Last summer, on a community organized bus trip to an Argos game, I spoke with a young man that had a keen interest in video games. He’d recently immigrated from Jamaica, and at his father’s home in Rexdale, he was able to play on a console system for the first time. I asked him what his favourite games were, and after he rattled off the usual sports and first-person shooter titles, he mentioned a popular fantasy role playing game (or “RPG”) called The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. When I asked him what he liked about the game, he mentioned the character creation process. “It’s cool they let you play as a black person.”
That answer bothered me for a while. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until Polygon critic Tauriq Moosa recently reviewed Witcher 3, a wildly popular RPG released in May. In his review, Moosa calls it “One of the greatest games I’ve ever played.” And then he points to an element of the game that was, up to that point, missed by other reviewers. Every human character in the game is white. Fictional beings in Witcher 3, like elves and dwarves, are also white. “It is incredibly unwelcoming,” wrote Moosa, “to be shown the door by the same people who open it for fantasy creatures. Gamer culture needs to improve its diversity — not of magical beings, but of the people who are part of its culture.”
Gaming culture (and if we’re being honest, tech culture as a whole) has been dogged by its diversity problem for quite a while. As time goes on though, the conversation becomes less about the need for tolerance than eliminating the social and financial harm inflicted by refusal to diversify. With agriculture and natural resources failing to carry our economy, our government and private sector leadership point towards the need for a robust tech industry. By leaving behind young people of colour like the teenager I spoke with on that bus, we not only diminish his opportunities, but opportunities for tech industry growth as well. By failing to push for diversity in tech, we’re leaving money on the table.
For proof, look to the entertainment industry, which was once captive to the white male demographic. Many companies have realized the error of their ways, and are quickly cashing in. Marvel Comics, for example has created a diverse cast of “legacy heroes” in the last few years. As a result, they’ve been rewarded with explosive growth in readership. The new Thor imprint, with Thor’s former lover Jane Foster wielding the magical hammer Mjolnir, has outsold the previous version by 25 per cent. The print edition of the new Ms. Marvel, featuring Pakistani-American hero Kamala Khan, has sold out over seven times, and its digital subscription has surpassed even the likes of X-Men.
In film and television, diverse titles are attracting diverse audiences, and reaping huge returns along the way. Fast and Furious 7, featured a massive cast of protagonists that include only one white male (the deceased-too-soon Paul Walker). As a result, the film has hauled in over $1.5 billion worldwide, and is the fourth highest grossing release in movie history. The TV shows Empire and Black-ish have been the biggest hits in years for respective broadcasters FOX and ABC. In fact, ABC has reaped a windfall by stacking its evening lineup with diverse offerings. Black showrunner Shonda Rhimes gave us Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder, whose ratings have consistently soared. The truth is in the receipts: diversity sells.
That fact hasn’t yet filtered through to the tech and gaming industries, where employment demographics are skewed heavily towards white and Asian males. Latino employees count for less than 5% of the workforce, and black employees barely hit 2%. On top of creating the perception for certain men and women that they don’t qualify for membership in these industries, the lack of diversity has created problematic results. Rampant sexism in the tech industry has caused talented, passionate women to seek careers where harassment and groping are firing offenses, not the cost of admission. An Ohio State university study found that video games, featuring racialized tropes conjured up by mostly white developers, caused white gamers to develop increasingly racist beliefs. As for gamers of colour who would like to see ourselves reflected in the games we play, our options are slim. As Moosa alluded in his article, we are more likely to find anthropomorphic characters in top-selling titles than we are to find playable characters of colour.
To solve this problem, it’s not enough to throw open the doors and wait for diverse applicants to show up. In our communities where cultural and ethnic diversity are at their highest (especially the inner suburbs), so are the obstacles to progress. Lack of resources in local schools and community hubs, lack of access to transit, and disproportionately high poverty rates can knock potential applicants out of the hiring pool before they’ve even begun. Tech and gaming companies are going to have to do some of the heavy lifting if they want to reap the rewards. Get out of the city core and visit our high schools. Partner up to create affordable or no-cost coding camps, volunteer with local non-profit educators, and plug these talented young men and women into your networks. Given the proven social and financial rewards for embracing diversity, it’s time for the tech industry to drop the excuses and start cashing in.