Glance at last year’s big releases and you might think video games have cracked the issue of diversity. Two of 2016’s most acclaimed action adventures Mafia III and Watchdogs 2 both had black male leads, while Mirror’s Edge 2, Uncharted 4 and indie game, Virginia, all featured women of colour. This year, we have flagship PlayStation4 title Horizon Zero Dawn as well as Gravity Rush 2, Nier Automata and Tacoma, all showcasing female protagonists. But look beyond the games and into the companies that make them, and you get a very different picture. Representation is still very much a problem.
In an age where a whole generation is taking its cultural cues and influences from games, this has vital importance even outside of the industry. Video games now make $90bn (£74bn) a year worldwide, dwarfing the cinema and movie businesses. According to figures from industry trade body UKIE, 50% of the UK population plays games, a figure rising to 99% among 8-15-year-olds. The growing popularity of games – on PC, console, smartphone and tablets – has also led to a surge in young people seeking to work in the industry: over 60 UK universities provide undergraduate and masters degrees in games development. But who are the people guiding this inspirational and pervasive cultural sector?
Put it this way: if you live in the west and work in games, you’re probably white, straight, male and middle-class. The latest figures from games industry trade body, TIGA, show that just 14% of people working in the UK games industry are women (the ratio is more or less the same in the US).
Looking at the most recent figures, the picture is pretty depressing when considering ethnic diversity. A Creative Skillset report shows that BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) industry representation stood at 4% in 2015, down from 4.7% the previous year. This is lower than the UK average of 10% and significantly lower than the London average of 40% (2011 Census data). Considering that 37% of the UK industry is located in London, this highlights the level of under-representation for ethnic minority groups.
The toxic status quo
There are three basic interlocking problems here. First, the current games industry represents a vicious circle of under-representation that is familiar across the whole of tech: the less that young women and people of colour see themselves represented in the sector, the less they’re likely to apply for jobs. “Society doesn’t see technical women enough so it’s assumed that they don’t exist and ‘technology isn’t something women do’,” says Anne-Marie Imafidon, co-founder of Stemettes, a group offering free Stem workshops and events for young women. “These attitudes and social norms permeate decisions made at all levels so women aren’t hired, promoted or given positions of responsibility and the cycle continues.”
There is also a problem of culture. The mainstream industry has spent years pandering to a hardcore demographic of young men, but when aspects of that audience indulge in abusive and threatening behaviour online, via social media and gaming forums, there’s very little comeback from the major publishers. “Gamergate is an example of the shortcomings,” says Damilola Odelola founder of another diversity initiative, Blackgirl.tech, which provides free workshops introducing black women to technology, including virtual reality and coding. “There was a public outcry, but the issue wasn’t addressed properly by the industry. The reaction felt superficial.”
Finally, there is a problem with institutional discrimination and abuse. In 2015, The Gender Balance Workforce Survey, conducted by the Next Gen Skills Academy, surveyed around 40% of the women working in games in the UK and found that 45% felt that their gender was a limiting factor in their career progression, while 33% said they’d experienced direct harassment or bullying because of their gender.
The education gap
So how can things change? A key element is going to be challenging the dominant culture by attracting more young women and people of colour into the industry. But that’s easier said than done. Industry insiders argue that they just don’t have the candidates coming through at the recruitment stage, due to a lack of women studying computer science or other tech subjects at graduate level. Dr Richard Wilson CEO for TIGA sees education as a key issue, “The video games industry depends upon highly skilled, highly talented and highly qualified people to create games. Typically, 80% of the workforce is qualified to degree level or above, but the proportion of women studying subjects such as computer science or games programming courses is low. There is only a comparatively small pool of potential female employees available to work in the games industry.”
When it comes to education, figures show that in 2015 grammar schools were much more likely to offer computing than non-selective state schools: 53.1% compared to 31.7% of schools at GCSE, and 46% compared to 24.7% at A Level (The Roehampton Annual Computing Education Report 2015). If more grammar schools are offering computer science, then clearly, the students coming through won’t be representative of the wider population, particularly kids from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This is particularly pertinent, if you consider that around two-fifths of people from ethnic minorities live in low-income households, twice the rate for white people (Institute of Race Relations Housing and Employment 2012/13).
