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Diversity in games: Positive indicators, and how we can do better

Adam Burt
Adam Burt
Senior Developer 8 Jul 20207 minutes read

There are some signs our industry is improving, but we can do more.

In the early days of computer science, it wouldn’t have been uncommon at all to see a number of women in technical roles. But during the 1980’s there was a dramatic shift – the rise of personal computers which were marketed directly at boys created an entirely new narrative, an enduring stereotype of the nerdy, white male and his technology. We’ve adopted this narrative, wholesale, into our culture, to the detriment of computing as a whole.

A frame from Wargames, a film which helped popularise the idea of the white male nerd in popular culture

Like many forms of technical industry that have followed, the world of games is predominately a white, male dominated arena. I’m a white man and the irony that I’m the one in position to write this post isn’t lost on me, although I have obviously attempted to gather other perspectives for this piece.

In general, the stereotypes of our youth are not easy to shake, and in many cases they’ve created homogeneous workplaces that can and have been very unwelcoming to outsiders: Geeks-only spaces, with competence assumed if you happen to be a look like everyone else who works there.

Thankfully, although it has been slower than most of us would’ve liked, that narrative and those spaces are finally starting to change.

UKIE’s latest census, backed by data from the University of Sheffield and featuring data on more than 3000 developers, paints a picture of an industry that is finally reckoning with it’s historically problematic cultural expectations, and becoming gradually more open to new backgrounds, viewpoints and perspectives. We still have some way to go, but it’s a start!

A photograph of PlayStation's presence at a gay pride event in London

According to the latest figures the games industry can be particularly proud of it’s BAME and LGBTQ+ representation, at least in comparison to other creative industries. At 10% and 21% respectively, these figures are above average for the UK creative scene.

Where the industry still struggles, is gender representation. The census highlights that 70% of all roles are men, 28% women and 2% non-binary - which is a marked improvement over historic data, but obviously leaves room for significant improvement. What’s more, whistle-blowers are coming forward with alarming regularity about the abuse some women have endured in their workplaces, and the increase in diversity sadly isn’t yet reflected in senior roles. These things absolutely have to change if we’re going to build on this initial success over the long term.

There is then, an obligation for companies to not just provide equal opportunities and seek greater diversity of candidates, but to also protect their diverse hires and create a culture in which they want to stay, work and grow. EA, Facebook, Jagex, King and Xbox are among the big industry names which have committed to improving on this front.

- Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE

Elsewhere, events like Guerilla Collective are helping to highlight diverse creativity. For example, they recently held a dedicated broadcast focusing entirely on video game studios with diverse workforces, making games with black protagonists. And organisations like Limit Break, of which our very own Dan Thomas is a mentor, are aimed at supporting under-represented genders in the UK games sector.

While some of these numbers seem promising, it’s worth noting that the player’s experience too, has a long way to go: When games studios tread in diverse territory, controversy often follows, usually stoked by a warped minority of gamers waging their own culture war. Female gamers are routinely subject to unacceptable comments and behaviour in online games and at games events.

- Neil Druckmann, Creative Director of The Last of Us Part II

But whether traditional “gamers” like it or not, the world (and the games audience) is changing.

In fact, diversity in the industry can’t come soon enough, as the data increasingly proves that the audience for games has become incredibly broad and diverse itself. 86% of people aged 16-69 play games, and 54% of people say they play them “on most days”. Of those, half are women. What’s more, according to an investigation by Nesta there are no significant effects of nationality, ethnic or religious background, or sexual orientation on whether people in the UK are likely to play games.

- Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE

That diversity of audience is somewhat reflected in the increasingly popular depiction of diverse characters in games. Whether it’s the thoughtful depiction of Senua from Hellblade or the colourful cast of Apex Legends, the benefit of creative diversity is creating more interesting (and still popular) games.

Apex Legends characters, seen here in a promotional image

But in this area too, there is still obvious progress to be made. It’s not enough to want diverse faces in your games, you have to aspire to having diverse voices behind the scenes. Without those voices, people of colour, and women, and LGBTQ+ characters will always be written from a white male understanding of their experience, which is not the same as their actual experience. We have plenty of the white male gaze, and not enough of the female gaze, or BAME gaze, gay gaze, or other gazes which might benefit the variety of output available.

As another example, in a recent study by Activision Blizzard, they found a distinct rise in “Gamer moms” as a playing audience. Motherhood is a unique experience that games are routinely getting wrong because there aren’t enough mothers behind the scenes to inform the writing and creative decisions. This same principle applies to all sorts of lived experiences outside the white male bubble.

A screenshot from Temtem (2020)

- Harriet Nicholson, Head of Strategy

Games can be amazing. If you’re a regular reader of our blog posts, you’ll know that we truly believe that games can be a powerful force for good. But to reach the true potential of games, we need to build on this. Audience insights tell us that the market is clamouring for a greater range of perspectives, so we should give it to them. It starts with your organisation, and ours, and others.

The tale of technology being exclusively for white men is coming to an end.

Let’s write a new tale together.

You can find out more about UKIE’s initiative to increase diversity in the games industry at raisethegame.com.

If you’re looking to review your hiring process to improve the diversity of your hires, there are tools available such as Textio for writing job adverts, Blendoor for collecting candidates “blind”, and Entelo for headhunting diverse candidates.

If you’d like to talk to Etch Play about audience insights, and creating game experiences that transcend traditional boundaries to become truly engaging multi-platform experiences, you can find out more about us here. To keep up with the latest from Etch Play, follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.