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Virtual reality is about to take off in a big way. Tech advisor Digi-Capital estimates that it could be a $30 billion industry by 2020. But if follows in the footsteps of the video game industry when it comes to the issue of diversity, that could be a disaster.
That’s the view of a panel of four women that I moderated in a session during the Game Developers Conference last week at the Open Gaming Alliance lounge. Our charter was to talk about the need to diversity the people, apps, and audience for the emerging platform of virtual reality. What better
As for the game industry, it could use some help. About 22 percent of the industry’s game developers are women. Some of them suffered a lot of hostility during the GamerGate controversy. But there’s been a lot of positive reaction that came from that open hostility, including efforts by Intel to double the number of women in games over the next decade, as well as an effort to combat online harassment. There’s more discussion about diversity in games than ever, including our discussion about the challenge of VR and diversity.
This is just one of a series of sessions I’ve moderated on diversity and the related subject of creativity. Here’s an edited transcript of our panel.
Megan Gaiser: We’ll do a short exercise to start, just to wake everybody up. Everybody please stand. Pick a partner next to you. Everybody has a partner? Good.
One of you is A and the other is B. A, your job is to tell B something you’re really passionate about. It can be about anything – just something you care about. B, your job is to dismiss and ignore A at all costs. We’ll do this for one minute. Okay? Go!
The next thing we’ll do, let’s switch partners. B, your job is to tell A something you’re passionate about. It can be in the games industry, your children, it doesn’t matter. A, your job is to criticize B as much as possible. Be creative. We’ll do this for one minute again. Go!
Okay, thank you! Way to go, criticizers. That was great. Now we’ll switch once again. A, you’ll tell B the exact same thing, and this time B’s job is to listen completely to what they’re saying and genuinely respond. We’ll do this for one more minute. Go!
Now we’ll switch roles again. B, you’ll tell A what you’re passionate about, and A, your job is to listen genuinely and respond to what they’re saying.
GamesBeat: Now maybe you can explain why we started that way.
Gaiser: When I first did that exercise, I could remember in an instant all the times I’d been ignored and dismissed and criticized. But I remembered in that instant how many times I’d done it too. None of us does that on purpose, but it happens.
GamesBeat: We all have some kind of unconscious bias to overcome. That may be one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. People talk about diversity in games and in the workplace.
Gaiser: It’s a good way to visualize and experience how that can feel.
GamesBeat: At GamesBeat last October I made some waves when I said I would not recommend that my daughters go into the game industry. I have three daughters, and they’re all passionate about gaming in some way. Mostly mobile gaming. But with the arrival of Gamergate, I was astounded at how backward the gaming community could be when it came to talking about diversity and embracing people who are different.
I wouldn’t want to subject my kids to the criticism I saw happen — rape threats and death threats and every other bad thing that can happen online. And all because maybe there’s something wrong with a game that fans didn’t like, or just because women are who they are in a male-dominated industry. To me it’s just not worth the personal price you pay.
That’s one perfectly logical reaction to all the things that came out around Gamergate. You see plenty of other reactions, too. You could see that bad behavior is also a challenge for everybody in the industry. It’s a reason to go into the game industry if you want to change it. The good thing about Gamergate is that I witnessed a lot of that behavior changing within the industry.
About 22 percent of people making games are women. I’m not sure what percentage are underrepresented minorities. But I’ve seen them all become much more active in the last year and a half than I’d seen in 20 years of covering games. They’re forcing changes. Intel stuck its foot in its mouth first, but they’ve made diversity a very big priority since then. About 40 percent of the people they’re hiring now are women and minorities. Intel wants to double the number of women in the game industry in the next decade. The company has taken on online harassment through a variety of events, and it’s funding groups like the IGDA and the AIAS. It’s putting money into diverse startups.
This panel is a good place to assess and make a progress report on where games are, and point out where the industry can go. Megan Gaiser you’ve already met, from Contagious Creativity.She is also diversity evangelist for the Open Gaming Alliance and Elevate Charity. Next to her is Christina Heller, the CEO of VR Playhouse. We have Leslie Pirritano from Elevate Charity, and Nicole Bradford from Transformative Technology Lab.
