As a 25 year-plus veteran of the game industry, I’ve seen all too closely the danger that arises from a lack of women in leadership positions. I have my share of #MeToo stories. The wounds from Gamergate are still fresh for many women gamers and industry professionals, who are accustomed to bracing themselves against an ever-present possibility of harassment.

Despite the systemic change happening in other fields, a safe workplace for all people in the gaming industry has felt out of reach. Leaders are almost entirely men: One 2017 study in the U.K. found that just 14 percent of those working in the industry are women. Examining racial diversity presents even bleaker statistics: past studies have concluded that over 76 percent of game developers are white. Where such stark disparities exist, true equality can feel impossible.

Before the industry can create an even-playing field, those in leadership must recognize the problem and agree to work toward a more just future. Which is why it was so refreshing to hear Phil Spencer, the executive vice president of Gaming at Microsoft, speak at DICE in February. He spoke of the ways Microsoft is moving toward becoming a more inclusive, diverse, and safe working environment.

Spencer outlined five steps Microsoft has taken toward achieving a safer workplace:


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  1. Building empathy and trust with employees by listening to and honoring their concerns
  2. Taking accountability as a leader and owning previous mistakes
  3. Having a growth mindset in which leadership recognizes that failure — public or private — paves the way for growth
  4. Listening to all voices in the room and amplifying those that may not be heard, and
  5. Keeping at the forefront the three leadership principles of creating clarity, generating energy for the team, and delivering success.

I almost leapt for joy during Spencer’s keynote. Here was an executive vice president at Microsoft, outlining a path to organizational culture change and speaking my executive coaching language! The culture within the gaming industry had always felt immutable, yet here was a leader describing how, under the leadership of a conscious CEO (Satya Nadella), one organization was working to move the needle.

I wanted to know how other gaming organizations were attempting to close the diversity gap and create safe workplaces. I spoke with Randy Pitchford, the CEO of Gearbox Software. Did Gearbox have a diversity mission statement? Pitchford said Gearbox’s mission is to “entertain the world.” I pressed and asked how this mission informs hiring decisions. His reply was succinct and brilliant: Every January, he asks his HR director for the breakdown of Gearbox’s employees by race, gender, and gaming ability. Then, Gearbox compares this data to the race, gender, and gaming ability of the company’s global gamers. The Gearbox world reflects the larger gaming world.

Gearbox is not alone in its efforts to create a more inclusive workplace. Neela Dass, Director of Game Developer Relations at Intel, told me how her team hosts workshops that help participants identify their unexamined, beneath-the-surface biases, and how these biases impact others. Phil Harrison, a former Microsoft and Sony exec who recently joined Google as a VP, shared with me that during the onboarding process, Google go through unconscious bias training and treat it very seriously. These leaders are steering their workplaces toward becoming safer for all employees.

Yet there is much more work that needs to be done. It takes time, intention, and sustained effort to change company culture. At DICE, I moderated the panel “Diversity: The New Frontier.” What became abundantly clear is that we still have a long way to go before women, people of color, and people with disabilities or the LGBTQ+ communities are made to feel comfortable, and therefore their most productive in the gaming industry.

But how far do we have to go? I had breakfast with Sigurlina Valgerdur Ingvarsdottir, a senior producer for FIFA in Vancouver after DICE. With a career history leading major games for EA Sweden and CCP in Iceland, she’s accustomed to equality and inclusivity as a cultural, governmental, organizational and societal norm. We exchanged points of view of Spencer’s presentation and just how far the European and North American games industry need to progress to Scandinavian levels.

But how can North America reach a Scandinavian equality utopia? I presented Sigurlina with my two hands that scaled up and down rapidly, constantly moving, never equalling — never resting.

One hand represented the organization, constantly working, learning and focusing on unconscious bias or subconscious bias — to discover how our own systems, backgrounds and beliefs impact the right decisions.

