Gaming, Diversity, and the ‘Rooney Rule’

BY COLIN CAMPBELL

The “Rooney Rule” states that employers seeking out senior hires must commit to interviewing at least one minority candidate as part of each selection process. The rule encourages employers to make a greater effort towards diversity, without mandating quotas based on ethnicity.

It’s used by tech companies like Google and Facebook, in their ongoing – and deeply imperfect – attempts to diversify management. Now the Rooney Rule is coming to the game industry which, like tech, suffers from a chronic lack of managerial diversity.

The rule’s name comes from the late Dan Rooney, an ambassador to Ireland in the Obama administration, and onetime boss of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite being a wealthy, white man of the Republican patriarchal class, Rooney chaired the NFL’s diversity committee, back in 2003. 

The committee’s remit was to figure out a solution to racial disparities in how coaching staff were treated. White football coaches found it so much easier to attain positions, and to keep their jobs, than Black coaches. Since its adoption, the rule has not been without its controversies, and is certainly not an unqualified success, but it has raised the visibility of Black and minority coaches, and it has encouraged football teams to expand their hiring pool.

The Rooney Rule came up in this week’s gaming news, following a story on Motherboard, which reported that the powerful American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL–CIO) sent Activision and Electronic Arts a letter asking both publishers to consider taking up the practice. EA said it would consider the proposal. Activision declined, citing practical concerns.

The company’s lawyer stated: “While the Company has implemented a Rooney Rule policy as envisioned [for director and CEO nominees], implementing a policy that would extend such an approach to all hiring decisions amounts to an unworkable encroachment on the Company’s ability to run its business and compete for talent in a highly competitive, fast-moving market.”

Critical Response

Activision’s initial response was widely criticized, most especially by minority game developers, and by women in gaming. 

“The more I think about this Activision mess, the angrier I get. All summer long, it was ‘we want to do better! How do we do better? how do we change the complexion of our company?’ Well, start with hiring Black people. and if you don’t know where to find us, then you’re not looking hard enough.”

Evan narcisse, narrative designer of spider-man

Miles Morales noted how keen game companies are to talk about diversity, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, but less willing to make actual changes. He tweeted:

Rami Ismail, co-creator of games like Ridiculous Fishing and Nuclear Throne added: “Imagine admitting your rolodex is so homogenous that finding one minority person is unworkable.”

“They’re fighting against promising to interview one ‘diverse’ person per job, believing they don’t exist. Last time I came up against that idea on a project, I was able to find 35 candidates, working with my own contacts.” Jill Taylor, lead writer on Subnautica: Below Zero

Games companies know that women, people of color and other minorities are badly under-represented in the game industry, which has historically been predominantly white, and male. A 2019 survey by the International Game Developers Association found that 81 percent of respondents were white; and 71 percent percent were male. The survey covered all strata of gaming. Managerial positions show an even greater white-male bias.

In the wake of the controversy, Activision stated that “we don’t need the AFL-CIO proposal to reaffirm what we already do – encourage every hiring manager to consider diverse candidates for every position. We believe in our existing hiring practices, which encourages every hiring manager to seek diverse candidates for every single role.”

Still, a quick Google of Activision’s leadership team shows that the company’s management is still mostly white, and male. 

Broader Effort

In the past few years, gaming professionals of color have created forums and social networks to raise visibility, and provide mutual help. 

POC in Play launched in 2019, as an organization dedicated to increasing “the visibility and representation of People of Color in the video games industry.” Some of its key successes have included the Black History Month Games 100, which features 100 of gaming’s global creative leaders. Prior to lockdown, POC in Play organized regular meet-ups in London, and elsewhere, where people can meet up and share experiences. 

The organization is also behind the popular #IamPOCinPlay hashtag, in which professionals share their bios, and their work on social media. 

Adam Campbell, a co-founder of POC in Play, is director of AC Studio Games. “#IamPOCinPlay proves that there are thousands of us working in the global video games industry,” he says. “More often than not, we’re invisible to the wider industry and our audience, but it doesn’t express the statistical facts or the challenges behind the visuals.”

Gaming has been a broadly white, male domain for decades. And although diversity is increasing, changes at the top are happening slowly. Tech’s recent efforts are a useful indicator of the effort it takes to create real change.

In an interview with Law.com, Google’s former head of diversity, equity and inclusion, Erika Munro Kennerly, spoke of her time trying to create a more welcoming environment for minority employees. 

“Google’s attrition numbers for Black women were and still are higher than any other demographic … Some of the things I’m pointing out as problematic definitely affect whether you can recruit people of color or people from underrepresented communities, because voices carry. 

You see all this bad press, and you don’t want to go to a company where you don’t think you’ll get a fair shake … If people in leadership positions are only promoting those who look like them or they have some sort of similarity to and you have a bunch of white and Asian men in leadership positions there’s not going to be that connection that’s necessary for people to sponsor you or give you stretch assignments for you to prove yourself. They’re all interconnected.”

The Rooney Rule is of limited use, but it does instill a requirement – rather than a slogan – that companies make an effort to seek out employees outside their usual hunting grounds and contact lists. It’s this extra effort that is likely to deliver positive results in the short term, but longer term change requires a comprehensive plan, and a desire to wholly commit.