Gay in the Game Industry: Research from the Field
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Earlier this year, many LGBTQ* fans of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey downloaded the new story expansion only to discover that their character had been forced into a heterosexual relationship, erasing any same-sex relationships their character may have previously had. This action was especially controversial because Ubisoft, the publisher of the Assassin’s Creed series, had gone out of its way to market Assassin’s Creed Odyssey as an LGBTQ friendly game that emphasizes players’ choice and autonomy. For LGBTQ gamers, controversies like this aren’t new. Last year, CD Projekt Red emphasized the bisexuality of the player avatar in its upcoming game, Cyberpunk 2077, while it simultaneously made transphobic jokes on Twitter. In these examples, there is an obvious disconnect between video game companies’ expressed support for the LGBTQ community and their actions. While LGBTQ gamers may feel particularly betrayed by these organizations’ lack of consist support for their community, these inconsistencies pose perhaps an even more urgent question: what is the climate like if you are a LGBTQ video game developer who works for one of these organizations?
Do these video game companies also inconsistently support their LGBTQ employees?
I spent several years conducting qualitative research to try to answer these questions. Below, I share some of my preliminary results, as well as some potential solutions that video game companies could implement to be more inclusive and supportive of their LGBTQ employees. I drew these preliminary conclusions by analyzing 20 interviews, analyzing notes from several field observations at Gay Game Industry Professionals events and gaming conferences, and from my own prior experience working in the video game industry as a gay man.
I analyzed this data using Ely & Thomas’s perspectives on diversity climate as my theoretical frame. Ely & Thomas broke organizational diversity climates into three main perspectives: 1) the discrimination & fairness perspective in which organizations pursue diversity as a social justice cause; 2) the access & legitimacy perspective in which organizations pursue diversity to gain market share; and 3) the synergy & learning perspective in which organizations pursue diversity to increase organizational creativity and effectiveness.
My initial analysis shows that most video game companies are following an access and legitimacy perspective regarding LGBTQ diversity. Video game companies are hiring LGBTQ employees and performing visible shows of support, like marching in pride parades in order to increase their reputation and market to LGBTQ populations. As one respondent, Brandy*, a queer woman who worked at an HR department at a large game company put it: “Just everything [the company does] with regards to outreach and diversity is pretty much just to check things off the corporate checklist. It is never about individuals. It is never about understanding the problems that are being faced by your employees and by gamers. It is more along the lines of, ‘Okay, if we do this, then it will make us look good among a certain demographic and it will get us good publicity.’”
What does adopting access and legitimacy perspective actually mean for LGBTQ employees in video games?
Because these organizations use diversity policies for marketing purposes, they often do not follow up on these diversity policies with steps to ensure that their LGBTQ employees actually feel included in the organization. Several participants told stories of covert instances of discrimination that they faced because of their sexuality. For example, Marshall, a gay QA tester for a large video game company, explained: “So, certain guys didn't like working with a gay guy. They didn't want to go to lunch, they didn't want me on. I wouldn't be uninvited, but my invite, let's say to an after work event, might get lost. And I would find about it the next day. My whole team, my whole row went and they would say 'Oh, where is Marshall?' But I didn't get invited because the person organizing it was a homophobe.” Similarly, Mia, a lesbian developer, recounts a story of a macroaggression that occurred because of her sexuality: “I mentioned that I was gay to like the VP of design or something, and it was another relocation thing, and they were like, ‘Why are you moving?’ and I was like, ‘My girlfriend just got a job down here.’ Then later on in the interview he kept referring to her as my friend and it was like a weird thing, like he was referring to her as my mom or something.” Stories like these were common among my respondents and signaled that many did not feel comfortable or included in their organization.
