It might not come as a galloping shock to hear that the video game industry struggles with diversity and inclusion. While the gaming audience has grown more varied and all but closed the gender gap in recent years, the development side of the industry fails to mirror the changing demographics.
In a 2019 survey, the Independent Game Developers Association found that 71% of respondent game developers identified as male with fewer than a quarter identifying as female. Similarly, 69% identified solely as white/Cauciasian/European, with 81% claiming that option as one of several ethnicities.
It is a problem that some within the industry have now tasked themselves with solving. One approach comes from Coffee Stain, the developers of wildly successful games like Goat Simulator. But what does making a successful indie game have to do with trying to crack gaming's diversity problem?
“We have a huge pot of money from Goat Simulator and a will to do something with it,” explained Coffee Stain level designer Hannah Beuger, who is also one of the founders of the studio's ‘Leveling the Playing Field’ initiative, which seeks to contribute to up-and-coming diverse studios developing interesting projects with both money and support.
As the studio grew more successful, so did the desire to do something with all that success.
“Why not start something that will help diversity?” Beuger said.
At its genesis in 2018, Leveling the Playing Field sought to provide development studios that were at least 50% female with a $100,000 contribution and development support from Coffee Stain. After soliciting applications, the team picks the projects they feel represent these values of diversity and that Coffee Stain would best work with.
Kavalri Games, another Swedish studio that has an explicit mission statement to make more video games about horses, was the recipient of one of these investments. Co-founder Molly Ericson found Leveling the Playing Field a lot more preferable than dealing with investors.
“The other investor that we had—they have producers that we work with, a bit like advisors, but they don't have actual developers,” Ericson said. “So we felt like Coffee Stain would be a good addition, since they are developers and working on their own games, so they would have the same problems we have and hopefully already solved them.”
The initiative started with a strong focus on gender disparity over other kinds of diversity due partly to practical concerns. As this was a side project for Coffee Stain employees in addition to their regular duties, they admitted they had a hard time figuring out other experiences beyond their own and initially were unable to dedicate proper time to it.
“We're just employees that were working on a game at the same time, you know, [Leveling the Playing Field] is not its own company,” Beuger clarifies. “We felt it's maybe too much. Let's start small, let's start with something that we know, something we can help with, because we have people that are part of that group already and then build up from there, see if it works.”
This heading changed considerably over the summer when the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others at the hands of police officers sparked protests across the United States, with the news reaching Coffee Stain’s corner of the world. According to Beuger, while they had been intending to one day go that direction, the historic moment hurried things along.
“It was definitely a catalyst,” she noted, “but it wasn't a new idea in the sense that there were several things that sort of led up to it. And Black Lives Matter was definitely part of it because it just helped educate us a lot.”
In making this change, Level the Playing Field acknowledged they should diversify its own board. The now seven-person evaluation team, which at one point just two caucasian women, has expanded to include different genders, races, and ethnicities from among Coffee Stain’s employees. The idea is for people to be able to speak to their own experiences and relay those to the rest of the team to pick projects and studios among the dozens of applications they get.
The process has now sponsored three studios for over $300,000 combined.
There doesn’t appear to be any kind of endpoint for this for Coffee Stain or Leveling the Playing Field, a goal that would say they "solved" diversity. They admit that expanding into diversity metrics beyond the male-to-female ratio means trying to figure out a criteria for diversity that is considerably more complicated. To Beuger and the rest, however, this comes as a welcome challenge to getting this particular ball rolling in the games industry.
“In a way, we've already reached the main goal, and that is adding projects into the market that are made by diverse teams. That's it,” she affirms. “So with every project, we reach our goal again essentially. Eventually, of course, we hope to add just a little bit to the overall diversity in the industry, but that is hard to quantify.”
It will take more than one game studio and more than one diversity and inclusion initiative to expand and transform the video game industry. Overwhelming cultural resistance stands taller than any realistic amount of money could, but there’s still plenty of room for trying.