IGDA report tackles the essentials of inclusive game design and development

This article is part of a Gaming Insights series paid for by Facebook.

“Games are immersive storytelling media, and because of that, they’re amazing tools for empathy,” says Renee Gittins, Executive Director International Game Developers Association (IGDA). “We could all use a little more empathy right now.”

No question, games have become more central to more players than ever before, with 3.0 billion gamers globally as of 2021. And as the worldwide audience continues to grow, so does its diversity. 54% of players globally now come from the Asia Pacific (1.4 billion); 14% come from the Middle East and Africa (377 million); 14% hail from Europe (386 million); and 8% (210 million) come from North America. As for the U.S. specifically, 41% of gamers are female.

The mission is clear: game design and development must become inclusive and accessible to people from all backgrounds, including women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and those who are differently abled.

This requires a collaborative and proactive effort — and empathy — to make the industry and the content it creates more inclusive. It’s why the IGDA has released its 2022 Inclusive Game Design and Development paper in collaboration with Facebook Gaming. The paper is a framework for gaming companies of every size, offering a series of steps and considerations for every stage of the game design and development process to help create games that are more representative of the ever-expanding diversity of global gamers.

“There are a lot of considerations for developers when it comes to designing more inclusive games and game experiences,” says Bre Miller, Director, Product Design for Facebook Entertainment.” And the landscape of diversity is always evolving. This paper provides a great overview of things to consider written in a step-by-step, easy-to-follow way.”

What’s behind the lack of inclusion?

Historically, professionals in the games industry have predominantly been able-bodied, cis white men. The narratives of many games, as well as the design of games — everything from character representation to accessibility features (or lack thereof) — have mirrored the experiences, sensibilities, and preferences of a homogeneous group of people.

A cascade of factors causes the lack of diverse representation right from the start, Gittins says. First of all, STEM is mostly promoted to affluent, cis white men. Similarly, games are marketed, for the most part, toward boys and men. And then toxicity within game communities frequently drives off women and marginalized people — for example, women who try to be active in multiplayer game voice chats often find themselves harassed, and decide that gaming isn’t a healthy space for them.

If they overcome all those barriers and decide to enter the industry, there are hurdles there as well. First and foremost is how inaccessible the industry can be to those who require a work-life balance, whether it’s due to their mental health, their families, or other life goals. The industry has historically taken advantage of the passion that most developers have for their careers, and championed those who work overtime to the detriment of the rest of their lives.

And finally, as we’ve seen recently, there are issues of toxicity, harassment, and discrimination embedded within the business side of the games industry itself, with countless cases of abuse coming to light in the last few years.

“But more and more people are feeling empowered to come forward and talk about their experiences without the risk of sacrificing their careers and livelihoods, and that’s a good sign of progress,” Gittins says.

IGDA’s newly released Developer’s Satisfaction Survey 2021 found that overwhelmingly, developers are more concerned than ever with the importance of diversity within the workplace, game content, and the industry in general (see chart below). The number of respondents who felt that diversity was “somewhat” or “very” important was at its highest in the history of the survey.

“These changing attitudes are reflected in  how many more gaming companies are prioritizing diversity, representation, and inclusion in the workplace, so we’re on the right track,” says Gittins. “But we’re certainly not there yet.”

Inclusivity from the ground up

Creating an inclusive game doesn’t mean simply diversifying a game’s cast of characters; it encompasses everything from team building and in-house research to game mechanics, accessibility, and even community and marketing considerations.

“A diverse team will innately build more diverse games,” Miller says. “They’ll naturally have more diverse ideas, experiences, and points of view. This results in games that can be enjoyed by more diverse audiences, and is a great team motivator.”

