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The games industry can be an intimidating place. How can the Diversity Collective+ help people thrive?

Games for all: meet the Seattle team building an industry safe space for underrepresented indies
The games industry can be an intimidating place. How can the Diversity Collective+ help people thrive?
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The global games industry has a reputation for being a close-knit, friendly industry. It is also huge and intimidating to people from minority or marginalised groups. It can be hard to fit in, and women and people from underrepresented communities often have careers that last only a few years and struggle to reach top leadership positions.

How can we make sure people feel welcome – and thrive – in the industry at large? That’s where initiatives like Seattle’s Diversity Collective+ come in. “I hope our community can give people a space to feel safe and supported,” says August Belhumeur, senior artist at Spry Fox and Diversity Collective+ board member. “Somewhere they can navigate these challenges alongside others who’ve gone through similar experiences.”

Diversity Collective+ is a group in Seattle supporting diversity and inclusion for minorities working in game development at any level and on any platform. Working closely with Seattle Indies, it provides mentorship and friendship and hosts regular events. We’ll be seeing them at PGC Seattle next week, but ahead of that, we spoke to some of the Diversity Collective+ community about its values and objectives. What are the Diversity Collective’s vision and mission?

August Belhumeur: Diversity Collective+ is an inclusive group within the Seattle Indies with a mission to provide resources for underrepresented minorities in the game industry across all stages of their career. We aim to increase diversity by connecting people to opportunities and support.

This includes helping them find job opportunities or mentors, offering mid-career guidance to increase diversity in leadership, and providing access to conferences, events, and game showcase opportunities.

August Belhumeur (left) and Cami Smith (right) will be speakers at PGC Seattle 2022.
August Belhumeur (left) and Cami Smith (right) will be speakers at PGC Seattle 2022.

How did the Diversity Collective+ come together?

Belhumeur: Diversity Collective+ was founded early in 2019 by a small group of women and non-binary developers who were already invested in community organising across triple-A, indie games, AR/VR/XR, and adjacent tech industries. We got connected to each other almost entirely through mutual friends who knew that we had a shared mission to fill this gap in our community.

I told Tim Cullings, executive director of the Seattle Indies, that I wanted to begin a diversity group and he told me that his friend, Cami Smith, was also starting a similar group. This had a domino effect that connected us all together through the game development networks, so we decided to meet in person and join forces.

Since then, our organiser team has grown and become even more diverse, which I think best reflects those in our community as well.

How do new people join?

Belhumeur: Our community exists mainly in private channels in the Seattle Indies Discord. You can get access to the channels for your identifying group by messaging one of the Diversity Collective+ organizers. All of our monthly socials and events are posted on the Seattle Indies Facebook page and Meetup. You can also follow what we’re up to on Twitter as @DCPlus_Seattle.

“Continuing to have some online events helps us to be more accessible to members of the community that might not be able to attend in person.”
August Belhumeur

Do you meet in person or is it all online?

Belhumeur: In 2019, when the group was founded, we intended for all of our events to be in person, with only Discord and event updates online. However, like with all community groups, COVID moved us to be entirely online.

We started running online talks and panels and experimenting with different online gathering platforms for networking events. Some of these events have continued even now that our focus has mostly shifted to meeting in person again. Continuing to have some online events helps us to be more accessible to members of the community that might not be able to attend in person.

What events and activities have you supported?

Belhumeur: We host a myriad of events throughout the year, such as monthly socials, the Becoming panel series about diverse leadership, mentorship events, talks, roundtables, and more. We’re currently planning our first big Pride event, which will become an annual tradition welcoming all LGBTQ+ developers!

Some of our events are broad and welcome anyone who identifies as an underrepresented minority, including people of colour, gender minorities, LGBTQ+ developers, mothers, and those that are disabled or neurodivergent. But some events are exclusive just to members of the corresponding group. This allows us to focus on the needs and safety of a specific group while also catering to broader diversity and inclusion within the Seattle Indies.

Why does the games industry need spaces and communities like this?

Belhumeur: The demographics that our community aims to support are groups that have historically been excluded or pushed out of the games industry. Minorities are frequently overlooked for jobs, promotions, and leadership roles that men historically occupy and support for navigating this experience can be hard to find.

This leads to short careers in games on average for underrepresented minorities, at around five years, which means that leadership teams are often most in need of diversity.