Nichol Bradford: I started in games in 2001. 14 years in pure games. I co-founded Into the Pixel to give game artists recognition as creatives. I founded Blacks in Gaming. I ran operations for Blizzard Entertainment in China, so I oversaw operating Warcraft in China among other Blizzard properties. Now I’m a leader in something called Transformative Technology, which is looking to use technology for mental and emotional well-being.
All of this is migrating back into the game space. For example, there’s a game in the works at UCSF which is a cognitive training game. It has the ability for bio-markers to take people from 46 back to the cognitive level of a 26-year-old. Who doesn’t want that? The difference is that now this area has gotten the same type of funding that digital medicine and pharmaceutical products have. It’s a new game and it’s all going back into VR.
As far as the state of the industry, I think we’re at an inflection point. There’s a great opportunity. [Diversity is not a philosophy. It’s really about growth, if you look at the demographics of the United States and local demographics.] From a market standpoint, the opportunity is there and change typically follows market opportunity. It’s not about cost, because the future will streamline that. When you have the intersection of data and AI and a variety of things, you have the ability to know who’s playing and respond to them accordingly.
The last thing I’d say is that it’s not really about the “other.” It’s about self-interest. Cognitive biases don’t stay in their own lanes. As a leader, if you have cognitive bias in one area, you probably have it in another. One thing people don’t think about is that cognitive bias brought the Challenger space shuttle down. [Group think]. You might say, “We work in games. We don’t work for NASA.” But the truth is you can have the same level of a career-derailing meltdown with cognitive bias.
If you’re going to train yourself to be aware of cognitive bias, you might as well start with one of the easier ones to be aware of, which is diversity. Becoming less biased is a leadership trait that will benefit us beyond just the surface of what diversity seems to be about. It’s about not having a Challenger situation in your company or your career. It’s about awareness plus growth.
The biggest thing is, it’s an opportunity, because all of these factors are coming together. I recently joined the board of Stacktrace, which is a data-driven solution to diversity. [It’s Tracy Chou‘s new organization. She was an engineer for Pinterest. She triggered a lot of change, where companies are starting to publish their actual numbers — not just on gender, but on diversity in general. Because you can’t solve a problem if you can’t see the numbers].
I’m excited about diversity in the games industry now. I haven’t been on diversity panels for about 10 years. I stopped for a little while. But the points that I mentioned — the change in the market, the change in technology, and the focus on visibility of numbers — are creating a real opportunity for change. It’s a good place. The industry has the potential to head in the right direction.
Leslie Pirritano: I’m here with Elevate Charity. I’ve been in the game industry for 12 years. The majority of that was with Nvidia, managing gaming campaigns and such. Quite some time ago I looked around and didn’t see a diverse representation publicly, whether it was coming from where I worked or externally from other places. Couple of years ago I started doing some research and formed what ended up becoming Elevate Charity, with the goal of making diversity more visible and positive. Showing role models and letting people see the diversity of people in our industry, be it gaming or VR and AR. That’s just getting off the ground.
As to the state of the industry — Gamergate helped bubble up a lot of issues and make them public. It had a very positive outcome from that perspective, just making everything visible. I’m hopeful that we’re in a good state. There are so many good people out there, all of us who are here and listening, that working together we’re going to make change. We’ll steer this big ship of an industry in the right direction, so all people can feel like they’re in a fun and safe environment.
Christina Heller: I’m the CEO and co-founder of VR Playhouse. We’re a creative content studio that makes content specifically for VR. We were founded in July 2014 and we’ve amassed a specialized team for the sole purpose of creating content for this new medium. We’re also a full service production company. We do everything in-house, which is a bit unusual in the space. We get a lot of people contracting to us from other companies.
Even inside my own company, even though we have a woman at the helm, we still skew male. A lot of the people who work at my company are guys. For every position we have an opening for, we get 10 applications from men for every woman. That’s part of the challenge. We want to hire the best people, and a lot more men have experience that’s in line for these positions. Inside our company it’s been a goal of mine to even that out. I’m talking about diversity and sitting on these panels, and then I look around at work and still see a lot of guys.
