Update 6:20 p.m. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly defined the LGBT initialism. We deeply and sincerely regret this mistake and have corrected the story below.
SAN FRANCISCO — Players are obsessed with video games. But Kate Edwards has to pay attention to the people who make them. She is the executive director of the International Game Developers Association, the group dedicated to the health and well-being of game developers.
The IGDA is conducting a survey on quality of life for gamemakers, with questions about how they feel about working on games, diversity, and problems such as Internet haters who criticize and even threaten game developers. Edwards said the IGDA is doing the survey to get an honest look at the problems in the industry and come up with solutions.
We caught up with Edwards this week at the Game Developers Conference. We touched on everything from the ethical choices that the Flappy Bird developer made to concerns about whether gamers will be comfortable with gay heroes in games. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What are some big things on the agenda at GDC?
Kate Edwards: For us, one of the biggest things is launching our developer satisfaction survey today. It’s going to run through April 28, and then the plan is to release a high-level report by E3. In a couple of months, we’ll release pieces like specific analysis on quality of life issues, diversity, things like that. We want to gather information about who individual developers are and help us understand what are their priorities, what we need to focus on.
On Thursday, we’re doing advocacy training. Daniel Greenberg, who’s been one of our more vocal advocates on behalf of the org, is going to be doing that. We want more developers to be comfortable speaking up.
GamesBeat: Is there some data you’re looking for that GDC doesn’t collect right now? They do their own reports as well, right?
Edwards: I know GDC collects a lot of data. They don’t release it, which is part of the issue. We do plan to release our data and let people know about it. We’ll do that in certain chunks, at least, like I said.
The other issue, too, is that in addition to just collecting basic demographics, every five years we’ve done the quality of life survey – 2004, 2009, and now 2014. For this survey, we’re looping in a lot of our quality of life questions. We’re asking a lot of blunt questions – do you feel you’re paid fairly? Are you forced to work crunch time? All that stuff.
Then we’re also asking more general questions about this notion of satisfaction. That gets into a more perceptual, qualitative aspect, but that’s okay. We want to know how they feel, generally, about their jobs, and certain aspects. Do they perceive an issue with sexism in the industry? Do they perceive a need for more diversity in the industry? More questions along those lines, which to my knowledge we’re not getting. We hear a lot of anecdotal stuff, but we want something more concrete.
GamesBeat: GDC put a lot more of the advocacy talks front and center this year, following up on a lot of the most popular sessions from last year.
Edwards: Right. The IGDA was involved with the ones last year, and this year too. I’m on the advisory committee for the advocacy track. I’m pleased to see what we’ve come up with. I’m glad to see that GDC is emphasizing that.
GamesBeat: What would you say is included in advocacy now, as far as what’s open for discussion?
Edwards: A lot of things. Obviously the role of women in the industry is a big one. That’s the obvious one GDC has focused on. A lot of people have lately, as they should.
For international women’s day a couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk at Popcap in Seattle. I was focusing more on what I call “implicit inclusion.” It’s important to talk about the role of women in the industry, but it needs to be a broader discussion about diversity. It’s not just about gender. It’s about all kinds of diversity. But I think it’s good that that’s an obvious issue we need to address.
We’re not past the whole violence in video games issue at all. We still need to address that. Even though there are U.S.-based developers who think we’re fine because of the Supreme Court decision a couple of years ago, we still have an entire world that’s facing these issues. There are lots of other issues as well.
GamesBeat: There are talks focusing on racism, homophobia, lesbian-gay-bisexual-and-transgender issues. The Internet hate discussion and bullying, too.
Edwards: Exactly. To some degree, that last one has been around, but it’s getting more prevalent, whether or not it’s just people who are feeling braver through anonymity. I don’t know.
GamesBeat: In the past year, we’ve seen a lot of magnified incidents as far as bullying issues and the like. Did it surprise you to see that, or is it par for the course?
Edwards: I don’t think I’m totally surprised. Frankly, that’s part of the cost. When you’re a developer who puts yourself and your work out there, especially if you’re part of something like Kickstarter—If you’ve used any form of crowdfunding, you invite the people who are donating into the conversation. You may not think you’re doing that, but a lot of people who give to these campaigns believe that they’re part of the creative process. They’re not just giving you money. When that happens, there’s a different stake here. If you starting doing things they feel are contrary to what their money should support, they’re going to speak up.
