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About 18% of game development professionals identify themselves as neurodivergent, according to a census by the United Kingdom’s trade group, UKIE. The key is turning that neurodivergence into an advantage.
That’s a higher percentage than the 15% that is present in the general population, but these individuals are too often invisible as a group or misunderstood, Ubisoft said in a session at the Game Developers Conference.
Ubisoft’s Pierre Escaich, director of the neurodiversity talent program, and Aris Bricker, associate game designer at Ubisoft’s Redstorm, gave a talk at the GDC about unlocking the power of neurodiversity in game development. They shared how Ubisoft’s HR teams and employee groups launched a dual, complementary initiative on neurodiversity, and they did an interview with me during GDC in March. While Escaich has been working on games for 25 years, Bricker has been at Ubisoft for three years.
“We have people with all kinds of neurological conditions, all kinds of jobs, all kinds of seniority,” said Escaich, who has worked for about a year as head of the HR program at Ubisoft dedicated to neurodiversity.
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“The main point basically is that there is a strong connection between our diversity and what we call techies,” Escaich said. “They share many traits with neurodivergent individuals.”
More than a billion people around the world are neurodivergent, and that population is well-represented within gaming. The 2022 UK trade group survey found two conditions were over-represented, with twice the number of individuals than in the general population: Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) placed first with 10%, followed by autism with 4%.
The term neurodiversity was coined way back in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer in reference to variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Neurodiversity is also a social movement, rooted in the autism-rights movements that started in the 1980s. This movement does not consider neurodivergences to be illnesses, but rather neurological variations through which people experience the world in a different way.
Escaich and Bricker believe neurodivergent individuals can bring talents and skills to their work when they are understood, included, and supported. They detailed Ubisoft’s journey with neurodiversity. The France-based gaming giant — creator of games such as Assassin’s Creed and the Tom Clancy games — formed its Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group (ERG) in 2021.
Now the ERG has more than 400 members; In addition, an official neurodiversity talent program was created as part of the HR team to support and improve neuro-inclusion at the company.
Above average skills
The overrepresentation of neurodiverse people in games is a clue that they can bring a lot of things to the table, Escaich and Bricker said. They said these people have heightened skills that include creativity, authenticity, hyperfocus, innovative thinking, resilience, sensory awareness, honesty, and verbal skills.
For example, people with ADHD are able to think outside the box and may find patterns and connections more quickly than others. Escaich and Bricker shared examples of how some colleagues’ ADHD comes into play at work: one called themselves a “professional chaos manager.” Another said he has higher focus and output in times of crisis, and another said her ADHD helps her to deeply investigate problems until she finds all possible angles to identify the best solution.
While a person with dyslexia and ADHD might struggle with attention, concentration and planning, there are other functions where they can score very high, like hyperfocus or “flow,” which is often a state associated with intense gaming, Escaich said. They can think in pictures more easily and their creativity is strong.
Dyslexia, where readers can easily transpose letters, is the most common neurodivergence across the world. It is a learning difficulty that can affect reading, writing, spelling, memory, and concentration.
“We can be excellent in emergency situation, because we’re used to handling many things. We are crisis managers basically,” Escaich said. “To give you another example, people with dyslexia might struggle with reading and writing, but they can have a higher capacity in terms of 3D visualization. So we have many artists who are dyslexic. They are able to see more easily the big picture. They can have more empathy, great verbal skills.”
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) includes a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and non-verbal communication. Autistic people often experience their senses more intensely, meaning the world can feel overwhelming at times. No two autistic individuals are the same. Escaich and Bricker shared personal stories from autistic members of their ERG:
Despite their talents and skills, neurodivergent individuals face major challenges such as a general lack of accessible support in terms of evaluation, diagnosis, cognitive training, and accommodations.
“The movement is saying that every human is different. We all have a unique brain. And we have variation in the brain. It’s natural variation. So there are many strengths. The strengths of neurodivergence fit very well with the need of the industry,” Esaich said.
Additionally, while neurodivergent employees bring unique skills to the workplace, there is often a concern that those neurodivergences would be perceived a hindrance. Escaich says that when your behavior or traits are stigmatized, you adopt a coping strategy to fit in, which is called “masking.” Such masking takes a lot of energy, as people try to hide their conditions from bosses and colleagues.
Masking and spoons
Bricker noted that one way to think about working with such colleagues is the “spoon theory,” which has come up in conversations about people with Lime Disease. And that is that we only have so much energy in the day, and it takes up a lot of spoons. When you run out of spoons in a day, you are out of energy.
“The spoons represent how much energy you have to give,” Bricker said. “And if you are spending your spoons on creating products, or like doing your job, that takes up some of the spoons. People who are neurodivergent have to use up some of their spoons, their energy, on masking. So essentially they make their physical presentation, the way they communicate, the way they interact with other people, into the accepted status quo as a neurotypical person would expect. So neurodivergent person can run out of spoons can run out of energy much faster, and then they don’t have that energy to put into their job.”
Getting rid of the masks can be helpful, and that’s part of the point of the ERG.
“The fact that we mask is detrimental to the full expression of our talents,” Escaich said. “And there is something at stake, which is more awareness, more training, and more inclusion can mean that we can stop masking. And we can be placed in a position where we can reach our full potential in terms of talent and skills. And by doing that, it will benefit not only us, but in fact everyone.”
Building the Ubisoft Neurodiversity ERG
In February 2021, Ubisoft formed a Diversity and Inclusion department and formalized an ERG program. Escaich posted an article on Ubisoft’s intranet calling for the creation of the Neurodiversity ERG. The aim was to make sure such people did not feel isolated.
