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Megan Gaiser, co-CEO of Spiral Media Ltd. and principal at Contagious Creativity, believes that creativity is the mother of diversity. And vice versa. If you lead with creativity, then diverse thinking is the result. And if you have a diverse staff, you can get more diverse thinking and more creative results.

That was the idea we explored in a panel at GamesBeat 2016, our game industry conference in Los Angeles last week. The panel itself had some very different people on it, but they all cared about diversity and came at it from different industry experiences. For many years, Gaiser ran Her Interactive, the maker of Nancy Drew video games, which sold more than 9 million copies over time.

Also speaking was Ru Weerasuriya, creative director at Ready At Dawn Studios, maker of The Order: 1886, Daxter, and God of War: Chains of Olympus. Weerasuriya’s 100-person studio recently took a left turn and came up with the zany De-Formers title, an expression of creativity that emerged from a small team.

And the panel included Michael Condrey, cofounder of Sledgehammer Games, a 300-person studio (owned by Activision) that created Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. Condrey is in a position to create a more diverse staff at his studio, and he has done so, as 40 percent of the staff is diverse. He said he wants to make the industry a fit place for people like his young daughter.


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The panel was moderated by Nicole Lazzaro, CEO of XEO Design, a creator of a wide range of games from The Sims to the VR game Follow the White Rabbit.

Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation. You can also view the video embedded below.

Megan Gaiser, co-CEO of Spiral Media Ltd. and principal of Contagious Creativity at GamesBeat 2016.

Above: Megan Gaiser, co-CEO of Spiral Media Ltd. and principal of Contagious Creativity at GamesBeat 2016.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Nicole Lazzaro: It’s an amazing opportunity we have here today. We have Call of Duty, God of War, and Nancy Drew all represented on the stage at the very same time to talk about diversity.

Our panel is about creativity and diversity: “What has love got to do with it?” If you think about it, creativity is the power to create something new. It’s to buck the status quo. Unconscious bias is the thing that divides us, the thing that separates us one from another. It’s almost like two separate trucks on the same highway, pulling in different directions. Diversity is the thing that we can use to turn unconscious bias around so that both of those go in the same direction. Studies have shown that diversity brings financial benefits, better decision-making, and higher quality to the table.

So what do creativity and diversity have to do with each other? Why is this so important?

Michael Condrey: For me there are two buckets, one personal and one professional. On the personal side, I have an eight-year-old daughter. She’s brilliant. She’s a woman. She’s not Caucasian. I think about her coming into this industry, an industry I’ve been so fulfilled by, and I want to leave this industry in a place that’s more conducive to her and her merits and talents, not just her gender or the color of her skin.

On the professional side, your research says exactly what we know. Teams with increased diversity, when it comes to ethnicity and gender, are more productive and more innovative. They hit budgets and deadlines better. For this industry and for Sledgehammer Games, I want our resources, our development staff, to represent the proportions that our gamers represent. That’s where the collective experience will allow us to have better experiences that drive ideas and drive quality for fans.

Megan Gaiser: The reason I believe that creativity is the mother of diversity is because it takes an open heart and mind to genuinely welcome diverse people, perspectives, and as a result products. People know when they’re not respected as equals. They can feel it. That’s why most people only bring half of themselves to work, because they don’t feel safe enough to let down their guards and truly collaborate. By using creativity to problem-solve, we inspire diversity.

That’s the only way we won at Her Interactive, in a hostile environment. We created a diverse and inclusive culture from the start, so when retailers refused girl games, we rallied together and found another way in, which was Amazon. By not using creative leadership, we’re losing out on so many revenue opportunities. New content experiences, new markets, and new audiences.

Lazzaro: That’s what you could call creative leadership, then? Didn’t you drive $8.5 million in sales, something like 9.5 million units for Nancy Drew?

Gaiser: I came from filmmaking, so I didn’t go to the corporate side. Creative leadership is simply encouraging what’s possible for the greater good. It’s leading with curiosity to discover new ways to do things instead of sticking with the status quo. In our case, we redesigned the system, since the system didn’t include us.

Ru Weerasuriya: For me personally, one of the best ways to illustrate why diversity is so important for creativity, it’s a quote from Albert Einstein. He said, “Creativity is seeing what everybody else is seeing, but thinking what no one else has thought.” Our industry, every industry, is made of people. People are the creators. People are the consumers. In order to achieve that same spread on the consumer side, to reach people, you need to start by having that same diversity on the creative side.

