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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Activision Blizzard King's "Diversity Space Tool" is weird, and has a cover-up involved

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Plus, my thoughts on the tool itself.

Last week, someone or some several people at Activision Blizzard King (usually I'd say Activision Blizzard; today King gets to be included because they're a big part of the story... and hey, we're inclusive at KoopaTV) published this piece titled “King’s Diversity Space Tool”. Note that I linked to an archived version of what's currently (as of publishing) live on Activision Blizzard's “news room”, where it remains the predominant and top story. THIS archive link is what they originally published, which is far longer and more extensive, titled “King’s Diversity Space Tool: A Leap Forward for Inclusion in Gaming”.

The gist of it is that there is a greater appetite for inserting “diversity in game content” among game developers around the world, according to the unscientific, unrandomly sampled 2019 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey. (KoopaTV published an article about a similar report from the International Game Developers Association back in 2016 about how they portrayed diversity in gaming to be the industry's biggest issue, which I disputed and deemed a myth. Obviously, people at Activision Blizzard King disagree with me.)

I guess I should note that the survey itself didn't really define what “diversity in game content” means. I think you can easily define and interpret the word as “not every game should be a first-person shooter”. Y'know, that kind of diversity. That said, the respondents typically thought “racism among gamers” and “sexism among gamers” (and in their workforce) is on the rise.

Anyway, with that greater appetite, some employees working at the King part of Activision Blizzard King, at their own time, started making this Diversity Space Tool, which is supposed to be used during the character concept phase of character design. Its purpose is to measure your group of characters among several demographic metrics and see where your blind spots are. This is apparently supposed to reduce “tokenism, stereotypes, and exclusion”, although that objective is only in the original story and not in the sanitised current version. For an idea of how it works, check out these screenshots of the tool being used for Overwatch characters. Note that these screenshots are only available in the original story; there is no visual indication of how this tool works in the currently published edition:


Activision Blizzard King Diversity Space Tool Overwatch
The Diversity Space Tool takes Culture, Race, Age, Cognitive Ability, Physical Ability,
Body Type, Facial Features/Beauty, Gender Identity, Sexual Orientation, and Socioeconomic Background into account.
You may wish to click on the image to see it in a more fuller size.
I'm noticing that this looks like my Discord settings. (Light mode with the dark sidebar.)


After developing the tool (in consultation with Activision Blizzard King's dedicated Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion staffers), King showed it to Activision and to Blizzard, and they are “beta testing” it. The currently published version stresses that this isn't the only tool they use when developing characters, or even when developing characters with diversity in mind. Personally, that's not really my main set of concerns. I guess my first question is why they decided on those factors... and then the obvious follow-up is how one decides what gets rated a 0 and what gets rated a 10... and everything in-between. Obviously, being white, male, heterosexual, and slim are bad. The screenshot depicts Ana as middle class, which also gets a 0. Would being rich be a 0 too, or is that diverse? And if being a female gets you a 5/10, what further things need to happen to your gender to get higher?

Anyway, the tool does have filters for men and women; good, neutral, and evil characters (written as “morale”... which I feel like should be “morals”); and roles. One can easily think of games where women are disproportionately healers/support characters and where men are disproportionately villains, for example, and I'm fine with more thoughtfulness in that regard. (Perhaps for selfish reasons of wanting to see more villainous women characters.) ...Though that could obviously backfire. For example, they showed (only in the original article) a picture of the Call of Duty: Vanguard “diverse” cast that seemed to have missed putting white men there (I think the guy all the way to the left is a white male, though his face is very obscured by a woman's shoulder), despite it being based off of a real-world event called World War II that predominately featured white men. It's also unclear how the tool would treat non-human-based characters not found on Earth. Y'know, like me.

There is a good chance that, despite the currently published version of the article calling the Diversity Space Tool an “optional supplement” (the original text didn't address if character designers were going to have a choice in the matter), Activision Blizzard King designers will be heavily encouraged, especially by management, to use the Diversity Space Tool or tools like it. Maybe they'll end up having quotas set by the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion department. I mean, they already do for hiring actual employees (not the characters they make), though they'll call those “goals” or “targets”. I think in that case you'll actually get ridiculous token characters (despite the goal not to have tokenism) just to raise the averages up. While being some practically unheard of combination of “diverse” demographic traits doesn't guarantee you to be a bad character, it is a creative process that isn't ideal.