Additionally, some LGBTQ employees mistrust HR because they are aware that HR does not follow through with their outward shows of support. Several respondents shared stories of their HR departments not handling claims of discrimination properly. For example, Gabe, a queer game developer, explained that he would not go to HR if he had a problem “because generally speaking, nothing is done except that notes are made. For example, one of my coworkers was being routinely bullied by a coworker last year on a project that was proving very difficult. HR took note, but did not speak to the coworker directly.” Building on this, Brandy explains: “In general, HR had no idea how to handle things, like, I often went to them talking about problems within the group, with promoting people, blah blah blah, and their answers were always so, we don't really have an answer to this so we're just going to let you talk until you stop complaining. I don't know how it was in other groups, but my impression of HR, working in HR, was never positive.” Generally speaking, many participants had no idea what policies their organizations had to support LGBTQ employees, and many would not go to HR if they experienced any serious issues because they doubted HR’s ability to help.
The combination of experiencing covert discrimination, as well as possessing a lack of trust in the institution that is supposed to protect them, creates numerous organizational problems for LGBTQ employees. Several participants mentioned that they aren’t particularly loyal to their organization, many mentioned their intent to exit the organization, and several minimized the extent of their sexual orientation disclosure in the workplace.
It is important to note that not all participants expressed displeasure with their organization’s policies towards LGBTQ employees. Many participants expressed comfort in the workplace, high levels of job satisfaction, and expressed loyalty to the video game industry as a whole. In general, the participants with the most positive outlook for their organizations either had highly supportive managers who were LGBTQ allies or they minimized their LGBTQ social identity. As Brent, a gay developer, puts it: “For me, being gay is like checking a box, and I would rather work at a place that makes games and has projects that I want to work on. I'm not sure how much a supportive climate would affect me doing my day-to-day.”
I should also mention that organizations that adopt an access and legitimacy perspective do not always harm minority employees who work for them, as adopting this perspective can still be a force for change. For example, in the video game industry, creating content aimed at LGBTQ audiences can help LGBTQ employees in the long run, even if the motivation behind the content creation is purely economic. As Lisa, a queer game designer, explains: “The content is being pushed by some progressive minded people, so it's a bit of a loop, progressive people make progressive content, which makes the company hire more progressive people, which makes the company more progressive. Rinse, wash, repeat.”
So what can these companies do to help their LGBTQ employees?
First, HR at these companies must be better at communicating organizational policies that support LGBTQ employees. Most of my participants did not know what their HR departments did with respect to diversity and inclusion, which contributes to their hesitation to go to HR about these issues. HR should make clear in their recruiting and onboarding processes exactly what policies their organization has that support and protect their LGBTQ employees.
Second, marketing departments and project managers need to better communicate with HR to ensure that all parties are conscious of the organization’s diversity efforts. Controversies like those at Ubisoft and CD Projekt Red not only damage the companies’ reputation with the LGBTQ community, but they also convey to their employees that any representation or LGBTQ content is barely more than lip service. By taking a holistic approach to diversity and inclusion, organizations can avoid these kinds of controversies and appear as consistent in their words and deeds when it comes to diversity.
Third, managers must be trained to be supportive of their LGBTQ employees and to handle any instances of discrimination that might arise. One of my most promising preliminary findings is that LGBQT employees experience a host of positive outcomes when they have supportive managers. Further, to the extent that these employees feel like they cannot go to HR for help, managers can function as the first line of defense against incidents these employees might face.
Lastly, HR can take steps to make the culture of these organizations more inclusive. It is well documented that the video game industry is still dominated by straight white men, and this demographic homogeny affects organizational culture. Changing the culture of an organization is a monumental task because culture develops due to a variety of factors, including employee demographics, organizational structures, founder effects, reward systems, etc. Still, small changes—like replacing “Beer Friday” with a more inclusive social gathering, or not holding events at places like Hooters (I speak from personal experience here)—can go a long way in making the culture more accepting for women and LGBTQ employees.
Again, these are just preliminary findings. I am still conducting interviews and analyzing data, and thus my findings may change by the time this piece goes to publication. If you have any questions about methodology or my theoretical frame, feel free to get in touch with me.
* Note: LGBTQ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer
* Note: All names used within this blog post are pseudonyms to protect my respondents’ anonymity.