chance at succeeding, of course. There's plenty of proof that diversity pays — literally.
Companies with more diverse workforces are more likely to "have financial returns above their national industry medians," according to consulting firm McKinsey and Company. In other words, diversity won't somehow hamstring a company's ability to make money in the name of social justice.
A more diverse game development company has a better chance of producing higher-quality products, too, due to simple group psychology. Racially diverse groups of individuals are more likely to be better at problem-solving than homogenous ones, according to a study at Tufts University that analyzed the performances of 200 participants across 29 mock juries of varying racial makeup. That study found that outcomes were most affected by how differently white people acted when nonwhite people were around — they paid more attention to details, made fewer mistakes and noticed more gaps in the evidence. Another study, published in the Harvard Business Review, found that increasing diversity can also boost innovation and drive market share growth.
But once a company decides it wants to make itself more diverse, simply putting that wish out into the world with good vibes and happy thoughts isn't enough. Diversification requires work.
Diversity is a choice. It doesn't just happen.
Tim Schafer — legendary game designer and head of Double Fine — realized this firsthand when he realized his company wasn't as diverse as it should be. To fix the problem, he put out a call on Double Fine's website "to specifically encourage folks from underrepresented groups" to apply for work.
"We're not diverse enough," Schafer told Mic in a Skype interview. "And that was part of our statement, that we saw a problem within our own company."
According to Schafer, the blog post helped spark a huge wave of applications from people Double Fine had never heard from before.
"We saw a big surge in our jobs application system, and people mentioned in their cover letters that it was that post that got them to apply," he said.
It also seemed to open a bunch of doors with other organizations that are likely to help diversify Double Fine's future applications.
"A lot of organizations in the Bay Area reached out to us and said, 'Hey, we're a group for minority game developers,' or, 'We're a school that has a very diverse student body, and you should come to our senior show or come judge our game jam,'" Schafer continued. "So, it's been really great for making those connections. We knew about some of the groups, but it just made some connections with groups I had never heard of before."
Schafer said the process taught him that injecting a company with diversity requires active effort. Simply expecting the best people to apply isn't enough — especially if your "About" page shows a workforce packed full of white dudes, which might be discouraging for anybody else.
"You have to actively go to the places where they might not know about you," Schafer said. "You can't expect everyone to read your Twitter account and look at your news page and find this stuff. You have to go to places where people haven't heard of you and talk to them."
Jessica Price, a Paizo Games producer who previously worked at Microsoft, told Mic she had an experience similar to Schafer's. After getting an overwhelmingly male pool of applicants for a set of three different game design positions, her company decided to take a more active approach.
"We thought about it, and went, 'OK, for starters, we're going to do a design test and it's going to be blind,'" Price said in a Skype interview. "'We're going to eliminate our own unconscious bias as much as we can from who we're picking, and we're also going to go out there and campaign. We're going to reach out to online communities that have a lot of women who work in games or who are interested in working in games.'"
It worked. After a more active hiring campaign dedicated to finding diverse applicants, the company filled all three positions with female employees who otherwise wouldn't have applied.
"When we did blind tests, [those three women] were the best at this," Price said. "But in order to get that, you have to put in a lot of effort reaching out, soul-searching and examining your own company culture to figure out what you can do so that women will trust enough to come and apply for jobs."
When game developers are ready to start taking diversity seriously, they're going to have to work to make it happen. It's not enough to just stand by and hope things align on their own. They're part of the problem — and it's time they start fixing it.
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