As we were going to press for our April issue, technical producer at Harebrained Schemes JC Lau had just finished giving her GDC talk. But before she reached that point, she had to queue to pick up her speaker badge – nothing unusual here you might think. But when you’re a person of colour in the games industry, even something as mundane as that can be a hurdle.
While queuing, on three separate instances, security guards approached her to point out the line was for speakers only. She explained on Twitter: “I didn’t see any security asking the white men in the line if they were speakers. I asked the guard if he also asked the guy in the line behind me if he was a speaker. He vaguely announced that it was the speaker line. Yes, I know I’m in the speaker line. Because I’m a speaker.”
She continued: “Now, I’m a short woman of colour with pink hair. I probably dress young for my age. But despite that, I can’t help but think: do I not look like a game developer, let alone one that would speak at a professional conference?”
JC Lau’s experience at GDC was shared thousands of times on Twitter, with the hashtag #WhatAGameDevLooksLike getting hundreds and hundreds of reactions – with many sharing similar stories. She then highlighted the irony of the situation: she was at GDC to speak on a panel about building an inclusive game studio culture.
And that is why we need organisations like POC in Play, which launched in the UK at the end of February. Co-founded by Azoomee’s games manager and BAFTA member Adam Campbell and indie developer and games journalist Chella Ramanan (soon to be Massive Entertainment’s junior narrative designer), in partnership with Ustwo Games, it aims at addressing the lack of representation and inclusion of people of colour in the UK games industry.
But in order to increase diversity, it would help to have the right data upon which we could build practical measures. And that’s where it starts getting sour already.
“One of the big problems with diversity statistics is that they’re very outdated. Not many organisations actually commission this kind of research partly because the priority is not seen as very high,” Campbell starts explaining. “The last UK-based thing we had was a Creative Skillset survey back in 2015.”
In an industry as fast paced as games, four years feels like a lifetime – picture this: 2015 is pre-Overwatch games industry. Back then the Switch was only known as the ‘NX’ and Hideo Kojima was still working at Konami.
That Creative Skillset survey from 2015 stated that four per cent of people in the UK games industry were black, Asian, and minority ethnic.
“That was actually a reduction of half a percent on 2012,” Campbell points out. “A more international-based survey by IGDA in 2017 stated there was less than one per cent black people in the games industry globally.
“In terms of what I’ve seen over the years it’s quite interesting because I’ve seen some improvement but at the same time none at all. When I started in games back in 2009, I remember the first ever games job I had, in a fairly big studio – about 300 or 400 people – I think I was the only black person. One thing that’s been very persistent over the years, even though I’ve started to see more diversity, is that people of colour in leadership positions are still very much absent across the board. So there hasn’t been a huge change over the years but I think there’s a lot more visibility about the issue in general.”
Ramanan’s work history is in the same vein.
“My experience in the industry is I’ve usually been the only woman and the only person of colour in the room often times,” she tells MCV. “In terms of journalism, I did a shout out last year to find more women of colour in the UK games media and there were basically three black women, which I was really shocked by. So it’s not just in terms of development and production of games, it’s actually writing about games as well. There are a lot of areas where we need to make inroads, and of course that leads into representation in the games themselves.”
Representation on screen is one of the many steps that should be taken that could lead to better representation behind the scenes, Ramanan continues.
“There is no ‘first step’, there’s got to be multiple steps,” she says. “We have to accept the status quo that the current gatekeepers of the stories we’re telling and the characters that are in those stories are primarily white middle class guys. So we need to ask them to write more representative stories, to not only put black men in urban, American gang culture types scenarios, to not perpetuate stereotypes of east Asian women being submissive or being really good at kung fu… Just being mindful of the way they’re telling stories or even just thinking about their character being, I don’t know, Afro-Brazilian or Egyptian. That’s just a key step because then when people see themselves represented in games they’ll think: ‘Well, maybe I can write a game!’ and that’s what we want – we want more people entering the industry and to create an industry that supports them once there are here.”
To achieve this, the role of the education pipeline is crucial, to encourage young people of colour to join the right curriculum but also make sure the games industry is depicted as a viable career path to them.
“The education pipeline is super important, if not the most important thing to get more people in the industry,” Campbell agrees. “There are a lot of good colleges and universities that do fantastic digital and games courses but unfortunately there are still fundamental structural issues which exist within the industry, within the education pipeline, perhaps within the approach of educators.”
There’s an easy response to this though – and it has to come from the industry.
“One of the potential solutions is trying to get more people from the industry into schools that have underrepresented people,” Campbell says.
Connecting with schools would also allow studios to help with getting rid of “cultural pressures which may also influence the type of careers that people are going to choose,” he continues, adding that speakers could “explain to the population who don’t see video games or programming in games as proper careers” that they indeed are.
BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER
The first practical step for POC in Play is to organise monthly meet-ups, with the inaugural meeting having happened recently, at Ustwo’s London studio.
