The executive walked into the room where Jerry Lawson was waiting for him and stopped, surprised.
“Nobody told me you were black.”
“Well, I have been,” said Lawson with a smile.
“They didn’t do you a service.”
Jerry Lawson learned that his company, Fairchild, had listed him as Indian for five years. Lawson, the creator of the first cartridge-based video game system, still ranks among the top unsung heroes of the game industry today. That’s about to change.
Lawson was a guest of honor at the IGDA Diversity SIG meeting and social at GDC this year. The SIG, also called the Minority SIG, focuses on increasing the diversity of the workplace, in North America particularly. While internationally diverse, the game developer community is not necessarily diverse within each nation. The Diversity SIG has run quietly for several years, but GDC marked the launch of a full-scale program to increase visibility that includes a website, a YouTube channel, and a weekly conference call.
The SIG meeting identified opportunities for change and highlighted access programs available through the IGDA and other organizations. Representatives from Sony Playstation, Blacks in Gaming, the Art Institute, and the IGDA sat on a panel as part of the meeting.
The biggest opportunity for change is in the numbers. While minorities are consumers and players of games, they are not the creators. In the US, the non-White population has been estimated at 20 percent. The percentage of employees with a diverse background at Sony Playstation, however, is only 3 percent. Karen Chelini, Director of Talent Acquisition for Sony Playstation, called for more developers willing to take on diversity and open enough to reach out. Diversity helps to balance out teams and improves creativity.
IGDA Executive Director Gordon Bellamy spoke about IGDA’s access programs that can help increase diversity. The IGDA Scholars program brings students into the offices of major game companies and puts them front and center at major IGDA events. The Global Game Jam, which takes place at 170 locations, mostly universities, offers students experience making a game in 48 hours. The Conference Associates (CA) program at GDC also provides access and a robust network for CA alum. Finally, the IGDA Leadership Forum in October also offers volunteer opportunities.
Attendees suggested, however, that access to resources doesn’t mean anything without a motivating goal, as game designers well know. Future developers have to know about and see the value of going through these programs before they will take advantage of them. Developers from a diverse background need to stand up and speak out so that those coming up in the ranks can project their goals on someone with a similar background. A large task for only 3 percent of the developer population.
But it is a crucial task nonetheless. Educator and developer Carl Varnado pointed out that games will be a central component of culture in the future. “If we’re not present in games, we’re not really present in culture,” he warned. He urged attendees to create games that are not only fun, but culturally and socially relevant as well.
The next step for the IGDA Diversity SIG will be, ironically, to increase the diversity within its own ranks, to include men and women from Asian, Hispanic, and other racial and ethnic minorities in North America. That said, a few attendees of the meeting appeared to belong to no minority. There is a place and a need for everyone in the SIG, regardless of background, because diversity benefits everyone. As developers, if we continue to create games that don’t address a significant portion of the population, we may end up excluding ourselves from culture as well.
To get involved with the IGDA Diversity SIG, join the mailing list on the IGDA website; visit http://gamediversity.com, and view footage from the SIG meeting at http://www.youtube.com/user/IGDAGameDiversity. The YouTube channel also offers an excerpt from the documentary “Freedom Riders of the Cutting Edge,” which features Jerry Lawson.
Writers Guild nominee Anne Toole is a creative writer whose credits include computer games, television drama, comics, and short fiction. She has also written over 200 blog posts on working with writers, writing and designing games, and virtual collaboration at the Writers Cabal Blog. She tweets on game design, television, comics, and social media @amely.