Being a Real Ally for Marginalized People in the Game Industry

I’m a white, straight, cisgender man. But I didn’t used to be.

In the past, I was just me. A unique individual human being just living his life like everyone else.

Then I started becoming aware of the fact that as a man, I live a completely different life compared to women.

I had my butt pinched once. It was by a woman passing by in a club when I was in Cancun on spring break in high school. It was such a novelty that I didn’t know how to react at the time other than with curious amazement that it happened.

All women, on the other hand, have experienced unwanted harassment from men. Some have experienced quite a bit, and some have received unwanted physical contact, and some have been physically hurt for resisting, and some have died.

And that’s just one general way in which we live different lives.

Then I started becoming aware of the fact that as a white man, I live a completely different life compared to people of color.

I got pulled over for speeding when I was in high school. I was nervous, and I got off with a warning. I had been pulled over for speeding maybe four more times, and I got a warning almost every time. One time I recall two officers on each side of my car, and another squad car appearing, and I wondered why there was so much overwhelming force. Everything was fine, though.

Black men, however, have to tell their children how to behave when, not if, they get pulled over so as not to give the officer any reason to believe they are in danger and an excuse to shoot first, ask questions later. Black drivers may drive the speed limit even if traffic is speeding around them to avoid getting into such dangerous situations in the first place. Some still get pulled over for Driving While Black. Some get harassed, some get physically hurt, and some die.

And that’s just one general way in which we live different lives.

Then I started becoming aware of the fact that as a cisgender man, I live a completely different life compared to transgender people.

One time in middle school I accidentally walked into the girls’ bathroom. It was on a different floor, and I didn’t realize I was in the wrong bathroom until I was washing my hands and noticed the lack of urinals and some strange dispensers on the wall. If I had been caught, I probably could have explained that it was an accident, and if I got in trouble anyway, it would probably have been a minor punishment.

Transgender people have entire states passing laws preventing them from peeing where they are most comfortable, which is scary because just peeing in a public bathroom has been a dangerous situation historically for them. Some have been physically beaten and some have died because other people became uncomfortable that someone different was in their bathroom.

And that’s just one general way in which we live different lives.

I used to just be a regular human being, but then I became aware of my privilege.

Privilege is about Society, not You Personally

I have a lot of privilege. I don’t have to pay attention to any of those things happening to people who aren’t white, male, and cisgender. I can continue to live my own life oblivious to it, because horrible things just generally don’t happen to me merely by virtue of me existing, and if something happens to a friend who happens to not be white or male or cisgender, well, it was probably a one-off because if it happened to me, it would be a one-off.

That’s privilege. It doesn’t mean I was given anything in life. It means societal norms are such that when I was born, I get to play the game of life on easy mode. No extra obstacles are thrown in my way due to me being me. No one is out to put me in my place, because my place by default is on top. I still have to play the game and exert effort, but I don’t have to work twice as hard to get half as much. People don’t look at me and assume I can’t possibly know what I need to know to do a job, so job interviews for software development positions don’t require nearly as much effort by me to impress as it might be for, say, a woman.

I don’t have to feel guilty about being privileged, as I didn’t specifically do anything to obtain that privilege. But I should be aware of it because how I tolerate the systems that allow that privilege means I’m basically tolerating the status quo for all of the marginalized people out there.

As uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge this, my passive tolerance does, in fact, make me part of the problem.

But being made aware of it wasn’t easy.

Privilege is Invisible

I think it’s a much more profound challenge than it seems at first blush. It’s hard to communicate with people who have a very different frame of reference in life.

People with privilege don’t recognize that they have it, and so when they come into contact with someone who isn’t in their privilege bubble, it’s a jarring shock.

Privileged people see the world as meritocratic, and the idea that anyone has a disadvantage due to systemic issues is ridiculous specifically because they don’t see the system. To them, it’s just How Things Are.

They say things like “Why don’t you do what I did and work hard to get what you want instead of whining and hoping someone will give it to you?” without realizing that they were given the opportunity to work hard to get what they wanted without having to ask for it. They don’t see themselves as privileged because they worked hard.