On a very micro scale, it’s no different from an executive producer on a film saying, “No, take that line out.” They control the money. It’s just that when you have 10,000 people who want to be the executive producer, it’s going to get frustrating.
Edwards: Absolutely. You can get instant support that goes above and beyond your expectations, and instant demise. Even to the level of national governments, as we’ve seen in the last few years.
GamesBeat: Is there a good set of advice coming out of all of this?
Edwards: We’re looking at it. We’ve had discussions about what we need to do as an organization. Obviously we’re here to support developers who face that kind of threat. That’s part of what it means to be a community. They’re not isolated. They have people around them who can help.
We haven’t formalized that help at this point, because I think it’s still an issue that’s—We’re still trying to get a feel for the prevalence of this. Does it happen every day? Do people perceive it as happening at a high frequency, or is it isolated incidents that are really high-profile? I don’t think we have a good sense of that yet. Certainly the high-profile ones get attention, and so we know about them. We’ll see. We’re still looking into what we need to do as an organization, what we need to do as an industry to address it.
GamesBeat: In your day job, you’re counseling a lot of companies, right? Talking about what they need to watch out for.
Edwards: A lot of times that’s part of what we try to do as an organization, prescriptive advice. On this issue we haven’t formalized anything yet. We’re trying to do other things. We’ve drafted an inclusivity policy, which still has to go through our board at this point, but it’s something we’re hoping to release not too long after GDC. That’s focused on events, mainly, but we’re planning to broaden that as time goes on. We’re trying to explain to companies, or event companies, if you’re going to run an event for the game industry, this is how you can make it inclusive. It covers various things, like the type of parties that are held. When do you use promotional models? All that kind of thing.
GamesBeat: There’s the workplace on the one hand, and also the marketing of games becoming an issue as well. On the marketing, I see a lot of clashes over the impressions that marketers have about what the audience wants. They may say that you can’t put a woman on the cover of this game, because it won’t sell. That happened with BioShock, I think?
Edwards: Yeah, that’s right.
GamesBeat: Or we can’t have a gay character as the hero of this game, because it won’t sell. On those kinds of things, is there some kind of advice or understanding that people are coming to about what to do about that?
Edwards: Part of it is — in my perception, a lot of those kinds of statements from a marketing angle are just assumptions. I haven’t seen hard data supporting those assumptions. I would love to. If they have hard data to show, “Hey, we’ve done market research studies that show you must have this kind of character on the cover,” I’ve never heard that.
The marketing people I know are great people, but at the same time, I think a lot of times – at least in my perception, again – you just go with the assumption that, “This is what the demographic is. Therefore, for this type of game, we have to do it this way.” I don’t know if they really know for sure. Certainly I’m not going to tell them how to do their jobs, because I’m not a marketing expert, but if they have data that shows one way or the other, I’d love to see it. If we look at the data the ESA comes up with as far as who the typical gamer is, that would seem in some ways to contradict the marketing assumptions.
GamesBeat: On the workplace side, have you seen incidents on that side, or changes that have happened at companies over time?
Edwards: Certainly the larger companies – the Microsofts, Sonys — they have a better understanding that comes with maturity. They’ve been around long enough. They understand what it means to have an inclusive, diverse environment. How much they actually promote that internally is a question we can’t answer, because we don’t have their internal data.
I know that in my experience, when it comes to — all of these companies have a strong commitment to diversity. It’s something they promote internally. The question is, does it actually happen? I don’t know if we have that data.
There’s much greater awareness now than there was even five years ago, because the issue has been out there. It’s been talked about a great deal, both here at GDC and elsewhere. We’ve had all kinds of incidents that have come up, whether it’s harassment of women or other issues in the industry, that have highlighted the issue.
But what really matters, when it comes to increasing the workplace diversity and decreasing these kinds of incident — what’s happening at the hiring level? The hiring manager, what decisions are they making? I don’t know. I’m hoping that when it comes to that particular granular level — that’s where the decision gets made. Who are you hiring into this position and why? Is that hiring manager following the company promotion of diversity, or are they just going with the status quo because it’s easy?
