Xbox has been a progressive force in the industry of late. Its dual-tiered console strategy is innovative, the EA Play deal furthered its ambitions to change the way games are distributed, and the Bethesda acquisition is the most exciting in years, potentially redefining the term first-party.
And now, just as crucially, the platform is making another positive progressive move, with the announcement of Women of Xbox – United Kingdom.
The new group is formed of women from right across the Xbox family in the UK. With representatives from across all disciplines of games development at Rare, Playground Games and Ninja Theory, as well as other Xbox teams. We caught up with Rare’s Louise O’Connor, executive producer on Everwild, to discuss the founding and aims of the new group.
“I’ve been working at Rare for a long time and been a part of the Women in Games group at Rare,” O’Connor tells us (as well as being a brilliant keynote speaker at last year’s Women in Games Awards). But that group found new allies with the huge growth of Xbox game Studios which started in 2018.
“We wanted to use this opportunity of partnering with our sister studios, with Ninja, with Playground, with the Xbox teams in London and Reading, and just build a community of women, that is a support network for the women that are already in the industry, but also as an inspiration for girls and women who want to get into the industry. And offer them our perspective on what it’s like to be in the industry.”
That’s something which is much needed at present, as the media discussion of women in games has had a decidedly toxic air about it during 2020. And while there are issues, O’Connor explains that there’s space for celebration as well.
“This group of women have come together to celebrate the diversity that we have, the way the industry has changed and grown. And there is a celebration in that, we have to be proud of all the work that we’ve put in. And we have to be proud of the fact that we are willing to put more work in to continue to drive diversity across our studios. And so we have to celebrate that.
“There’s no room and no space for toxicity, or bad behaviour in our business and in our communities. And so I think this is a great opportunity for us to talk about the fact that this is a great industry to be a part of, there is nothing to stop any woman thriving, to have a great career. And to feel included and be creative, to have an opportunity to do anything that they want to do in the games industry.
“And I will climb to the top of the highest mountain – well maybe not the highest mountain because I’m not a very good climber,” she laughs, “but I will go somewhere really high. And I will shout it from the top of it, that this is a great industry to be in.”
“The goal will be to really think about how we can use our games, our platforms, and our communities, our social platforms to really make a difference in our industry and in our products.”
Our feeling is that women’s standing in our industry has improved immensely over the last 20 years. However, to make such progress it becomes necessary to shine a light on some pretty ugly stuff. Which in turn could make some outside think that things are getting worse rather than better, when overall the opposite is true over the long term.
“I think that’s very true,” replies O’Connor. “It’s certainly a very different place to what it was, a very different industry. I actually feel quite privileged to have been part of that journey, to see first hand how it’s evolved, I hope that I can inspire people coming into the industry to know that it’s ever changing. And it’s so willing to grow and learn and continues to want to do that.
“We’ve worked really hard, and this is my personal take, but I think it’s because our audiences have changed. A long time ago, it was a boy’s world. And that’s so not true right now – girls are pirates, too,” quips O’Connor in reference to Rare’s own Sea of Thieves. “ And I think that that’s the important change. It is our audience. And I think our industry needs to change to reflect our audience. And that’s what’s happened over the last 20 odd years.”
Now that may sound like a long, slow grind, but O’Connor thinks that games are actually transforming faster than many similar industries.
“When you think about us as an entertainment industry, I think the games industry is so fast paced, compared to things like the movie industry, it’s one of the reasons I love working in it.
“What I see now is an industry that is willing to self reflect and make changes, they want to diversify, they want to see representation in games, and they want to be inclusive, they want to be accessible. I feel that as an industry that we’ve evolved, like this idea of gaming for good. Really thinking about our audience and our players and trying to get as many players into our games, giving them the opportunity to play the things that we’ve worked so hard to build and make. That’s what I love about what we do.”
It’s still early days for Women of Xbox, but the very fact that Microsoft has chosen to champion what could have been a wholly inward-looking initiative is very promising. So what does the organisation have planned?
“The initial idea was we really wanted to do an event and have people come and meet up. But obviously we can’t do that,” explains O’Connor. So instead it’s decided to start with a series of videos, letting the Women of Xbox talk openly about their industry, with the first being, naturally, how they got started in games.
“We wanted it to feel like a panel discussion. So we’ve got a group of women from across the studios, from a variety of different disciplines, and all at different levels, who have come into the industry in lots of different ways. And just talking about their own experiences getting into the industry and hopefully sharing some useful nuggets of information and insight.”
“We’re very lucky to have a great amount of support from people around the different studios to help us create this,” she adds, “We’re all together in one group.”
Future topics are still up for debate: “We want to work with all the women across the studios to really think about what kinds of topics we’d like to talk about in the future. And then we’ll continue to make videos and do panel discussions and hopefully talk about things that you don’t normally talk about in the games industry because they’re coming from very different perspectives, and can hopefully give some insight into just being in the games industry, which are relevant to everybody.
“And we’re thinking not just about the workplace and how essential it is to have a diverse workplace environment. But the amazing communities that we create as a result of these games that we’re releasing.”
Beyond that the’re an awful lot more that the group could undertake of course, connecting the initiative to in-game content for instance, or launching paid internships to pro-actively improve diversity.
“This is exactly the kind of stuff that we’re discussing. At the moment, we’re just in that ideas gathering phase. There’s a selection of things that we’ve started to target, that we feel are achievable, right now, and then as we grow this group, and we build, the goal will be to really think about how we can use our games, our platforms, and our communities, our social platforms to really make a difference in our industry and in our products.”
Rare and Ninja Theory both have been exemplars in terms of engaging with women through their games, and it will be interesting to see how they both, along with Playground Game’s upcoming Fable, continue to evolve in that respect in the years to come.
“With my project and what I do in my studio, I believe in the power of diversity and the teams because I think we represent our audience far better in that respect. And that’s how we make great games. And that’s how we make different things.
“I believe in the power of being creative with a diverse team, to really think differently about what our audience wants and needs and expects. I get really excited about the future of the industry. And I’m someone who’s, you know, I’m old school. But the future is bright. There’s so many opportunities for new experiences that we could present to our players and new audiences that we can bring into our platforms.
“And we’re thinking not just about the workplace and how essential it is to have a diverse workplace environment. But the amazing communities that we create as a result of these games that we’re releasing. And I get really excited about all of that. The future is ours to take! Let go do it! Let’s go diversify our teams. Let’s go build our industry up, let’s go shine a light on the great things that we do.”