Diversity is way more than a moral imperative. It’s just good business. We’re based in L.A. and we’ve seen a lot of what’s happening in the TV and movie industries. There’s a craving for diversity in our entertainment. Look at the Fast & Furious franchise. People are obsessed with that. Lost was a great example of a TV show with a diverse cast — not just racially, but also an international cast. Empire came out and there was nothing else like it on television.
Another example that may be a little anecdotal would be Love on Netflix. I think the show’s hilarious. But I talked to one of my friends, and he says, “I do not want to see another show about white people’s dating problems.” Anyway, my point is just—It doesn’t just behoove us from a moral point of view. Everybody loves technology. Everybody loves media. Everybody spends money on it. If you’re a content creator in 2016 you should be thinking about diversity at every step of the process.
Gaiser: I was CEO of Her Interactive for 15 years. I just started Contagious Creativity a couple years ago. The problem, as I see it, we’re still not serving all people. There’s a lack of diverse leadership. We still lead with half of our intelligence. As Leslie said, Gamergate gave us the wake-up call. Theirs is conscious bias, but it stems from the unconscious bias in leadership.
Leaders determine everything – design, vision, products, culture. Some of the consequences of that lack of diversity — hostility toward women still exists. It’s not getting the media coverage it got a year ago, but it still exists. Women are leaving the game industry. Underrepresentation and negative portrayal of women in games are still in play.
I think about this a lot, and I’m sure you do too. What is this telling our sons? It’s telling them that men are the dominant gender. What does this tell our daughters? We’re not respected and we have no power. The interesting thing about this is, it’s also undermining all their abilities to grow up to become the great leaders we so desperately need. And it’s negatively impacting all of our psyches.
I believe, fundamentally, we need to change the way we lead. If we don’t, we’ll never be able to genuinely welcome diverse people and perspectives. These great initiatives that Intel and Facebook and Oculus and many others have put in place since Gamergate will only serve as band-aids, unless each of us takes steps to improve ourselves.
GamesBeat: We’re here because everyone’s very interested in VR and AR. It’s a brand new medium. To ask the devil’s-advocate question, why should this part of the industry right now care about diversity? It hasn’t even started yet. It’s barely getting off the ground. Why is diversity still important?
Heller: Partly because it is new. We can start from the get-go by learning from the mistakes of the past and build an ecosystem around VR that reflects the world in 2016. VRLA, which is a booming convention in Los Angeles with extremely affordable ticket prices — it’s the most diverse crowd ever. I expected to go there and see something like other conferences, but it’s not. I look around and see people from across the spectrum interested in VR. We should be making VR that appeals to all people.
Pirritano: In the gaming world and the VR world, women and people of different sexual orientations and different cultures — everybody’s interested in gaming and VR and entertainment. While it’s getting off the ground, this is the perfect opportunity to make sure that there’s a good mix. When people are looking to leaders, they’ll see some of themselves.
Bradford: I’d add that the kind of experiential presence that comes from a VR experience has so much power. We have a great tool we can use to reset people’s experiences, having it set up so people can inhabit each other’s experiences.
I saw an interesting study that was done on — they used a VR experience where, at the end of it, the women who experienced it rated lower on self-criticism. It’s fascinating, because I remember being a young woman and being very insecure and hearing people say, “Well, you need to find some self-esteem.” And having absolutely no idea how to do that. If I could have put on a device and found some self-esteem I would have paid for that. [laughs] It’s tremendously powerful. We should be pushing the limits and exploring what it can do for people. That requires diversity.
Gaiser: The reason we have to shape VR and AR with the values and philosophies of both genders is because if we don’t, it will be Groundhog Day. The same thing that happened to most other industry. Historically, technology and other media have been shaped by white men. We can’t afford to do that when we have this new emerging medium and have the opportunity to inspire with it. If we don’t do it, we’re not going to be able to reach the full breadth of markets, audiences, and revenue opportunities. We’re not going to be able to create the full breadth of original stories and meaningful experiences.
We need to be doing so much more. This is such a rich industry. It’s our responsibility to entertain, but also to educate and uplift and inspire people to do better. The only way we can inspire people to do better is by improving ourselves. I believe in creative leadership. I’ve come to understand it because that’s the way I led and it worked. For a decade we had inspired employees, inspired customers, increasing revenues.
