As a closeted Filipino immigrant growing up in California in the 1980s, there weren’t many places where I could be myself. My thick accent, funny haircut, unfashionable clothes, lunchboxes of dried fish and garlic were horribly out of place. On top of that, my growing awareness of my homosexuality made it hard for me to be who I truly was. One place where I found respite was in video games, where I could escape from my life and embark on epic adventures through fantastic worlds. They were the most accepting space I had in my youth.
In 2002, I started playing Morrowind, an open-world role-playing game that came with a tool with which you could change the way the world worked. Whereas other players may have used the tool to get people to fight in different ways, I used the engine to change the social relations of characters. In my world, characters could fall in love with whoever they wanted—I was trying to make a world more inclusive for people like me.
I’m not going to pretend like my little mod was a defining moment for the video game industry, but it was a defining moment for me. It was one of a growing set of signals sent by LGBTQ gamers about the importance of making video games more reflective of who they were. And a few video game developers began to notice and take action. In 2004, developer Peter Molyneaux famously fought EA to allow same-sex marriages in Fable. A poll taken in Germany confirmed to EA that this was something worth doing. Fable and many other games began to embrace marriage equality as a feature instead of a mod. LGBTQ inclusivity started becoming a default position for many other open world RPGs.
Turns out that the companies that create those inclusive worlds are facing a klaxon call. In a survey published in January 2018, over half of the respondents felt that the industry was unwelcoming and had experienced or witnessed inequity. Just last month Kotaku published an article detailing the painful histories of some of my former and current Rioters’ experiences with Riot’s “bro culture”. For employees, professional players and gamers, it seems like video games are no longer places that embrace diversity. We have an opportunity to ignore that call or an opportunity to respond and shape the world into what we want it to be.
I am now the regional manager for Riot Games in Southeast Asia. One of my priorities is to incorporate diversity and inclusion in our SEA team. This does not mean that we need to fundamentally change our businesses. It does mean, however, that we need to start paying attention to who our communities are and the signals they are sending so that we can make calculated bets on diversity and inclusion.
For example, traditionally, gamers have been perceived as male. In 2017, Google Play and Newzoo reported that 49 percent of mobile gamers in the US are women. “We believe we need more female gamers” is a nice sentiment but it becomes a core part of our strategy when we can tie it to hard facts in reality. Companies should start thinking about whether their talent pool can create games that cater to that audience. Marketers and publishers need to start thinking about whether the working conditions they create allow their teams to effectively create messaging for women. Anyone marketing a mobile game in the US should seriously consider whether the game they developed and their marketing plan takes into account a huge and neglected market.
As we go on our journey to make Riot Games a more inclusive place, there are a few principles that we are using on the Southeast Asia team to mod our team to meet our diversity goals:
- Don’t separate diversity and business strategy. There are many ways that we can focus on diversity and many ways to improve it. The best strategies, however, have inherent synergies with the core business. For Riot SEA, we root our diversity strategy around SEA players. We know that we need to do a better job of reaching and marketing to female gamers, but we also need to take into account the diverse geographic, ethnolinguistic and socioeconomic perspectives of our player base. Our strategy is to revamp our recruiting pipeline to bring in more candidates that match the unique diversity of Southeast Asia to better service our players.
- Create an environment conducive to new points of view. It’s not enough to create a diverse talent pool. It is also important to develop policies that retain that talent pool and create a culture that ensures they can be utilised to their full potential. Tactical examples of this could be creating policies that support new parents at all stages of their career.
- Listen to the market and make calculated bets. The signal from traditionally excluded gamers in the early part of the 2000s was faint but persistent. The developers who heard those signals made calculated, data-driven bets to make their games more inclusive, and it was a bet that paid off. It’s worth noting that the way they made those changes wasn’t drastic—it was small tweaks to the choices that players could make that were ultimately received positively.
We stand at a crossroads. As we seek to define the future of gaming and esports, those of us who are in positions of power have the the unique opportunity to decide whether to take the easier path of amplifying existing spaces or choosing to create spaces where all kinds of people feel both safe and welcome. Games have a rich history of being inclusive and of being a safe space where people can embrace their own identities. I am hopeful that the gaming industry can evolve and also become a world that is diverse and includes people of all backgrounds, races and genders.
Justin Hulog is regional manager, Riot Games Southeast Asia