The other hand, a vehicle of transparent communications — learning how to communicate without fear or, let’s use my favorite author’s language, “radical candor.” Why is radical candor so, well, radical? Because it’s rarely found and quite misunderstood method. Kim Scott articulates what you need to do very well and it’s a model any company can use. You can listen to Kim Scott describe many misunderstood theories on communication when she is a guest on my podcast , “The Emotionally Intelligent Recruiter.”

Attached to the hands: The corporate leadership “body” is the powerhouse bringing trust and empathy — and that must come from the top; otherwise, Spencer’s model and the sustainable, cyclical coaching model fails. This is the first crucial step that can become grotesquely unhinged if the people aren’t trained to handle the situation from doing their own executive coaching work first.

During the Diversity Workshop session at DICE, our first goal to to create a sense of trust and empathy to discover and share unconscious biases. My panel included Maureen Fan, the CEO of Baobab; Caryl Shaw, a VP at Doublefine; Darion Lowenstein, the Chief Marketing Officer at Gamblit Gaming; and Katie Morgan, Managing Director of Interactive Studio Management. And this is how we set the stage for empathy and trust. First, we removed obstacles: no tables to hide behind, no microphones. We created an intimate setting so we could be open, frank and what some might say … vulnerable. Next, we brought the audience in to join us in first two rows.

The panelists were invited not to announce themselves to avoid the audience feeling potential imposter syndrome that might prevent free speech, and the panelists jumped straight in to share an unconscious bias they had uncovered during the week and how they were going to actively fix it.

It was a big ask, but the panel bravely bared their soul which set the stage for everyone to feel safe to express their unconscious bias and what they’re going to do about it, without judgement. The trick is demonstrating The next stage was to have the audience participate and trust the process by exchanging ideas in small breakout groups to answer three questions:

  • Can you identify you/your company’s unconscious bias?
  • How is it impacting creativity, productivity, growth, inclusivity, openness?
  • Where do you see your diversity mission being in 1 year? What steps will you take to get there?

The result, however, was an intended trick. To conduct three major questions in a 25 minute workshop hackathon was grossly unrealistic. Discovering unconscious bias across ageism, sexism, own set beliefs or hard-wired systems and narratives can take hours, days, weeks to uncover and realize, learn from and to find systems of improvement.

Everyone who took part in identifying their own cognitive biases through listening to others and finding solutions vowed to return to work on Monday with not only a new perspective and a new way to approach colleagues, but their new approach would impact the hiring process thanks to a new perspective they learned and now owned. The difference of that 1-hour session was the equivalent of #MeToo. You can’t go back to the old way now that a societal norm has been broken up and new ways to communicate are forged.

This was just a one-hour session working on one part of the five-step program. The self-learning that came from it empowered 40 individuals to return to their organizations and make some adjustments. Imagine if a CEO in an organization with a growth mindset could create that constant movement with leadership from the top allowing and honouring that fluid adjustment? What world would you want to create? Min Kim, the chairman of Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences suggested to the Diversity workshop audience to read Conscious Business by Fred Kofman and might be a good place for everyone to start.

The road to true inclusion and equality is winding and bumpy. It’s clear we need to keep having conversations, and they must, unequivocally originate at the top. Leaders within the gaming industry can take practical measures to nurture diversity: an annual check-up to make sure the workplace represents the gaming world, regular workshops to identify biases, systems within the onboarding process to identify prejudices and biases in order to ultimately dismantle them – and this is just the start. Remember there are Stages 2-5 to work on. The task is large, so our methods must be fluid, constant and innovative.

By continually striving for diversity and inclusion, the gaming industry can create a world in which the workplace is representative of the two billion gamers on the planet.

Three book recommendations to help you guide your culture development:

Radical Candor, Kim Scott

Conscious Business, Fred Kofman

Power of Perception Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, and the Gender Divide, Dr. Shawn Andrews

Caroline Stokes is founder of FORWARD, an executive search and executive coaching organization for innovation leaders.

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