Effects of The Pandemic on The Gaming Industry – ED&I Lens

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By Ora Rammala, Consultant

The covid-19 pandemic has plagued the globe and impacted numerous sectors of industry; yet few have gone through the highs and lows of gaming. The gaming industry globally is worth $152.1 billion (about $470 per person in the US)with the constant innovations in AI, facial recognition and virtual reality, gaming has become the frontrunner of technology. However, the impacts of the pandemic on gaming have provoked fear, dissatisfaction and disappointment as the world built for escapism has become yet another microcosm of the inequalities which exist in society 

Impacts of pandemic  

In spring 2020, gaming quickly emerged as one of the most popular activities during the initial outbreak of the global COVID-19 pandemic as user engagement and spending flowed between February and April of that year. Especially younger generations Gen Z and Millennials spent more time on gaming as the medium was a convenient way to spend time during initial stay at home orders, lockdowns, and social distancing.

Like many industries, most video game developers, publishers, and operators have been able to maintain operations with employees working from home remotely to sustain game development and digital releases, though as movement control orders persisted, some productivity issues have arisen. With many people globally at home and unable to work, online gaming has observed record numbers of players during the pandemic as a popular activity to counter physical distancing for society, a practice recommended by the World Health Organization that helped boost revenues for many companies in the gaming industry. According to a study conducted by G2A, a gaming marketplace site, the search data in the early months of lockdown highlighted the range of those turning to gaming. G2A saw a 200% increase in the number of people aged over 60 searching for games on our platform, joining the 93% of under-18s who admitted to gaming regularly. While some lockdown trends such as TikTok dancing or Zoom workout classes might exclude certain corners of society, gaming welcomed just about everyone. 

Class and Access 

However, the problem of access to technology is ever-present; and the last three years has provoked industry experts to look deeper into the employee makeup of the utopias the gaming industry is claiming to build. Jim Huntley, professor, and head of marketing at USC Games, deals with a slightly older age group: college students. Yet he acknowledges the importance of targeting underrepresented populations (particularly Black and Indigenous people) early and provide access and support for them. “A lot of the inequities in grade school begin to kick in because [students say] ‘Hey, I don’t have access to a computer lab. I don’t have access to computer science instruction,’” he explained. “How do we fill that gap so that we can make sure that those students’ way back in grade school have the option to even think about going down this path and then have opportunities to take that path and get into STEAM [science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics]?”  Action needs to be taken; we have the choice and power to impact change within our organisations. Corporations and companies are fueled by humans for humans, yet they rarely represent the communities they provide for. The solution is investment, investing in the future we want to see is powerful and it has proven to be successful even throughout the pandemic. Nika Nour, ex executive director of The IGDA Foundation, said that the pandemic has been a net positive for the Foundation. Nour readily admits that in 2020 they “have been able to double and triple our scholarship gifting because we’re in a virtual format,” Nour says. “And we’ve been able to reach more countries and more remote regions of the world to spur up economic development in gaming where we’ve probably never had access before.” The IGDA Foundation had been intending to scale up its virtual programming anyway because of how expensive travel to events like GDC is, Nour says. And while she likes to think the charity was on the right track anyway, the pandemic “almost created accountability” in the group for making that shift happen. The average age of gamers may be 33, but it is future generations of storytellers — particularly young women, gender non-conforming individuals and people of color — that will change the industry. 

Lack of Diversity 

Black Lives Matter protests kickstarted a lot of company initiatives. These are positive actions, but the most impactful thing game companies can do is take action internally. Racial bias is baked, usually unintentionally, into games by those who develop them. This creates a recurring pattern of Black and Latinx characters being stereotyped or completely absent in games, which is invalidating and demeaning. This is a clear consequence of the lack of diversity within the industry. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) found in the 2019 edition of its annual survey that among game developers worldwide: 

  • 81% identify as “white/Caucasian/European” 
  • 7% identify as “Hispanic/Latinx” 
  • 2% identify as “Black/African-American/African/Afro-Caribbean” 

Without intentional design for diversity, the future economy will remain an uneven playing field – creating a huge, missed opportunity for global prosperity. The ideas and perspectives of an equitable and diverse company offer vital opportunities for the development of new products, services, and creative solutions to major global problems. As the world looks for ways to create a more inclusive innovation agenda, driving equality, diversity and inclusion must be embedded as the central plank of a company’s strategy. 

Safeguarding and Racism 

The rise in anti-racism is not without its antithesis. Far-right extremists are using mainstream video games and gaming chat platforms to spread hate, BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Click has found. Over three months, researchers found anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia on platforms, including DLive and Odysee, where users stream and chat about games such as Call of Duty and Minecraft. Campaigners say including extremist narratives among everyday conversations can be a pathway to radicalisation. Call of Duty said: “The actions we have taken to confront racist behaviour include banning players for racist and hate-oriented names, implementing modern technology and making it easier for players to report offensive in-game behaviour.” However, researchers also found extremist “roleplay” scenarios within games on various platforms that let players create and share their own custom maps and environments. Although, the government is in talks with industry bodies to discuss steps to tackle the exploitation of gaming spaces by extremists;  it is clear that leaders in the gaming industry need to take more steps towards tackling the discriminatory practices on their platforms. The innovation of technology has overtaken the progression of humanity, and yet again it has been up to the marginalised to speak up and educate the masses. Grassroots movements like Gender Shades, [which] was launched by Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, in order to expose facial recognition’s racist and gendered tactics. She probes the several ways in which AI software’s have either criminally racialised people from marginalised backgrounds or ignored them completely. 

The gaming industry has provided an invaluable tool for society, escapism. However, that escapism has unfortunately become yet another privilege for the few and not the many. From the lack of diversity in the gaming industry to the consequent production of racist algorithms and racially stereotyped characters, the gaming industry still has a long way to go on its EDI (Equity Diversity and Inclusion) journey.

Technology has the potential to be the ultimate equaliser, but much like many industries in business, gaming needs to represent their audience in a way that empowers all.  

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