I don’t know if you have heard, but corporate oligarch Activision-Blizzard-King has an image problem when it comes to marginalized groups. Whether it’s about the decidedly cartoon villain-like actions of CEO Bobby Kotick, the labor lawsuit from California that seems to even involve the Governor acting improperly on the company’s behalf, or just more wild shit about Bobby Kotick, ABK doesn’t have a lot of reputation left to salvage.
So when the company desperately needs to make fundamental changes in how they hire and treat diverse employees and public-facing characters, I’d argue the solution is not in making and publicizing a tool that boils diversity design down to pre-defined metrics.
And yet, that’s kind of what King is doing according to a blog post published yesterday on Activision-Blizzard’s website. The thrust is that employees at King — by their own admission, working off-hours — created a tool that breaks down character attributes and rates them on how diverse they are. The idea, the post argues, is to guard “against unconscious bias and exclusion when it came to the creation of their games and characters.”
These metrics listed are culture, race, age, cognitive ability, physical ability, body type, facial features/beauty, gender identity, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic background.
Using Overwatch character Ana as the example, she has points in culture, race, age, physical ability, and gender identity. Essentially, the tool seems to start with the idea that a cis heterosexual white male character is the default and that factors away from that are essentially diversity points, which is a mildly problematic assumption to codify even if it tends to work out that way in practice. Ideally, decades of bad results should not create a default as much as they should be something to recognize as unnecessarily ubiquitous.
It’s…uncomfortable, a little bit. Chiefly because this seems like a bad idea as a failure of simpler, purer solution of simply hiring and listening to diverse designers. Getting them on a team is one thing, taking their feedback or letting them lead designs and teams is a different scenario, one that this tool only helps in the weirdest and most dystopian ways. Again, we’re focusing on quantifiable results rather than thinking about why those results are happening.
I don’t think this thing was created with malice, but it’s a tech solution around a problem that already has a solution. Diversity & Inclusion isn’t a vending machine that you keep popping effort tokens into until a badge that says “You can’t yell at me anymore” pops out. It’s a sustained process that requires people at all levels to listen to people that are trying to make themselves heard.
You can’t make “objectively” diverse games, you can only make games that come from diverse minds and cultures and experiences and let their design work do the talking.
The blog post adds that Sledgehammer’s Call of Duty: Vanguard and Blizzard’s Overwatch 2 have both already used the tool to general enthusiasm from those teams. So we’ll see how this actually works out in practice, but it’s a bit of a strange tool for an industry that largely already knows how to hammer a nail.