The Roehampton report looks at the uptake of the new computer science qualifications at GCSE and A-level, which replaced ICT with the aim of delivering a more technical curriculum, including programming. Crucially, the study goes beyond the well-reported gender differences and looks at different types of schools and students, including a breakdown of ethnicities, location and kids receiving free school meals to broaden the diversity picture. Looking at ethnicity, black children don’t seem to have as much access to computer science, while Chinese students are overrepresented, which could be due to cultural backgrounds or simply the schools they go to.
Quinland Anderson is a business teacher in Hackney, helping IT students into the world of work and highlights the issue of access as a barrier for some kids. “One of the main challenges with teaching children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds is that they often don’t have some of the most basic of resources at home that many of us take for granted,” says Anderson, “Some kids don’t even have an internet connection. Some don’t have computers or a space to work in. Many students can barely access games and entertainment, let alone other aspects of IT.”
The provision of computing at schools varies across the country, but there’s a clear gender divide with boys’ and mixed schools more likely to offer computing than girls’ schools. Only 19.6% of girls-only schools offered computing, falling to 9.3% at A-level. In contrast, 31.6% of boys-only and 29% of mixed schools offered computing at GCSE rising to 43.7% and 24.5% at A-level. This is before students even make their subject choices, limiting access for girls straight away. One in five of all students studying Stem at UK universities in 2012/13 was from a British BAME background, so representation is high at degree level. However the gender imbalance is stark, with 82% of the computer science cohort being male and only 18% women.
Peter Kemp, senior lecturer and head of the research project underlines the importance of early access and uptake of computing. “The GCSE will naturally lead into the A-Level and also into degree level because not all places will offer computing at A-Level. So, if you don’t get the GCSE intake right, then you’re going to see a very skewed intake into computing careers because of that.”
Breaking the cycle
So, how does the industry break the cycle of limited access at school age leading to limited diversity of graduates, leading to the homogeneity of the games workforce? The promising news is that employers and trade bodies are working to redress the balance with a range of initiatives and programmes designed to support existing talent from minority groups and encourage a wider range of applicants to enter the industry.
At this year’s Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Ubisoft hosted a panel called “World building: the power of developers in representing diversity”. Ubisoft is a games publisher keen to be recognised for its multicultural development teams, even pointing this factor out in the loading screens of its games. “As an industry, we know we can do better in talking openly about the challenges women and minorities face in this business and in finding solutions,” says Giselle Stewart, Ubisoft’s director of UK corporate affairs. “Being able to tap into that breadth of backgrounds and experiences helps us create immersive, credible game worlds for our players, who are themselves an increasingly diverse group.”
She also recognises the importance of reaching children, parents and influencers before they make their subject choices in education. “It starts at a very young age; the choice of subjects at school and parental influence can play a huge role in the likelihood of girls and minorities applying themselves to pursuing studies that are relevant to our industry,” she says. “These students will help to shape the future of our industry, and will play an important role in increasing diversity and representation among game developers. That in turn will play a role in increasing the diversity of games themselves.”
Dominic Matthews, product developer at Ninja Theory, the studio behind the upcoming Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, agrees that developers and publishers have a role to play and sees independent studios as real agents for change. “Independent games can now be created with a smaller audience in mind and with less pressure to appeal to the mainstream male-dominated audience.
My hope is that greater diversity in the games themselves will result in greater diversity within the fan base and ultimately greater diversity in those that end up making the games of the future.”
While it can be argued that the interest begins with representation in games themselves, the form that representation takes also matters. “When there’s no representation in the products or the industry, what we’re saying is that this only belongs to a certain group of people,” says Odelola. “And often when a female character is represented she’s a stereotype or a caricature, which just reinforces that idea.
“We’re also saying that certain things can only be done by white men. When a woman or girl of colour enjoys a game and she finds out the only people who worked on that product were white men, she may think that’s not something she can do. She’s being told she’s a consumer not a creator, which is not true. The women who come to our workshops are so happy to see people who look like them. Seeing a black woman doing something that they’ve been told is hard or impossible is so important.”
