May 16, 2022 - Technology

Activision's video game diversity tool draws backlash

Composite image showing three characters from Overwatch and a graph with axes used to plot how diverse they are in terms of ethnicity, culture and more

An image of Activision's diversity tool from the company's Thursday announcement. It was removed from the post Friday night. (An earlier version, shown at a conference in 2017, gave character 2, Lucio, a greater rating for ethnicity.) Image: Activision Blizzard

Activision Blizzard’s unveiling of a new software program meant to increase diversity in the casts of video games has become a textbook example of what not to do.

Driving the news: The publisher announced the “Diversity Space Tool” last Thursday as “a leap forward for inclusion in gaming,” but by Friday evening had scrubbed those words and more from its online announcement, as developers from the company began slamming it.

Details: The tool starts users with a blank graph, asks them to establish a norm in the middle for a character in a given game genre and has them plot out how different a given character is. It will create a larger shape for a character who is, say, non-white, queer or has a disability.

  • Activision framed it as a method for “avoiding tokenism, stereotypes, and exclusion” and described “enthusiastic” reactions from its Call of Duty and Overwatch development teams.
  • It called the tool “​​tangible software that would create and monitor guidelines for character conception and creation.”

But the announcement, which included images of the tool that showed numerical values assigned to characters’ ethnicity and sexuality, drew backlash online and across games media. It was labeled “mildly dystopian,” “creepy” and “a glorified Dungeons & Dragons character sheet that makes no ... sense.”

  • Two Overwatch designers tweeted that they hadn’t used or seen the tool before, and the references in Activision's announcement to the teams praising the tool were removed.
  • “God I swear our own company tries so hard to slaughter any good will the actual devs who make the game have built,’” wrote Activision character artist Melissa Kelly in a tweet that went viral.
  • "You know what drives our diversity?” she added. “The devs! We have people who work on the game from these cultures. That's it! That's literally it.”

Between the lines: One of the early architects of the tool says it was not meant to put a score on diversity or replace “common sense” when developers are making a character in a game.

  • “The idea was to slow down time a little bit and have a little bit more discussion and reflection at that crucial point of creation,” MIT Gamelab research coordinator Mikael Jakobsson tells Axios.
  • The project had started several years ago at Swedish mobile studio King by developers who were inspired by a presentation from Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent cultural critic who regularly speaks against stereotypes in game characters. The King designers created a paper prototype for graphing a character’s diversity, presented it at the Game Developers Conference in 2017 and tapped MIT to help make a digital version that could eventually be used by game makers around the world.
  • Jakobsson’s involvement with the project ended in 2019, when MIT gave the studio a workable version. The vision, he said, was to offer it as part of a workshop, alongside readings, and to avoid putting stats on character traits, lest it reduces efforts for diversity to “a numbers game." He lost track of the tool over the last few years and assumed it had been scuttled.
  • Last spring, however, long before showcasing it to the public, Activision mentioned it in a message to shareholders as a top bullet point for its efforts tied to diversity, equity and inclusion.

What's next: The Diversity Space Tool is not being used in active game development, Activision said Friday.

  • A tweet from company president Daniel Alegre last week celebrating its announcement has since been deleted.

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