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Making the gaming industry more emotionally intelligent — and bigger as a result


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This article is part of GamesBeat’s special issue, Gaming communities: Making connections and fighting toxicity.

When I was growing up, gaming was new. For many years, it was stuck in a subculture of nerdiness. It was toxic. It was full of bullies. And there weren’t many women. It was clearly in a subculture off by itself.

I was on a panel not so long ago with a young GenZ woman who was a creator. She said that for as long as she remembered, gaming was cool. And that’s the generational difference in perspective between an older guy like me and a young woman immersed in gaming every day.

While gaming started as a subculture, it is becoming mass culture with every day that passes. The average age of gamers is climbing (now at 33), and 66% of Americans play games. Gaming is the biggest entertainment industry with $184.4 billion in revenue in 2022, according to Newzoo. This is a great thing to see.

During the pandemic, we saw the number of gamers surge as games became a way to socialize when people couldn’t meet in person. They helped us get through tough times, and it became acceptable to acknowledge that. While people can now go outdoors again, they’re still playing games longer and more often.

Just when we thought gaming was big enough and massive enough already, we saw it get a lift this year from films like The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which has crossed $1 billion at the box office, and TV shows like The Last of Us on HBO. If you have played Wordle, you are a gamer. If you like movies like Detective Pikachu or shows like Arcane, you are a gamer. Again, the subculture is becoming a mass culture.

What’s wrong with this picture?

But it has always bothered me that gaming has had a negative side to its subculture. And it’s been hard to shake these things, like toxicity, bullying, misogyny, racism, misinformation and other ugly behavior. We saw a surge of this subculture with Gamergate starting in 2014.

As gaming climbs into the stratosphere, we don’t want to export this subculture to the mass culture. It’s already happening, but I’m not prepared to give up on it. And I spoke with people about this problem for this story.

By bringing emotional intelligence to the game industry, gaming’s thinkers believe we’ll be able to deal with the negative elements. And we should also find that the game industry’s revenues and prospects will grow bigger as we get rid of the parts of the culture that stop people from playing more.

The first task is to recognize the problem and to have hard conversations about it, said Leo Olebe, head of YouTube Gaming, while speaking on a panel at our GamesBeat Summit 2023 event. A big part of the problem is that the game industry isn’t diverse enough, he said. Based on the global acceptance of games, gaming should be the most globally diverse industry. But it’s not.

Moonlit Beshimov, head of global partnerships for gaming at Google for Games, said on the panel that the game industry has a pipeline problem and a promotion problem. There are roughly two men for every woman and non-binary person in gaming, according to data from the International Game Developers Association.

With well under a third of people in the industry being women, and percentages of people of color and LGBTQ+ people even smaller, the game industry is weak on representation. That discourages others from coming into the industry.

On top of that, the diverse people who are in the industry aren’t getting promoted, based on their absence from the management ranks, Beshimov said. This means that negative aspects of the subculture have lingered for longer than you would expect.

Some of these pro-diversity conversations have been happening for a long time, but when you’re a part of them and you’re the only Black person in the room, as has happened for Olebe many times, then it can feel frustrating. Olebe said that it’s time for the game industry to just do something.

“Some of you have heard me say that before, but I’ll just repeat it over and over again,” Olebe said on our panel. “Just do something.”

If those who are in the majority inside the game companies exhibited emotional intelligence, they would be aware of the isolation that minorities and women feel in those situations where they are the only person in the room who can speak up with different perspectives.

“Every time someone asks me, ‘Are you a gamer?’ I still hesitate, despite being in the gaming industry professionally for more than 10 years,” Beshimov said.

Kimberly Voll, the cofounder of the Fair Play Alliance and CEO of Brace Yourself Games, wants game companies to pay attention to everything from more inclusive representation to better tech tools for curbing toxicity. She wants good moderation, codes of conduct and clear statements about the values desired in playing games. In other words, she wants a multifaceted approach.

“When you talk about the emotional intelligence of companies, we can’t engender a certain set of values in our games if we don’t do the same within our own companies,” said Voll in an interview with GamesBeat. “And we need to actually have those values be systemic. Otherwise, we just end up with a bunch of contradictions wherever we go. If we can’t uphold those values within our own walls, we’re not going to be able to do so with our games.”

Why it matters

Gaming is a diverse community.

CJ Bangah, a market research leader at PwC, said in an interview with GamesBeat that it’s clear gaming has become a huge market on a global stage. In the U.S. alone, U.S. games and esports revenues alone are expected to hit $56.9 billion in 2023 and grow to $72.0 billion in 2027. Bangah said that growth is expected to resume in 2023 with a 5.1% revenue increase in the U.S.

