BioWare's attempt to depict a trans woman character in Mass Effect: Andromeda was a disaster. From a report that emerged about BioWare's apparent failure to consult with actual trans people, to the developer's unsubstantiated claim about its "diverse" workforce, its mishandling of the issue is highlighting a massive issue in the gaming industry: We don't really know anything about the people who make the games we play.
To its credit, BioWare is updating the character, Hainly Abrams, to be a more sensitive, realistic depiction of a trans person's lived experience. But the whole kerfuffle has made one thing clear: If game developers want to show they're taking representation seriously, they should stop being so secretive about whom they hire.
The tech industry has started releasing diversity reports — and it's time game developers did the same
If developers like BioWare started publishing data — often called "diversity reports" — about the makeup of their companies, it wouldn't be some kind of revolutionary, unprecedented move. They'd simply be falling in line with a trend that's been in progress in the tech industry for a while.
Companies like Uber, Facebook and Pinterest regularly publish data about the demographics of the people they employ. These reports are important because they help build trust with the public by being transparent — and so we can hold them accountable when they fail to follow through on hiring more diverse employees.
Right now, the only data we have about what most game companies look like on the inside come from third-party surveys. Spoiler alert: Right now, the game development world is predominantly white and male.
Game companies are failing to invite marginalized folks to the table
From March 2016 to April 2016, the International Game Developers Association surveyed 1,186 people who work in the games industry to try and figure out what that world's makeup actually looks like, the results suggest game companies are failing to reach out to most folks beyond straight, white men.
"Only 23% [of respondents] identified as female, slightly fewer than 1.5% identified as male-to-female transgender and 0.3% identified as female-to-male transgender," according to the IGDA. "An additional 3% selected 'Other' as their response."
Similarly, IGDA found that 75% of survey respondents identified their ethnicity as Caucasian. The next highest category in terms of number of respondents was East Asian/South East Asian, at just 8%.
For the most part, these numbers fall in line with the tech industry at large. For example, in 2014, women made up just 24% of the tech industry — and black and Latinx people made up just 2% and 3% of the industry, respectively.
Video game developers have no accountability when it comes to whom they hire
So, we know the vast majority of game developers are predominantly composed of white men, but companies often like to call themselves diverse — and give zero hard data to back that up.
For example, here's what BioWare said in its announcement that it would be revising Hainly Abrams for being an insensitive depiction of the trans experience:
At BioWare, we strive to make games that are representative of our players and the broader world around us. We do this by actively consulting within our diverse workforce, as well as speaking with different communities.
It's a nice sentiment, but without any numbers to check against BioWare's statement, we have no way of knowing what "diverse" even means in this context. Without data, BioWare can call its staff as diverse as it wants with zero accountability. (Mic requested data about the makeup of BioWare's staff; a representative said via email that BioWare didn't "have anything to share at the moment.")
Diversity reports could help drive change from the inside
Unfortunately, there's simply not enough pressure on game developers to hire more marginalized folks at the moment — and that's something diversity reports might kick-start. Right now, it's easier to just maintain the status quo, to maintain employment devoid of actual diversity — because nobody will ever know the difference. Publishing diversity reports would be a great first step to shaking things up.
But it's just that: a first step. For example, despite the tech industry starting to publish diversity data on a regular basis, the racial and gender makeup of these companies remain largely unchanged. Similarly, unless these diversity reports actually go into detail about the makeup of each company's department, it's easy for a company to look more progressive than it actually is.
"Numbers don't always tell the whole story," Jessica Price, a game producer at Paizo, formerly at Microsoft, said in a Skype interview. "Even if video game developers did publish a diversity report ... it depends where the women are."
For example, if a company is 40% women — an optimistic stretch — but they all work in low-level admin positions and the executive boards are all still predominantly male, that company is still failing at diversity and inclusion.
"And for any woman who actually is in the creative or production side," Price added, "you're still likely to be the only woman on the team, the only woman in the room."
The value of having a diverse development team is undeniable
And it's not as though the value of having a diverse staff is up for debate. It's clear that diverse workforces improve companies and the economy at large. In fact, the benefits of a diverse workplace are evident when it comes to the writing of BioWare's last game, Dragon Age: Inquisition.
According to a report in Let's Play Video Games, BioWare hired consultants outside its core development team to assist in writing Inquisition's trans male character Krem — a process that resulted in serious improvements to the way he was written. For example, an early draft saw another character outing Krem as trans, a moment that BioWare's writer, Patrick Weekes, said he had never considered might be a troublesome real-world scenario for a trans person.
"The idea that our trans character shouldn't be outed by anyone but that trans person was something that I was completely blind to," Weekes said in a GaymerX 2016 interview.
However, the benefits of that process were seemingly forgotten when it came to Mass Effect: Andromeda — and it shows when you look at how clumsily Hainly Abrams is written.
BioWare may be updating the Abrams character, but that's little more than a Band-Aid until it gets serious about hiring more diverse employees — and that starts with being transparent about the talent it's hiring now.
Without hard data about who actually works at game development companies, the word "diverse" is just an empty buzzword. If companies want to prove that they actually care about diversity, they need to show — with actual numbers — that they're living up to the values they spout in press releases.
Check out the latest from Mic, including our deep dive into how female Overwatch players are dealing with online harassment, an article about a fan movement advocating for more same-sex romance options in Mass Effect, a personal essay to JonTron from another Iranian-American and an article looking at cultural diversity in Overwatch.