The game industry’s lack of diversity came into sharp focus last year during Gamergate, the Internet hate movement that led to harassment of female game developers. We saw that controversy as a wake-up call for the gaming industry, and we made sure to address the topic of diversity in people and products during a breakout session at our GamesBeat 2015 conference.
We wanted to have a discussion that went deeper and probed for nuances and solutions. Gordon Bellamy, a visiting scholar at the University of Southern California, moderated our session.
The panel included Asra Rasheed, an executive producer at Disney’s game division; Justin Hefter, the CEO of Bandura Games, Megan Gaiser, a principal at Contagious Creativity, and Katy Jo Meyer, a senior business program manager at Xbox.
To help people come to terms with diversity problems such as unconscious bias, Gaiser directed the attendees at the outset to perform a live exercise with the person sitting next to them. Gaiser asked one person to discuss something they felt strongly about, and Gaiser told the other person to either ignore, rebuke, or affirm the other party. The exercise drew a lot of laughter, and it hammered home the point that we are all guilty of unconscious bias at times. And that means that we can all improve the way that we think about diversity in the workplace and in gaming.
Here’s an edited transcript of their 50-minute conversation.
Asra Rasheed: I’m an executive producer at Disney Consumer Products and Interactive.
Justin Hefter: I’m the co-founder and CEO of Bandura Games. We’re using mobile games as a medium for creating empathy and connecting people from diverse backgrounds around the world and across conflict zones.
Megan Gaiser: I’m principal at Contagious Creativity.
Katy Jo Meyer: I’m a senior business program manager at Xbox, working on bringing inclusive practices to the way we create our games and entertainment services.
Gordon Bellamy: We’re going to be exploring diversity in the leadership culture of the game industry as well. We’ll talk a bit about unconscious bias. We’ll talk about Gamergate and how that was a wake-up call, in the sense of seeing what was not microaggression but just literal sexist, racist aggression against people in our craft. That was a wake-up call around how we treat and value each other. I had a higher expectation of our industry and our leadership as far as how we treat each other, regardless of how we interface with the rest of the world. That’s what drew me to this panel today — to continue to elevate and move the discussion forward.
Gaiser: We’re going to do a quick exercise. If everyone could please stand up, the person next to you will be your partner. One of you will be A, one of you B. A, your job is to tell B something you care about deeply – an idea, something that moves you. B, your job is to ignore A at all costs. We’ll do this for one minute. Everybody has something you care about? Go!
Great job, ignorers. That was awesome. Everybody had a different flavor. Now we’re going to switch roles, and so B, you tell A something you care deeply about, and A, your role is to criticize and dismiss them. Be as creative as you want in how you go about it, but just disagree and dismiss them.
Okay, well done criticizers. For the next part of the exercise, person A, I want you to share, again, with person B, what you were talking about before, what’s most important to you. Share the same story. This time, I’d like person B to positively and genuinely respond to person A.
When I first role-played that exercise, I immediately had flashbacks to all the times I’d been criticized and dismissed and ignored. They just came flooding in. But what I also remembered were all the times that I’d done that as well. It was a huge realization for me. What did you guys feel?
Bellamy: My feelings were hurt. It was disconcerting. Our expectations — we haven’t spent a lot of time together. This is some of our first interactions. It was a lot of range to run through.
Hefter: I was impressed. When I started out ignoring Asra, I really didn’t hear anything she said. When I finally sat there and listened, though, I felt a strong connection. I’m Jewish and Asra is Muslim. It brought me back to the first time, as a young Jewish-American, when I met a Muslim person, and that same feeling of having so much in common. That brought me back.
Rasheed: There are two points. One, the feeling that someone doesn’t care about what you’re saying, both personally and professionally—It’s sad. No one’s listening to what I have to say, but I know what I’m saying and I know that it’s important. The second point is, equally—When I did listen to Justin, it was very emotional for the same reason. We both come from similar backgrounds. Gender, race, and religion doesn’t really matter. We’re all here for the same reason.
Meyer: It’s hard, when you care deeply about something, for someone to just blow it off. To think about that so many times, when that happens at work—To Megan’s point, how many times do I do that, when I’m in a hurry or I’m thinking about my next meeting or that email or whatever? I’m not giving that person the time and attention they deserve as another human, that respect in the moment, because they care deeply about it.
If I can’t be fully present, I just need to tell them, “I can’t be fully present. Here’s a time that I can.” It brings up reminders of all those experiences that happen two minutes or five minutes at a time, every day, and the power that it has.
