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The UK gaming industry's inclusivity problem – and the people that are changing it

The British gaming industry has, for a long time, been dominated by a very specific type of person: typically male, and typically caucasian. People in this demographic head up the vast majority of game development studios, sit on the boards of most games-related media companies, and (for the most part) report on the games news you read on a day-to-day basis.

Gaming has a representation issue – and has had for decades now. Thanks to focussed efforts by media companies in the 90s to appeal to a very specific audience (mostly: white, male teenagers), gaming has grown up with an image problem.

Looking back to any UK games magazine from the 90s and youll see how this problem was cultivated – double-page spreads of adverts showing women, naked, on beds whilst a boy plays with himself for a GameBoy ad. Rayman using a urinal as other men look on shocked at his supposedly massive, detached dong. Its all aged pretty badly – and shows why, for decades, gaming felt like a hostile place for women and anyone that didnt fit the gamer stereotype.

But the times are changing. Gaming is – slowly but surely – becoming a more inclusive place, positioned to observe and celebrate creators from all backgrounds, of all identities. And that can only be a good thing – its making the virtual worlds we love to immerse ourselves in more provocative, more interesting, more unique.

Games can do special things for consumers – give us perspectives and have us empathise with characters in a way no other form of media can – so ensuring theres breadth and depth to the experiences we love to enjoy is vital.

The British scene is a microcosm of whats happening globally: were seeing more women and people of colour gain notoriety and respect, climb the ranks in studios and agencies, put out work that communicates their perspectives and the values they represent.

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To that end, Ensemble – an exhibition supported by The British Council – highlights the work being done by games industry creatives from BAME (thats Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds. The exhibition debuted during London Games Festival 2018 and has since toured locations around the country, making a special appearance at the Develop Conference in Brighton.

Founded by Sharna Jackson – an arts and culture expert thats enjoyed roles at Tate, Design Museum, The Broad in LA and the Royal Collection Trust, and consulted for National Maritime Museum, Museum of Childhood, V&A and Science Museum – Ensembles mission statement is to really pull BAME creators work into focus – to spotlight a group of people that may otherwise struggle to get their voices heard.

"I'm so proud to curate the second edition of Ensemble, the exhibition that foregrounds the importance of a diverse industry, by demonstrating its significance in the creation of rich and intoxicating worlds and experiences for everyone,” Jackson tells Daily Star.

“Vibrant and essential work is being created by BAME talent in the UKs games industry each and every day. It's important to celebrate that and highlight these achievements, to encourage and support the next generation of talent as they emerge.”

Shay Thompson

Shay Thompson (Pic: Joshua Fray)

Jackson makes a good point. Without examples to look up to – examples of every ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or class – the next Hidetaka Miyazaki, Amy Hennig or Kim Swift may never emerge… too intimidated by an industry that, back in the 90s and early 00s, was insistent on telling anyone other than its target audience that they didnt belong.

“Throughout my work one thing cuts through – I want people to be seen, and people to be inspired," explains Jackson.

As the exhibition enters its second year, and London Games Festival once again takes to the capitals streets from April 2 to April 14, we caught up with some of the Ensemble members to talk about their experiences in the industry, and their views on how – as a culture – we can continue to improve representation in gaming.

“I work as a streamer for Xbox Interactive UK,” explains Shay Thompson – a black woman working as a presenter on camera for one of the big three in gaming, after having cut her teeth as a runner for media production company Attention Seekers.

“It totally is my job to sit around and play games all day. Im definitely lucky to get to do what I do. A crucial part of this line of work is being able to engage with a multitude of different gaming audiences and effectively communicate with them. Considering that its a consumer-facing role, Im constantly judged for my appearance and unfortunately, that judgement comes with a sprinkling of racist and sexist slurs. I constantly face not being taken seriously and be underestimated at nearly every turn.”

Shay isnt alone in this, either: from a media perspective, I often see my female contemporaries subjected to hateful language, death threats or dehumanising remarks – simply for being female in the gaming industry. As well as the conscious (and aggressive) biases that are shown towards women and people of colour in the British games industry, there are also plenty of unconscious biases that filter through, too – and Ensemble is actively trying to help people in being more aware of these.

“Its not like theres an insidious conspiracy to shut people like me out of the industry,” Shay notes when we ask about whether shes been subjected to the sprint race – whether shes had more hurdles to jump than her caucasian contemporaries, “but people carry their unconscious biases around with them. I was held to a different standard when it came to mistakes which led to a lot of self-doubt. Did I really know enough about games? Should I be doing this type of work? Did I actually deserve to be in this space?”

Its something Anisa Sanusi has experienced, too. Anisa – a Malaysian UI/UX designer at UK studio Hutch Games – has credits on titles from indie games and triple-A titles and is a recognisable figure in the UK scene. But, similarly to many young developers, breaking through wasnt easy.

Anisa Sanusi

Anisa Sanusi (Pic: Joshua Fray)

“Im from a privileged enough background in Malaysia that speaking English wasnt an issue – however I did remember how hard I tried to not be stereotypically Asian. I picked up the local accent, I went along with whatever it was that made someone British. And, unfortunately, through no conscious fault of anyone, I feel that did massively help people's perception of me. Im a foreigner who successfully assimilated – not just to the UK, but also to the nerd culture of the games industry itself. Its only in the recent years that Ive been trying to be prouder of who I am – a modern Malaysian Muslim woman.”

To that end, both Shay and Anisa agree, its vital to have role models and industry voices that represent them: as women, as professionals from minority backgrounds, as equals.

“I cant tell you how many students have come up to me to ask about what its like being a woman, or a foreigner, or someone with mental health difficulties,” explains Anisa.

“Id tell them what I wish I heard when I was younger – I didnt have a mentor or anyone to talk to. But if I can help just one person overcome their anxieties or their self doubt to believe in themselves and to keep pushing, then I feel like Ive done something in this industry I love so much. I hope my peers can also be open and welcoming to those with interest and ambition. Afterall, it takes a village.”

Sup, #MeetTheDev – I do UI/UX Design currently working on mobile games in London, recently released Top Drives and Hill Dash 2! Previously I've worked on PC games like Planet Coaster and Elite: Dangerous. I hope to release a personal project in the future so watch this space pic.twitter.com/jeRKXTsnC5

— Anisa Sanusi (@studioanisa) August 31, 2018

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