Barriers to diverse recruitment [LONG]

(This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but either I’ve been busy or I keep getting distracted by other things.)

One of the problems with the gaming industry is that it is overwhelmingly white and male, and as such tends to produce games that reflect problematic biases, simply because they are being produced by teams of people conditioned to be oblivious to their own privileges. Often with entirely predictable, if unfortunate, results. Diversity of writers and designers is one of the most important ways that the game industry can start to make truly inclusive games. However, it’s easy to say that you’re looking to recruit a diverse team, and another thing entirely to actually succeed.

So I’m going to write about the factors that prevent the recruitment of non-white, non-male, non-cisgender designers and writers. It’s worth noting that I’m writing from my perspective as a tabletop game designer, mostly drawing on my own experiences as someone who started in self-publishing and later branched out into doing freelance design and game writing. I’m aware that there are different issues in video game development that might not necessarily be covered here. Still, a lot of what I say should still be applicable.

Barriers to entry

When examining the factors that contribute to the continuing lack of diversity in organizations not actively opposed to diversity (and most organizations aren’t! But there are definitely those that are), it’s important to look at barriers to entry that prevent marginalized applicants from entering the industry. These barriers can be active barriers – factors that directly discourage diverse writers from applying. But there are also invisible barriers to entry – barriers that are impossible to perceive unless you are already aware that they exist.

Active Barriers to entry

Obscure or esoteric knowledge
Any time you set a firm requirement that someone have knowledge or experience of a thing not freely available, you are restricting the pool of applicants that can apply. Quite often, this takes the form of requiring writers to have knowledge or experience of the previous edition (or editions plural!) of the game you will be working on. But unless the thing you want your writers to have knowledge of is a thing that is freely available, you are quite naturally restricting your pool of writers to people who already own or have already experienced the thing, as well as people who can afford to spend money to acquire the thing to get sufficiently up to speed. The more esoteric and/or hard to obtain the thing you are requiring knowledge of is, the smaller your available pool of writers will get.

Such requirements are always going to skew your applicant pool toward white and male. The fact is that many non-white/non-dude/non-cisgender people just haven’t been around long enough to be familiar with old editions of games from 15+ years ago. And because the wage gap is a very real thing, and 2nd shift labor is very much a thing that disproportionately affects women, often such writers either can’t afford to acquire the needed materials, or don’t have extra time to spend getting up to speed.
Which is a problem! Because these requirements usually wind up prioritizing grognardery over actual writing ability and experience, which actively prevents
otherwise qualified writers from applying.

Industry experience
Requiring industry experience in order to obtain a job with industry experience is an obvious catch-22. How is anyone ever supposed to break into the industry if they need to have already broken into the industry to even work in the industry? Such requirements are also increasingly irrelevant. The self-publishing revolution means that it is often easier and more profitable to publish work outside of the traditional games industry. It’s entirely possible to build the design and writing skills that are sought after without ever having worked for one of the “mainstream” game publishing companies.

Insider connections
The game industry is an old boy’s club. That’s not to say that all of the men who work in game publishing are sexist, woman-excluding douchebags. But the industry has been so male-dominated for so long that most men in the industry have worked with many more men than women. Logical, right? This becomes a huge barrier to diversity when one considers the network factor of game publishing.

Game publishing is a tough business. Publishers operate on narrow margins, deadlines are often tight, and there is little room for error. So when a publisher is embarking on a new project, there is a natural impulse to want to recruit known quantities – people you have worked with well in the past. Logical, right? But this has the direct consequence of excluding otherwise talented not-white/not-dude/not-cisgender people. When you recruit exclusively from people in established industry circles, you are restricting your pool of applicants to privilege almost exclusively white men.

Ability to do free labor
If you require applicants to complete a particular writing prompt, or to read a particular game or other written work, or to perform any other activity that represents a non-trivial time investment, you are restricting your pool of applicants to people who can afford to perform free labor in pursuit of a POTENTIAL position that – quite honestly – pays like shit and most likely won’t be paid at all promptly, if at all. (Pay-on-publication is
still a quite common model for paying freelancers, which is something I intend to write about later, as it is complete and utter bullshit.)

And – again – the wage gap and 2nd shift labor are going to be factors that skew your applicant pool (again) toward white, male, and cisgender.

