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When it comes to diversity, the metaverse will represent a huge opportunity to amplify diverse voices and creators. That’s the view of Stanley Pierre-Louis, CEO of the game industry trade group the Entertainment Software Association.
In a fireside chat with me at our GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse online event, Pierre-Louis said that the beginning of a new platform is a time when you can get the foundations right when it comes to diversity so that the platform can attract diverse audiences irrespective of age, race, culture, gender identity, or sexual orientation.
The metaverse is being talked about as a salve for everyone during the pandemic, which has forced us into lockdown and self-isolation.
“There’s never been more engagement in the industry,” Pierre-Louis said. “[Market researcher] NPD reports something like a 27% increase in year-over-year consumer spending. We’ve seen that level of online engagement increase but also increase opportunities for the metaverse.”
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He said we’ve seen examples of metaverse-like life with virtual birthday parties on Roblox or the massive Travis Scott concert on Fortnite that drew more than 28 million spectators.
“Part of what we’re trying to grapple with is what is the metaverse and how are we defining it,” he said. “There are some people who define it in very functional ways. It’s a way of bringing people together in a 3D environment, to be entertained, to play games, and to have social events. And there are others who describe it in very empathetic terms about bringing people together to create social connection and understand more about each other.”
At its core, the metaverse will be a reflection of who we are, with all of our aspirations and demons and biases. I asked Pierre-Louis if the metaverse could eliminate geographic bias, as we’ve seen in the pandemic.
“We can talk about geographic diversity, but there are other types of diversity where there have been some challenges,” he said. “And I think over the past year, we saw a social awakening following the murder of George Floyd. And I think it really points to a couple things. First of all, the social equity lens is providing us with an opportunity to view both the challenges and the opportunities within the metaverse. So simply put, if you’re developing a metaverse, and you’re looking around the room, and everyone looks like you, and they’re not from any different environments, and it raises questions, who’s in the room? And what can I do about it? So I think as we look at the metaverse, whether we’re thinking about it from the video game, industry perspective, or other tech industries, we’ve got to put a finer point on who is being included who is being excluded and how that’s going to shape the future of the metaverse.”
The designers of the metaverse need people who are Black, Latinx, female, LGBTQ, and physically challenged, Pierre-Louis said. It needs people from different nations.
“This topic of diversity, inclusion, and equity is really coming to the fore on a number of fronts,” he said. “We have a number of policymakers who are putting this front of mind, corporations are speaking out of making it a priority. Employees are expecting it, and online communities are demanding it. So I think the metaverse has an opportunity to be a reflection of what we want it to be, whether that’s geographic diversity, or diversity on a number of other fronts that we traditionally discuss in this country.”
A diverse metaverse at the outset
Pierre-Louis said that it makes sense to diversify the talent pool for the metaverse. “The events of the past year, not just in the U.S., but worldwide, have caused this seismic change in how we view equities overall,” he said. “Industries that would never speak out on political or policy issues at all, including the video game industry, found themselves speaking out because of the tragic events, and making commitments to be more diverse and more equitable, and more inclusive in their environments. I think what’s been encouraging is that we’ve seen some sustained conversations around those so they didn’t go away in a few weeks time.”
He noted that diversity really refers to promoting representation and all of its passion — whether it’s race or gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, age, geography — to ensure we’re reflecting the population in all that we do.
Pierre-Louis said that equity is about making sure everyone has a fair chance. People who are going to school at historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) should be just as aware of the opportunities to work in games as people in other colleges, he said.
“I’ve let you in the door, so how do I make it an equal opportunity for you to progress and to lead in this environment,” he said. “And then inclusion is, how do you make people feel once they’re inside. Are they part of that decision-making process?”
I asked him what kind of progress he would like to see in 2021, after the creation of so many diversity funds and other charitable efforts in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
“It was a really big sign that so many companies spoke out and made commitments, because that’s probably the most important part of this, which is not just speaking up and saying we’d like to be a part of this,” he said. “I think we’ve seen some companies already start to share some of their stats. And we don’t have enough to know what the overall trend is. But we know that with respect to the talent pool available and our population is generally the number of women, blacks, Latinx, people from different nationalities is much lower.”
Pierre-Louis wants companies to create opportunities within their companies for more diverse leadership. He also wants them to help prime the pump for talent via educational efforts such as Black Girls Code or Girls Who Code. He noted that Apple announced a $100 million racial equity and justice initiative. Addressing the problems with racial equity in society today will help address the issues in the metaverse.
“And the question is, how do we make sure that as we think about the metaverse, it’s not being created in a vacuum, but it’s being created in a society where we’re trying to address all these issues, and make these investments so that social equity is baked in,” Pierre-Louis said.