They don’t see how what might be a minor and temporary inconvenience for them is yet-another-blow to someone’s dignity and welfare.

There’s that saying, “He was born on third base and acts like he hit a triple.” In a way, that’s everyone who has privilege. For people without privilege, many weren’t even allowed in the lineup.

For some (many?), being told that they need to go back to the plate to swing the bat and hit the ball before they can take a base, just like everyone else, is a setback.

Oh, and by the way, now there are more people who are allowed to participate.

It doesn’t feel like equality so much as the privileged person losing something. They start looking wistfully to the past as when things were better (specifically for them), and without getting too political about it, that’s how certain politicians seem to get so much traction with passionate voters by appealing to their bigotry.

People without privilege are much more aware of it because it is a constant issue in their lives. To them, someone with privilege must seem very obtuse. “How can they possibly not see what I see?”

It’s because their privilege is invisible to them.

So you have privileged people who don’t know they are privileged who might not have a mean bone in their bodies, and they might think of themselves as genuinely good. Yet they are part of the system. Being made aware of this fact, that they have privilege and there are systemic problems for people who don’t, and they should take some responsibility for being part of that system that allows for it, is a potentially ugly process.

Many go into denial because, hey, they are genuinely good people and don’t hate anyone! Some of their best friends are [insert non-privileged group here]! They didn’t personally do anything wrong!

And they might even be right on all of those counts, but it’s uncomfortable for them to believe that they fell down on the job of being more active in terms of even acknowledging privilege exists because it sounds like they should feel personally guilty about it.

So, if they ignore their privilege, the world goes back to the way it was when everything was a matter of pure merit and hard work, and it’s not their fault that other people are less well off.

Privilege is invisible to those who have it. Confirmation bias helps. And communication and spreading awareness is an uphill battle as a result.

Ok, You Have Privilege. Now What?

I think one challenge I’m finding is what to do now that I am aware of my privilege.

And I mean do, because being aware and not changing how I behave and act feels like it is worse than being unaware and blissfully ignorant.

I’ve been doing some research, partly for my own growth, and partly as research for my church’s efforts to ensure they are a welcoming organization for transgender people. A lot of the action steps I’m finding out there for allies are along the lines of “Don’t say this, don’t assume that, do make space.” All good, but after that, I feel like there should be more to it.

Like, ok, I get it. Don’t be a jerk, and treat everyone you meet as a human being. Learning about hurtful and appropriate language and micro aggressions and existing systemic oppression are details, but there has to be more to it, right?

I’m not saying my education is complete, nor do I want to downplay the importance of those details, but it’s one thing to see and recognize privilege, and another to do something about it.

But I feel like there’s a next step that I’m responsible for figuring out because no one is talking about it.

Most articles I’ve found for allies boil down to one of either two things: a list of do’s and don’t’s to help you be aware of your privilege, or a diatribe about how allies are failing at being real allies. It seems like every ally-related article I find focuses exclusively on the “be aware” part, or it laments how allies are falling short of actually doing more than making themselves feel better about being so progressive. There’s almost nothing out there that feels like set of a tangible actions and behaviors that would make a lasting difference.

The video game industry struggles like many industries with marginalized identities. Mattie Brice is a games critic and activist I’ve followed on Twitter for a long time who has written about this topic often. Recently she tweeted a link to her article which captures why things haven’t improved substantially despite the number of marginalized voices creating games these days.

Brice argues that despite progress on a number of fronts, it seems the status quo is still pretty much what it was, and it seems to be because that’s what supposed activists actually want.

That is, people asking for more diverse representations in games expect to play the same games we’ve always played. You know, only this time Ubisoft could figure out how to budget for the production of female models.

Right now liberal games people find the values of marginalized perspectives quaint, nice flavor that could be adapted or added on to what we already have, but not the main dish. So they aren’t necessarily against radical viewpoints, and definitely encourage them to exist, but only unsupported so change is as slow as possible.