So industry mentoring – working with coding groups and making it clear diverse people work in the industry – is vital. Furthermore, lifting the lid on games and how they are made is a way to help attract a broader range of talent to the sector, beyond those interested in programming. Young people may not realise that games are about music, art, performance and animation, as well as coding. According to Matthews, Ninja Theory is trying to change things by sharing the creative process of its games in talks at schools and universities.
There is support available for studios attempting to reach out. BAME in Gameswas launched in 2016 and aims to build a visible network of existing talent to help make the games industry an attractive place to work and encourage discussion and collaboration surrounding diversity. Group Chair, Kish Hirani recognises that it’s difficult for employers to know how to reach out to minority groups. “Every employer wants to hire the best. The BAME in Games social media group encourages employers to post vacancies in the hope that they can actively reach out to ethnic minorities to apply for positions as well as posting on regular job vacancy sites and via agencies.”
Odelola argues that there is black talent available now, but the games industry just isn’t looking in the right places or the recruitment process is excluding them. “There are black people now who could do the job, but if you are only looking for candidates from the same places and you know they are predominately male and white, then you’re not going to reach diverse communities.” For people in education, strong relationships with employers are invaluable. Anderson stresses this: “It would really help to have good links with firms in IT and gaming so that there might be placement opportunities for our students.”
Reaching beyond the old boys’ network
But garnering that spark of interest is only one part of the long journey from school to a successful career in games. New Bafta research, commissioned in partnership with Creative Skillset and the BFI, highlights that minority groups often have to go above and beyond what’s expected from their peers in the creative industries, due to company structures, recruitment practices and mindsets that create additional barriers for them. With a culture that values fitting in and who you know, the report notes that this remains a major barrier to increasing diversity and needs to be challenged in a concerted and consistent way.
Based on the findings, Bafta is developing new initiatives, practices and policies, and enhancing existing ones, such as its Bafta Young Game Designers programme which seeks to support and discover emerging talent by holding a schools coding competition. A spokesperson told us: “We actively encourage individuals from under-represented groups to apply for Bafta membership and other networking, support and showcasing opportunities, including Bafta Game Crew, Bafta Breakthrough Brits and the Bafta Scholarship Programme.”
Meanwhile, Tiga has added a Diversity category to its annual Games Industry Awards. Wilson argues that this encourages other games businesses to adopt similar examples of excellence and helps raise awareness of diversity as an important issue.
The industry is making progress then, but it’s slow because the culture is so deeply ingrained. “Gaming consoles were marketed so heavily to young men in the ‘80s that the industry has taken a while to grow beyond that demographic,” says Imafidon, who feels the industry could show its support by investing in programmes like Blackgirl.tech and Stemettes (there are US equivalents too, including Black Girls Code). “Diverse game makers are financially reaping the rewards of going beyond stereotypes and doing things differently.”
Odelola admits that time and money are vital, but she too wants a stronger demonstration of commitment to diversity. “The industry isn’t bold enough. This industry talks about diversity so much, but gender diversity is the dominant topic, so they’re hiring white women. The industry fails to recognise the privilege of their race: how it helps you get funding, how it helps you to take risks and to be trusted by other people. The tech sector is the future, but it’s way behind in terms of social understanding.”
The games industry can’t just sit back, shrug and complain that talent isn’t coming forward – it needs to get out there and show young people from diverse backgrounds that they’re welcome. Even more importantly, developers need to nurture an environment that backs this up. “It’s about creating a visible culture that is genuinely open to all and doesn’t just pay lip service to the idea of diversity,” says Dan Pinchbeck, founder of award-winning studio The Chinese Room. “Bringing fresh talent into the industry only for them to leave again because it’s not a culture that seems to want or welcome or support them is at least as damaging as not encouraging them to join the industry in the first place.”
Research consistently shows that diverse workforces are more innovative; different backgrounds produce different ideas, approaches and solutions. In an industry where innovation is highly prized and sought after, reaching out beyond the current demographic seems like an absolute necessity. It’s not about being seen to do the right thing, it’s about investing in the very future of video games.