Narrow Focus, World Stage

A recent article by Mattie Brice, in which she outlines the apparent shallowness of some games diversity initiatives, has added further clarity to an argument which has been rolling around in my head for a while too. In her piece, Brice describes feelings of isolation and abandonment as the games industry chases the figurehead of diversity, leaving behind those creators who neither want nor require the kinds of coding camps and changes to education which so attract corporate money and interest.

Although I’ve been reflecting upon related issues from a different angle, it is worth acknowledging that hers is a very GDC-focused perspective, and while that is by no means a bad thing, I think it is where I both sympathise and disagree with Brice’s insightful yet negative position. I feel a need to draw distinctions here because of a very different-feeling climate where I reside in Sweden, and again in the UK, my home country. Activities undertaken in the former seem to be of a different order – more practical, and already yielding good results – whereas British efforts seem more likely to tackle recruitment over education in games as a craft.

With that having been said, I too have had cause to focus on GDC – the Game Developers’ Conference, which is held annually in San Francisco. It is but one of many worldwide games conferences, yet it’s one which commands a great deal of weight and emphasis within the industry. It is the de facto hub for many discussions affecting this medium (at least in the so-called ‘western’ hemisphere), and I state this both to provide context to my views, but also to introduce one of the problems I have with the way diversity initiatives in games are currently being addressed. Suffice it to say, I’ve never been to GDC in San Francisco, and in all honesty it’s unlikely I shall be able to any time soon.

The bottom line is that year on year, GDC is at least treated as the only conference with a half-way strong diversity focus. It is at least one of very few in the world to devote a whole discussion track to the subject. This isn’t a bad thing, of course – having a central hub like this can have many benefits. However, GDC is also a prohibitively expensive conference for many – not just for conference passes, but also in flights, especially for anyone outside of the USA. This is something Matt Duhamel has reflected on too, with attendance as an expression of privilege.

Initially it feels strange to apply ‘privilege’ to something like attending a conference, but the fact is only a handful of people can ever be part of the conversations which happen at GDC. The problems which may arise from that are manyfold. For starters, diversity’s raison d’etre demands that a variety of voices to be heard, and while no-one can be inclusive to everyone all the time, any recurring diversity initiative at this conference is going to wind up homogenised based on who can physically get there. The practical result of this is that while companies and the wider gaming medium look solely to GDC in San Francisco for guidance or as a barometer on inclusivity, what they’re getting is a non-representative view. More than that, those who turn up with cash to invest (especially those wishing to “appear diverse” as Brice puts it) will only end up doing so within US borders.

Photo by Emma Clarkson
Photo by Emma Clarkson

Take for example this slide from GDC 2015, and a panel entitled “Turning the Tide”, which sought to address inclusive recruitment to the games industry. Whether or not the author realised it, all but one of these organisations (apparently picked knowingly as “just a few”) are based in North America, and only one of those has an international focus. That said, and at the risk of criticising WIGI unfairly: I can only ever find events of theirs as being held in the USA. This is by no means a representative slice of women-focused community groups worldwide, but they are all groups which many have heard of. Why? They get noticed, year on year at GDC and in the gaming press which follows.

How can we fix this? The only solution I can think of involves other conferences making a much more concerted effort to offer a platform for discussing diversity and inclusivity, reflecting and involving their local attendees. I believe it actually damages the diversity initiative if we keep focusing on the same part of the world – just as much as it does when we focus on the same minority (a topic for another time, perhaps). Press attention would need to follow, as otherwise the effort amounts to nothing. The ideal alternative, of course, would involve more diversity advocates coming to GDC, but unless your organisation is already the recipient of corporate sponsorship, it’s very likely you have no budget at all with which to fund such a venture.

As a side note: it cannot be left to the ‘indie sector’ to cover this inclusivity angle, as I’ve seen happen at a few conferences and festivals. Indie game development may be a much more accessible medium than so-called ‘AAA’, and its works may be addressing more societal issues and diverse player bases, but that doesn’t mean it should be the sole forum for discussing inclusivity – and nor should it mean that diversity issues should crowd out discussion of the issues which already affect this sector of the gaming medium.

It is my hope that those with the wits to realise this risk of homogenisation, and the power to actually change it, will do so. I did not expect to be so disheartened by the imbalance at play between the sort of focus North American initiatives receive, when compared to European ones – let alone those enacting real change in Africa, Asia and beyond. The games industry is centralised upon the USA in many other areas as well, but at a time when inclusivity and diversity sit so far forward in this medium’s consciousness, it is galling to see so many efforts go unheard of – and to see opportunities go untapped.

So ends an uncharacteristic rant on my part.