Inclusivity at the development stage also means ensuring that all team members feel comfortable discussing and leveling up their knowledge around inclusive thinking. Miller, who leads a design team of 70+ across Facebook Gaming, Video and Audio teams, says those “how might we?” exercises in product design result in a significantly stronger outcome when the brainstorming includes a broad array of ideas from as wide a selection of backgrounds as possible, enabling a greater diversity of thought, creativity, and experiences from the start.

“When you think about a diverse team of professionals, combined with inclusive brainstorming exercises, you unlock ideas earlier and hopefully at a more cost-effective point in the development process,” she adds.

Diverse teams are also essential for making proactive measures in both recruiting and employee retention more effective. On the recruiting side, unconscious bias needs to be eliminated in everything from job advertisements to the interview panel. The only way that’s possible is with the input of the marginalized groups who are impacted by those biases.

Examples of inclusivity efforts at play

Facebook Gaming has been working on a number of initiatives in this area, Miller says. Recently, her team, motivated to set their own goals, focused on educating the entire Entertainment design team on creating accessibility design specs for mobile. That meant educating the team in understanding the broad spectrum of diverse abilities, including cognitive, visual, auditory, physical, speech and experiencing how to use a mobile screen reader.

Facebook Gaming is also passionate about ensuring  industry professionals from underrepresented backgrounds can be successful creating and building careers attached to gaming. To that end, they’ve pledged to commit $10 million across two years to support the Black gaming creator  community. The program is designed to support gaming video creatives in building their business, their brand, and sustaining themselves. It includes mentorships, exclusive events, and workshops.

They’ve also partnered with Code Coven, an online game development accelerator for underrepresented groups. It provides aspiring developers with the skills, mentoring, and networking they need to thrive in the industry. This past summer saw the company’s first summer program, 11 weeks of structured guidance for 17 students through a dedicated speaker series, career development workshops, network opportunities, and mentorships, to scale from a concept to completion.

“While Code Coven was designed with students in mind, the benefits really flow both ways,” Miller says. “We saw a lot of energy and excitement from our designers and product managers who were helping with mentoring and guidance. They came back to our meetings with diversity and inclusion top of mind, sharing their stories about the students and their projects into our cross-function meetings. It’s another building block. While we’re helping students, it also helped us inside to ask, how can we bring more inclusive product thinking into our work? While we were helping students, we were educating ourselves along the way as well.”

“It’s also important to foster an inclusive platform, and it’s our priority to continuously provide partners the tools necessary to create and maintain inclusive communities,” Miller notes. “We worked with Fair Play Alliance, a coalition of gaming companies encouraging healthy communities within online gaming, to establish rules creators and moderators can use to set guidelines to help avoid disruptive comments. This resulted in a toolkit they can access and implement to their chats via their dashboard to be prominent and visible to everyone watching and engaging.”

Is the industry changing?

Improving diversity in gaming is considered the #1 factor of importance for the growth of the industry.

Sadly, this isn’t an overnight process. It can be uncomfortable for teams to look at their own biases and challenge their own assumptions. It takes long-term dedication with setbacks and difficult moments.

It’s about bringing voices that had been on the outside into the fold, and learning to rely on them as a source of insight and inspiration from start to finish. In user testing, ask for feedback beyond game mechanics; when putting out content to your community, listen to how they feel about the choices you’re making. The best way to ensure you’re part of the drive to create an inclusive title is, as a developer, learning to open up to a larger world.

“We are at a critical moment in time where we need to go beyond just stating the importance of representation, inclusivity, or allyship, and lead by example,” Miller says. “We have an opportunity to show vulnerability as we’re learning and prioritizing inclusive language on our teams and throughout the game development process. These are the building blocks that add up to making tangible progress, and impact.”

Adds Gittins: “Most people enter the games industry not because they fall into the career, but because they’re passionate about games. The players of today are tomorrow’s game creators. It’s important that the industry see this as an unprecedented opportunity for creativity on every level.“

For your free copy of IGDA’s Inclusive Game Design and Development white paper, please visit here.

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Originally appeared on: TheSpuzz