Invisible barriers to entry

Lack of diversity
There are many reasons why lack of diversity is its own barrier to entry:
– marginalized people routinely face negative consequences for “presuming” to enter spaces that are marked as belonging to people with privilege.
– marginalized people routinely have their concerns ignored when trying to point out offensive stereotypes
– marginalized people are routinely told that they need to “have a thick skin” when trying to point out offensive behavior by colleagues
– marginalized people experience discomfort simply by virtue of existing in a non-diverse space – this is called stereotype threat and is well documented

So if your organization is very not-diverse, as pretty much every game company is, simply saying that you want women to apply isn’t enough. Because many marginalized people are going to look at the lack of diversity in your company and decide that a company that was formed and perpetuated such a lack of diversity is not a company that they want to work for.

Imposter syndrome
Because gaming is a nerd-dominated industry, men tend to bristle when I tell them that imposter syndrome is a heavily gendered phenomenon. Many nerds in their 30s were bullied and ostracized for their nerdiness, which means there are an awful lot of game writers of all genders with low self-esteem who have trouble believing in the worth of their work. And I do know men who wrestle with imposter syndrome, and I’m not trying to belittle their struggle.


However bad imposter syndrome is for men, it’s just plain worse for women and non-binary folk. Men, especially white men, don’t ever have to deal with having their work discounted or belittled by the simple virtue of their gender, but that is frankly de rigeur for female and non-binary creators – an unavoidable reality of making games while not male. Men are also not socialized to believe that they are not capable of being creative, or that their ideas and work are inherently inferior to those of their male counterparts. And yet this is a message that almost all women receive (to varying degrees) while growing up.

While it is possible for men to struggle with low self esteem and the belief that their work is not worthy, they are doing so within the context of a society that privileges their voices by simple virtue of their maleness. Conversely, women and non-binary folk who struggle with imposter syndrome are doing so within a context of a society that has raised them from childhood to believe that their work is worth LESS, and a hobby that tells them on a daily basis that they do not belong.

So many marginalized people are simply not able to believe that they could ever be qualified enough to be a “real” game writer, and thus are not going to apply.

Marginalized people need more supports to get into industry
Because of all of the active barriers to entry that marginalized people face, they often need more active support to get into the industry in the first place. There are all sorts of advantages that white and male game writers have; simply not having to deal with active barriers to entry is in itself a huge advantage. Most often the supports that marginalized writers need are eminently within the abilities of lead developers and companies. Things like access to previous source material that they don’t have to pay for, someone who can provide system mentorship without the marginalized person having to read 500 pages of incredibly dense rules text, project leadership that is prepared to listen to concerns about offensive tone or material and is willing to take action to correct course – all of these are simple way to support marginalized writers in “getting up to speed” as freelancers.

Succeeding at diverse recruitment

So with all of the above in mind, how exactly does a company succeed in diversifying its pool of applicants once it has removed all active barriers to entry? It’s actually pretty simple, as it turns out!

1) Make a point of calling out your own lack of diversity as something you take seriously, though you needn’t engage in any self-flagellation. All that is needed is an honest recognition that your company is not diverse, and that is a thing that needs rectifying. (It’s important to note that a few men WILL whine about “not being allowed to apply”, as if they are somehow being persecuted when more than 80% of game industry jobs are held by men. Absolutely on no terms should you engage in serious conversation with these men, although you may feel free to mock them if that is your inclination.)

2) Specifically call out imposter syndrome and say that you want applications from all interested parties, even if they don’t think they’re qualified. This is important! A lot of people with imposter syndrome feel like they need permission to apply for such positions. So it’s important to specify that you really, truly do want EVERYONE who is interested to apply.

3) Be flexible in your submission requirements. Make it easy for people to apply with material that they’ve already written.

4) Make it clear that you’re willing to provide support to writers who aren’t conversant with the particular system you’re writing for. This is in your best interest as a publisher, as system mastery is something you can teach, while writing talent and ability aren’t (or at least not on the timelines that game companies are operating on).

Examples: Real-life examples of doing it right and wrong

The recent all-call for Exalted 3e writers

The lead developer for Exalted 3e, recently caused a stir when he put out an all-call for new writers that was actually a university-level literature essay test. Seriously, I had literature tests in first year university that weren’t as in-depth as the “application” this developer was looking for.

Rowan Cota did an excellent 2.5-part takedown of the many ways in which this was a terrible, terrible all-call, so I won’t reproduce her excellent work here. I’ll just confine myself to saying that this all-call managed include every single active barrier to entry that was discussed here.

It’s important to note that, the owners of Onyx Path – the company that owns Exalted and had hired the lead developer on the project – was not amused. Nor were the senior developers who had worked with them before. This sort of absurd literature test is absolutely against Onyx Path’s recruitment policies, and they acted quickly to make sure that the “all-call” was retracted. So while this particular instance is a classic example of how to do everything wrong, it’s also a good example of an organization responding quickly and appropriately to someone who does something bone-headed while acting on their behalf.