And yet she believes there is a lot more growth to come. Many people in the world still don’t have internet access, but more are getting it every year. And certain regions like Africa and the Middle East have high growth rates. Gaming is getting more diverse every year in terms of players, but not necessarily so in terms of the industry itself.

“There is still a portion of the population that does not have the ability to engage in video gaming experiences,” Bangah said. “Even in the United States, not everybody is on the internet. And games are not going to have the same adoption rate as the percentage of the population that watches television.”

I asked her if the negative subculture of gaming and the lack of diversity in the industry is holding games back on the level that she sees. She noted that, from a personal perspective, she was a big fan of fantasy role-playing online games in her 20s. She leveled up as high as you could go, and she participated in online raids daily. But as soon as other players found out that she was a woman, the “nonsense,” or abuse, would start rolling in.

She said, “I wonder as a consumer and as somebody who loves video games, if I hadn’t had some of those experiences,” would she still be playing games more often rather than sitting on the couch watching TV?

Backing this up with data, Google for Games said its own data showed that 59% of players say they are much more likely to download or purchase a game if they see ads for it that feature a variety of types of players (from different ages, genders, nationalities), especially if the players are similar to themselves.

Olebe said that the solution is to make games more inclusive of people from different backgrounds and telling stories that reflect unique experiences of different underrepresented groups. And he said we need to change the culture of the gaming community, teaching it to be more respectful of others and more inclusive of those with different viewpoints.

Voll thinks we’ve moved in a healthier direction than 10 years ago. She believes that the industry has an opportunity to “leverage games as a space to humanize and expose people to different backgrounds and whatnot over time. You can put up a poster or normalize things. It does have an impact.”

She noted that game companies struggle with investing in this kind of do-good work because they don’t know how it will affect the bottom line today. Are metrics going to go up after you do this or not?

“This might take a long time, and we’re not used to operating on those scales. So it can be hard to justify,” Voll said. “We have to see through these kinds of sustained changes that make a difference.”

A Hollywood comparison

American Born Chinese is a major streaming show on Disney+.

Putting on her PwC hat, Bangah said that TV provides her with an illustrative example of what could happen. With the rising of multiple global streaming services, she sees far more diversity in content than she once did. Bangah said that television and movies once perpetrated the worst of stereotypes for decades about diverse people. But with global content coming in from all over the world, it’s possible to find much more diversity in streaming shows than in the past.

Gaming could learn from that kind of pattern, she said. After all, we’re about to get hit with an enormous wave of user-generated content thanks to the personalization trend combined with generative AI, which could make people much more competent at making their own games.

Others are hopeful that user-generated content and diverse creators could provide the kind of games that people want to see, especially if the major game companies don’t provide it themselves.

She noted that video entertainment had diversity, equity and inclusion challenges for decades, especially when it comes to the representation of people such as older consumers or those from the cultures. Films embraced terrible stereotypes for decades. Yet Bangah believed streaming helped video entertainment become more mature on those fronts, as over-the-top streaming services have proliferated.

She noted that machine learning analytics helps executives understand the content that really resonates with consumers. Content is being produced in different languages around the world, and it’s being distributed on a global basis.

“You see much more content being produced within different communities in America and outside America, and you really see a much more balanced slate of content that’s available,” Bangah said. “Because one of the things that executives have discovered is actually content like that can perform really well when you’re not limited to a subset of executives that look and think the same.”

She noted that more diverse and inclusive leaders have made it into decision-making positions in Hollywood. On top of that, there is the rise of the short-form video services like TikTok and Instagram, where anyone with a smartphone can be a creator.

“We’ve seen the rise of very, very different voices, having massive audiences, also some traditional voices, but having massive audiences through short-form video content that I think has also opened up the way to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Bangah said.

I wondered if there is an artificial cap on the growth of games because it doesn’t have enough diverse content. Bangah noted that games may need to evolve in other ways beyond just providing better and more diverse content. There are factors such as lower price points, subscriptions, technologies such as cloud gaming, and other things that affect player experiences that could make a difference in how diverse an audience video games can reach, she said.

“What innovation needs to happen in video gaming?” Bangah said. “How are some of these game engines and the creator economy that has made its way to video gaming going to evolve the dynamics so that more people feel welcome in a video gaming environment? And what are the game producers and publishers going to do to foster an environment where they can drive that next generation of growth? Because, to your point, they’re getting pretty close to the cap on that traditional audience, right. But there’s still a significant global audience out there that’s going to be really attractive, once you address the connectivity issues, address the affordability and device issues and have experiences that make more and more players feel welcome in what is a very immersive, very engaging entertainment media category. I think there is an opportunity to grow faster than our forecast.”

