Improving Diversity in Video Games Starts with Game Development

By Kevin Ho

In the COVID-19 pandemic, more people are staying at home than ever before and for longer periods of time. Buying new mobile gaming apps, video games, and consoles have helped gamers find ways to pass the time while at home. As a result, video game sales are skyrocketing. The pandemic has increased revenue of mobile, PC, and console gaming, with an estimated growth of 20% from 2019 to 2020, according to Market Watch.

Even before the pandemic, video games were the most popular form of entertainment. GameCrate estimates that, in 2017, the gaming industry made $116 billion dollars. Digital distribution platforms, the mobile games market, and the decrease in the cost of consoles have helped the video game industry thrive.

Game development, often called “game dev,” seems to be following suit to keep up with the increased demand for video games. After a brief period of delays and transitions in adapting to a new normal of social distancing and remote work, it seems like game developer studios have adapted, allowing developers to work from home.

Game Dev Is Less Diverse than Gamers Themselves

As the growth of the video games industry in the pandemic demonstrates, COVID-19 and the associated economic fallout has affected people’s finances, but that hasn’t stopped people from playing video games. More people are playing video games, and minority gamers are finding new ways to connect. Regardless of the current situation, one thing that has remained consistent in the games industry these last few months is the readily-apparent diversity in video game consumers. This growing diversity has also led to the growth of different gaming communities where gamers can meet up and play together, such as Black Gamer League (BlkGL). The BlkGL was founded by Chris Davis, a Professor of Sports Management at Livingstone College, a historically Black college located in North Carolina. The goal of BlkGL is to help Black gamers and individuals in the gaming industry to connect. The BlkGL hosts panels and other events, which have moved online in the COVID-19 pandemic, to unite Black gamers.

According to Davis, gaming can be expensive, but there are a lot more options for anyone with any kind of economic situation to purchase games. “Gaming has always been accessible in some way, shape, or form. […] You don’t have to purchase a [new gaming console] to be a gamer.” Presently, there are 2.5 billion gamers in the world, which, as TechCrunch writes, “includes consumers across every ethnicity and age.”

“Gaming has always been accessible in some way, shape, or form…you don’t have to purchase a [new gaming console] to be a gamer.” — Prof. Chris Davis, founder of @BlkGamerLeague

And, as video game player bases become more diverse, game development teams can and should keep up with this level of diversity to develop content geared towards more varied audiences. While gamers are evenly split in terms of demographics, game developers are much less diverse. As CNBC reports, 54% of gamers are men, while 46% of gamers are women. Yet, the people who are making these games are much less diverse — just 24% of game devs are women, and only 2% of game devs are Black.

The problem of diversity in game dev is complex and multifaceted, just as it is in other industries. Many minority game devs may be newcomers in the game development industry that may have less input in higher-level creative decision making, according to game dev Simon Norman. Cultivating diversity within a game development studio is crucial. There are many tangible benefits to improving equity in game dev. One of the most obvious benefits is that a team will have access to a larger talent pool if they cast a wider net. Having a wider diversity of viewpoints in a game development team also allows for more creative flexibility and can help the team avoid “group-think” situations.

Furthermore, diversity of game devs is important for specific game design processes, like art direction or character design, where the wrong decision can result in a character received poorly or seen as an “insensitive” stereotype for certain people. As Norman says, “In high-level creative meetings decisions like a main character race background, [the game’s] backstory, and the setting in which they are in are made. If you aren’t in the room where it happens, you usually have to abide by what comes out of that meeting. […] Without a diverse range of perspectives, decisions can be made in a vacuum. An extreme example [is that you] create a story and cast of characters that could be highly stereotypical and could lose an entire audience of people.”

Game Dev @ZhymonNorman: Without diverse perspectives in game development, decisions are made in a vacuum. Game devs may create a highly stereotypical story and cast of characters that lose an entire audience of people.

These investments in diversity pay off in terms of the game development company’s bottom line. The ability to access more talented people and make course corrections in the development cycle has resulted in a product with a higher likelihood of commercial and critical success when it reaches the market. For example, adding women protagonists to video games, such as Lara Croft, has boosted video game sales. Yet, game devs have a long way to go to tap into a more diverse gaming market. As TechCrunch reports, “For hundreds of millions of gamers globally — particularly in demographics driving the industry’s rapid growth — there are very few games whose stories center on characters like them.”

Toxic Work Environments Undermine Fairness in Game Dev Culture

There are numerous obstacles that stand in the way for the games industry to improve diversity and inclusion among game development studio staff. Many of these issues concern workplace management issues that disproportionately affect minority staff due to their already small numbers. These include overworking employees, communication issues between teams in the company, and other senior management issues. These issues can have a flagging effect on employee morale and can lead to high work turnover within the company and the industry-at-large.

A toxic practice in the game dev industry is “crunch.” Crunch refers to the period immediately before a video game is released, in which game devs work long hours without sleep to rapidly bring a product to market. Under crunch, game development company executives may pressure devs to make changes on a short timeframe, often reducing the quality of the final product and causing significant emotional and psychological stress for game devs.

Crunch is the period immediately before a video game is released, in which game devs work long hours without sleep to rapidly bring a product to market. As a toxic practice, crunch undermines efforts to make game dev more equitable.


Combine this with the fact that most minority game developers are either in junior positions and are fewer in number means that many talented minority game developers might find themselves washed out of the industry early on due to mismanagement within their team, with other teams, or at the upper corporate level. Changes in project management and human resources management are both necessary for any game development studio to prevent this level of turnover from becoming commonplace. Publishers of video games should also set more realistic expectations for product development teams to avoid crunch in the first place.

Improving Diversity in the Game Dev Pipeline

As Norman says, another more specific issue preventing additional minority representation among game developers is the non-existent talent pipeline between minority communities and the games industry. The problem is that the games industry is highly competitive, requires specialized skills, and has limited job slots.

Most entry level positions essentially require a mix of artistic and programming skills. Getting a game-design focused degree or even a standard liberal arts degree may cost upwards of 25-30k at a private university while entry-level positions are relatively scarce and sometimes don’t pay very well. The financial barrier for entry alone is enough to price out a lot of minority game developers from even considering the games industry as a career source to begin with.

Whether as an independent developer or part of a pre-existing development team, minority developers also need plenty of experience in management and project development to succeed. Although firms in the industry are making an honest effort at diversification of its staff, there is still a long way to go.

Conclusion

Tackling diversity in game development will not be easy nor fast by any stretch of the imagination, but the rewards speak for themselves for those studios who are able to cultivate a diverse and talented staff. To make these changes at the firm level, let alone industry level, would require extensive changes in management practices; the investment and establishment of institutions that encourage interest in game development; and financial aid to remove the barrier of entry for those interested. Game development studios will be motivated to improve diversity and inclusion in order to stay competitive within the industry and attract the greatest talent out there. A more diverse game development staff has wide-ranging benefits for the gamers, the developers, and industry as a whole in the long run.

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