I’ve also come to understand that leading with creativity is a very effective antidote to unconscious bias. Through extensive multidisciplinary research in neuroscience, emotional intelligence, creativity, conscious leadership, quantum physics — this is true across disciplines, and it’s teachable. Creativity used to be dismissed and relegated to making art as product. Now it’s what we need. Creativity is the most important skill in the 20th century and the most competitive, valuable leadership advantage we can employ.
Unless we have a radical change in the way we think so we can behave differently — in the exercise, the last part of that, we were fully present. That’s the way we need to lead. That’s the way we’re going to respect each other. These quotas and unconscious bias courses and mentorship courses, they’re a great start, but without transformational leadership it will never stick.
GamesBeat: If we look at the game industry in the last few years, we see some changes. We see more women characters, more women lead characters. Are we making progress as far as content in games? If not, what else has to be done?
Heller: I can’t say that I’m the most well-versed in the gaming community, that I know everything that’s out there. But I do go to Indiecade in Los Angeles, and it definitely seems like we’re making progress. Games are speaking to a more modern sensibility. You see more interesting people generally there. You guys can probably speak to this more specifically, but it seems like we’re moving in the right direction.
Pirritano: For me, it’s a blast. I enjoy games — the storylines in Winter, the Batman series, shooting people in Battlefield, that’s all fun. But I find myself really drawn to the Borderlands franchise, and I’m becoming really interested in Battleborn. [The developer Gearbox] includes a range of characters I can choose from — I can pick this totally kick-butt girl and tear apart that thing over there and there’s blood and guts everywhere and I did that as a girl. That, to me, is fun. It adds something to the game for me.
The games industry is also influenced by other media industries. I’m inspired by the J.J. Abrams pledge, where he came back and said, “We’re going to have diverse movies.” Part of it is just that they’re looking at the overseas box office and the importance of that. The broader a cast of characters you have, the more people buy into it. I think it’s heading in the right direction.
GamesBeat: I do think there’s a way for a medium to get off on the wrong foot. If you think back to the early days of the movies, one of the most powerful films ever made was Birth of a Nation.
Gaiser: Unconscious bias in leadership is a problem across industries and nations. There are many CEOs and leaders who’ve transformed their companies and righted the ship. Aetna is one example. But their leader had to do the work of inspiring himself. We upgrade our computers when they’re not working to their maximum capacity. Why don’t we do the same ourselves, when we’re not functioning to our full human potential?
John Cleese has a good quotation. “Creativity is not a skill. It’s an operating system.” I would go one step further and say it’s our human operating system, because it accesses all of our means of knowing.
GamesBeat: VR could be the next big thing. But what is the audience for VR? Are we making some assumptions about where it is and where it’s going to start and where it will eventually go?
Heller: We’re going to see VR branch in at least two different directions. There’s going to be mobile. Everyone has a phone. Google Cardboard to put your phone in an look all around, that’s one avenue for consumption of VR or 360 video. Then there’s the high-end gaming headsets — the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Due to the price point, that will be more of an upper-class toy. Most people can’t afford that.
But there’s also another sector inside the high-end gaming headset, which is retail. In 2016 and 2017 we’ll start seeing the high-end headsets in retail environments and that will give people a chance to experience them. The mobile market is an open playing field. We’ll see content for everybody everywhere. For the high-end headsets, you’ll see gamers targeted, but more brands will be getting into that space targeting all different demographics.
Gaiser: The audience is everyone, for VR and AR. The gaming industry started with a problem, thinking that gaming is just for men and boys. If we can partner both genders to imagine possibilities, to collaborate — it’s not just gaming, by the way. We have to expand. This will be in every industry and medium. The revenue opportunities are beyond belief. The whole picture will making gaming look like nothing.
If we have the courage to look at ways to inspire ourselves, instead of looking at the bottom line — make meaning and money. Look at how we can create something that makes our audience feel inspired, rather than something they’re ashamed of because they’re addicted to it, something that doesn’t enhance them. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be serving all audiences. But we’re not doing that as it is.
GamesBeat: Nichol, you said you stopped doing diversity panels for a while. What was behind that?
