Leveling the Playing Field
Table of Contents
I’ve been quiet on here while I finished the first draft of my next book and dealt with a wee speck of burnout on the side. Now that both of these are more or less over with1, I want to share some thoughts about how hard it is to get a foot in the door, the lack of diversity in our industry, and how we could (and should) do better.
Before I dig into it, two things.
One: I believe in equality of opportunity, and that’s our first and greatest failure.
Two: This isn’t about the “diversity” in the “ diversity and inclusion (DEI)” framework. There’s plenty of content about that from actual DEI professionals. I have no formal studies in the area, so I’m just speaking as someone who’s been in the industry for a while now. I’m also not speaking on behalf of any employer, past or present.
Let’s dive into it.
The cost of access #
The other day, I was talking to someone on Mastodon about how GDC is too expensive for regular folks to attend. I’ve only “been” to GDC once, virtually, and that was because I’d won a ticket in a raffle. When I looked at the ticket prices—
That’s before the cost of flights, hotel, visa processing if you’re the unfortunate holder of a second-tier passport (like me), and so on.
This excludes… pretty much anyone who’s a- not already working at an AAA studio (so the studio pays), and b- wealthy enough to attend on their own.
Yes, GDC is a conference for industry professionals, and yes, the games industry pays well to really well, depending on where you end up. At the same time though, given the sheer amount of networking and word-of-mouth opportunities that get passed on at this thing, anyone who’s not already in will find it even harder to compete with the people that are. If you’ve ever wondered why you see the same few faces moving between well-paid roles at various AAA studios, this is likely one of the reasons why.
The numbers game #
So folks who don’t fit either of the categories we just talked about have fewer opportunities to network.
At this point, you might be thinking, “That’s okay! Even without networking, you can still apply for a job the good ol’ fashion way and get hired that way!”
Most job ads out there will require you to have “shipped a(n) AAA title.” That leads straight into the catch-22 of need to get hired to get experience to get hired to get experience… and round and round we go.
Let’s say you didn’t ship a title, but you still have a strong resume, with plenty of relevant experience and/or transferable skills. You see a job you’re interested in and send in your stuff.
From here on out, it’s down to luck.
Popular job openings get dozens of applicants in the first couple of days2. If you’re applicant number 100, chances are that there’s already a few strong candidates lined up to interview, and one of them might even cinch the job.
There is one way to jump the queue, and that is—you guessed it—networking. Referrals typically get looked at no matter how many other applicants there are3, and having someone on the inside to advocate for you can go a long way. How do you find that someone? Well… you either go to GDC or other industry events, or you reach out on socials and hope for the best4.
The other kind of bias #
A while back, I was chatting with another hiring manager who told me they only look at what’s on the paper: resume, cover letter, personal recommendation (if there is one). That’s a sentiment I’ve heard elsewhere, too, and it might look like the most equitable way to evaluate candidates when you decide who to talk to.
Is it, though?
The next point is from a presentation I gave at Unity after I noticed that most of the candidates we interviewed were more or less cut from the same cloth. I argued that what’s on paper doesn’t always tell a candidate’s full story, and gave the following example:
Let’s say you’re opening an internship, and you get two candidates from the same course. Both have solid grades and show relevant skills and interests for the job.
Candidate A has a host of extra-curricular activities and passion projects they can point to. A couple of these relate to the job.
Candidate B, meanwhile, has been working small-time jobs since they were in their teens. They’re currently working in retail as they complete their degree.
Who do you bring in for an interview?
If you go by what you just read, you might be tempted to say Candidate A, and you’re not alone. However, if you stop to think about it, you might realize that B has to work to put themself through their degree, and the fact that they did that and kept their grades up shows resilience, dedication, and grit—which are all good things to have in an industry that’s known to regularly burn people out.
And, if you look past the purely utilitarian, you might start to see the economic inequality that may have led A and B to lead their respective lives. If A’s tuition is already covered, they’ll have more time and mental energy to do what they like. That’s a luxury that may be entirely unavailable to B.
If I were the hiring manager in this scenario, I’d talk to both, then make up my mind after the interviews. I’d start with B.
That’s before we even dive into other systemic issues which are far too vast for me to discuss here.
What can we do? #
On a systemic level… not much.
That said, I don’t subscribe to the view (which seems to be prevalent on Twitter and elsewhere) that, because there are systemic issues that are beyond any one individual to fix, we might as well stop trying and stay mad. While none of us can, individually, enact any kind of meaningful change at scale, any one of us can make a difference for someone else. Hell, I wouldn’t be here if someone I’d met on dA who happened to work at a big studio hadn’t coached me on how to interview this one time5.
This is something anyone who’s accumulated some experience can do: make themself available to share what they’ve learned. Tribal knowledge in particular—the unspoken bits and pieces that we absorbed simply by existing in the industry for a sling as we did—can be mighty helpful. I’m thinking about all the red flags I’ve learned to identify after running into them, here.
There are many ways to do this, from actively engaging on socials (if your sanity can withstand it) to taking part in exercises like Reach Out Anytime (global) or mentorships like Limit Break (UK). For anyone who’s part of a marginalized group, whisper networks are just as important, if not more so. Unsafe actors don’t go around with giant “I’M AN ASSHOLE” signs plastered on their foreheads6.
Something else I’ve taken to do is help folks out with their resumes and cover letters, drawing on what’s worked for me in the past, and, more recently, my experience as a newly minted hiring manager.
Beyond that, referrals and personal introductions go a long way for folks who don’t go to conventions or have another way “in”. (Doubly so for people who live outside the NA-EU tech and gamedev bubble.)
I’m sure there are other things I haven’t thought of, but I’ll leave those up to the creativity of other folks. :)
None of these things cost a dime. They do, however, take a certain degree of commitment, and once you put yourself out there, not everyone’s going to be nice. It’s important to set boundaries and disengage (and/or block) at the first sign of trouble.
This work isn’t meant to replace the tackling and dismantling of inequitable systems but to be done alongside it. There’s a lot more to be said on that topic, but that’ll have to be the subject of another post.
Well, this blew up (: If you’re looking to learn more about technical writing and/or narrative design, or if I can help in another way, let’s chat and connect on LinkedIn.
Not to downplay the impact of burnout or the importance of dealing with it. ↩︎
To illustrate, the latest one I was involved in had nearly 200 applicants overall. The overwhelming majority were folks whose qualifications didn’t hit what we were looking for, but even so, that is a lot of profiles to go through. ↩︎
Obligatory disclaimer: This is strictly my experience and that of other gamedev professionals I’ve spoken with. As always with these things, YMMV. ↩︎
No-one is under any obligation to engage, much less help, nor should they be expected to. If folks do it, it’s because they want to and they’re able to. I’ve seen claims that people in certain positions must make themselves available and it’s a moral failure not to do so. That’s bitter, reactionary bullshit. ↩︎
Story for a different day, but the gist of it is, I’d landed my very first industry interview (Riot Games), and this guy took a sizable chunk out of his day to coach me through how these things go. I didn’t get the job, but what I learned helped prepare me for eventually landing a different job in the industry. (Peter, if you’re reading this, hi!) ↩︎
They should. ↩︎