For all of us as developers, especially in teams, to look at exactly the same problem, but find a solution for it, you need different thinking. Different thinking comes from your background, your culture, your gender, your religion. Whatever it is that makes you different will make you look at the same problem in a different way. That’s how we’ve always worked. We’ve encouraged our team because they’re diverse to look at something the same way and come up with different solutions.

Lazzaro: One of the major obstacles to that is unconscious bias. It’s a way of thinking that puts walls between people. As we’ve seen online harassment grow over the last two years, from a storm inside the game industry to the national political scene, we’ve seen many companies addressing this diversity issue. Is the answer diversity quotas? Is it something else? What are you doing at your studios to address this?

Weerasuriya: I’ve heard many opinions. I’ve heard from people who truly believe in setting quotas to solve some of the issues we have. For us it’s always been a meritocracy. Quotas go against that. For us it’s always the same thing. There is a position open. You want to be a developer, you need to be good at it. It doesn’t matter where you come from. Ultimately, no one will respect you if you can’t do the job. Whether you’re a man, a woman, minority, whether you come from anywhere, you need to be respected for the job that you do.

So I don’t truly believe in quotas. But I do believe in the fact that in order to help the diversity in your studio, there are plenty of ways. Quotas would be an extreme, almost a last resort. There are so many other ways we can help. We should look first to more natural solutions as humans that we have rather than imposing something that might also change the balance?

Lazzaro: What’s a natural solution?

Ru Weerasuriya, creative director at Ready At Dawn Studios, at GamesBeat 2016.

Above: Ru Weerasuriya, creative director at Ready At Dawn Studios, at GamesBeat 2016.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Weerisuriya: Start with culture. Culture is at the root of everything we do, our team culture. How we work, how we develop. One of the simplest things we’ve done is create a small group of people — we’re about 100 developers, but we’ve created a group of five to six people who manage our culture. They’re from diverse backgrounds. They organize everything from team and company-sponsored events to outside. But because they think differently, they’ll come up with different solutions. That welcomes other people that come to the company to say, “I didn’t know you had this. I’d love to do that.”

It’s a very simple way of doing things. We allow culture to dictate its own path. But the reality is that you have to grow culture. It’s like a child in your company. You have to raise that child.

Lazzaro: As a consultant working with teams like the people who developed The Sims and Diner Dash, installing things like weekly playtests, and then making sure that you’re diverse in recruiting is an awesome idea. Your team gets exposure to that. Playing games or eating pizza with these folks afterward, you get this social bonding that can help grow your culture and maybe you get some recruiting.

Gaiser: I think it’s great that companies are putting diversity quotas and those types of tactics in place, but it doesn’t necessarily address the root of the problem, which is the need for leadership transformation. People want to be a part of the community, not a work force. Unconscious bias is holding us all back. It requires that we first become conscious of our biases so we can recondition the way we think to act differently, to lead more inclusively.

True diversity — and I totally agree with you — requires a cultural reformation. And so not only do we need to ensure that diversity is hired, we also need to ensure that we put diverse people in leadership positions, so they’re in the room also making those key decisions. We need to ensure that the current leadership team — we invest in them to make sure they’re also diverse thinkers.

The call to action is to reimagine how we fundamentally do business. In order to do that we need to tap into our creative intelligence, or rather re-learn it, since we were all born with it. That’s when we’re going to inspire collective intelligence, which is actually what diversity brings.

Condrey: I agree with both sentiments. It’s interesting to talk about unconscious bias. As humans we’re psychologically wired to short-cut and pattern-match. In psychology I think it’s called the availability heuristic. It means you look for success models that you’ve seen in the past. Terrible example, but if you show a picture of a cylinder with lines coming out of the top to a farmer, they’ll say it’s a combine. If you show it to a hairdresser it’s a brush. If you show it to a game developer it’s a Weedle from Pokemon or something.

We try to take away that availability heuristic when we start interviewing candidates and talking about solutions to add diversity to our studio. We do thinks like blind-boxing resumes. It’s a very simple concept. At the first screening of resumes, you remove all the names. Nobody can look at the name and assume they’re looking at a resume for a man or a woman or someone of whatever ethnicity. It’s powerful.

We do the same thing facing outward, on our social communications. We redesigned our website. A year ago our website was just a Call of Duty website, with big Call of Duty hero art. Guy with a gun and a group of developers that maybe didn’t look as diverse as it should. Now you look at it and it very much outwardly shows that this is an inclusive environment for diverse candidates to come and be part of the team. It takes that sort of unconscious bias off both sides.

