Diversity in video game development has been an issue for decades. Since the technology sector shifted to a more male-centric environment, game coders and storytellers have largely focused on creating narratives that appeal to white men. As a result, everything from power fantasies to romance options in video games don’t typically appeal to all gamers.
A lack of representation in game development teams is partly to blame. About 45% of gamers are women, and the average age for gamers is 34 years old. However, they only comprise 18% of the workforce creating those games, and due to high turnover and comparatively low salaries, video game creators tend to be young.
Despite consumer and industry calls to diversify game development workforces, the average game development team consists primarily of cisgender heterosexual males of European descent. According to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), the breakdown looks like this:
81% are heterosexual.
74% are cisgender men.
61% are white.
Proportionally, this does not match the populations who play. Around 19% of surveyed people of Hispanic origin considered themselves “gamers.” White people only self-identified that way 7% of the time.
How Representation Matters
The lack of diversity on video game design teams is a major issue because representation is critical to video game audiences. Players want to identify with their video game characters, meaning they might want to see main characters who look like them, with realistic portrayals. This is critical to ensuring gamers of all colors, sexual orientations, and genders are engaged with and empowered by the content they consume.
In theory, technology creates friendlier work environments for individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses, especially when it comes to employers who allow remote work options. In reality, unemployment rates are double for people with disabilities when compared to able-bodied workers. According to Rider University, "Career opportunities for people with disabilities can feel extremely limited. Disabilities make functioning on a daily basis harder; many people find that their capacity for even routine tasks changes on a daily basis, depending on their level of pain, energy, or ability to concentrate."
Game designers with disabilities are essential to designing accessible games for differently abled gamers. Plus, a disabled gamer’s take on accessibility generally generates user experiences and interfaces (UX and UI) more enjoyable for everyone. Even basic accessibility guidelines are extensive, and hiring an expert can help make games themselves more playable.
Additionally, the very tools many game developers use to create games are based upon biased models, such as a bald white male 3D model many designers use to test lighting and shaders. It’s easy to overlook the incomplete nature of that testing if you look the same as the testing model.
How to Diversify Your Game Development Team
As the game industry is not the most stable field, many rely on parents or partners to support them and provide health insurance. It’s certainly friendlier to white men, while marginalized individuals cam find themselves subject to discriminatory hiring practices and work environments.
It’s tough if you’re not starting with a diverse workforce, as 70% of job seekers consider diversity an important quality when deciding on an employer. Bias is also present, with qualified black candidates experiencing 16% fewer chances of a callback for a job when compared with an equally qualified white candidate.
To diversify your game development company, you’ll need buy-in and support from your management, promises of stability, and other helpful qualities:
Union-friendly environments for marginalized workers: Whistleblowers and advocates for workers’ rights need support, not opposition. Working with your union shows that this is important for your company.
Support efforts to end in-office hate and harassment: Recognize that this is an industry-wide problem and describe how you are committed to discouraging harmful statements and discriminatory behavior in your development studio.
An equal pay promise: Being a minority in an industry is already challenging, but women tend to walk from studios when they find out what their male peers are making.
Mentorship opportunities: Support from a mentor and career guidance is a major bonus and an indication of stability.
Collaboration over competition: Healthy competition keeps a team going, but game development is a collaborative process. Don’t facilitate or project an environment of competition.
Qualifying language: Women are less likely to apply for jobs than men unless they meet or exceed all requirements.
Flexible schedules: Work-at-home situations provide trust, but they also help marginalized workers, who are more often expected to perform housework on top of full-time job obligations.
Visible Diversity Initiatives and Efforts
It’s clear we have a lot of work to do as an industry. Efforts to improve this must be clear and visible. Some companies are taking steps in the right direction. For example, streaming platform Twitch appointed Katrina Jones, a leader focused on diversity and inclusion.
Diversity in gaming, at the player participation level and in studios, is a major cultural shift. As game studios and designers, it’s our responsibility to improve gaming culture by including diverse perspectives and letting marginalized players see that they are represented in gaming worlds.