A necessary evolution in the ‘diversity in games’ conversation is starting to show itself, a product of enough time having passed from when many companies have made pledges but little seems to be changing. Between making news as the home of the largest organized harassment campaign the world has known and being tied to a tech industry pressured to release their demographics and improve their practices, the topic of diversity has become mainly a PR platform rather than taking on an ideology. Companies are doing it first because there’s social repercussions for being caught doing otherwise, and using those who actually care to do the work for them. I do believe that people inside companies have come to value diversity in the past years, yet they are aligned with their obligation to make their company money first, so all diversity initiatives must fall in line with business motives in some way or another. Many a GDC talk has promised that diversity is profitable, and framing it in such a way was meant to get companies to start adopting a more progressive stance on the issue. But in actuality, there couldn’t be anything further from the truth. As we come to understand the true reasons we want or need diversity, as a field and larger culture, it will have little if anything to do with companies making more money.
In their piece for Model View Culture on Intel’s presence at IndieCade, Veve Jaffa outlines what’s been rumbling on the outskirts of games conferences for quite some time now: companies and organizations want marginalized creators to contribute to their events, but with little to no compensation for the work. The most egregious offender of this GDC, which is for-profit yet has the most extensive process for extracting labor for talks given for one of their passes, which gets most of its value from the talks being outsourced for free. This is the case for all speakers, but especially so for the diversity track, which depends on creators who have to self-fund in order to attend the event, which is itself expensive being downtown in San Francisco. Being at the center of the video game industry, many events and organizations follow the same model, where asking for compensation for contributing to a games event is most typically out of the question. Like GDC, Intel is using people who are, as a result of being marginalized, poorer to act as their move for redemption, to look good rather than be good. As Veve notes, most of my encounters with Intel’s funding has been purely through food, drinks, and parties, not in any way that lifts me or people like me up to contend with the current structural issues. The problem boils down to how companies and audiences are interpreting the vague use of ‘diversity.’ Right now, people envision games staying primarily the same but the demographics of the companies and the characters in games reflect society. Once that’s accomplished, job done, we can stop diversifying. Except, that’s not celebrating diversity, it’s forced assimilation. It’s the Borg. Moving past marginalization isn’t getting those on the outskirts to look like those in the center, it’s having an environment that allows different people to exist as they are without capitulating to the culture of the industry.
We get some hints of what that is and how it comes about in a post by John Sharp about this relationship between conferences and the marginalized that Veve cites in their article. Many of the avenues that John refers to are funding sourced by for-profit entities or nonprofit ones acting on behalf of creators (there’s a good amount of funding that can’t be accessed by anyone who isn’t distinctly registered as a nonprofit). Further, the concerns these types of funding address are artistic, supporting the arts. It is more interested in sustaining artistic communities than getting marginalized people creating profitable work. Particularly with recent waves of DIY cultures and more people making expressive games that don’t aim to turn a profit themselves, marginalized people by and large are doing more experimental work where making entertainment products for money isn’t the main goal. So the increase in visibility of people from the margins hasn’t been to flock to corporations, rather that they want to make work on their own terms and have an ecosystem which supports them. People in games may now roll their eyes at the “Are games art?” question, but the industry itself hasn’t been acting like there are games made for artistic reason. People making games but not wanting to sell them like commercial indies is seen as an aberration or self-inflicted problem. At the very least, artists in other fields can apply for residencies and fellowships, but such opportunities are extraordinarily rare for those who work in this field. I think it’s super apt how many people are trying to make a platform called Patreon work, because there is a complete lack of patrons for people like us on any institutional level.
Point being, enacting the ideals of diversity will irrevocably change the field of games. It will challenge the industry, challenge society, and ultimately nothing will look the same. Diversity in games must aim to restructure how power and resources are distributed, and recognize that many marginalized people aren’t attracted to the industry and can hold them in the same company as those who are. There are definitely marginalized folks who are in the industry who like it there and want further support, and there are also ones who want to be commercial independent successes. Those aren’t the only, and I suspect majority, of those that these diversity initiatives need to address. And I haven’t even touched the ecosystem where marginalized people try to write critically about games! Will games criticism never see the light of day because it doesn’t cater straight into industry narratives? People have been creating off the beaten path for a while now and they shouldn’t be abandoned because they don’t fall into the usual narrative of eventually joining the industry. This isn’t even just about creation after the fact, but also how we understand games overall. I’ve had many conversations over the past few weeks with professors and curators who want to diversify what games they show but struggle to find work by underrepresented folks that are still exemplary of what we conventionally value as games. And that’s the point: people coming from different perspectives, backgrounds, educations, life experiences, they are going to hold different values and employ different types of craft. Showing diversity should expand how games and their creators exist, it should be celebrating difference, not assimilation.
Which is why many of these Diversity in Games initiatives ring hollow for people like me on the ground floor; the only time I saw anything of Intel’s money was at a bar. I’d rather have it in my bank account for groceries, rent, networking events, travel to paying gigs, and paying gigs themselves. Given my track record of events I’ve attended and ran, or the kinds of talks I’ve given and audiences I attract, I wouldn’t be creating anything in service to the industry and I aim on keeping that trajectory. It’s for a fuller future for play and games as a creative field that I work for, where more modes of expression can exist and therefore allow more people to create and play. Anything short of that isn’t the diversity that is actually going to help those traditionally overlooked.
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