A (Business) Case for Inclusion

Highlights from the Canadian video games sector report

What is the state of inclusion in video game production? And what are the opportunities to be found in a more diverse Canadian industry?

Looking at current trends and challenges, as well as the mutually-reinforcing ecosystem that encompasses relationships between industry workers, games content, and players, the upcoming Inclusive Games report by Nordicity makes an undeniable business case for more equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI).  

The key arguments that make EDI so worthwhile as an economic undertaking for the sector are threefold:

●       The large amount of “money left on the table” due to exclusion;

●       The untapped value of labour retention, games content, and audience development;

●       And the financial and cultural benefits of differentiating — pushing through the noise in an oversaturated market.

If the Canadian industry was to expand audiences in both export and emergent markets, and reverse the costs of employee turnover, it could generate an estimated CA$635 million in potential revenue.

The first argument is an economic imperative — that more inclusivity would mean bigger growth potential, market share, and audiences, which aren’t currently being embraced.

While the Canadian video game market generates an aggregate CA$4.3 billion (ESAC, 2021), and the American market grossed US$185 billion 2023, there is room to grow.

Here’s how.

Potential value opportunity: players

The first opportunity in a mutually-reinforcing ecosystem of industry, content, and audience growth is the spending power of underrepresented groups. Ample market science suggests that consumers will spend money on brands that are relevant to their identities.

Mutually Reinforcing
Figure 1: The Mutually Reinforcing Ecosystem of Inclusive Games

Inviting people with different cultural backgrounds and identities into the video game workforce, and collaborating with them to create more diverse content is a direct avenue to selling more video games — it’s how to tap into new communities and their spending power.

Just take the “pink dollar” value of LGBTQ2S+ audiences, who are cultural tastemakers and an economic force worth an estimated US$1 trillion in the U.S. alone. Or women: who control US$3.1 trillion in worldwide spending, with 92% making purchasing recommendations to others. Or Black American consumers, who have US$1.3 trillion in purchasing power. Recent studies also find that consumer buying power in the U.S. is “more diverse than ever.”

Looking forward, it’s predicted that more than half of American gamers under 30 will be members of racialized communities within the next 10 years. And there is every reason to believe the same is true in Canada.

Canadian-made games can also transcend borders, with potential to reach these gamers both in the states and worldwide.

Despite this opportunity, however, national companies have long been competing in the same space for limited market share, ignoring the revenue potential of creating inclusive games that would reach and activate players beyond.

Ultimately, the industry has room to expand its reach.

A 2021 U.K. study, for instance, found that up to 47% of players in Britain and the U.S. avoided playing a game because they felt it wasn’t “made for them.” Had Canadian companies worked to reach these diverse audiences, it’s estimated they could have increased their 2021 revenues by an additional CA$420 million.

New player bases are also emerging in markets such as Latin America (LATAM) and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) — regions that are seeing year-over-year increases in gamers (6% and 11% respectively from 2022 to 2023). Additional revenue potential exists in these places, where Canada has a lower market penetration — in LATAM and MENA, it’s worth an estimated CA$50 million.

And these figures are only going to grow with time.

Potential value opportunity: content

Despite many trends pointing to a more-diversified audience, games continue to be geared towards white, cis-men in terms of narrative, character representation, and game-play style.

Additionally, a culture of toxicity, incivility, and harassment deters marginalized groups, particularly women and racialized people, from participating in gaming spaces. And few mainstream games feature diversity.

Data shows race- and gender-based representation in games skews heavily white (54%) and male (79%) in terms of protagonists and secondary characters. Studies also found that non-white, male characters are often reduced to harmful stereotypes.

It is imperative that any efforts at making content inclusive not be tokenistic or performative: meaningful engagement with marginalized communities within the workforce and game-development process is essential to successfully portraying more diverse identities.

Conscious intention to foster inclusion creates unique storytelling opportunities that cut through the noise of an increasingly cluttered content landscape.

So what makes a video game inclusive?