GenCon Guests of Honor – “as diverse as the industry itself” 

This is something that I’ve written about extensively before, so I won’t duplicate what I’ve said previously. However, I will recommend that you go read that previous post, as it’s a very good look at an organization consistently making choices that actively work against diversity over many years, all in the name of supposedly increasing diversity.

They’ve made passive calls for diversity in the past, such as comments that they want women and PoC to apply to the GoH program. But those comments are usually made on forums, social media, or other non-official venues. And the astonishing lack of diversity of GenCon GoH doesn’t exactly lend credibility to their desire for diversity, nor does the fact that in the two years that they’ve been supposedly working to increase representation of women on their GoH roster, they’ve managed only a meager 6% increase in the proportion of women.

But then, GenCon is a very expensive convention to attend, and as long as GenCon continues not to offer any support toward attendance beyond a free badge (that you have to earn by doing a very large number of panels), that’s always going to privilege white and male applicants. So GenCon’s complete lack of diversity on their Guest of Honor lineups isn’t something I anticipate changing any time soon.

David Hill’s all-call for Darkening Sky.

As lead developer for Darkening Sky – a collection of adventures meant for Onyx Path’s Dark Ages line – David Hill put out an all-call that is the reason that I have any experience freelancing for a major games publisher. Short, sweet, and to the point, it’s proof that you don’t need to write a novel to do everything right when it comes to writer recruitment:



Paizo’s recent designer all-call

Perhaps the best example of diverse writer recruitment I’ve seen, however, came recently from Jessica Price – an editor at Paizo. (Seriously go read it – it’s a really great example of how to do recruitment right.)

The recruitment pitch was made by a woman speaking to her own experience with insecurity and imposter syndrome, and they specifically asked for women and binary. Even more delightful was the fact that she and Wes Schneider subsequently mocked the few men who whined that they were being excluuuuuuded. (Poor babies.) Which isn’t required, but is something I certainly enjoyed.

7 thoughts on “Barriers to diverse recruitment [LONG]

  1. Nice post! I volunteer with a student bicycle co-operative in Vancouver, and we face similar-sounding issues around cycling. It’s extra difficult when we are trying to recruit drop-in and casual volunteers, because you don’t really get to pick them like you do for employees.

    Cycling (even as transportation) still is seen as a thing that well-off white dudes do even though it’s pretty much the most empowering & cheap form of transport available. We make sure our workshops are free or super-cheap, and we require no experience. We have a specific Women & Queer night for people who don’t want to walk into a bike shop context, even though we believe that our bike shop is nowhere near as bro-ish as commercial ones.

    Overall I think we’re doing reasonably well on the gender issues of cycling. The biggest difficulty for us is trying to reach out to recent immigrants. It’s not even necessarily non-white folk, as lots of 2nd+generation non-white Canadians are cycling, but white recent immigrants are definitely more receptive to cycling. There are definitely systemic barriers in place like cost, available time to invest, family & children issues, trust in law enforcement & medical services, etc.

  2. Industry experience is one of the biggest ones in any tech field. I’m in the healthcare tax-law & software field, where there’s all sorts of incredibly arcane terminology and a steep learning curve (when most people my age think “COBRA Takeover Wizard”, the first thing that springs to mind is Serpentor). Most people who are willing to work are willing to educate themselves on the field that they’re going to work in, but antiquated HR practices creates this sort of Guild mentality where, unless you’re lucky enough to fall into some apprenticeship, you’re going to be excluded from the business.

  3. So much YES. Very well put.

    It’s worth noting that the job Jessica Price mentioned also suffers from the “Obscure or esoteric knowledge” factor you mentioned. I applied and Jessiva said that, unfortunately, the job does require pretty in-depth knowledge of Pathfinder. Since I’ve only played a tiny amount of D&D in the past twenty years, the job was not for me.

    Another factor that might be worth mentioning is how much the RPG crowd tends to focus only on games that are either pre-established juggernauts or are the new hotness. And getting to be the new hotness pretty much requires that you’ve already got the social and economic capital to do so. Following the other factors you noted, that means that new games by people who aren’t cis, white, hetero men don’t get noticed much, and critical mass is hard to generate.

    Am I bitter that Blade & Crown hasn’t gotten enough success? Well, yes, a little. 🙂

  4. Exalted is a dead end garbage dump and Onyx Path would be well-served to just let it go gentle into that good night.

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