Bellamy: I think about how I balance my time between people and my phone. “Oh, I’ll totally share this time with you, me, and my phone.” Just getting a little bit of that back, it’s pretty stiff.
We’re going to talk a bit about unconscious bias. What does that mean to you?
Gaiser: It’s a blind spot, like a bad habit we all have. It prevents us from letting go of preconceived notions, so that we can expand our perspectives and imaginations to consider other possibilities and be respectful to diverse people. Because it’s unconscious, we often don’t realize we have it, and what’s worse is we think we’re in the right.
Meyer: I’ve been focusing a lot on unconscious bias, spending a lot of time and energy in that space. One thing we’ve learned is that brain researchers have identified that your brain—As a human being, we all have unconscious bias. We would not survive in the world if we didn’t. Researchers have identified that we receive 11 million pieces of data through all of our senses per second. Soak that in for a moment. Your brain can only actively process 40 of them, 40 out of 11 million.
Unconscious bias allows us to operate and process some of that data on autopilot. Part of it from a discussion perspective, then, is letting go of that judgment on someone who has unconscious bias, because we all have it. We have to. It’s a matter of understanding what unconscious biases we have, learning what those are, and determining for ourselves – are those biases serving us, or are they getting in the way of doing great work, whether it’s in a creative space or just in human interactions?
Bellamy: It’s important to look at how that affects diversity and leadership decisions — who’s even allowed to lead and fully express themselves in the workplace. Why is that important? Why is diversity a value?
Hefter: To Katy’s point, unconscious bias isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s what allows us to avoid things that might be potentially dangerous. Our brain says, “Because of this factor that I’m unconsciously noticing, I’ll avoid that.” It becomes a problem in the workplace when, as a manager, you don’t listen to something or you ignore someone because of the unconscious bias you might have.
The reason why diversity is important from a business perspective is that diverse perspectives allow you as a manager to consider a number of different alternatives to how do something, and then pick the best path. If you’re not listening to a certain number of employees because of an unconscious bias, you as a manager are not getting a full suite of opportunities to take your business in the right direction. The benefit of diversity is having a greater number of options and opportunities as a business.
Rasheed: Everyone has their own definitions and experience, but I’m going to share an example. I’ve been in the games industry for 15 years now. It wasn’t until about five years ago–I had been approached by LeVar Burton to come and be the CEO of his company. He said, in this conversation, “I know that you’re a tiny woman, 5’2”. I get it. I’m African-American. But this is what we can do to change things.” When we talk about diversity and the importance of diversity in leadership, it’s important to have that kind of thinking. It’s important to have leaders who are diverse, who can allow growth into other areas.
I truly believe that it’s because of someone like that, someone who gave me an opportunity and respected me enough, who knew I could take on the challenge. He allowed me to do that, and oftentimes we don’t even get that chance. When it comes to leadership, it has to come from the top down. That’s how things are going to change.
Bellamy: A euphemism that often comes to mind for me is “culture fit.” How do we reconcile culture fit with the cultivation of diversity?
Meyer: A lot goes into that culture fit, whether you’re a fit or not. There are lots of ways to process and break down what that means. What’s important is keeping that end goal in mind. What are you trying to achieve as a business? And then making sure you have diverse perspectives around the table. But it’s also not just a diversity of people. It’s creating an environment where diverse perspectives are valued.
When we talk about diversity and inclusion, that “and” in the middle is important. If you don’t have an environment where people feel safe sharing different perspectives, it’s all for naught. It’s important to be very intentional about creating an environment where diversity is welcomed and appreciated and valued. That’s the culture we’re going for, a place where everyone can share their opinions and perspectives and have their voice heard.
The business goes where it goes, but it’s a matter of bringing those voices to the table. All of those voices are representative of our customers that we’re trying to create these experiences for. It’s important to make sure that environment is safe and foster diversity from the inside out.
Gaiser: I love that we’re all saying the same thing in different words. The way I’d say it is that leadership is behavior, not authority. Creativity is the mother of diversity. We often relegate creativity to making art or products, but it really is our human operating system. When we’re creative, we have an open mind and an open heart. That’s the only way to genuinely inspire a culture, an inclusive culture that respects diverse people and perspectives.
Obviously we need more representation for women, ethnic diversity, LGBTQ, but the other thing we need is diverse thinkers. Just because someone is a woman doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a diverse thinker. That’s something we need to cultivate to be open-minded and open-hearted.
Rasheed: Just because I’m a woman, I shouldn’t be filling a quota in any company. I should be hired for my skill set and my experience. It’s important, whoever we are, for all of us to own what we do. I can speak from my own experience, that the last thing I’d ever want is to be hired just because I’m a woman.