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Making games more diverse means listening to both sides of the table

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Sifting through the hashtags that matter, for better and worse

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To make the gaming industry more diverse, looking at social media — and how it's used for both good and not-so-good — is essential, said Riot Games' head of diversity and inclusion during a Game Developers Conference talk on the subject.

Social media platforms have been an important tool in giving underrepresented voices greater exposure in the industry, explained Soha El-Sabaawi, who’s in charge of the League of Legends developer’s internal diversification efforts. Creators who may not otherwise get a chance to be discovered in the male-dominated world of games gather under hashtags to assert their presence and find support from fellow minority designers.

One hashtag that El-Sabaawi cited as indicative of Facebook and Twitter’s power in both connecting diverse designers and empowering them to make themselves known to others is #1ReasonToBe. The long-running movement began on Twitter and has since spawned numerous Game Developers Conference panels and other events.

#1ReasonToBe began when “a designer asked on Twitter why there are so few women making games, and hundreds of women responded with anecdotes about being a woman in the industry,” El-Sabaawi described.

These women first used the similar hashtag #1ReasonWhy to voice their experiences — some good, some not-so-good — but in late 2012, author and Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Pratchett took the movement further. She intended for #1ReasonToBe to be a positive complement to its sister hashtag, and it’s since become a major banner for women designers and industry members of all kinds.

“It inspired hundreds of panels to make the industry more inclusive,” El-Sabaawi said of the hashtag’s enduring influence.

That goes to show the power of Twitter as a tool — but that tool works for both sides of the conversation, she explained. It may seem strange that a platform that birthed the powerful #1ReasonToBe also gave way to more insidious groups, like the so-called alt-right, which espouses white nationalist, xenophobic, anti-semitic and other discriminatory ideologies. The hate-mongering GamerGate movement, too, has Twitter and other forms of social media to thank for its widespread reach.

Both groups have had a huge impact on how Riot Games has approached its own inclusion program, and El-Sabaawi argued that paying attention to these “raging dumpster fires” is required for making progress in diversification.

“We devolve into a reductive dismissal of the other person, and those reductive dismissals appear on social media first,” she said. Twitter bios make it easy to look at people as their self-described identities and affiliations, creating biases and assumptions.

Yet dismissing anyone on the basis of philosophy or politics leads to exclusion, not connection. In order to create a games industry in which all people are reflected and recognized, its members must work to combat intolerance and connect with others.

“If we believe that games are such a profound part of our lives, then we have to be working together on this,” El-Sabaawi said.

That’s neither easy to say nor easy to do, but it’s people like El-Sabaawi who make inclusion their life’s work. That’s an important job, considering that women make up more than 40 percent of self-identified gamers, according to the Entertainment Software Association. By comparison, a much smaller percentage are employed in the field, and they’re paid much lower wages on average than their male counterparts. When it comes to racial diversity, the numbers are bad regardless of gender.

Diversity is an uphill battle in most industries, but recognizing differences is the first step in winning the fight, Soha E. explained.

“Different perspectives that test [our] own are ultimately positive and educational,” she said.