Activision Clarifies Diversity Tool Not Used In “Active Game Development” After Explaining Use

Yesterday, ABK said teams were enthusiastic about the DE&I tool and collecting data. Today, it's not in active use.

Activision-Blizzard-King has updated its bizarre blog post outlining a tool that distills popular characters down to a series of  ‘diverse’ metrics on a spider chart. Prior to yesterday’s update, the King blog claimed Blizzard’s Overwatch 2 team “had a chance to experiment with the tool.” That’s gone now, as it seems some developers on the project didn’t know it existed until the post, and King has added more on the tool’s intent.

In its Friday night update, Activision Blizzard said King’s Diversity Space Tool “is not being used in active game development” and only “tested internally.” There’s also a lengthy note acknowledging online conversations where industry voices quickly pointed out an obvious solution to the company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion issues: hire and listen to marginalized people.

King’s follow-up maintains its DE&I tool is meant to “uncover unconscious bias by identifying existing norms in representation and acknowledging opportunities for growth in inclusion.” The update explained King does not see this as a lone substitute for diversity initiatives; it’s an “optional supplement” to support diverse stories teams at Activision-Blizzard-King are working on. The additional comment still raises more questions than anything, and since the internet never forgets,  you can compare the original post to the edited blog. The images are gone now, but the archived post still shows screenshots of Overwatch’s Ana in the demonstration, whose spider chart displayed the character with a zero for sexual orientation, but seven for race.

While data on race, age, gender, sexuality, and disability are all important pieces of understanding how defaults of white, heterosexuality, ableness, and cis shape our stories, the presentation and interpretation are dystopian. A blog post bragging about initiatives from a company constantly in the news for subjecting its employees to the most heinous shit imaginable, and may have had the California governor interfere with the lawsuits that followed, surely has no business tut-tutting a diversity tool in a PR push. That feels especially true when we look at how this data is presented, what it says, and the original claims from the post.

The blog’s unedited text specifically pointed to Overwatch 2, noting developers did “experiment” with the tool. The quote also mentions data from these tests as something used in Sledgehammer Games’ next project.

In the “Sharing and Caring” section of the King post, the original version read:

“Alayna Cole, DE&I manager at Sledgehammer Games, says the tool was tested by developer teams working on Call of Duty: Vanguard, and it left a sizable impression. ‘We used [the Diversity Space Tool] to figure out what ‘more diversity’ looks like across all of our characters in both campaign multiplayer and Live seasons,’ says Cole. ‘And now we’re going to use that data going forward into the next games that we’re working on.’ The Overwatch 2 team at Blizzard has also had a chance to experiment with the tool, with equally enthusiastic first impressions.”

The company removed its original quote and games mentioned, supposedly to clarify it’s not being used in development right now; the new paragraph reads:

“Over the past few months, King has let developer teams at Activision and Blizzard ‘beta test’ the Diversity Space Tool, and the results have been immediate and enthusiastic. The plan is to further test the tool internally for preliminary feedback across Activision Blizzard starting this summer. ‘We strongly believe in the tool’s potential to change the gaming landscape,’ says Chomatas.”

According to King, there’s someone somewhere beta testing the tool internally. None of this reads like clarifying, and a semantics argument doesn’t pass the smell test. Let’s assume “experimenting” means it has no place in development right now; it’s that part about the Overwatch 2 liking the thing and the use of Sledgehammer’s data that doesn’t check. Sledgehammmer’s next game isn’t in “active development,” okay, got it, but if you intend to use data collected with the DE&I tool in its development, we can reasonably suggest it’s playing some role in the process already.

A sweeping portrayal of enthusiasm from the Overwatch 2 team seems like a misrepresentation on King’s part, too. Yesterday’s blog appeared to surprise actual developers on Overwatch 2. One senior game designer on the project noted, “the portion about Overwatch 2 was removed mostly because we’re not using it and didn’t know it existed until yesterday.” Overwatch character designer Melissa Kelly also pointed out that actual developers from these backgrounds drive diversity—not whatever this is—and the Overwatch team includes them.

It begs the question of why bother claiming these teams tested the thing to begin with, and if your quote suggests data pulled during a test will play a role in future games, I’m counting that as use.

It sucks, and Activision-Blizzard-King throws its teams under the bus with these weird PR puffs. I share the sentiment from Imran Khan in our original write-up on the ordeal, sure, it wasn’t made with malice, but we have ways to avoid leaving marginalized people out in stories about them.  You hire them, listen to them, and put them in charge. A clamor to use this as a blog for improving the company’s image, regardless of intent when making the diversity tool, speaks to the ugly and insidious ways we use diverse stories as shields. Perhaps we could have avoided most of this had the company practiced the hiring and listening to marginalized voices part ages ago.