If you have been in the game industry for a while, you probably take for granted that most teams are fairly homogenous, with a predominance of young, male game developers. That’s how it has always been and, common wisdom goes, that’s how it will always be.
But it doesn’t have to. In fact, it shouldn’t be, as I believe perpetuating this status quo is detrimental to the development of the industry, especially now that games are breaking out from being a niche activity and becoming the primary form of entertainment for a growing slice of the population, driven primarily by the ubiquity and accessibility of mobile devices. According to a PopCap survey 44 per cent of adults in the US have played a mobile game in the last month, which means that most likely an absolute majority of the population already plays games, considering the rapid growth of smartphone penetration.
To understand why promoting diversity in the game industry is extremely important from a business standpoint, you need only answer one simple question: now that the gaming audience is reflective of the population at large, is it sustainable for game development to be dominated by a small demographic? I don’t believe it is, as that will inevitably result in a less diverse range of games that would fall into two camps: games squarely aimed at the same demographic that’s making them, and games designed for a broader audience by people that can’t relate to it, ending up being wide of the mark or pandering to the players they aim to enthrall. To put it plainly, an industry where a bunch of dudes make games for a bunch of dudes will never reach an audience larger than a bunch of dudes. As an industry, I believe that we need to set our sights much higher than that, aiming to make a wide range of games that, combined, reach the largest possible audience.
The most logical way to achieve that goal is to facilitate the influx of a more diverse workforce in the games industry and, once there, make everyone feel welcome and appreciated, as well as providing opportunities for growth. Quite honestly, I don’t have a particularly good answer to how to encourage in the short term a more diverse mix of people to enter the industry, as that’s partly a function of a path that was decided earlier in their life: for example, it’s a fact that the majority of software engineering students are male, and the consequence is that more male engineers apply for jobs and are hired by game companies.
What we can do, however, is to start projecting a more inclusive image of our industry and avoiding the perpetuation of an insular, homogenous culture. Giving everyone an equal chance to succeed, to influence the direction of our games and to inspire others to work in the industry is the single most important thing we can do to ensure that videogames grow as a medium, and become as varied, pervasive and multi-faceted as other forms of media.
Those of us that manage products and franchises with a broad appeal would be particularly well served by building their teams that represent their target audience. The audience for Bejeweled is traditionally prevalently female, and I lost count of the times in which we benefited from insight from a female member of our team. I’m also a strong believer that having female team members in leadership positions makes our team stronger. That said, I also recognise that we still have a long way to go, that our team isn’t as diverse as it could be, and that the commitment to develop and empower a more diverse workforce needs to be sustained over time. And while most often the diversity dialogue focuses on gender, I believe this to be necessary and true across a wide range of categories such as race, geographical provenance and sexual orientation: having team members that can relate to your audience usually makes for a better product, but having a more diverse team overall always makes for a more stimulating and creative business.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: looking at where the industry was ten or even five years ago, we’ve come a long way in increasing diversity and in creating a more inclusive working environment. What’s needed now is a commitment, from those that are in a position to help, to create cultures that focus on respect and inclusivity, and to take every opportunity to highlight the contribution of, and to create opportunities for, a more diverse workforce. Not every team can and should be a good fit for everyone, but our goal needs to be to create such a diverse industry that everyone will find a team that allows them freedom of expression, creativity and space for growth.
Success in making the industry more inclusive will only be achieved if enough of us commit to it: behaviours will need to be changed, and some habits broken. It’s one of the most important things we can do, though, to allow our industry to grow and reach its full potential.
Giordano Bruno Contestabile is Executive Producer for the Bejeweled franchise at PopCap Games, a division of Electronic Arts. In his role, Giordano oversees overall strategy and product development for Bejeweled-branded games, as well as managing operations for service-based games on social and mobile platforms. Follow him on Twitter @giordanobc