A long way to go
I wondered if we have a long way to go to get to fairness in games, given the hate on social media and the headlines about racist or sexist behavior in the game industry.
“I’ve worked in large organizations, and I’ve worked in small organizations. And the one thing they all have in common is that the sensibilities of an organization, that culture, that starts at the top,” Pierre-Louis said. “So if senior leadership of an organization allows bad behavior to fester, it will become normalized. And if the senior leadership tries to encourage and promote respect and tolerance, that attitude will pervade an organization. So in many ways, for the companies working on these technologies, these platforms, it’s all about what you want to manifest in your corporate culture, in your products, in your content. And on platforms.”
He added, “You’re right, it’s really disheartening to read a lot of what we read, and it’s dispiriting. And I also look to some of the examples of people trying to do things to ameliorate the situation and hope that takes off,” he said. “In December, for example, the three console makers — Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft — collaborated on some safety principles for online conduct. And it was interesting they looked at three different things they could do in collaboration with the community. One is making sure that they’re always providing the most up-to-date tools and information to people, especially parents, on how to manage the ecosystems in which they visit and exist. The second is partnering with the community and partnering with law enforcement, partnering with each other, to try to find ways of making these platforms safer, reporting people as needed. And then accountability, making sure that what you say, you’re going to do it. If you’ve got codes of conduct and people violate them, you extract the punishment that’s deserved.”
Pierre-Louis agreed that automation will be necessary to float problems to community moderators to weed out bad behavior. That will help create a safe environment in the metaverse, and that will help it become more popular.
“Both using technology and enforcing your rules creates the environment where people feel like they’re welcome,” Pierre-Louis said. “And that they can report things that will get addressed and allow for a more tolerant environment.”
What the metaverse could be like
I brought up the Ready Player One and Ready Player Two books by Ernest Cline. The characters in those books would hide behind their avatars and disguise their identities so they could fit in with the other avatars. People also used the virtual world to step into somebody else’s shoes and empathize with them. Those things make it seem like the metaverse could be good for diversity.
“That’s the power of games, that it allows you to play as a different character to play on different teams,” Pierre-Louis said. “People who coalesce around interests tend not to see the other differences because they’re focused on the interests and video games have been a unifying force in doing that. The question is, as you try to reveal who you are, do people look beyond their interests? And I think there is something to the avatar model in terms of creating empathy, but we’re also in an age now where the dominant force is saying, we want to be able to express who we are to be accepted for who we are.”
He added, “So how do you convert that ability to be an avatar, but really show who you are or who you’d like to be seen as and get accepted. And I think that’s where the metaverse can actually be powerful. Because it’s intended not simply to be a game, but to be a social experience. And I don’t know enough about it to describe all the different types of platforms and where it’s going. And I’m excited about the keynotes and the speakers we have at this conference who are going to explain all this. But one of the things that I found really interesting is the social connections people think will be important to building empathy. And if that’s a gateway to a better real society than the metaverse has a lot of promise.”
To be fully successful, the metaverse should bring billions of more people into games compared to the two billion or so people who are already playing.
“You can’t put blueberries into the muffin after you bake it,” Pierre-Louis said. “That’s the same with respect to accessibility by design. Just thinking about who the potential players are at the beginning of the process just changes your mindset.”
He added, “[Veteran game creator] Gordon Bellamy tells this funny story and maybe not so funny about working on the early Madden games where you can either make people tan or black and making everyone black. It shocked everyone else and people asked ‘why are we making them all black?'”
That led to conversations about bringing on different skin tones for the game. Pierre-Louis referred to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was designed for people with limited mobility.
“As more developers understand that I can use those tools, the better it’s going to be for everyone involved,” Pierre-Louis said. “I think we have to start thinking about it as a default, not as an add-on. Because that actually opens up the universe to many people who may be suffering some of the same limitations, but now they can play the games at a fuller level. So it’s always heartwarming to see the stories where people are using these tools to play games. But if it’s baked into the game, I think it’s a powerful opportunity. And the metaverse is the perfect place to try that out.”
The industry has gotten together to address issues in the past year, such as the PlayApartTogether campaign aimed at getting people to play with each other in a social-distanced way.
“I think there are some things that companies need to do differently because it involves their corporate culture and how they address the issues of the day,” Pierre-Louis said. “I think what we’re seeing with respect to racial and social equity, though, is that everyone is going through the same talent. Everyone is trying to develop from that same talent pool. So from my perspective, working together to figure out how to make the best of those investments is going to be the key because if you’re drawing from the same pools, you might as well be expanding that pool so we get the best workforce possible because they’ll make the best games for us.”
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