This forces people who have the most to lose and are currently in danger to take the majority of the weight of moving things along.

This idea that marginalized people shoulder the brunt of the work of rising up against the systemic problems is something I was made aware of while talking about ways transgender people could feel more welcome at my church. I didn’t want to speak for these people as I worried it wasn’t my place to do so, but it’s exhausting for them to do everything on their own because they are fighting an uphill battle.

If I had to constantly talk about being a white, straight, cisgender man, and constantly defend every action or thought as a white, straight, cisgender man, it would, in fact, be exhausting. But since society sees me as the default, I don’t have to exert that energy.

So as an ally, what I could do is amplify marginalized voices rather than merely sit back silently. They have their own voices, and I can do much more than wait for them to feel comfortable enough to speak in a hostile environment. I can make the environment more friendly. I could share what they say.

But I could also do more.

We know that these people get less resources, both from games and society as a whole, and not changing how you consume and practicing what you value continues that divide. Said liberal masses are forcing marginalized creators into critical positions by being apathetic at best about the literal support the give while contributing to entities that maintain the status quo.

Marginalized creators don’t often have access to the marketing might of major publishers, and as a person of privilege, it’s easy for me to not even be aware that these creators exist, which contributes to their marginalization without my awareness.

From this article, I’m thinking that one of the tangible things I can do as someone with privilege is to make the extra effort to find marginalized voices. So when I think about buying a new science fiction book, for instance, rather than choose from a bestsellers list or merely on Amazon’s recommendations, I could actively seek out science fiction books written by authors I might not know about.

That’s not a difficult thing to do, but until Brice’s article, it hadn’t occurred to me to do it.

And if I address this in each aspect of my life, from where I eat to what I read children before bedtime to what movies I decide to watch to what I personally create, then I’m hopefully doing more than mere awareness and actually practicing what I value.

I’m going to continue to look for more, but being more conscious about where my dollars go is one tangible, impactful thing I can do to make privilege more visible. It doesn’t sound so hard, but I’m surprised there isn’t more about it out there.

Being that I have the awareness of my privilege to ignore injustice, it’s a moral decision not to ignore it. Being in a position of privilege, I feel obligated to do more than the bare minimum of merely not being a jerk. It will probably be exhausting work, but it’s already exhausting for the people who don’t have the privilege to avoid the work. It is wrong to sit on the sidelines and think I’m still a good person while other people suffer indignity, harassment, injustice, and death.

Nintendo Reveals Details, Pictures, and Official Name of NX

Nintendo hasn’t given away too many details about their upcoming console known as NX. Rumors abound, with speculation based on patent filings, and recently a few leaks about the NX controller turned out to be hoaxes.

Many expected Nintendo to make a formal announcement at E3 this June, but the company surprised fans with not only the announcement but the release of their new console through the What’s New section of Nintendo.com:

It is with great excitement that we introduce to you the NintendOne4, our most advanced home entertainment console yet!

In the past our systems have been designed around the kinds of games our designers would like to create, and we usually kept those systems a secret until we felt we accomplished what we wanted it to do. Sometimes, however, what we create isn’t always well received by our customers.

They were clearly referring to the disappointing reception of the Wii U, of which they recently denied rumors that they had stopped production on it. Many of their target customers were never clear on what the Wii U was and why they should have bought one.

The NintendOne4 surprised many analysts who expected yet another console that was more unique than what competitors were offering.

Instead, Nintendo has opted to put out a system that seems more inline with what a follow-up to an Xbox One or PS4 would look like.

We’ve designed this new system based on the enthusiastic feedback of our most passionate fans, and we think you’ll love the gaming experiences this new system allows for.

NintendoOne4

Nintendo of America’s Reggie Fils-Aimé was quoted as saying, “We’ve always been interested in what the fans want”, and that the company was moving in a completely different direction due to the needs and wants of a devoted following.