DM Liao: On a practical note, the games industry might be a small world, but it’s still pretty big. The Seattle Indies Discord alone has thousands of members, and that’s just people in one city tuned specifically into indie games. It’s pretty intimidating to try to wade into all that, especially for underrepresented minorities who may have been excluded in the past.

So these smaller, more explicitly inclusive communities are an important part of making sure people feel welcome in the industry at large and they give people room to explore goals or concerns that are more relevant to that group.

Rabecca Rocha: In truth, to a degree, communities like ours do exist but are rarely run by BIPOC and LGBTQIA folks. Curating these spaces has allowed me to create the steps behind me because all too often there is a giant disconnect from the folks that have “made it” to the folks just starting or pivoting their career. A more intimate setting for people just works and I have enjoyed seeing people light up to finally talk about what they’re working on, their dreams within the industry and having some say from other folks who are actively listening.

“Studios need systems of support ready to make sure underrepresented minorities can succeed, including a system for developers to safely provide critique on issues related to culture or inclusivity.”
August Belhumeur

How should the games industry generally go about supporting, encouraging and nurturing diversity? What does every studio, business, group and community need to think about?

Belhumeur: In terms of workplace culture, there are a lot of ways that a studio might support and improve its diversity. Even teams that are already considered diverse might have gaps in their knowledge or a gap in their representation on a particular axis.

For example, a leadership team might have great gender diversity, but is it equally racially diverse? Or maybe all of your diversity exists at the junior level? It’s important that you try to be conscious of where your gaps lie so that they can be addressed with hiring, promoting, extra research around that given area, or through consultants hired to advise on a particular gap or issue.

In terms of intentional hiring practices, studios should approach hiring with a mind to increasing the diversity of a given team and not hire homogeneously. This can require extra outreach on the part of the studio to connect with minority community groups (we’re not the only ones!). Studios also need systems of support ready to make sure that underrepresented minorities can succeed within that studio, including a system for developers to safely provide critique on issues related to culture or inclusivity that results in actionable change from the studio or leadership.

This is especially important when power imbalances come into play – junior members of a team should be able to safely provide such critique or perhaps the leadership needs to be addressed, so how the feedback is given, received, and addressed safely is important. Have conversations as a studio about these issues, be open to change, be open to learning, and be empathetic.

From the outside, Seattle seems like a particularly welcoming place for people in the games industry, full of allies and communities doing work to bring people together. Is that a fair assessment? How does the games industry in Seattle compare to other regions?

Belhumeur: I do think it’s true that Seattle is particularly welcoming for people in the games industry. I’m not from Seattle originally and moved to the city from across the country in large part because of the game development communities that exist here. I feel very lucky to have made very close friends and found a welcoming community through the Seattle Indies almost immediately.

Liao: The one thing that struck me about Seattle’s games community when I first got here – about five years ago – was that there was clearly a lot of organisation and effort being put into creating and promoting events for game developers.

The Seattle Indies had a clear and navigable website (which, maybe surprisingly, doesn’t always exist!) and had a presence both on Facebook and Meetup, which is how I was able to find the community and get involved. The Discord is also very active and well-managed; there are many volunteers there tending to the space and making it as welcome as possible, and the strong offline and online presences of the wider Seattle games community made it easier for me to keep in touch with it, I think – even though the pandemic.

Getting back to live events has been beneficial to developers and students.
Getting back to live events has been beneficial to developers and students.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected people’s experience of working in the games industry?

Belhumeur: Covid proved to the game industry that remote work is a very viable structure for many people in this industry. It can provide better work-life balance by cutting down commute times, can increase productivity and focus, and provide flexibility for employees who might be caretakers or have a disability. While some people still rely on in-office resources or just enjoy in-office culture, many studios now have some system to continue supporting various remote work options.

However, developers often really benefit from the in-person networking events, conferences, and opportunities outside of their day-to-day work that helps build their careers and support the development and success of their games. This had a disproportionately negative impact on students and juniors.

According to one diversity in video games study, in the last five years, 79 per cent of preset lead characters in games were male and 54 per cent of preset lead characters were white. Can you recommend any other games – either AAA brands or indies developed locally – that we should play that better represent a more diverse range of in-game characters?

