For many years, much of the industry has looked to Ukie when things get stormy, and more specifically to its CEO, Dr Jo Twist, OBE. Now a trade body’s job is a tricky one – both cheerleader and moral compass. It’s a role that can induce an overly-cautious approach, but Twist has been adept at blending considered political influence with tub-thumping rhetoric.
The passionate defender of the gaming faith is never short of a well-considered comment on any issue affecting the industry. So to really test her, we bundled up every disaster and problem of a constantly disastrous and problematic year and threw them all at her at once.
A PLAGUE TALE
The simple fact is the lethal pandemic has driven more people to play more games than ever, and been rather good for the bottom line of a lot of games companies. But is it unseemly to be celebrating our achievements, both cultural and fiscal, at such a time?
“I’m not sure it’s a question of celebrating,” Twist replies. “But I do think that in a few years, when we look back at this period, we may well consider these past few months as the defining moment for the industry,” she predicts.
“It’s true that many companies have risen to the challenge, managed to stay on course and in some circumstances, have thrived through the increased demand for games to play together during lockdown.
“But we have so much more to be proud of, not least, that at the start of the crisis the government and the World Health Organisation both reached out to us and the industry as a whole to ask for help in conveying the public health messages. The response from the industry was extraordinary and undoubtedly played a big part in getting the ‘Stay home, save lives’ message to millions of players across the country,” with such messaging appearing in numerous games, in order to best reach those demographics which traditional TV and print advertising struggle to target.
And the industry did its own version clapping NHS and care workers too with the Games for Carers campaign. “It was such a generous response from our industry for such a deserving group of people but was just one of many initiatives that companies initiated, providing support to individuals and organisations during the pandemic.
“In short, the industry stepped up to help those affected by the crisis. By demonstrating our care for our players and communities, as well as providing safe ways to have fun together while staying apart, we’ve been able to show that a successful games industry in the UK is good for the country at large.”
The country at large is now facing a potential period of unprecedented, even radical, change. We await to see not only the changes wrought by the pandemic itself but also how the greatest disruption to our daily routines (since the second world war) could shake up our society as a whole – with home working being high on the agenda.
Twist notes that most of Ukie’s members are working very differently right now. And that opens up both “opportunities and some challenges over the longer term and reveals some new stats.”
“In terms of opportunities, the industry’s mostly successful adaptation to a new set of circumstances does give room for positive innovation. Our Playing On report demonstrates that games businesses have managed to stay at 80 per cent productivity while working remotely, that a relatively small portion – about 17 per cent – accessed the furlough scheme and that nearly a quarter carried on hiring despite the crisis occurring around them.
Looking forward Twist feels that greater flexibility will suit some but not all.
“Companies will now appreciate and embrace the greater flexibility on how they can reshape their working practices, as well as their work places if they have them, and hopefully that will mean the industry is more attractive to a more diverse range of people,” with both diverse individuals and those from more remote regions and locations potentially benefiting from such changes.
“My only note of caution is that remote working does not suit everyone. Many who work in our industry are young and their work life is a big part of their social life. Many will live in shared accommodation where working from home is not easy. So we have to be mindful that this is not one size fits all and that a flexible approach may be the best one.”
BUSINESS (FLIGHTS) AS USUAL?
After a year off the usual long-haul flights to GDC and E3 (plus as many more shows around Europe as we find time to attend) now seems like a good opportunity to reassess the industry’s need for events. Twist notes that large parts of the industry have struggled without them, though.
“We’ve seen there is an appetite to attend events because people recognise the benefits of doing so. Our forthcoming Playing On report, which looks at the impact of COVID-19 on games businesses, shows that 56 per cent of businesses have had difficulties attracting investment and over half have had trouble reaching press without events – something which does need to be rectified.
“We must do all we can to make sure black voices are heard at the top of the industry, to make black people working at all levels in games feel included.”
“That said, a return to business as usual will be unlikely for some time. It’s possible to make conference rooms and even exhibition spaces relatively safe but much harder in breakout areas and social spaces where so much networking traditionally takes place,” personally we miss the random meetings that occur in bars. “But I’m sure in time we’ll find ways to adapt trade events to that reality, because safety comes first.
“In the meantime there have been a number of successful digital events which still enable ideas to be exchanged and provide companies with the platform they need to shine and thrive. We also think that progressive policy ideas – such as an expansion to the UK Games Fund to support the creation of new IP – could provide smart solutions to some of the challenges presented by the current environment.”