Of course, we’re stereotyping about Hollywood in some ways with a broad-brush stroke. Amy Jo Kim, CEO of Game Thinking, noted that Hollywood has been a lot more toxic than games throughout its history. In that sense, we may not want to learn too much from it, beyond this narrow observation from Bangah.

Making startups more diverse

Yael Swerdlow is CEO of Maestro Games.

Yael Swerdlow, CEO of Maestro Games, said in an interview with GamesBeat that big companies aren’t the only place where there are problems. She noted how tough it is for women founders to get funding for their game startups. Some funds have focused on funding women-led startups, but such funds are in the minority.

“And if you’re not getting funded, then you’re not able to create the games with the diverse cultures that are so necessary,” Swerdlow said. “We’re never given the chance.”

Only about 1.87% of $31 billion held by 200 venture capital funds has been allocated to startups with diverse leaders, according to a report from the nonprofit Diversity VC. The conclusion is that DEI-related funds, underrepresented minorities, and women are still grossly underfunded, even though more institutional investors and VCs are claiming otherwise. 

Maestro started in 2016 as a social purpose company. It partnered with Dell and Nvidia. The company has been bootstrapped so far and it has been doing research on its VR games and their impact on the mental health of people. She is trying to get funding now.

She noted that shooter games get a lot of funding, but she doesn’t think there is much history to games that create a sense of empathy. There are also not enough women investors, Swerdlow said.

Maestro Games is at the intersection of neuroscience, the arts and behavioral health. Along those lines, she is encouraged by games coming out of places like Africa, as they are focused on issues such as climate change.

“I’m firmly in the camp that games can be the most powerful education tool,” she said. “I’m focused on teaching human rights in particular. I wish I could say I was optimistic, but I’m not. Those mountains that are really hard to climb. And it’s going to take, it’s going to take a level of courage on the funding side.”

Nanea Reeves is CEO of Tripp.

Nanea Reeves is CEO of the virtual reality game startup Tripp, which creates virtual reality experiences that focus on calm and meditation. In that way, it is a startup that is addressing mental health and emotional intelligence.

Reeves said she was grateful that younger women who have risen through the ranks in games have been outspoken about being mistreated, harassed or abused.

“There was a time period where you couldn’t speak out because you just have to suck it up, or you’d have to leave an industry you loved,” Reeves said. “Or you’d be pushed out. People being conscientious about the workplace culture they’re creating; I’ve seen a huge shift. For most of my working career, I was the only woman, definitely the only woman sitting at the management table, and I had a big responsibility. I’m grateful for the conscious leaders I had, like Mitch Lasky, and others who understood the importance of diversity all around, just to create a healthy company.”

Reeves thinks the games industry is doing a better job at that. She wants the industry to work on building community in social games so the environments are less hostile.

“I go in some of these open worlds, and I can’t stand being in there for more than two minutes,” she said.

Solutions

Our diversity in gaming breakfast panel at GamesBeat Summit 2023.

The most obvious solution is to have more diverse leadership, Reeves said.

The call to action, said Beshimov, is to create a game industry that mirrors the population and is deserving of the world’s attention. To do that, you have to change the culture. But this has been hard to change, as there is an unwritten way of doing things, Olebe said.

How many Black or women leaders do you see throughout the industry? She noted there can be a negative feedback loop that turns diverse people away from the industry because they see themselves represented in stereotypical ways. That creates a pipeline shortage, which leads to a leadership shortage and that just trickles down to a lack of diversity in the games the industry makes.

I ran a story on one way to counteract this. Take-Two and its Zynga subsidiary encourage the formation of employee resource groups based on race, ethnicity or LGBTQ+ status. Gathering together in such large groups across a large company, those employees can feel empowered to speak up and make a difference when it comes to portrayals of diverse people in games.

In that story, employees in the Black resource group noted they formed after the murder of George Floyd. They did so in part because it was affecting them, even when they were at work, and so they wanted to be able to express themselves and not pretend like everything was OK. They wanted to bring their whole selves to work.

The solutions have to be scalable, repeatable and trackable, said Beshimov at Google. Moving beyond personal connections, she said we have to create a system around it.

“There is no one size fits all solution,” Olebe said. “When you simply bring people in and you hold yourself to that standard, then I guarantee you’re going to be doing better everywhere.”

Google tries to scale by creating DE&I events with partners such as its DEI Summit. It tackled topics like giving back to communities, why lifting underrepresented groups is good for the industry and why developing games for women makes you more money. And Beshimov said focusing on a few critical shifts in behavior matters.

