Diversity in the game industry: Unconscious bias keeps you from listening … and could hurt your business

By October 23, 2015 News

Published on www.venturebeat.com. Written by  on 

The breakout sessions at GamesBeat 2015 were a bit different in format from other presentations at the show, allowing larger groups of panelists to have more direct interactions with attendees and each other. The breakout session on diversity in the games industry began with a showcase of this more interactive approach: In order to set the tone for the panel, the speakers asked attendees to perform an in-person exercise with the person sitting next to them. While one person was requested to discuss something they felt strongly about, the other person was instructed to either ignore, rebuke, or affirm the other party.

The exercise was designed to not just make the attendees uncomfortable but to also illustrate a point: many people in minority groups often feel that their opinions are often ignored or rebuked by others.

“When I first role-played this exercise, I [remembered] all the times I’d been criticized, dismissed, and ignored,” said Megan Gaiser, the founder of Contagious Creativity and speaker on the panel. “But what I didn’t remember is all the times that I did it. That was a huge realization for me.”

Katy Jo Meyer from Microsoft’s Xbox division reaffirmed this point: “It’s hard when you care deeply about something, and someone else just blows it off.” She asked us to think more deeply about the times when it’s happened to us, and the times we may have been guilty of it ourselves.

“When I finally sat and listened [to my partner], I felt a strong connection,” said speaker Justin Hefter or Bandura Games.

The increased call for diversity in tech and gaming fields comes in the wake of the social-media fueled Gamergate movement, which has often voiced resistance against such initiatives.

“For me, [Gamergate] was a wake-up call in the sense that we weren’t seeing tiny microaggressions,” said panelist Gordon Bellamy from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema. “It was literal sexist, racist aggression against people in our craft, a wake-up call on how we treat and value each other. … I actually had a higher expectation of our own industry and our own leadership … that’s part of what drew me to this panel today.”

The panelists moved to the subject of unconscious bias, “a blind spot,” as Gaiser said. “A bad habit we all have. It prevents us from letting go of perceived notions [and allow us to] expand our perspectives, to consider other possibilities, to be respectful to diverse people.” She pointed out that we often don’t realize that we have these biases, hence the “unconscious.”

Meyer pointed out that brain researchers had done extensive studies on unconscious bias and that it was a necessary element for human survival in some degree. “It’s a matter of understanding what unconscious biases we have, learning what those are, and then determining whether those biases are serving us or getting in the way of doing great work.”

“It’s important to think about how that affects diversity and leadership decisions, who’s even allowed to lead and fully express themselves,” added Bellamy.

The focus then shifted over to the value of diversity. “The reason why diversity is important from a business perspective … is that [it allows] you, as a manager, to consider several different alternatives,” Hefter said. “If you’re not listening to a certain number of your employees because of an unconscious bias, then you’re not getting a full suite of opportunities to take your business in a certain direction.”

Asra Rasheed from the Walt Disney Company had her own take. “I’ll share an example … I’ve been in the game industry 15 years. It wasn’t until about five years ago when I had been approached by LeVar Burton [the well-known African-American actor] to be the CEO of his company. He said to me, ‘I know you’re a tiny woman and I’m a [big] African-American man … but this is what we can do to change things.’

“It’s important to have that kind of thinking, and it’s important to have leaders who are also diverse. Someone like that gave me an opportunity, who respected me enough and knew I could take on a challenge … oftentimes we don’t even get that chance.”

The panel then took on cultural fit.

“So how do we reconcile ‘Culture Fit’ [in the workplace sense] with a culture of diversity?” asked Bellamy. The panelists discussed this and agreed that it should build upon the idea introduced earlier: that different perspectives are ultimately beneficial for the company.”

“It’s not just diversity of people, it’s creating an environment where those diverse perspectives are valued,” noted Meyer. “If you don’t have the environment where people feel safe to share their different perspective, then it’s all for naught … it’s a matter of bringing all those voices to the table, because those voices represent the customers and the gamers we’re trying to create the experiences for.”

Rasheed downplayed the notion that instilling diverse culture in companies would lead to unqualified people getting hired. “Just because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t be filling a quota at any company. I should be hired for my experience and skillset. It’s important for us to own what we do,” she said.

The conversation shifted to achieving business goals through diversity. “Our goal is for everyone to have a great experience on Xbox Live,” said Meyer on the matter. “That goal is becoming more and more heightened in our development process.” She described how the process involved listening to the feedback of a large pool of diverse players.

Rasheed chimed in as well. “[Disney] is so open to diversity … they are constantly making the efforts [to improve diversity in the company.” She pointed out that most of her team consisted of women, and that women were often perceived as “better” at making games for children as an unconscious bias, but that many of the strongest team members were male. “The most important thing is creating the best product that you can, regardless of where that’s coming from.”

“If the company culture is to be creative, then it shouldn’t matter if they’re black, white, Hispanic — if they’re creative, they fit the company culture, said Hefter. “As a CEO, I’m trying to hire people who deliver what they say they are going to do … it doesn’t matter where they are from, as long as they can deliver the end result … it’s important that your team is able to understand the people who you’re trying to reach.” He explained how he built a team of Israelis and Palestinians to make games that would help create empathy and open communication between the two conflicting groups.

Bellamy posed another question to the women on the panel. “How often do you get asked ‘What games do you play?’ as a qualifier [to participate in conversations about the industry]?”

“All the time,” said Rasheed. The other women agreed.

After some discussion of Gaiser’s history with female-oriented software developer Her Interactive (which made the Nancy Drew series), Bellamy made a request of people in the crowd. “Those of you who are leaders, impacters — talk about things that you have done and can do to cultivate a diverse workplace.” Opening a single door for a person can often lead to more opportunities, allowing for people to empower each other.

The panelists then discussed the issue of allocating resources toward diversity and integration of varied minority groups. “When you have communities that are underrepresented, you should call that out,” said Meyer. “[We should] make this a great place where they want to work, too… remember the time when you were “the only” [in your group], and the amount of energy that takes as a human being. You… constantly have things going on in your head because you are “the only,” so you’re self-conscious and thinking about things… when you’re in the majority, you’re on autopilot.” They discussed resources that are available for minority groups in the game industry.

Gaiser summed up the positive mood of the panel. “We’re all leaders. The idea that the deciders know everything is the myth that we’re all breaking now … it’s our responsibility to become inspired.”

“Gender, race and religion shouldn’t really matter … we’re all here for the same reason.” said Asra. “Whatever your identity is, know that you’re not alone.”