And I do think that slippery slope logic is valid. After all, if it's meant to be totally optional and not a company-wide initiative, why did Activision Blizzard King publish this to the world in their very visible Newsroom? Companies do have internal intranet websites where they can exchange best practices and the like; I'm sure employees from King socialised this tool through those to begin with. Then someone decided to talk to the team that controls the Newsroom, got approval from higher-ups, and figured this would be a good look for the company if the world knew about it. There's three objectives to that. Number one, set expectations to the world of Activision Blizzard King employees’ conduct and philosophies. Two, set expectations among gamers that if they play Activision Blizzard King games, they'll get “diverse” character designs. And number three, send a message to the competitive hiring market that if diversity is YOUR set of values, then you should apply and make Activision Blizzard King your dream job. (This one is really funny because their workplace culture is awful, and its employees really don't want to come back to their office.) So if any current employees aren't on board with this Diversity Space Tool... well, they'll just hire people who are, at least through self-selection.

I wonder if Activision Blizzard King (and any other publisher who will end up using tools like this) will publish all of the demographic details of their characters. Maybe that could dispel notions of characters that certain aspects of fandoms have run away with, like claiming Ike from Fire Emblem is a homosexual. (Or that I'M a homosexual.) Could be a benefit. I doubt it'll happen. ...And it might also have the effect of implicitly having companies try to nudge up the diversity ratings of the characters to look good. Because, y'know, it's bad—or not ideal—to be an average person.

...And now that I'm really at the end of writing this article, it is really, really weird that Activision Blizzard King didn't just add an editor's note to the newsroom piece, but ended up rewriting/removing a lot of the portions of it, including a lot of the backstory, explanations, and imagery. They said in the editor's note that they have edited the post to include the note for “additional context”... but also removed a lot of that. Unless the editor is claiming that all of those removed details are inaccurate? But it was all of those details that actually explained what the tool does and how it works. Very, very weird.



Ludwig was recently (before Activision Blizzard King came out with this) deemed a left-wing apologist by a foolish person for preferring games to have “less diversity”, given the options between “more diversity” (which would be what Activision Blizzard King would pick), “less diversity”, and “no diversity.” Having “no diversity” seems to be a very un-free mandate to drop down to your development team, and potentially very uninteresting to visually look at or explore the stories of. But it also shouldn't be the number one priority of developers. Feel free to comment on anything in this article, including your theories on the change in Activision Blizzard King's newsroom article, as well as your theories on how to score maximum points on those diversity metrics used in the Diversity Space Tool.


Ludwig thought the relatively diverse cast of Murder by Numbers made sense given the game's setting, and he had little issues with that and actually liked it. He doesn't think the developers there needed a tool to make that happen.

4 comments :

  1. Do actual gamers really think sexism in gaming is on the rise? How would you even measure that? And I don’t mean the fad gamers that only play games because certain ones (amoung us, Fortnite, etc.) got really popular or those who just use it to push their own activism. Because I’ve never felt that way at all. In fact I’ve always thought it cool when people of different races, genders and ages get into gaming. I mean who doesn’t love to see gaming grandmas?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. To clarify, the survey was among people who work in the game industry (though a few unemployed people got in, too). Not "actual gamers."

      I can think of a few ways to measure it. Maybe you can measure number of calls/texts to the Games and Online Harassment Hotline, an initiative by Feminist Frequency, over time. If it's up, more sexism. If it's down, less.

      (I don't think they publish those numbers.)

      Delete
    2. I’ve never heard of such a service. Regardless of how many calls they get, people will claim that others are too afraid to call in and reported the alleged abuse, to account for low call-in numbers.

      Delete
    3. It doesn't matter what the raw numbers are or if it's undercounting... it just matters wot the trend (up or down) is to figure out if it's "on the rise."

      But yes, people often say they take a lot of time to understand abuse or harassment they've undergone, so they may (permanently) delay telling anyone.

      Delete

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