“Caring about the DEI is not just a good thing to do, but it’s also really good for your business,” Beshimov said.

New perspectives

Left Fielder Media's Hassan Calloway in Shrapnel.
Left Fielder Media’s Hassan Calloway in Shrapnel.

Some people are hopeful about the progress that the game industry has made and can still make.

“As business leaders in the games industry, we can work with entities like Games for Change and others to help measure the impact — good and bad — of our industry’s contribution to young people and their mental health,” Reeves said. “And then from that research, we can help shape different narratives as well. A lot of parents don’t play games. So they don’t understand that the connection socially that kids are making in these games are actually real friendships, real connections. Maybe if we can help educate more through research and data, we can help them through some of the narratives.”

Jamil Higley was the face for the character Alyx in Half-Life 2. She became widely recognized for that, and she moved on from her acting and modeling life and became a coach for emotional intelligence. Now she’s trying to bring more emotional intelligence to gaming.

Higley moderated a session on mental health and games at our GamesBeat Summit 2023 event. Higley said she is reminded of the tip to “ski the gaps.” If you look for the trees, you’re going to run into them. If you look for the gaps, you’ll get through.

“It just feels like, in these conversations, that we keep skiing toward the trees, like pointing out what’s wrong and what doesn’t work. And so that’s what gets the energy. That’s what gets the attention,” Higley said. “That’s where people are focused. One of the things I really enjoyed about my time at the summit was seeing how much momentum and energy there was to ski the gaps.”

I recently profiled the team at Left Fielder Media, a Black-run company that is bringing diverse characters and narratives to video games. The idea is to help video games and other sci-fi media reach audiences that have been overlooked in the past and to bring authenticity at the highest level that showcases their cultural perspectives.

Cofounder Dom Cole of Left Fielder Media told me he would like to see more Black people creating in the field and contributing to the narrative so they can be viewed as part of the future and part of the worlds of science fiction.

Designing a game to what the audience wants is simply “good game design,” said Kim at Game Thinking. “I mean really good game design is very aware of the emotional journey. All game design is emotional design.”

Jamil Higley is the face of Alyx in Half-Life 2 and an emotional intelligence coach.

Kim doesn’t want to scare people out of the pipeline so that they avoid the game industry. She thinks women should focus on the work and get it done.

“This is not to say there is not a ton of misogyny. I’ve been in gaming for a long time. Sure, there is. But there’s so much room for good work,” Kim said. “I think that the narrative that serves women is to keep focusing on the work and to find ways. There are so many good places, there’s so many good people.”

The game industry can also become more emotionally intelligent by addressing mental health. This means creating good environments for people working at game companies as well as promoting positive mental health in games.

By incorporating empathy, addressing mental health, promoting inclusivity and focusing on player feedback, the game industry can become more emotionally intelligent and create games that have a lasting emotional impact on players.

“What’s really cool is also we’re starting to see movement. And so again, it’s about driving diversity, equity and inclusion. And inclusion doesn’t mean leaving some people. If you’re a white male sitting in this room, this conversation doesn’t [matter to you]. That’s absolutely not true. It absolutely includes everybody that’s in here and trying to like just to make a positive change for their communities,” Olebe said.

“I don’t think it’s an easy fix. But I do think it’s a matter of galvanizing people who really do want to make a difference and creating some serious action plans around that,” Higley said.

Even when we get diverse representation within a company, that doesn’t guarantee that the company will inherently be more emotionally self-aware or emotionally intelligent, she said.

“I almost feel like it’s an inside job. I think that the emotional intelligence piece starts with the players that are there. And when they know themselves better, when there’s more self-acceptance, I think you then open yourself up to not feeling threatened by people with various perspectives and thoughts and different backgrounds,” Higley said.

“I wonder if we have to change the industry one game at a time, or one studio at a time,” Higley said. “I’ve been chewing on this. Coaching is so intimate, and it is one-on-one. When I did my first podcast about Alyx, I received emails from people — paragraphs, long pages long — about the difference that she made, just how she interacted with them.”

She added, “Perhaps the biggest shift that I see in my clients is when they recognize their own agency. And again, I’m working with young adults, but I do this game with them in which they name their internal saboteur. So that voice that’s saying play small, don’t raise your hand, people think you’re stupid. We name that voice so that when that part of themselves comes up, they can say the name Albert. Albert, I see that you’re here. Your point in being here is that you want to protect me and keep me safe. But I’ve got this right, I don’t need to be hesitant anymore.”

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