Bradford: Nothing was happening. So I stopped for a little while. I was just saying the same old things. Then I was re-inspired by some of the things I saw over the last couple of years. When you guys called me about this one, it was around the same time that, being in the bay area and seeing a lot of the momentum in tech that’s happening around diversity — plus, I spent the summer at Singularity University, doing a lot of work on VR and AR seeing a lot of things coalesce. I’m quite hopeful about change now.
GamesBeat: What are some of the harder problems you think people can work on in diversity? One thing that feels like a challenge to me is this phrase “culture fit.” It seems to mean a lot to people who are leaders of companies that they’re not going to bring in anybody who isn’t a fit with the existing culture. They want people who’ve been in development and passionate about games for 20 years or whatever. That’s the target person they want in this industry working for them.
That could be a financially successful approach, but I don’t know if it leads to a diverse workplace. How do you advise leaders that they can think in a different way about that problem?
Bradford: If I were advising a leader on that subject right now, I’d tell them to look for the foundation pieces of what culture means. Culture could be based on integrity. That doesn’t have a physical profile. There are base definitions or descriptions that are actually human traits. I’d go deeper and use that as a definition of the cultural pieces. At the same time, you can show through leadership and example that there’s a lot more interpretation beyond the surface level of those things.
One thing I’m excited about with Stacktrace is that it’s setting up mentorship programs, but it’s actually a dual mentorship program. All the women in the program will be assigned to a senior level mentor somewhere in the tech industry. [I think that the person getting mentored is the senior level person]. A lot of what people say is that they can’t find anyone. Or certainly they would hire women if they could find them. When someone is paired with absolute hotshot, from that moment on they can’t pretend there aren’t talented women and people of color out there.
Pirritano: I would advise people to look at their culture differently. How are you going to include more diverse people if your environment is fast-paced, or calm, or always working at the speed of light? One thing I did at Nvidia when I started a group there called NV Pride — it was LGBT-focused, but made up largely of straight people — was just inviting leaders to participate and listen and ask questions and get acquainted with people who needed them to listen. That’s a good place to start in growing toward diversity. Look at the audience you already have, get to know them and their needs. What makes them feel comfortable? What makes them thrive? What makes them positive about their workplace?
Heller: VR production pulls from so many different areas. In so many ways we’re developing new workflows for making VR content. I don’t know that having a 20-year CV necessarily makes you a better fit to work at a VR company than someone just out of school. Our team, a lot of them are green, but we look at character traits, like you were saying.
One of the most valuable character traits for working in VR and AR right now is a constantly evolving mentality. You can’t be afraid to learn new software and new tools. Already, in the two years we’ve had this company, we’ve had to learn 10 new programs. New tools are released every week. That’s the quality we look for. We want people who are excited about learning new things, people who are excited by challenges and solving problems.
It’s interesting that you bring up culture fit, because I’m a real advocate for my own company culture. There are only 15 of us and we work very closely. The wrong person can disrupt that easily. But it has everything to do with your vibe or your energy. Do you excite people when you come into the room? Not necessarily every day, but in general. Do you have the right kind of ambition? That’s more important than a resume.
Gaiser: In my new business I advise senior leaders to inspire their products, whether in gaming or VR. But I also train senior leaders to make the shift to creative leadership. One of the fundamental issues is, we can no longer rely on the status quo, at all. It calls for redesigning every aspect of the business.
Some of the things that could help companies — invest in leadership training across all levels, not just the senior leadership. We’re all leaders. Everyone needs to know how to go anywhere with their best-ofs. Second, invest in hiring multidisciplinary thought leaders and experts to learn from them. Hire them to advise senior leaders, to share their research and data, so our leaders can expand their awareness and have the courage to see that there’s another way of being. They can start taking risks and change the way they behave.
When you’re leading creatively, there are many ideas you can keep enhancing. Have students or employees take the opportunity to shadow someone in the area they want to work. If you can see it, you can be it. One day a week, have employees go to someone they don’t know and have lunch. Who knows? You might have a great idea that will make money, and you wouldn’t have found that idea if you hadn’t had an open heart and mind. Change HR’s mission to inspire on a daily basis. Have a chief inspiration officer, a chief collaboration officer. Everyone should try to unite on a regular basis.