“By having a major monthly meet-up we have this direct hub where we can bring people of all walks of life to learn more about the industry, to connect to each other. Even if you don’t work in the games industry, it’s a place where you can have that sharing of knowledge and experiences and ideas,” Campbell explains. “And that will help inspire people to get into the industry. We’ll bring on speakers as well, to pass their knowledge, and we’ve also got plans for workshops where you can directly tackle some of those fundamental skills gaps that some individuals entering the games industry will potentially have and also look into things which specifically affect ethnic minorities and people of colour.”
Ramanan is keen to highlight that POC in Play will not only be London-focused, with the monthly meet-ups stepping outside of the capital as soon as possible: “We’re looking for support, regional partners who might have a studio or a space, maybe in Birmingham or Manchester, or one of the major hubs outside London, because that’s a really important aspect of reaching more people,” she says.
Companies who are interested in partnering with POC in Play can get in touch at email@example.com, whether that’s to offer a space to organise a meet-up or to get involved in a workshop.
“We’re interested in practical solutions for developers as well as recruitment,” Ramanan continues. “Recruitment is one step of the entire process which then leads towards culture change within the industry so that there isn’t a loss of talent. Recruitment and retention of talent are a key focus. We can offer our perspective about things like where to use your advert, as the games industry tends to share job opportunities within its own confines, which means that access gets lost to a lot of people.
“POC in Play can help bring down some of those walls. For instance, the language you use in your job adverts can also mean that people self select themselves out. Maybe the faces you’re using to represent your studio in your advert, if they’re overwhelmingly white men, then you’re going to get that self selection process again because it might not be a welcoming space. Things like that are practical tips we can offer.”
Campbell adds: “When it comes to recruiting diverse talent, it’s always one of those things about which many games studio managers constantly say: ‘I just don’t know how to recruit enough people of colour’ or ‘I don’t know how to recruit enough women’. And I think directly engaging with these guys and organisations is the strongest avenue we have. We can definitely help with those perspectives.”
Adam Campbell and Chella Ramanan are not alone to carry out this mission, of course. POC in Play’s launch team also includes freelance UX analyst Nida Ahmad, Ustwo Games’ Mike Anderson, Teazelcat Games’ Jodie Azhar, Altered Gene’s Des Gayle and Foam Sword’s Moo Yu.
As we briefly discuss Mike Anderson’s experience as a BAFTA winning producer for Monument Valley, and being the only black person on stage that day, the discussion broadens to other entertainment industries and whether or not the film industry, for instance, is doing better than the games industry in terms of inclusion.
“I think the film industry is not as far ahead as it sometimes appears,” Ramanan tells us. “I mean today on Twitter I saw black actors complaining that they have to do their own hair because the hairdressers provided can’t do that or can’t do their makeup. Even though it’s a fundamental step. Cinema is 100 years old and you can’t put makeup on people…” she says with a sigh. “I think there are lessons to be learnt but we turn to Hollywood so much and repeat their mistakes.”
“Music is interesting because different regions have exported powerful genres. And the diaspora of those different communities have continued it and adapted it. But we don’t really have that in the video games industry.”
In the music industry, it’s a different story altogether, but one we can definitely learn lessons from as well, as Campbell highlights.
“The age of those industries perhaps changes things slightly. Music is interesting because the background in culture has really strongly influenced some of the genres that became popular,” he starts explaining. “So if you think about R&B or dance hall or reggae, you can see different regions which have exported these powerful genres. And the diaspora of those different communities have continued it and adapted it. But the difference is that we don’t really have that in the video games industry.
“Not that long ago there wasn’t really much of a video games industry in Africa for instance. The industry is mostly dominated by the USA and Japan, with Europe in-between. So you don’t really have that same kind of: ‘Oh this is a unique genre that comes out of this region’. ”
Mentioning how the games industry is “more insular” than music or film, he then continues: “One of the things that is good is that people often say that if you have a video camera you can make a film and that opens up access to everyone via YouTube. And games are starting to go in the same direction. There’s a democratisation of games in terms of how we can make them. It’s a still a privilege to have access to a computer but if you do have access to a computer you can now get major game technologies for free. That’s a powerful change in our industry.”
Ramanan nods: “If you look at the strengths of the UK games industry, the voice it produces is not quintessentially British.You know, we’re not producing Downton Abbey: The Video Game. If you look at TV and film, there is a certain Britishness quite often in the films we produce but it’s not the same in games. It’s quite a different beast – we don’t have a sort of world games sector like cinema has. Everyone expects it to conform to this western cultural ideal.”
Maybe that’s one of the steps that need to happen then: the games industry hasn’t reached that level of maturity and globality for it to be more inclusive. But we’re hopefully getting there.
“I have a feeling it won’t happen naturally,” Ramanan however points out. “We need to help it… Smartphones, access to technology and game making tools are going to create those thriving indie markets hopefully, which will then ingrain in the bigger industries.”