Who we elevate as leaders is not only important when it comes to finding the best talent for the job, but also when it comes to the trickle-down effect that these influential positions have on their company – and beyond that, the games industry as a whole.
We’ve previously explored ways to diversify the games industry’s overall workforce, but today we’re turning our attention to how this can be improved specifically at a senior level.
Recent studies have shown that in the UK people from ethnic minority backgrounds make up 13% of the UK population, yet only hold 4.7% of the most powerful leadership roles. A 2019 government-backed report also found that across the 100 biggest companies in the UK, only six women held the top CEO position.
POC In Play, an independent industry initiative, is made up of people with various backgrounds working across different roles in the games industry. It aims to increase the visibility and representation of People of Colour working in games through industry events, panels and initiatives. The group recently collaborated with BAFTA Games for a week-long Twitter takeover for Black History Month, in which more than 100 posts spotlighted projects led by Black creatives, gave advice and raised awareness of games industry funding initiatives.
Group co-founder Chella Ramanan, an award-nominated narrative designer across indie and AAA games, explains that there is a clear lack of diversity in leadership roles in the games industry today.
“Once you get beyond entry level and mid-level positions, it’s very difficult to find BIPOC in senior roles,” Ramanan tells us. “The emotional labour and sometimes open hostility minorities experience often forces them out of the industry, before they even make it to leadership positions.”
Having diverse leadership is important, says Ramanan, to encourage People of Colour starting out in their games career: “It’s vital for people entering the industry to see people like them forging a career path. Not only does it open doors for the next generation, but it helps companies retain talent from underrepresented groups by creating a workspace which at least looks like it welcomes them.”
In early 2020, the non-profit UK games trade association UKIE worked with the University of Sheffield to run the first ever games industry census. The results from over 3,000 respondents helped to accurately measure diversity in the UK games sector for the first time. It also led to UKIE’s #RaiseTheGame pledge, a collaborative initiative to improve diversity and inclusion in the games industry. This campaign recruits businesses across the UK to do so via hiring practices, workplace culture and within their games. As Dr Jo Twist, CEO of UKIE tells us: “The guidance for the #RaiseTheGame pledge makes a compelling case in favour of building diverse businesses.”
Dr Twist explains that a diverse workforce has numerous benefits to games companies: “Businesses that are diverse perform better than those that aren’t, have better engagement with their communities, have an enhanced reputation in the eyes of potential employees and are more successful at making sure their work is fit for the future. This means that a diverse leadership team doesn’t just make for a better workplace environment; it makes for a better performing business, too.”
Dr Richard Wilson OBE, CEO of TIGA, the non-profit organisation which represents the UK’s games industry, agrees. “Greater diversity has the potential to encourage greater creativity. Additionally, it is only right to encourage and to enable more people from different backgrounds to fulfil their potential,” he says.
He adds that part of the problem is “long standing and originates in education,” but this particular hurdle is improving: “There are some signs of progress in schools and universities. For example, Norwich University of the Arts does a great job in promoting diversity on its games course.”
So how does the games industry improve on finding and diversifying those in leadership roles?
“We need to ensure that as many people as possible can make their first step into games in the first place,” says Dr Twist. “If the industry is diverse and inclusive as a whole, we’re much more likely to see talented individuals from a range of backgrounds make their way to the top.”
Dr Wilson has seen a range of UK games companies work to improve the diversity in their new hires: “[Some] are actively seeking to recruit in a more diverse fashion. Other games businesses are promoting diversity in content. Studios such as Dovetail Games, Payload Studios, Supermassive Games, for example, are taking such action.”
These British game studios have all actively committed to diversity and inclusion initiatives, in both recruiting and supporting their teams.
TIGA operates the TIGA STAR system, which provides a badge of excellence to employers – one of the aspects that the TIGA STAR recognises is good practice in equal opportunities. TIGA itself also makes a Diversity Award at its annual TIGA Games Industry Awards ceremony to encourage diversity.
POC In Play’s Ramanan adds that personnel departments are vital in improving representation in leadership: “To make real change, we have to see the people with the power to make hiring decisions change too. By increasing representation at a more senior level, we are more likely to break the monoculture, which currently dominates the games industry. We all know a diverse, inclusive workforce is more profitable and creative, but that has to go all the way up to the top to ensure real cultural change.”
Working with Ramanan is fellow POC in Play co-founder Adam Campbell, also director of product for the award-winning kids’ gaming app Azoomee. He believes that how roles are advertised has a significant impact on diversity.