GamesBeat: This whole Flappy Bird thing drew a lot of attention to different pieces of different issues. The developer was concerned about making a game that was too addictive. There seems to be an ethical choice that developers have to deal with there, how addictive to make their games. It never seemed like an issue in the past. It was a good thing to make your game addictive.
But then you have things like gambling games now. You make those too addictive and you’ll run into regulatory trouble.
Edwards: Exactly. Part of that, too, when I look at the Flappy Bird issue, you have something where it’s a single developer making a conscious ethical choice. That’s admirable on his part. Now, the question is, what if a much larger company made Flappy Bird? Would they have made the same ethical choice? They’re making a lot of revenue. Just because of the way large companies tend to work, they may not have felt they had the leeway to make that easy choice, to just say, “We’re not going to do this anymore.” It’s an interesting dynamic.
GamesBeat: Free-to-play seems to come with a bunch of issues on that front. Parents are becoming concerned about kids being able to buy too much stuff. Again, what are you designing the game for? Is it designed for fun, or is it designed to have people continuously put coins into it?
Edwards: To me, that’s part of what is interesting about our industry. That’s the developer’s perception of what is fun. To them, feeding coins might be fun. Not just from a revenue standpoint, but they might actually believe that’s part of the fun experience of the game, to be able to keep perpetuating that. In the Flappy Bird case, it’s interesting that that can come down to just a personal preference, or a personal moral choice they make.
GamesBeat: Are you on the watch with platform owners as well, whether they’re making the right decisions on behalf of developers? Whether they’re dealing with developers fairly or not. During the year there were a couple of incidents where who had the right to price an app in a store was something that came up — does the developer have the right to do that, or does the platform owner keep control?
Edwards: That’s becoming more of an issue. It’s one of many different things in the cloud of our industry that we’re keeping an eye on to see where it’s going. I’ve heard a lot of issues like that come up, where people have felt grievously put off by something that’s happened in that area.
Part of it, too, is a question of how much does an individual developer — what is their sensitivity level to it? Some of them might just say, “That’s the cost of getting myself into the industry and releasing my game.” Others, who might be a lot wiser, will say, “There’s no way in hell I’ll do that. It’s too much of a hit on me. It devalues my creation. I don’t want to participate in that model.”
GamesBeat: Gaming had some things to celebrate this year as well, like the kind of characters that came out. The Walking Dead showed that heroes don’t have to be white people. We saw prominent women in games like The Last of Us. On that front, do you perceive progress being made?
Edwards: I think so. When you see games like these, that obviously showed that diversity can work in a game. It doesn’t have to be seen as a threat to normal revenue streams, for lack of a better way of putting it. What they’re showing is that if you have a compelling game — a compelling story, compelling gameplay – the character choices you’re making aren’t necessarily going to be a detriment to the game. They could be a strength.
Especially, again, going back to the whole issue of gamer demographics. You would think that most companies would want to appeal to a broader demographic — to the 40-something percent of the market who are women, for example. That’s a lot of people. You create stronger women characters and characters of color in your games, ultimately you’re just making a game that’s potentially that much more appealing to people.
From what we’ve seen with sales and reactions – both critically and financially – it doesn’t seem to have affected a game’s ability to sell, even to what you might call a typical demographic. They seem to enjoy it regardless. Last year, we’ve seen some good, promising trends. I’m just hoping to see more games coming out that are going to get a clue. It’s okay to do this. It’s not that scary.
GamesBeat: The discussion is a little more interesting, too. The developers of The Last of Us felt proud of what they’d accomplished with their characters, but they also received some criticism because it still fit a stereotypical mode of a big burly guy having to go and rescue a young girl.
Edwards: It’s hard. The thing a lot of people have to realize is that you’re always going to have a certain threat of stereotype. Even if you are the person writing the story, creating the game—You say, “That’s what I want. It’s not because I’m trying to perpetuate a stereotype. It’s just that for this particular scenario, these are the characters I want to have involved.” As the creative person, they’re just like, “That’s what I think is going to work.”