Belhumeur: Some of my favorite games to play are those with gender-expansive character customisation, such as Ooblets, a farming game made by the indie game studio Glumberland. They don’t lock customisation items behind gendered choices, allowing the player to be creative with gender expression in their light-hearted fantasy world. Animal Crossing’s player character works similarly!

As a character artist at Spry Fox, I was inspired by these games when building customisation in Cozy Grove, which handles the gender of the player character similarly. These assets become tools through which a player can explore identity and see themselves represented, so it was important to include a wide range of skin colors, hair textures, hairstyles, and fashion items. In text, the player is always referred to as “they/them” which is inclusive to all genders and allows the player to change their avatar’s gender expression freely. Our NPCs also have diverse narratives, exploring themes such as disability, sexuality, and loss.

“I’m excited to see studios broaden what stories are getting told through games, which in turn broadens who is represented in this media.”
August Belhumeur

There are many other studios that come to mind that are creating more diverse characters and narratives as well, such as Outerloop Games! They make accessible games about underrepresented cultures and themes. Their next game, Thirsty Suitors, is currently in development and is about culture, relationships, family pressures, and expressing oneself.

Brass Lion Entertainment has a similar goal to focus their fictional universes on stories about Black, Brown, and other traditionally marginalised cultures and characters. They’re currently working on an unannounced action-RPG video game.

I’m also very excited about the game Venba, a narrative cooking game where you play as an Indian mom who migrated to Canada in the 1980s.

Although these games have not yet been released, I’m so excited to see studios broaden what stories are getting told through games, which in turn broadens who is represented in this media. My hope is that the trend continues, inviting more players from different backgrounds into gaming communities and inviting more diverse people into game development as they see themselves represented in the space.

It’s generally felt that the games industry is thriving, and lots of global companies seem to be recruiting. What is the industry like in Seattle at the moment generally – are there plenty of jobs there?

Cami Smith: The games industry is extremely active right now. This is exciting and overwhelming. Some of the major studios in Seattle are hiring in the hundreds this year. I can think of three studios that will have a combined goal of hiring 700 plus. That’s just here in Seattle.

There are three major challenges on this front.

  1. These studios are all looking for candidates that have worked in the industry for eight or more years, have shipped multiple titles, and are on the leading edge with knowledge of software such as Unreal Engine. The world doesn’t have that many candidates with those qualifications.
  2. The studios all say that they want to hire diverse candidates, but the bar in many cases is too steep to get them in the door.
  3. Another major challenge is that big companies can afford high compensation, signing bonuses, equity, etc and are enticing candidates away from most of the other studios. So it makes it even harder for smaller studios to get senior candidates.

What are your community members working on at the moment?

Belhumeur: I recommend following the Seattle Indies Twitch to see what our community is working on. We stream games from our community at least every other Friday and occasionally stream development. We will also continue to run a Live stream event for the Seattle Indies Expo on Twitch, which is our annual juried game showcase running parallel to Pax West! It’ll showcase 25 new up-and-coming Indie Games from the Pacific Northwest and this year will include both our in-person expo hall and Live stream.

What are you looking forward to at PG Connects Seattle in May this year?

Belhumeur: I’m very excited to reconnect with friends and colleagues at PG Connects and meet new people as well. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve felt safe to attend a games conference because of COVID, so PG Connects will be my first time back out in the conference community. I think it has a really exciting lineup of speakers again this year, with good attention to its diversity, and I’m excited to see all of the new games being shown on the expo floor.

“Mental health challenges are at an all-time high. We need to support others more than ever right now.”
Cami Smith

What one piece of advice would you have for a person entering the games industry for the first time?

Cami Smith: Find your community and bring others into that community. Community is social capital. These last few years have been a bumpy ride for so many. Mental health challenges seem like they are at an all-time high. We need to support and care for others more than ever right now.

Belhumeur: When you’re interviewing for your first job, know that you are interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you! Ask questions about the company to make sure that they’re a good fit for you and that their values align with yours as much as possible.

Thanks to August, Cami, DM and Rabecca for their insight and recommendations. We’re looking forward to meeting them in Seattle next week. You can meet up with us all too – tickets are still available for PG Connects Seattle 2022, both for attending in-person and watching remotely. If you’re an indie developer, you might even be able to get in for free. In the meantime, find out more about Diversity Collective+ by connecting on Twitter.