We also have a culture committee. I think that’s great. We have a women’s committee as well, where we get together once or twice a month, which I love. We hear from the many women developers at Sledgehammer, their concerns about culture and about the game. That helps drive more inclusive thinking.

We do use candidate quotas, but not for hiring. We at least ensure that in senior positions, you’re considering diversity candidates. We’ve seen that used in other industries. For me, I think it was 1995 or 1992 — the NFL, which probably had the worst case, they introduced that sort of concept for senior leadership positions. They didn’t say who you had to hire as a head coach, but you had to interview a diverse group of candidates. You look at it today and it’s improved. They have work to do and so do we. The whole industry does. But some of those little steps can make a big impact.

Megan Gaiser, Michael Condrey, and Nicole Lazzaro at GamesBeat 2016.

Above: Megan Gaiser, Michael Condrey, and Nicole Lazzaro at GamesBeat 2016.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Lazzaro: It’s recognizing how insidious unconscious bias can be. It’s an automatic assessment, usually based on social grouping. I have a background in psychology, a degree from Stanford. It’s just a snap judgment that puts somebody in another group. On the outward-facing, we want to look at what we can count, what we can see. But inward-facing, we want to look for clues.

I had this wonderful short encounter last night about the Julliard music program. What they did in recruiting, they introduced blind auditions. Similar to your blind-box thing. But what they were really confused about is, the first time they ran that they got the same results. It was 10 percent women, mostly men. So what’s going on?

They ran it a second time and made one change. They said, “Take your shoes off.” The performers walked on stage without their shoes, behind a screen, and they got 50-50 male to female results. Unconsciously, the judges heard the women’s shoes. They didn’t know it, but that affected their assessments. Looking for these things, all up and down, is important. We’re looking for a new type of leadership that’s coming. From the ground up we want to look at our processes and encourage diversity.

Michael, what approaches are you doing as a leader in your company to foster diversity? Is there anything else you wanted to share?

Condrey: It starts by making it part of the active dialogue in your culture. We can point to the industry now. We know that half of all gamers are women. There are programs around the U.S. USC has a game design school that’s graduating 50 percent women.

Lazzaro: 63 percent of Pokemon Go players are women.

Condrey: There you go. But you look at Silicon Valley, where we’re located, and high tech is maybe 20 to 25 percent women? You ask the question. What aren’t we doing? That can be a powerful part of the conversation within your leadership team. For me, it’s always been important, and maybe rolling around in the back of my head over the last 20 years, but we have to be change advocates. We need to take an active role in talking about it and leading change in your organization.

Lazzaro: Why do you think creative leadership is so important?

Gaiser: Creativity is the most important leadership skill in the 21st century. We should be leading with it. It’s the antidote to unconscious bias, because it encourages us and inspires us to do and be better. Creativity has been dismissed in leadership historically because it couldn’t be quantified, but that’s no longer the case. There’s significant research that underscores both the logic and the benefits of leading with creative intelligence supported by analytical intelligence.

The other reason is content. The media stories we tell have an effect on us on some level. While I believe that there needs to be diverse content for as many diverse preferences as there are, I also believe that as leaders, it’s our responsibility to not only inspire our employees, but also inspire our customers with the products we’re creating. I predict that those companies who are not investing in creative leadership in the next five years will lose market share to those who do.

Lazzaro: Following on the subject of Pokemon Go, it’s like a 30-30-30 split between 13-17, 18-30, and 30-50 years old in terms of those demographics. We have everyone from 13 years old to 50 years old. It’s not just gender. It’s also age and background and access to technology. There’s a lot to celebrate. Ru, I’d ask you this. What approaches you have done in terms of diversity, changes you’ve made in your company?

Weerasuriya: We’ve started off from a point where we weren’t, I would say, the cookie-cutter company. We’re a triple-A developer. We’re still independent. There aren’t many of us left. But we started from a group of three people from diverse backgrounds. We were from different parts of Europe. I came from Asia originally. It built in us this natural tendency to look outside for a lot of things.

Very early on, the first 10 hires we had in the company — I think half of them were foreigners. We hired them from Europe. I went out and said, “I know how hard it is to get a H1. I got my own H1 back in the ‘90s when nobody was getting them for you, so you had to do your own work.” Those are the barriers I see for companies that are starting now. They say, “Why do you go outside to hire? It’s so hard.” But everything that’s worth doing is hard. If you can go outside to look for talent, try to do that. We did.