There might be other cases where they could have a strong woman with a younger boy, to reverse that particular scenario. Would it have worked as well for The Last of Us? I don’t know. It might have. It’s okay for creators to have creative choice. They should have creative choice. I don’t think it’s necessarily evoking a stereotype if they’ve made a creative choice that they — they still made a lot of great choices in the game, in terms of character development and the types of characters they included in the game.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I wouldn’t diss the fact that it’s progress. It may not be the progress that people want to see, or the degree of progress, but the fact that we’re seeing progress at all – in terms of the types of games and the types of characters we’re seeing – is a good direction.
Edwards: My sense is that, especially talking with a lot of IGDA chapters and members throughout the year—there’s certainly angst, because our industry is still evolving. Sometimes, with some radical upheaval—prior to the PS4 launch announcement last year, I remember a lot of people saying consoles were totally dead. The console era is over. No less than 24 hours after the PS4 announcement, people were like, “It’s a new era of consoles!”
That kind of volatility is still going to be around a while. This industry is still trying to find its way, not only technologically, but in so many other ways. It’s still quite young. People need to still be conscious of the fact that we are in an industry that’s evolving quickly. It’s technology-dependent, which means it will change no matter what. We have to be willing to recognize that that’s the industry we’re in. The model is going to change.
GamesBeat: Even as they worry about these things, is it still important for them to discuss these other issues of advocacy?
Edwards: Absolutely. A lot of the advocacy issues are givens, no matter what. They’re workplace issues. They’re issues about diversity. These things are not going away easily, even though our platforms are changing, our methodologies are changing, our tools are changing. They’re still fundamental things that are part of a work environment that are not going to change, things like quality of life and diversity.
There’s also the external perception of what games are, and what they should or should not be, by people who don’t play games or don’t quite understand our medium. Those things are still going to be around.
GamesBeat: Do we know whether the industry is expanding or not? Is that something you want to find out from these surveys?
Edwards: From the developer’s perspective, yes, that’s part of what we want to find out through our surveys, to get a sense of if they perceive that it’s changing or expanding. We have questions in the survey about growth. We know from various industry reports, like the Price Waterhouse Coopers one that comes out every year—they still show an average growth rate of about seven percent, year over year, on a global basis.
We are going to continue to see growth. The difference is that a lot of that growth, as one may expect, is going to be in emerging markets. The latest PWC report showed that they’re expecting double-digit growth in places like Kenya, Nigeria, Vietnam. Russia, they said, is going to be the eighth-largest market by 2017. A lot of companies are thinking more about Russian localization, even though there are challenges with piracy and other issues there. We’re still going to grow, but people need to rethink how they want to grow, and where.
GamesBeat: Is the membership changing along with that? Are you getting more members overseas?
Edwards: We are. We’re slowly shifting. We still have a North American-heavy membership, because that’s where the IGDA started. Since I’ve been around, the past 15 months, we’ve seen more memberships coming in overseas. I expect that to continue. We’ve had a lot of chapter creation activity over the last year, really exciting stuff.
We’ve had a very strong chapter in Finland. I was in Estonia last April to help launch the Estonian chapter, which is right across the bay in Tallinn. They wanted to start because they saw what was happening across the gulf in Finland. They got really excited about it. Then, over the past few months, Georgia has started an IGDA chapter because they saw what was happening in Estonia. We’ve had this ripple effect. It’s very exciting.
GamesBeat: Do you see disruption among the membership in some other countries, places where we’ve seen social upheaval?
Edwards: To some degree. We don’t have a ton of members in Ukraine or Venezuela. But one good example is Egypt, when they went through their recent political upheaval. We did have a chapter for a while, and then it faded, which happens sometimes, just because they’re volunteers. They might move to another country or something. But we restarted our IGDA Egypt chapter last year. We had a group of people come to us and say, “We want to get back on track and get moving again with a chapter,” despite the fact that the country still has a lot of challenges. I thought that was really cool. They see that, at least among the game development community, starting an IGDA chapter is a positive way to come together, be proud of what they’re doing, and start working together to get the industry going.
GamesBeat: Is there anything else you’re looking forward to here at GDC?
Edwards: I’m definitely looking forward to the advocacy track talks, being on the advisory committee. We have our SIG meetings. We have our advocacy training on Thursday. That’s where I’ll spend most of my time. I’ll be busy.