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Building an inclusive studio culture begins with retention

Several developers discuss how game studios can shift their culture to be more welcoming and supportive of underrepresented employees.

Developers should strive towards moving the workplace past being "diverse" and focus on making them more inclusive instead. 

That was the talking point during GDC 2019 earlier this afternoon, where several developers shared their personal and professional perspectives for building an inclusive game studio culture.

They advised how fellow devs can change their studio cultures to be more welcoming and supportive of underrepresented employees.

Director of marketing and communication at iThrive Games Foundation Cat Wendt began by highlighting the importance of retaining diverse developers once they're brought into the mix.

"Inclusion is active and ongoing, not performative or temporary. It involves not just hiring, but also retention. Tolerating isn't the same." 

She lead her fellow panelists JC Lau (Technical producer at Harebrained Schemes), Alexandra M. Lucas (independent writer and narrative designer), Sonia Michaels (DigiPen Institute of Technology), and Chris Wright (test manager at Bungie) into a discussion about inclusion by posing several questions. 

Why do studios need to care about diversity and inclusivity efforts?

"There is no single default type of human being. We need to invite the broad variety of people to work alongside each other," Michaels began. 

Lau chimed in, noting that there isn't just one type of developer either. "In order to fully make a product that’s inclusive, you need to have people in studios that are inclusive and diverse. Those things go together."

"We need to get people in the door who are best able to tell different stories. Hiring is one way to do that," Lucas added. 

What are the biggest challenges facing diversity and inclusivity efforts at studios today?

"That’s kind of where it stops," Wright said, referring to diversity initiatives.

"If you just focus on getting people in and don’t look at your studio culture and broaden it, you’re going to have the same problem tech has also seen: you hire lots of diverse people without making them feel welcome and they leave.”

There's also the fact that the distribution of labor usually falls upon the marginalized employees. "The work that is done to make a studio inclusive is often voluntary," Lau added. "I think this is part of the retention problem."

If a studio wants to make a point of doing diversity and inclusion work, where should they start?

"Talk to the underrepresented developers at your studio," Lau suggested.

"Actually try to help people by finding out what their needs are. Find out what the actual problems are and then ask what the members of your studio want to see and then figure out the path to get there."

"You have to work with your leadership groups," Wright added. "The leaders often set the studio culture, so its important to find out if they’ll be allies, or potentially help them build empathy for grops they might not be familiar with. It takes a lot of work to get something like this going."

"Some folks do great consulting work in this area," Wendt said. "You don’t have to add this work to your devs. It can also be helpful to bring in people and pay them to do the work." 

Developers who have any level of privilege need to be mindful of how they use their voice. Be prepared to fail, learn from mistakes, and do better. 

How do you reach the employees who are least receptive to inclusion?

It begins by building empathy with those who are least receptive to inclusion.

"It’s not easy, it’s going to take a lot of work," said Wright. "For inclusion to really work, you're going to have to have difficult conversations. It’s necessary if you’re going to build that empathy."

"I’d be interested to know why they’re not receptive to it," Lau admitted. "Do they need additional training, do they need to develop more empathy? From there, once we understand what the problem is, it’s easier to approach."

"Consider that people who are less receptive are also different people with different backgrounds." 

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