Two key themes emerged from the sessions held on the first day of the International Game Developer’s Association (IGDA) Leadership Summit 2015 in Seattle yesterday: empathy and inclusivity.
The IGDA is a non-profit organization that aims to improve the gaming industry by speaking out on key issues, connecting game developers globally, and promoting professional growth. Its members comprise a global network of individuals involved in game development, with over 90 chapters and Special Interest Groups.
This year’s summit is a two-day event focusing on the skills and strategies to exhibit effective leadership in the game industry. The lessons on the value of empathy, diversity, and looking outside one’s field of expertise are inspiration not just for leaders and aspiring leaders working in games, but for anyone working in the dynamic field of digital media.
Intentional Inclusivity as a Catalyst for Creativity
Opening keynote speaker Kristina Reed set the tone for the day by sharing moments that had a major impact on her perspective on inclusivity and her work as a producer for the Walt Disney Animation Studios, where she worked on award-winning projects such as Paperman, Feast, and Big Hero 6.
“Making people feel welcome increases the chances of making something bold, unique and real,” Reed explained. “Only when people feel comfortable will they give their best over and over. And you should settle for nothing less.”
Drawing on more than twenty years of experience at the intersection of technology and storytelling — and some more unlikely sources, like the 1996 Burning Man — Reed showed how again and again, inclusivity empowered people to take the steps they needed to create something new. Being intentional about inclusivity from the very beginning creates loyalty and accountability to each other, and this trust and collaboration provides the foundation for truly phenomenal work, driving momentum and inspiration.
Her advice to those who want to strive for more inclusivity in the workplace? “It takes effort to continually feel welcome.” Leaders should always be looking out for signs that make people feel less welcome or of less value, and be conscious of subtle signals and barriers that may be invisible.
Shannon Loftis, General Manager at Microsoft Studios Global Publishing, also emphasized the importance of inclusivity. Loftis opened her talk by noting the diversity of the gaming audience. There is often a disparity, she said, between the content that is relevant to their audience and what the industry produces. As an industry leader and a highly visible company, Microsoft is a prominent example for many game developers and game players.
“We feel a huge amount of stewardship. What we do sends a message about what games are and what gaming is,” Loftis said. For game developers, there can be challenges to prioritizing inclusivity without accidentally restricting creativity and freedom. Microsoft Game Studios took its own steps towards more inclusivity first by doing a content audit and identifying their strengths as a company and their areas for improvement. From the undercurrent of good intentions and aspirational beliefs that they could identify in their work, they created a basic set of guiding principles:
- We respect the gamer.
- We respect the medium.
- We respect the industry.
- We represent Microsoft.
Using principles that people could apply in their own way was more inspirational than a dry checklist, and taking it from the culture that already existed reinforced their identity as a team.
A panel of Xbox managers and leaders, including Katy Jo Meyer, Katie Stone Perez, and Mark Yeend provided their own perspective on the value of inclusivity, rather than diversity for diversity’s sake. Besides echoing some of the main principles on inclusivity in Reed’s and Loftis’ talks, they also pointed out easily overlooked yet practical problems like unconscious biases that can blind us to obvious problems. For instance, they touted the need for more neutral job descriptions that attract people from different backgrounds, and the importance of not only successfully attracting talent but maintaining an environment in which talented people want to stay.
Inclusivity also means empowering people with resources. Data science is a source of insight, but it is technology that has made it possible for developers to have access to large amounts of data about product usage. Luke Dicken, Senior Data Scientist for Zynga and the Chair of the IGDA Foundation, discussed data science and the importance of creating a data culture. But the most powerful insights about data don’t necessarily come from data scientists. Giving every member of the company access to the data empowers team members and allows them to develop insights on how to apply it to their own work, give a sense of ownership, and streamline production.
Empowerment Through Empathetic Leadership
Another theme that ran through the conference was the need for empathy in the game development industry: for your team, for your company, and for your audience. Rami Ismail, co-founder of the Dutch game studio Vlambeer, delivered a keynote on how he learned to change his own approach to leadership through experience and learning the importance of context.
As someone who never envisioned himself as a leader, Ismail initially rejected identifying himself as one. Eventually, however, he decided that he would use his visibility in the online gaming community to try and do good by promoting opinions and voices that he felt were worth looking at. A teacher in Johannesburg to made him realize that giving advice from his own experience, without thinking about the context of his audience, could potentially cause more harm. This drove him to look beyond his own limited perspective and consider barriers such as culture, language, access to knowledge, and access to economic resources.
Video games have an enormous reach, but with that comes the potential for greater unknowns for developers to try and account for. Making mistakes, even with the best of intentions, is highly likely. But that does not mean that the industry should stop trying to move in the right direction. Ismail gave this advice for leaders, whether they are in the game industry or not: don’t believe in absolutes, listen but don’t make others do your job for you, create context for your actions, be accountable for your actions, and know that you can be on the record at any time.
“We can choose we try to be a force for good, but we will probably fail,” Ismail acknowledged. “That is okay. But communication about what we did wrong should be as loud as the mistake we made.”
The need for thoughtful empathy was echoed in talks by Alan Wilson, and Heather Decker, though the emphasis they provided was in different fields.
Wilson, Vice President at Tripwire Interactive, described some of the challenges that teams can face after the first success. One often overlooked consequence of the growth stimulated by success is its impact on the human element of the team, and the stress it places on systems that may have worked for a smaller group but not a thriving company. Having empathy for the members of your team, not allowing communications to break down, and fostering a culture where leaders are willing to listen to feedback from what others are trying to tell them helps navigate the potential pitfalls of success.
As the Lead Technical Artist for Zynga, Decker shared her insights on the importance of empathy when communicating with artist teams. Art direction is a difficult process because it requires people to concretize the intangible, since art is not governed by strict logical rules. In this environment, developing a connection to the people working with you and being open to solutions that you may not have seen yourself is an important component to the team’s overall success.
Leading by example, recognizing significant contributions and encouraging team members to communicate with each other, even when working in remote teams, can contribute to cultivating harmony.