We were very diverse from the beginning. Of course, as you grow, the community around you gets to know you and more and more people apply. That foreign community gets balanced out and you draw more local people. But still, we make a massive effort at the company to hire outside. We go above and beyond to get O1s, H1s, whatever we can to get people from all over the world. What they bring with them is not just raw talent. They’ll bring perspective to you. That’s how we’ve grown.

One thing I wanted to quickly touch on — we talk about diversity and the steps to take to increase diversity and build creativity. The one slippery slope is taking drastic steps to push diversity through. My personal opinion, you can’t force diversity. You have to cultivate diversity. Diversity forced on people will make you team implode. It’s never a good solution.

It’s tricky to say, “We have some solutions that we’ll put in place.” It has to work for you. If you force it on the culture you have already that it’s not what you were expecting or what we saw. But there are plenty of ways to get there.

Creativity and diversity panel at GamesBeat 2016.

Above: Creativity and diversity panel at GamesBeat 2016.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

Lazzaro: You have diversity in hiring. A lot of studios we work with have an issue where their networks are gender- or regional- or age-isolated. They just don’t know a diversity of people. Working on that is a great way out. Inside, looking at the leadership roles people play, being sure that we give diversity in running a meeting or running a project. Being sure that we have those opportunities for people of diverse backgrounds to have that. And then just reward the heck out of whatever they’re doing to build their confidence as they move forward.

I wanted each panelist to go through three tips or takeaways for the audience. What are some practical tips to get diversity in there?

Condrey: For me, the lightbulb moment came on maybe later than it should have. I wish somebody had just said, “Hey, this is why it’s important.” One, you’ll get better quality, more innovative games, and your business will perform better. That’s the why. The how, I think it starts as having it become part of your culture and language. I agree that you don’t want to force anything, but you have to have real drive behind it.

It’s tough. We have conversations about how we bring more women into development. Commonly people will say, “I can only feel comfortable when you have enough women.” So you get in this cycle. You have to be proactive and take some real steps. And not just with gender diversity, but diversity in general.

Blind-boxing resumes has worked. We’ve taken diversity in our studio up to 40 percent across all groups. Culture committees and women’s committees and other working groups in the studio help as advocates for those causes. That’s also important.

Gaiser: I have a cheat sheet. Make curiosity a key part of everyone’s job. View the design of everything as a tool for connecting and uniting the company. Request ideas from the entire company. You get your best ideas, potentially, outside a department.

The other thing I wanted to say, a bit off-topic, is that the risk of not doing these kinds of things for diversity is that we will be stuck in the status quo. We’ll be perpetuating exclusivity by serving primarily the white male demographic. The state of the world reflects that. All of us, men and women partnering together, need to help each other expand each other’s awareness and perspectives so we can create awesome things together and expand revenues.

Weerasuriya: Grow your culture inside your company. Make sure you manage and grow it well. Allow leadership to rotate. We did one thing at the company which we try to enforce as best we can. We try to make sure people feel that leadership is not a permanent burden. We tell them, “You’re a lead for the time the project lasts. If you want to keep doing that and nobody else has the drive to do it, you can.” But we don’t make people feel like no longer being a lead is a demotion. You can step away from it, because different ideas will come from a different lead. It doesn’t always work. With bigger teams, sometimes it gets very messy. But with a smaller team it works.

This is not so much a tip, but one of the steps we often forget as a studio — celebrate the good that you do with diversity in your team, rather than looking at all the bad things you haven’t solved. Often the easiest way to grow something is to look at the good side of what you’ve done already and build on that. We criticize a lot of things we don’t do right, areas we haven’t gone far enough or we’re still behind. But as an industry, for our age, we’ve done a lot. We have a lot to do and I don’t think that will ever stop. But it’s easy to forget that you should celebrate the things we’ve already accomplished.

Lazzaro: The celebration keeps us moving forward and will motivate your team to do more.

Weerasuriya: Exactly.

Lazzaro: To close out, another great top for fostering diversity is what we’ve all been doing here, which is listening to each other. Thank you very much for spending some time with us.

Michael Condrey of Sledgehammer Games and Nicole Lazzaro of XEO Design at GamesBeat 2016.

Above: Michael Condrey of Sledgehammer Games and Nicole Lazzaro of XEO Design at GamesBeat 2016.

Image Credit: Michael O'Donnell/VentureBeat

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