BLACK LIVES MATTER
While 2020 brought all new issues to overcome, longer-running issues also returned. Most notable were the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests which swept the globe. With the industry recognising their import by delaying some of their biggest announcements of the year – a thankfully easier decision than it could have been, given the industry wasn’t all gathered in Los Angeles this year.
“Racism and abuse has no place in our industry,” Twist states. “We must do all we can to make sure black voices are heard at the top of the industry, to make black people working at all levels in games feel safe and included and that we inspire black people to work in games from the earliest age possible.
“We need to improve representation of black people, stories and life experiences in games, but it’s also essential to eradicate toxicity from communities and to use – as many games companies did – statements and in game messaging to show clearly our industry stands in support of black people,” something that EA doubled-down on with its recent Positive Play Charter.
“We’ll continue to highlight these actions through our channels and our work too. The best way to improve diversity is to encourage best practice, profile fantastic talent in our sector, celebrate positive action and use that positivity to bring more people with us,” that’s a great summary, but most will need help to achieve it.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of resources, funding pools and other initiatives driven by industry – both in companies and in our communities – that aim to embed the spirit of the movement into the sector,” Twist replies, adding “We all need to commit to do this together.”
From what we see commitment isn’t an issue when you speak to people. Although we do worry that the industry has a particular issue with diversity, one that’s born out if you delve into the numbers.
“The Ukie Diversity Census from February 2020 showed that while black and asian representation in the games industry was in line with the working age average, black representation [alone] wasn’t. It stood at 2 per cent compared to 3.4 per cent in the overall working age population, with the report revealing that black people were less represented in senior decision making positions.
“This shows that we have work to do. I said earlier this year that diversity isn’t a nicety, it’s a necessity and we’re sticking to that.”
Although certainly part of a much bigger problem, games cannot sit back and say the problem is bigger than it. “Whether or not there is a wider societal issue at play, we can do more to encourage black people to come into the industry when they’re still thinking about jobs, and do more to nurture working environments that attracts talent, retains it and develops people.”
And Twist lays out Ukie’s plan for this: “We’re aiming to do this through continuing to push the guidance of the RaiseTheGame pledge to foster inclusive working environments, to further diversify the work of Ukie’s education initiatives to reach black and Asian communities and to support organisations such as POC in Play and BAME in Games in their work.
“It’s important that while we acknowledge that we won’t be able to solve problems in society at large, there is plenty we can do together. We are such a powerful communications medium and we should use it. If we do that, then we should be able to make a positive difference.”
And that seems to be the crux of it for games. The industry may have a mountain to climb itself, but in doing so it can then make the games that help initiate a broader, societal change, if we can change, then we can be a catalyst for further change. Which makes it all the more important that we lead, not follow, in this ongoing fight.
In another ‘ongoing fight’ not too far away, fresh allegations of sexual harassment have been a key feature of the news over the last few months, most notably at Ubisoft – which just goes to show that even the most professional-looking organisation can have serious issues. So how can the industry move forward?
“It’s painful that in 2020 we’re hearing some of the testimonies that have been aired recently. It’s crucial that we ensure there is no place for this kind of behavior within our industry and in society as a whole.
“Whilst this is an issue that is created by individuals, companies have a responsibility and a duty of care to do all they can to root out those that offend and provide safe ways of reporting for people. Sexual harassment, bullying and sexual abuse in all its forms is not acceptable, and we are totally unequivocal about that.
We see the problem as something of a vicious circle too. High-profile revelations put off women thinking of joining the sector, which in turn perpetuates the male dominance and so increases the likelihood of further revelations. But Twist is somewhat more hopeful:
“I’m hoping that in light of these revelations women and anyone encountering this kind of abuse are beginning to feel stronger. This is an issue that grows more powerful and insidious in the dark. The light that is being shone on companies and behaviour at the moment, whilst uncomfortable, creates change.
“We have to be careful how these stories are aired but I hope people are gaining more courage to come forward and report wrongdoing where it occurs. There is always more to be done and we are looking at what that is.”
Again I ask Twist whether she thinks games have a specific issue when it comes to the issue, compared to similar industries. After all, it’s fairly easy to draw a line between Hollywood’s issues and cinema’s objectification of women.
“Whilst this is an issue that is created by individuals, companies have a responsibility and a duty of care to do all they can to root out those that offend.”
