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Xbox chief calls for more inclusivity and an end to toxic gamers

At DICE, Phil Spencer urges game industry to put its house in order

head of Xbox Phil Spencer wearing a green T-shirt and holding a microphone on stage with an Xbox logo behind him
Phil Spencer speaking at Gamescom 2015.

In his keynote at the game industry’s DICE convention today, Xbox chief Phil Spencer called on game companies to embrace inclusivity, and to fix toxic biases that make women and minorities feel unwelcome — both working at game companies and interacting in gaming’s online spaces.

Spencer said that he has spent the last four years at Microsoft grappling with a mission to create a more inclusive environment. And he talked about mistakes made along the way, including an infamous Game Developers Conference party in 2016, when the company hired scantily clad women as dancers.

“In order for us to do our best work, we need our work environment to work well,” said Spencer, executive vice president of gaming at Microsoft. “If that is broken, everything stumbles.”

Spencer did not offer any specific data on changes he has implemented at Microsoft, but he spoke of his own experiences since he was appointed to head up the Xbox operation in early 2014.

“The team was in a world of pain,” he said. “We hadn’t done our best work with the launch of Xbox One. Market share was taking a nosedive. It was painful to read all the headlines. The team thought the leadership team had gone tone-deaf about what our customers expected from us.”

He said that his job was to rebuild trust, and to create a listening culture.

“We needed a reboot,” he said, speaking of the botched launch of Xbox One, as well as Microsoft’s culture in general. “Morale was at a low. We kept missing big trends. Infighting and fiefdoms were so famous, people made fun of it. It would have been funny if it hasn’t been so true. So we hit refresh on everything, a comprehensive rethinking and rebuilding of our culture.

“It is incredibly slow and painful to get everyone on board and to admit your own biases. It’s about making a commitment to keep listening and learning. We must keep at this transformation because we know it enables our best work. That means all genders, all abilities and all ethnicities in all geographies. This is our quest.”

Spencer said that game companies excel at creating worlds, paying tribute to rival titles like Nintendo’s Zelda series and Sony’s Uncharted games, as well as Microsoft’s own Halo. But game worlds that fail to embrace the diversity of players will struggle to succeed in a world where more and more people are playing games, according to Spencer.

He referenced the GDC party, which undid a lot of community outreach work that Microsoft was engaged in at the time.

“The backlash was justifiable and furious,” he said. “The internal backlash was almost harder. The easy thing would have been for us to sidestep responsibility. Instead we bet on who we were and what we stood for. We don’t stand for any employee or partner who offends others. We communicated that we stand for inclusivity. I personally committed to do better. It’s the leader’s job to take personal accountability and to be clear about our culture, who we are and what we stand for.

“When we make mistakes, the easy way is to retreat or maybe even deny there’s a problem,” he said. “Instead I think we have to be active learners, educate ourselves, read, understand other people’s views. If we are informed, we can lead with purpose. We must listen first instead of jumping in with the supposed answers. We need to ask the quietest person in the room what they are thinking.”

He noted that game companies must fix their own internal habits, and more effectively police the online spaces that they create.

“Toxic behavior doesn’t just hurt the individual, it hurts our entire industry,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Am I building worlds where all of us can thrive and achieve more?’ Culture can be the tool that enables us to realize the true potential and power of gaming. The time to get our culture right is right now. It’s our increasing responsibility to make gaming for everyone. Representation isn’t just good common sense; it’s good business sense.”

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