Bricker quickly joined and took on a leadership role. To recruit more people to join, the founding members organized an awareness-week event in April 2021, alongside World Autism Awareness Day. The ERG’s fourth awareness-week event is planned for October 2023, and in the meantime its members are also participating in external events like the GDC to help extend awareness even beyond Ubisoft. (We’re going to have a conversation about ERGs at our GamesBeat Summit 2023 event on our online day on May 24, with representatives from Take-Two Interactive ERGs; you can use this code GBSDEANNEWS for a 40% discount if you want to sign up for the summit).
Over the past two years, Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity ERG has recruited 400-plus members across 20 countries, with a wide range of jobs and seniority levels represented. The ERG maintains a safe, non-judgmental space for all members, and welcomes neurotypical members as well.
ERG involvement is voluntary, and each member can be as involved as they would like. ERG leads at both the global and local levels manage the community and activities, and can dedicate up to 10% of their work time to ERG-related work.
Beyond awareness events, the community has also organized a neurodiversity game jam, offered mentorship opportunities for students on the autism spectrum, used surveys and discussions to gather feedback and insights about needs within the workplace, created a sub-group focusing on disability and chronic illnesses, and formed peer support groups for each neurodivergence where members can share their experiences at work and ask for feedback, tips, and other useful information.
“In a nutshell, it’s an amazing safe space, where we set up peer support,” said Escaich. “It’s online on a private forum. And we have a distributed group.”
There are subgroups where parents can talk about dyslexic parenting for developing children. Parents can provide tips to each other in a safe space within the community, Bricker said. The group was global from the very beginning.
The discussion can focus on things like whether people need noise-canceling headphones or adjustments to overhead lighting.
“The awareness part is progressing. That’s a conversation that would not have happened at that scale in the past,” Bricker said.
The challenge is that you still have to talk with people one person at a time, which is not easy for HR departments. And that’s how ERGs can be a helpful part of the solution, as it becomes easier to find subject matter experts who are familiar with neurodiversity.
Escaich said the efforts are dedicated to wellness advocacy. The benefit for the company is to unlock all of the talent at the company and give the company access in the future to an untapped pool of talent, where Ubisoft could seek out the people. Perhaps because of misperceptions, neurodiverse can have higher unemployment rates. Meanwhile, there are shortages of specific kinds of talent in gaming.
“Schools might be unable to take care of neurodiverse people, or that they’re troublemakers, and there is so much stigmatization about things like autism,” Escaich said.
Companies that recognize the talent and a way for unlocking those skills that such people have will fare better in a job market where there are so many such people available.
“The goal of the program is to train first to educate. But then provide tools to everyone,” Escaich said.
He said it is similar to asking people for their food allergies and tastes. Before setting up a meeting, it pays to check the person’s preferred method of communication. Some may prefer to speak, or others may prefer to write, based on how they process information. The goal is to equip the company to be ready to welcome people who are not typical. You have to look at people and situations from a different angle, and you have to embrace flexibility, Escaich said.
Bricker noted that a manager once gave them feedback after they gave a pitch. The manager noted they had a slight delay before they answered questions, and it made it seem like they didn’t know what they were talking about. In fact, Bricker noted that, as part of ADHD, they have an auditory processing delay.
“When you say words to me, it takes my brain a second to translate those words to have meaning. I do have the answer. And I do know what I’m talking about. But in a live meeting with live Q&A going back and forth, I have to stop,” Bricker said. “I don’t have a choice. And it is not for lack of effort. I’m trying as hard as I can to understand what you’re saying. And to talk back and give the answer. I do know my material. But it is part of my neurodivergence and it is going to take me a second.”
Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity Talent Program
In addition to supporting a successful ERG, Ubisoft has now created a neurodiversity talent program as part of its global HR team.
In addition to supporting the well-being of team members, there is also a business case for the company program: Embracing neuro-inclusive best practices will optimize the return on investment in employee talents.
Escaich warns that when companies refuse to accommodate neurodiversity or set up a one-size-fits-all policy, it may result in poor levels of creativity and innovation, and says Ubisoft can boost creativity and pave the way for future recruitment by taking care of current neurodivergent employees.
The team established a multi-year plan, kicking off with the development of a training program and implementation tools for teams within Ubisoft. The next step is ensuring HR policies that promote inclusion are put in place throughout the company’s more than 45 studios and offices, which will help with employee retention and motivation, and can bring in other neurodivergent talents. Escaich said the biggest benefit to the program is that every employee will benefit in terms of communication, feedback, management, and ways to collaborate.
Escaich said we must embrace flexibility as much as we can, as no single way of working is perfect. Flexibility also means accommodating the needs of individuals. Accommodating people is a matter of equity.
Escaich said the ERG is working out great and it’s not judgmental. It’s focused on practical advice, like the type of music that is good for focusing if you have ADHD.
“We are welcoming new members every week,” Escaich said.
People who have no personal connection to neurodiverse people are also welcome, as they can learn how to work with those who have the conditions, Escaich said. But those people come as individuals, not as representatives of a team or organization.
If you don’t try to take advantage of your neurodivergent talent, Escaich believes that your games will be boring.
“You need creativity. So we have no other choice than adapting to the needs of everyone,” he said. “At least you need to listen. You’re like an orchestra conductor. And your job is not to jump into the orchestra, take the first violin, and start to do the solo instead of the artist. To be an orchestra conductor means to learn. First, who are you working with?”
Escaich added, “They’re coming into work with a condition, and you need to know them. And then it’s up to you to decide whether you’re ready to accommodate them. If you’re not ready to accommodate them, it means you will have only 50% of your talent. But our best interest is to allow you to reach 100%.”
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