Interview

Ubisoft's Leon Winkler on the need to reach out and engage with POC communities in games

Ubisoft's Leon Winkler on the need to reach out and engage with POC communities in games

We are in a pivotal moment. For decades, no matter the industry, people of colour have suffered through a lack of opportunity and a lack of respect, leaving them stuck playing second fiddle throughout their careers.

The games industry is no different, and here at PocketGamer.biz we wanted to do our part and help bring attention to the many incredible people of colour that help make up this sector. That is why we are committing to a new long-term regular feature to spotlight these people and their careers.

So, welcome to our 'POC in Mobile' series, where discussion about finding a place in the games industry, the various challenges faced as a minority, and what truly needs to be done to make games more diverse will be the focal points of conversations.

This week, we spoke to Ubisoft director of international events Leon Winkler regarding his unexpected route into the games industry and how to balance your passion when you turn a hobby into a career. 

PocketGamer.biz: Can you start off by telling us about your role in games and what it entails?

Leon Winkler: First and foremost thank you so much for having me. My job title says director of international events at Ubisoft. This basically means I lead the teams responsible for producing Ubisoft’s presence at video game events like E3, Gamescom and GDC for example. However, due to the pandemic, this year we launched two successful editions of Ubisoft Forward, our digital presentations.

Being too passionate about something can prevent you from being able to see and appreciate other perspectives.
Leon Winkler

Why did you want to work in the games industry?

Well, I never thought that working in the games industry in general was something that I could do. Growing up I used to consume a lot of media (movies and television) and I used to play a lot of games. I remember my older brother introducing me to the Commodore 64 when I was a kid and later when the Nintendo Classic system came out - I was hooked. I still have very fond memories about that time.

While I considered myself a “gamer” back then, I think I am more of an entertainment enthusiast and wanted to work in the broader entertainment industry as I had no idea gaming was even a possibility.

So, flash forward to a 20 something-year-old version of me graduating from college and looking for a job. I landed this job at a magazine publisher as an account manager selling adds in game magazines. Through this, I discovered the wonderful world of the games industry and came to the realisation that the industry is way bigger than I could have ever imagined, with gaming publishers having local business offices in Holland.

Now this job didn’t really work for me, but when I was looking for another job and saw an opening at Ubisoft for a product manager, I had to jump on it. Even though I didn't have the exact experience they asked for, this was an opportunity I could not let pass by.

How would you recommend people get started in games? Any tools or literature you would advise?

I believe everyone has their own path to follow, so I don’t really have a clear cut recommendation on how to get started in the industry. However, in this time of social media, use these tools to connect with people who already work in the industry.

Winkler with T-Pain and Lil Yachty during the R6 Siege Twitch Rivals Show match at E3 2019.

Not only does this help with creating your network, but you can also leverage this to ask any questions you might have. Of course, if you approach it from the perspective of “hey, you work in the industry, can you get me a job,” chances are you will not get a lot of replies.

What did you study (if anything) for your role? Are there any courses out there that you would advise for aspiring professionals?

I studied Media Sciences at the University of Amsterdam and graduated in the field of New Media with a Doctorate in Media Culture and a Masters degree in Arts. Now did this education directly lead me to a career in videogames? No, not really. I thought I was going to end up working in the broader entertainment industry.

There were lectures about new media that touched on video games but this was more from the perspective of storytelling that talking about the actual industry. Now, this approach of storytelling did help me in being able to approach the events that we produce from the perspective of them being vehicles to tell stories rather than them just being a platform to promote our cool games. But my experience with producing events ever since I was 18 most definitely contributed to where I am now.

So my advice for aspiring professionals would be: educate yourself! School is very important but it is not the end all be all. If you are passionate about games and/or the gaming industry, there is so much more out there that can also help you prepare for your career.

What do you think should be done to improve diversity, not only across the games industry, but across all industries?

We as an industry need to actively reach out to and engage with communities representing people of colour.
Leon Winkler

I wish I had the magic answer. I do believe however that it needs to be approached from the perspective of business opportunity in order to convince all industries to really invest in truly becoming more diverse. What I mean by saying that is that being inclusive will increase your audience and with it your business potential. But in order to become inclusive, one need to make sure your company is representative of the society you live in or the people you want to reach with your product.

The only approach to get this done (in my humble opinion) is to actively engage with the community you want to reach. One cannot just sit back and wait for diversity to show up on your doorstep.

What are the biggest challenges you have encountered since joining the industry?

I think one of my biggest challenges was being able to combine my passion for the (entertainment) industry with the right amount of business savvy. While I believe you need passion to be truly successful (and happy) in your career, being too passionate about something can prevent you from being able to see and appreciate other perspectives. So for me, it was about finding that balance.

What do you think can be done to help encourage more people of colour to get into games?

We as an industry, need to actively reach out to and engage with communities representing people of colour. We cannot just expect them to join if they don’t even know about all of the opportunities available in our industry. What we have been doing with the Black Game Pros Mixer I believe is a step in the right direction, yet there is some much more we can and should do.

Is there anything that recruiters should be doing differently to address the lack of diversity across not only games development but all industries?

Yes, actively engage with diverse communities. If you don’t know where to look, ask your diverse employees. If you do not have the right representation inhouse, go to recruitment agencies that specialise in sourcing diverse profiles.

Since the recent surge in the #BlackLivesMatters campaign, what changes (if any) have you seen from across the industry to address the issue?

I think the industry - us included - has had a rude (but very much needed) awakening which resulted in making topics of diversity and inclusion not just something we need to deal within the next five years or so, but something we need to tackle right now.

I can’t really speak about the entire industry here but at Ubisoft we are very close to appointing a head of diversity and inclusion. We have also hired a head of workplace culture as well as even putting more focus on our Black Game Pros Mixer initiative (among other initiatives) in order to generate and foster more representation in the games industry.

Can you talk to us about Ubisoft's use of the "raised fist" imagery in the intro video for Tom Clancy's Elite Squad that was recently pulled? What were your thoughts on this and the company's response?

Yes, that was a rather painful moment for me that should have never happened. That being said, I am happy with the steps we are taking to ensure this does not happen ever again.

Winkler speaking at the Black Game Pros Mixer in Toronto earlier this year.

What advice do you have for other people of colour that are looking at getting into games?

Believe in yourself! There is a place for us in the industry. There are so many different opportunities out there right now, you just need to know where to look. But while you are looking, also realise you can already do stuff right now in order to prepare yourself for your future career.

Watch seminars on Youtube, create a network of people already working in the industry, don’t be afraid to ask for advice, look for a mentor or go to games events (challenging right now). While you cannot control everything that happens in your life, there are things you can. Take ownership of these things and set yourself up for whatever is coming. Now if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn.

Features Editor

Matthew Forde is the features editor for PocketGamer.biz and also a member of the Pocket Gamer Podcast. You can find him on Twitter @Forde999 talking about stats, data and everything pop culture related - particularly superheroes.

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