Feb 28, 2023 - Technology

Video game industry has been slow to hire Black developers

Illustration of a pair of Black hands held out with glowing video game lettering and symbols floating above.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Advocates say it’s too soon to tell whether the small rise in the number of Black people working in the video game industry will be sustained or meaningful.

Why it matters: The percentage of Black people making video games professionally has been stubbornly low for decades.

  • But a glimmer of improvement appeared last summer when the International Game Developers Association’s annual industry survey showed that representation of Black people in game development had reached 5% in North America in 2021.
  • Years of prior studies showed the count hovering at 2%.
  • The 5% mark has been a goal for Black in Gaming (BiG), an industry advocacy group that has noted the chronically low numbers.

What they’re saying: “I think 5% was really about: When you get 5%, OK, we can have some discussions and have some conversation about, ‘What are the structural inadequacies?’” Carl Varnado, board member and former director of BiG, tells Axios. “Because, at 2%, you don't have the people to have a conversation.”

  • Varnado said he and BiG members experienced going to conferences of 5,000 people and finding barely 20 Black people in attendance. He said members were often the only Black person in the room at their game companies.
  • “We’re worse than the mining industry,” Varnado said, accurately.

The big picture: The lack of diversity in game development has been a continued concern for people around the industry. Many believe it costs talented people opportunities, chases those who made it into the field back out and results in problematic or less interesting video games.

  • The Entertainment Software Association estimates that 8% of America's 215 million gamers are Black. (The U.S. Census says nearly 14% of Americans are Black.)

Numbers: Video game companies have begun publishing reports on the demographics of their workforce, generally showing low numbers of Black employees, but with some signs of improvement.

  • In 2019, Riot Games said that 2.2% of its U.S. workforce was Black; it was up to 3.1% in 2021.
  • At Electronic Arts, Black representation in its U.S. workforce was 3.6% two years ago and 3.8% a year later.
  • Other game companies, such as Activision, report their diversity data more broadly.
  • Microsoft’s breakdowns indicate that 6.6% of its staff are Black workers, which the company says is the result of the largest increase in five years. However, the reports cover all of the tech giant, not just its gaming teams.

Between the lines: Varnado attributes any recent increases to a confluence of factors, including the murder of George Floyd in spring 2020 and resulting social unrest and a switch to remote work due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Floyd’s murder, he said, made more people at senior levels of game companies “sympathetic to the idea that well maybe there is bias in our system” and led to more programs to improve diversity in hiring and employment.
  • It also gave workers trying to advocate from within more likelihood of being heard.
  • Remote work broadened hiring pools as well, Varnado said.
  • “It was these different, overlapping ideas happening that moved the needle a little bit forward,” Varnado said.

Yes, but any gains are fragile, subject to employers’ commitment to increasing diversity, and even recent reports don’t show notable improvements at the leadership level.

  • For example, Take-Two Interactive’s first public diversity report showed that 5% of its staff in the U.S. were Black workers as of the end of 2021, but only 4% were Black people managers, and less than 1% were at the VP level or above.
  • Retention is also a concern. Workers of color are often asked by the companies to do extra work to create and promote an inclusive environment, Varnado noted, but not necessarily officially recognized for that work in employee reviews, nor compensated for it. That can lead to burnout.

The bottom line: A bigger percentage of Black people in the industry can’t be the whole goal, Varnado says.

  • “Now it's about: Can we get a more inclusive industry across the board? And can we create programming that will help people become successful from when they enter university basically until they've become CEOs of their own companies?”

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