“We knew we had passionate fans, but there was this very small, core group of people we discovered who were super passionate about gaming. They’re kind of the gatekeepers of games in terms of their influence, and in fact, once we started hearing what they had to say, we realized that NX had to be completely different from what we were originally trying to do.”

When pressed about this group of fans and their influence, Fils-Aimé referred vaguely to a very small group involved in social media who coalesce around “some hashtag or another.” They’re Nintendo’s essentially free focus group, and they have been instrumental in the company making the strategic moves they did.

“We think it’s amazing that there is this tiny community of very vocal fans who can tell you exactly what they’re thinking and feeling at the drop of a hat. And we want them to know that Nintendo is listening to every word they say and taking it very seriously.”

He quickly changed the subject to speak excitedly about the NintendOne4’s launch titles.

“There are an unprecedented number of innovative and enjoyable games people can play right now, which is unheard of for a new console launch.”

Almost 300 games are available, and some surprising items in the list include Halo 5: Guardians, which was originally a Microsoft-exclusive title.

“Yes, we have some very interesting partnerships,” said Fils-Aimé, while gesturing with wagging fingers in the air.

My Blog Post on Running an Indie Business en Espanol

Javier Fernández recently reached out to me about translating my post Indie Developers Have Always Needed to Treat Their Businesses Like Businesses into Spanish.

And so now over at Zehn Games you can read Los indies siempre han tenido que tratar su negocio como lo que es: un negocio, and it’s available to a wider audience.

I don’t speak Spanish, but I liked that he even translated the whiteboard image. B-)

I’m going to go drink my jugo de naranja now.

We Should Pay Attention to Indie Game Development Failures

GDC 2016 is over, and it featured talks by successful game developers sharing what they know.

It’s always tempting to find out what successful people do. The hope is that we can glean some insight into what WE specifically can do to be successful as well.

But what if we’re wrong? What if what they think they did to be successful and what we think they did to be successful is exactly what everyone else who failed did as well?

How would you know?

Most failures aren’t around anymore to share their story.

And so we risk having survivorship bias. We ignore the information we can’t see in favor of the information we can see, and then we make conclusions based on that part of the puzzle.

Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Michael Dell all dropped out of college and built huge, world-impacting businesses. So does that mean you should drop out of college and start a business?

Before you make that decision, you should probably ask all the college dropouts who didn’t create huge businesses despite trying. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find them, and you’re unlikely to see read a book or even a blog post about their experiences.

Or if you talk to a financial guru who says, “Look at these stock picks I have! If you look at them, they’ve beaten the market by 12% for the last five years!” What this guru isn’t saying is, “And during those five years, I’ve been removing the poorly-performing picks I’ve also made, which would skew the results negatively if you saw them.”

Or when people talk about music today being terrible compared to music of the past. If you turn on the Oldies station, you’ll hear great music from the 50s, 60s, 70s, and now the 80s and 90s (oh, geez, I’m old), but you won’t hear all of the terrible stuff that was put out during that same period of time.

Why? Because it was terrible, so only the best music survives for the future to love.

The book Good to Great by Jim Collins aimed to find out what were the universal distinguishing characteristics that cause a company to become consistently successful over a 15 year period.

Since the book was published in 2001, many of the companies highlighted got into trouble. Maybe they were great once, but clearly the “universal distinguishing characteristics” weren’t so universal.

So what happened here?

Statistics, basically.

I Need Coins

I’m currently watching some videos on Machine Learning offered by Cal Tech professor Yaser Abu-Mostafa, and in one of the early lectures he mentions something fascinating.

Let’s say you flip a coin 10 times in a row. What are the odds you’ll get heads each time?

That’s easy math to calculate: 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 = 1/1024

So, somewhat unlikely. Roughly 0.1% of the time, you’ll get all heads.

But if you flipped 1,000 coins 10 times each, what are the odds that at least one of the coins will produce heads for all 10 flips?

The answer: roughly 62% of the time.

Wow, those are actually pretty decent odds!