“I don’t think the games industry has an exceptional issue, it just has an issue, like many other industries with sexual harassment and equality,” replies Twist. “As the Ukie Diversity Census shows, the number of women in games is below the national working average at 28%, there are fewer women in leadership roles and there isn’t a single discipline in the industry where there is an even gender split.”
“This means that we’ve got to take a similar approach to getting more women into games as we do with encouraging more black people to get into the sector to help tackle the problem.
“Improving representation of women in games, strengthening the hiring and retention of women within the sector and getting more women thinking about a career in games, and having more diverse voices in leadership and decision making roles will all play major roles in reshaping the industry culture.”
Which are reasons why we’re launching this year’s Women in Games Awards this month, which last year was hosted by Twist.
“But while that takes time to achieve, we must do everything we can to stamp out sexual harassment in the sector. It is unacceptable and abhorrent and it has no place in our sector at all,” Twist says emphatically.
SHOOT AND LOOT
While not as long-running a problem, loot boxes, like the undoubtedly more serious issues above, do seem to keep on coming back. Just this month we’ve had the Lords take a pop at the industry, seeming to tar everyone with a swipe at the monetisation strategy. And then the EU launched a new, and more level-headed, report.
Twist is sympathetic to parental concerns: “We know parents are concerned about spend from our own research. 56 per cent of parents who responded to a survey we conducted with YouGov in December 2019 showed that parents were worried about in game spend or time spent playing. So there’s a perception there’s a problem with in-game spend. And as we saw with the debate around video game violence in the 1990s and 2000s, the best way to counter that is through compassionate, meaningful action to deal with concerns and allow time for the evidence base to develop.
Twist points to Ukie’s Get Smart About P.L.A.Y. campaign on family controls, the paid random item descriptor in the PEGI age rating system, and the platform level commitment to disclose probability rates for in game items, as steps in the right direction.
All these attempts to tackle the issue through education, though, don’t seem to have solved the problem, or at least the perception of the problem. With the industry repeatedly linked, unfairly in our eyes, to gambling, and so weak Twist whether the threat of new legislation is real?
“There is a pervading myth that the industry is not regulated – it is. Companies in the sector are already extensively regulated, ranging from being covered under the PEGI age rating system to following consumer and markets law through to data protection.
“The Government also continues to regulate the industry as a result of an increasing focus on developments in the digital sphere. We’ve seen that there has been a willingness to do so through both the Online Harms White Paper and the Age Appropriate design code, which we constructively contributed to through the work of our policy team and the consultation process
“So when we consider the developments of the past year, we must accept that there could be evidence pointing to the need for further regulation, and we need to be prepared for that eventuality… [and] we are doing that.
“It’s essential that regulatory decisions are based on robust, objective information and we need to make that argument… But as the Government prepares to enter a formal review process around loot boxes this Summer, we must listen to our audiences and respond to their concerns to ensure that trust in self regulation remains. We’re looking forward to the process beginning and are ready to contribute to it.”
Returning to gambling connection, Twist is clear that there’s a definite division to be established here: “This is a real challenge. At Ukie, we actively avoid using the term ‘gaming’ because the gambling industry has appropriated the term,” that’s proven by the sheer number of ‘gaming’ related emails MCV/DEVELOP receives every week.
“But I do think the industry could do more to help us. We need to think really carefully about the imagery and iconography we use around in-game spend to ensure we don’t fan the flames further.” We’ve also seen classic IPs licensed out to online slots machines of late, further muddying the waters. We also need to continue to show the great self-regulatory work we’ve done much more effectively through our games and platforms. There is some great work being done in this area by developers and platform holders, but I think we can – and must – go further to tackle the conflation head on.”
All that leaves little time for Brexit. But Twist did have a few words: “If we’ve learned one thing from the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that games businesses are resilient and adaptable in the face of challenging circumstances.
“Brexit certainly is, and remains, one of those. Our preference now is that the government secures a deal with the EU that minimises disruption to data flows, and creates a world class immigration system that does not put up unnecessary time, money and administrative barriers to hiring the best and brightest.
“While we’ll work constructively with industry to prepare them for the impact of Brexit on their businesses, greater clarity from Government on what Brexit will mean as soon as possible will help avoid the risk of a painful double blow to businesses in 2020.”
Out of the fire and into the frying pan. But with Twist in charge, we’ll have someone capable representing the industry, helping guide it as a force for good throughout the seemingly endless issues that beset us all.