“Companies don’t always advertise roles broadly, missing demographics or people from industries atypical to the norm,” he says. “With an industry predominantly white and middle-class, those in hiring positions may also have unconscious biases on what a good candidate is, which adds to the pipeline issue.”
Unconscious bias training is one way through which companies can find more diverse talent, advise POC In Play’s co-founders. “Companies should attempt to use interview panels to avoid having a sole gatekeeper in the process,” explains Campbell. “Training can also help reduce biases hiring managers may hold.”
Ramanan adds: “Companies need to invest in unconscious bias training for all levels of their organisation to ensure people understand their blind spots and take active steps to address them. The emotional labour that comes with daily microaggressions can wear people down, especially if they’ve been thrown into a new role with more responsibility. That leads on to the need for management training and support.”
Crucially, finding diverse talent is just the beginning. As Ramanan points out, the industry must work to support those leaders once they are working in those roles.
“It depends on the size of the company, but there are different ways to support diversity within organisations,” she says. “It could be that a company has an active internal network for BIPOC staff, which gives them a voice within the organisation and helps them feel less isolated. If your organisation is too small for that, hosting organisations that do or actively supporting them in other ways can demonstrate your commitment to inclusivity.”
Hannah Jay Rees is chair for Unity’s Women CommUnity Employee Resource Group, working with Unity’s Inclusion Team to advance the work of creating a more inclusive workspace, to empower women, non-binary, gender fluid, female presenting folks, and marginalised genders. This year, Unity will again partner with the MCV/Develop Women In Games Awards to sponsor the Technical Impact of the Year Award.
Rees explains that workplaces have in the past shown a lack of support and understanding for women: “From my own experience, it all comes down to recruitment and retention initiatives, or lack thereof. Being able to support women from all backgrounds: mothers, carers, young professionals, women going through menopause. All of those things that we do as women should be supported and recognised as amazing facets to our skill sets, not as hindrances, as they currently are.
“The industry needs to recognise that sometimes we cannot commit ourselves to nine-to-five working hours, and begin to be flexible and show that we are trusted as women leaders to do our jobs despite not always taking the traditional route… Companies should be fostering support networks and employee resource groups for women to come together to share their stories and advice on how to tackle these challenges without being afraid that they will be seen as weaknesses.”
Dr Twist adds: “We must back diverse leaders when they do get to the top. Supporting them properly with words of encouragement, advice and, yes, actions will give them the time and space they need to establish themselves as leaders. This will then, in turn, help inspire further diversity in the long term.
“None of us can forget the moment when someone took a chance on us and helped us step up. Let’s make sure that we, as individuals and an industry, give as many of those opportunities to others as possible.”
TIGA’s Dr Wilson expects the video games industry to find and support more diverse leaders in the future. He tells us headcount the UK games industry is growing at 8.9% per year and, combined with the demand for high-skilled employees, this is likely to encourage employers to recruit more diversely.
Rees has also seen steps in the industry towards better equality: “It’s refreshing to see the games industry paving the way on these topics and noticing problems that arise as fundamental human rights. Hopefully having these hard conversations and women having the confidence to speak out, will eventually change mindsets, enable people to see the benefits of a balanced workforce and the importance of accountability for these issues too.”
POC In Play’s Campbell adds that moving towards a diverse leadership can be relatively simple. Even small initiatives can lead to huge impacts.
“It doesn’t take a lot to help the community or increase visibility of underrepresented minorities,” he says. “Thanks to social media and changing attitudes towards the importance of diversity for a successful and inclusive business, studios are making more of an effort to change. Perhaps my own progression is some evidence of that, but the number of director-level people who are racial minorities in games is still very low.... It will take a while to change, but it’s encouraging to see the conversations happening.”
Ramanan is also optimistic, adding: “In October, POC in Play celebrated Black History Month with its inaugural POC in Play BHM 100, a list championing Black talent currently in the games industry. With so much talent already here, I am hopeful that as long as we take the steps to nurture, recognise and support that talent, they will become some of our future leaders. But it’s going to take constant work and attention.
“Diversity and inclusion can’t be a trend. It’s a long-term focus that needs to evolve as the landscape shifts.”
One thing is certain: finding and elevating a diverse range of talent to leadership roles in the games industry will be for the benefit of the future of the industry, and everyone in it.
As Dr Twist tells us: “Diversity of leadership then isn’t a nicety for the industry in the UK; it’s a necessity for its long term future.”