The quote was up there, but it’s about improving ourselves, because every one of us needs to do that. We all suffer from unconscious bias.
GamesBeat: I wanted to close with a message from William Wulf, who was the head of the National Academy of Engineering. I bring this up because engineering and technology are not always automatically associated with diversity. But they are associated with creativity. His argument, essentially, is that the quality of engineering is affected by diversity, or the lack of it.
He said, “To make that argument, I’ll share with you some deep beliefs about the nature of engineering, some of which will run counter to the stereotypes of engineers and engineering. The whole argument in a nutshell is this: it hinges on the notion that engineering is a profoundly creative profession. Not the stereotype, I know, but it’s something I believe deeply. The psychological literature tells us that creativity is not something that just happens. It is the result of making unexpected connections between things we already know. Hence, creativity depends on our life experiences. Without diversity, the life experiences we bring to an engineering problem are limited. As a consequence, we may not find the best engineering solution. We may not find the elegant engineering solution.”
Question: For me it’s a kind of double problem. First, you have the technology side, which is hard enough. Very few women study engineering or software development. On top of that, you have the gaming industry, which has its own problems. But I think most about the education part of it, how we start from the bottom up and get more women interested in study these subjects so they can get into the industry and start a positive feedback loop.
Heller: They say that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail, but I think that content is a great place to start. The more you can showcase stories that show women doing interesting things – women who don’t necessarily look like the typical person you see on television. Game Developer Barbie was a start. When I was younger I wanted to be an actress. I lived in a small town in Pennsylvania and I just didn’t have a lot of role models that were doing cool things. You were a teacher, a designer, something like that. I knew I wanted to work in stories, work in the arts, so I guess I’ll be an actress. That was what women could do.
Obviously once I got older and more into the industry, it became clear that I could do all of these things. I’m glad I went behind the camera and started that career path. But to make a long story short, the more we can show women in media, it has a snowball effect. If you see yourself represented in different ways, it expands the way you view yourself. You’re more open to see other opportunities, and maybe those opportunities will be working in places like VR.
Pirritano: A main part of the initiative for Elevate is to put different faces out in front, to show a younger generation that these are things they can do. Look at successful women or whoever you can put out there. Also, I’ve been looking at different organizations to pair up with and co-promote. There’s a lot of STEM-based organizations, a lot of non-profits going into schools and doing mentor programs and showing young women what they can dream about that they maybe haven’t before.
On a personal level, you can look at places to donate or volunteer like that. Another thing I like to do is bring younger people to my workplace and show them different careers that are available. When you can, on a personal level, invite your friends’ kids and show them what they can do in your workplace.
Bradford: There are three pieces to the puzzle, I’d say, and each of them have a different way of interacting. The first part is awareness, like you said. Depending on the country you’re in—In the U.S. there’s a lot going on with computer science being available across the board, and specifically to women and people of color as well. Overall, computer science in high schools had almost disappeared in the U.S. Now it’s coming back.
The second part is recruitment. That’s the funnel. There are interesting programs people are starting to deal with that. And then the last part is retention. As Megan said, STEM does have a retention problem. That’s where things like Stack Trace are making a difference, when women reach that level. There’s a point in everyone’s career where mentorship plays such a big part in advancing to the senior levels.
Each of those pieces has a different way of dealing with it, but all three are necessary to make a difference. Find the piece that you’re most passionate about or that impacts your business the most and work on that piece. Then you’re contributing a solution. You don’t have to solve everything. Everyone’s involved.
Question: How do you see the landscape for investment and venture capital responding to the potential for diversity in startups?
Gaiser: It’s a problem. It continues to be a problem and we’re working on it aggressively. This is all of our problem. We need both genders to solve this problem. Investors who are interested in this cause — we need to be connected. Men can play a very big role in doing that.
To find women to bring into companies, you can go to schools. You can give talks. You can start networking. Women know where women are. We can find them. I often work with heads of conferences to make sure they have a list of women to call, because we often hear, “We couldn’t find anyone.” If we can come together and get to know each other, this movement can expand. It really is a creative revolution. With AR and VR, this is it. This is our opportunity, because it’ll change the way we engage with the world.
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