But it doesn’t say much about that one coin, does it? There are no insights into the coin’s design you can make. There is nothing about the way it was minted that is unique. All of the coins had a chance of flipping all heads, and this one just happened to be the one to do it.

And yet a lot of business success books are written this way. They look at successful businesses in hindsight, and then the authors try to identify the qualities of those lucky coins that resulted in them being so great, and they often ignore the rest which might be built and run similarly.

That isn’t to say that I think business success is a 50/50 flip of a coin. And to be clear, I think it does help to identify strong successes and see what we can learn from them.

But if we ignore the failures, then we don’t know if what we see successful companies doing is really so different and insightful.

From You Are Not So Smart:

Also, keep in mind that those who fail rarely get paid for advice on how not to fail, which is too bad because despite how it may seem, success boils down to serially avoiding catastrophic failure while routinely absorbing manageable damage.

I gave a talk at Startup City Des Moines in 2014 about lessons learned having failed with running my own indie game development business full-time. I was surprised when one of my friends who worked there kept thanking me. She said that it’s very rare for anyone who has failed to share their experience, which is too bad because it would be so helpful if more did.

So if you failed, don’t shy away or be embarrassed about it. Let us know about it. Tell us what you learned.

Provide more data so that survivorship bias isn’t as easy for us to succumb to.

Should You Work with a Publisher or Self-Publish? #NotGDC

Adam Saltsman is the creator of Canabalt and founder of Finji, which is behind the Overland screenshots you may have seen him post on Twitter.

He’ll be giving a talk today at GDC called “Deciding What to Make: A Greenlight Process for Commercial Indies”.

People who attend will learn how to improve their ability to decide what game to make.

If you think success in indie game development is purely random, that game development is like throwing spaghetti at a wall and hoping something sticks, it sounds like this talk will share some ideas to be more deliberate about it.

For those of us at #NotGDC and unable to attend, we’ll have to wait until his talk is in the GDC Vault and/or for him to upload the slides somewhere later.

But for now, you can read his blog post Publishers and You, a stream-of-conscious indie game development business lesson you can get without shelling out the money for a plane ticket or hotel room or conference pass.

Saltsman’s article gave some good advice about generally working with others, publisher or not:

So: what are your needs, and how can you address them? What parts do you want to work on? What parts DON’T you want to work on? If you can figure this stuff out, you will be in much, much better shape when you start talking to anyone anywhere about helping you ship.

If you don’t want to “do marketing”, that’s fine, but someone better do it because it’s key. And if you follow Seth Godin, you know that your game IS part of the marketing, so whoever does the marketing better be working with you from the start.

I want to focus on the part where he talks about the importance of marketing for self-publishing indies:

I’ve seen other devs call this the “non-game-dev” part of a project, and that’s sort of true but sort of misleading too, and on commercial projects i think it’s counter-productive. If you’re making a commercial game, helping the game find its audience is a part of making it. Sorry.

I’ve written before that indie developers have always needed to treat their businesses like businesses, partly in response to how many people think that running a game development business is just making games and hoping people buy what you made after the fact.

If that’s your business strategy, then yeah, your success in the industry is effectively random, and your goal is to put out as many games as possible before you run out of money.

It’s kind of like a less deliberate version of what Dan Cook wrote about in his article Minimum Sustainable Success.

When Cook wrote about a basic budget an indie might create, he said:

These numbers should look scary. They suggest that the vast majority of indie developers are ripe for financial ruin and are operating primarily on hope instead of any rational financial strategy. I think that’s accurate.

Oof.

But he also concludes “The big lesson is that your exposure to luck is something you can manage.” I would highly recommend reading his article for more details, but one thing he mentions is reducing the risk of any on game release with relatively cheap prototypes to nail the game design down before spending a lot of money on development.

Some people specialize in helping you identify what the market wants. You could become one of those people, or you could pay someone to do it for you, and it’s up to you as a developer to determine which is appropriate for your business. Saltsman argues that to make that determination, look at the needs of your project and not to blanket best practices or a vague sense that you need marketing.

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