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How to Build an Inclusive Game Studio Culture

For most game studios, efforts to expand the diversity and inclusiveness usually end during the hiring process. It’s clear that studios are working to recruit developers with different backgrounds, but when it comes to welcoming them into the culture of the studio itself they usually fall short.  

Inclusion is active and ongoing, it’s not performative or temporary,” read a slide at the Building an Inclusive Game Studio Culture panel at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “It involves not just hiring, but retention.”

The panel included iThrive Games Foundation’s Cat Wendt, Harebrained Schemes technical producer JC Lau, Bungie test manager Chris Wright, DigiPen Institute of Technology’s Sonia Michaels, and independent game writer Alexandra M. Lucas. It focused on the shortcomings of current efforts to diversify cultures within game studios across the industry, looking at steps that employees and management can take to improve.

“There isn’t just one type of gamer, developer, or audience,” Lau said. “If you want to make a game that’s representative and diverse you need to have people in studios that are inclusive and diverse. Those things go together.”

Every member of the panel agreed that diversity has been important to the industry, but most companies haven’t been willing to put in the work it requires. “There’s a lot of focus on diversity, on getting different kinds of people into our studios,” Wright said. ” But that’s where it stops in a lot of ways. If you just focus on getting people in and not focus on broadening your culture you’re going to have the same problem as the tech industry”

“Those employees realize ‘you wanted us here but you’re not doing a lot to make us welcome’,” he added. “Then you have these underrepresented developers bouncing from studio to studio.”

Changing that isn’t easy, of course. It takes actual resources and a whole lot of time to get right. “It can be daunting to think about how to change,” Lucas said. “But even small things can have an impact. I notice when the ladies restroom has feminine hygiene products. That tells me that they’re thinking about women in the office.”

Small changes that can have an impact include adding your preferred pronouns to your email signature, giving employees flexible hours, and encouraging event organizers to book diverse panelists for their events.

“We wanted to name conferences rooms in our new building after scientists who had harebrained schemes since we are Harebrained Schemes,” Lau said. “Our studio manager came to members from underrepresented backgrounds and asked us about what we wanted to see.”

“It doesn’t have to be something as high level as that,” she added. “It could be including us in the interview process for new hires or have us look at a job posting.”

Outside small attempts like that, most efforts to change the inner workings of a studio’s culture fall on the backs of the very employees the studios set out to hire. “Unless a studio can actually afford to hire a diversity and inclusion manager the work to make a studio more diverse is voluntary,” Lau said. “That stuff is done on top of a day job and it’s exhausting. It’s one of the things we need to recognize as work and actually pay people for it.”

Lau went on to say that the real starting point is talking to underrepresented employes about issues within the company. Once you identify those issues, it’s important to ask them about how to address those problems and create a plan together.

Lucas added that there are great consultants who work to help studios with diversity and that the work didn’t have to fall on employees. Regardless of which option a studio takes, panel members emphasized how important it was to realize that mistakes will happen.

“Be prepared to fail because you will fuck up at some point,” Lau said. “If you use hurtful language or don’t take into account certain considerations– it’s okay to learn from that. Just apologize and move on. This is a learning process.”

While all the actions that the panel highlighted are important, the most vital takeaway is the idea that constant encouragement and vigilance is paramount. “It’s important to constantly point out ways in which we can strive to be better,” Wright said. “People outside the industry think it’s company vs company, but everyone is here for the same reason. Challenging yourself, your studio, and other studios make the industry better.”

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