Will there ever be a time to stop asking about the importance of diversity in games? We hope so.
Over the past few years of attending game conventions and conferences, I’ve seen a shift in the way diversity has been covered on panels and in talks. Events that champion inclusivity - and the speakers who attend them - are transitioning from asking ‘Is representation important?’ and ‘What’s it like for women working in the games industry?’ to exploring more specific topics. This shift has included letting women, queer folks, and other minorities speak on panels about their work and interests rather than just about being themselves.
I think that’s why some of the panels at PAX Australia 2017 felt like a step backwards to me. This year, quite a few of those Diversity 101 and Women in Gaming panels crept into the PAX line-up. I was disappointed to attend some panels that were under-researched, contained contradictory or entirely false messages, and rolled out a lot of the old examples of diversity in games. Why are we re-treading this ground, rather than focusing on where the industry is going or what we can do to continue moving this narrative forwards?
There’s some shared blame here. While PAX Australia decides which panels are accepted - and could use this opportunity to decline panels that sound like they are trying to cover too much or are planning to re-tread the same ground - there is a level of blind faith that they need to put into their panellists. There’s no guarantee that any of us will be well-prepared, well-researched, and truly know what we are doing. But unfortunately, the end result doesn’t just reflect poorly on the individuals who are speaking; it reflects poorly on PAX Australia as a whole.
This is an event that wants to be more diverse and inclusive. Their code of conduct is clear that there is a zero-tolerance policy for harassment, specifically on the grounds of ‘gender identity/expression, race, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, or religion’. PAX is also home to initiatives such as the Diversity Lounge and the AFK Room, which are spaces for diverse people with diverse needs. There are games and studios selected for the show floor that champion diversity, and an impressive number of panels accepted on the topic this year (three about queerness in games, two about women in games, one about accessibility, and one about general representation in games).
Some of these panels explored more specific topics, more recent content, and strove to move the narrative forward. And it would be a disservice to PAX if I didn’t mention the array of talks and panels that were also available at the Diversity Lounge this year, covering more specific topics in interesting ways. But these talks were listed on the schedule alongside scheduled gameplay times, so it wasn’t always easy to determine what was a talk and what was an activity.
These initiatives and this content makes it clear that PAX Australia has already decided that diversity and inclusivity are important… so why are some of their panels still asking this basic question?
Perhaps it’s because not everyone has come to that decision yet. There are still people who feel that games shouldn’t feature diverse representation, or that the games industry shouldn’t employ women. There are still marginalised people who feel isolated or like they don’t belong in games as a hobby or a workplace. But is re-treading ground the most effective way to address these feelings?
I spoke with Nicole Stark - a developer at Disparity Games and a speaker on ‘Women in Games: Codebreakers’ this year - about the notion of the ‘Women in Games’ panels, and she has similarly mixed feelings.
"I think it’s incredibly important to be mindful that the end goal is to not have Women in Games panels," she said. "We should absolutely be working towards a world where panels are about cool people and the cool stuff they’re doing – where those people are as diverse as the world’s population, because of course they are."
"Yes, to be honest, I’m bored with answering the same questions and feeling like nothing is changing. Yes, I’d rather hear about the awesome work of awesome women without having to hear about how they cope with hate emails and being interrupted in meetings. I think just maybe I’m not the only one who’s a little bored with it all. A time will come when everyone finds it boring, because of course there are women in games. I don’t think we’re there yet. I think too many women are still feeling alone and getting value out of anything that makes them feel less so. But we should be mindful that that’s where we are heading."
Maybe I have just heard it all before and now I’m bored. Maybe I am tired that we seem to be re-treading the same ground and never moving forwards. But I don’t think it’s just about boredom either.
Diversity 101 panels are unfair to their audience. By continuing to ask whether diversity is important, they are inadvertently saying that this question is yet to have an answer. They are saying that we are still fighting to be included at the most basic level, and at places like PAX, that should no longer be the case. It’s time to stop identifying that there’s a problem and move on to more interesting topics, like how to solve them.
I reached out to PAX Australia about their panel selections this year and plans for the future; while they sound open to feedback and suggestions, they declined to make an official comment.