●       The (marginalized) character’s place in the story, role in the narrative, and the way their identity is represented;

●       What kinds of stories are being told, and narratives that resonate;

●       Portraying characters and their experiences in authentic ways that connect with people who share that character’s identity.

How can you make an inclusive game?

●       Employ members of under-represented communities to strengthen your video game company and products, and appropriately consult them from day one;

●       Make games inclusive and diverse by design, developing this ethos on your team from the ground up. Marginalized producers must be part of this process.

And don’t forget disability

Accessibility by design is another essential element in EDI, which means industry leaders must consider the needs of people with disabilities from the beginning of game development. Considering a broad spectrum of accessibility needs from the start will make features more intuitive and ingrained.

Including people with disabilities on a development team builds accessibility into the product from the bottom up, helping to standardize it, and ultimately making the final product more playable.

An estimated 22% of Canadians have a disability. They are left out when games aren’t designed with accessibility in mind. Most are unable to play the majority of games available.

Here’s how industry leaders can change this:

●       Include accessibility features that customize text, subtitles, speech, and auditory prompts; automate aspects of the storyline, offer options for high-contrast visuals, extra-large text legibility, navigation assistance, etc.

●       Provide different options and configurations in game engines, software design, and hardware features for players who may not be able to play games in their standard form;

●       Consult with accessibility design leads from day one, so features are not a post-production add-on, but inherent to the design process;

●       Remember that accessible design leads to a better experience for ALL players and their preferences — not just those with disabilities.

All told, lack of representation deters players from marginalized communities to engage with video game content which, in turn, translates into lost revenue and engagement.

Creating diverse games can also help companies to build a loyal customer base, and hold their interest in the long-term. One U.K. survey found audiences would be more likely to buy games from companies that take an active stance on social issues, and they feel that the games themselves represent a company’s values.

This untapped audience of potential gamers is a missed opportunity in an increasingly-diverse global market, where people are eager to invest in content that resonates.

Fig 3
The Importance of Character Diversity in Games

Potential value opportunity: workforce

A current gap in the talent pipeline and its proximity to underrepresented communities is one notable reason why more inclusive content has yet to materialize. A snapshot of current industry demographics clearly demonstrates that the Canadian workforce lacks diversity.

Most notably:

●       56% of companies have yet to develop an EDI program;

●       85% of the workforce is white; only 41% of women work directly on games;

●       Marginalized groups make up the majority of entry-level and administrative roles, and Women of Colour have the lowest representation across all role types.

Creating a more inclusive games industry starts with a more diverse workforce. Creating one may seem like a daunting undertaking, as it requires foundational and structural changes to current practices, however industry leaders can address it with a few essential starting points:

  1. The traditional pipeline to entry: Rethinking recruitment, and restructuring the hiring process to address systemic barriers to entry. Developing thoughtful onboarding processes. Embracing non-traditional and alternative pipelines for talent such as game jams, coding bootcamps, game-writing programs, pre-accelerators, impact funds, and co-operative workspaces.
  2. Worker retention and turnover: Addressing the sustainability of ‘crunch culture’ and long hours. Nipping insensitive work environments, alienation, and exclusion in the bud with better support systems and safety nets for marginalized workers.
  3. Workplace standards: Tackling the “echo chamber effect” that occurs when workers are hired for (discriminatory ideas of) culture fit rather than diversity in skill or perspective. Embracing EDI practices that ensure everyone with skill, passion, and desire to create games can do so. And making accessibility, inclusion, and accommodations more universal and built in from the ground up.
  4. Diversity in leadership: Because real change starts at the top, the importance of leading by example cannot be understated. It also demonstrates to potential workers that these issues are not only prioritized, but practiced within the company.
  5. A culture of work-life balance, autonomy, agency, and inclusion: Studies show shortened work weeks have little-to-no impact on productivity, and improve staff stress levels. These values also create trust and are valued by those with diverse needs and responsibilities. Adopting remote work opens up possibilities for disabled and global team members, creating a more diverse pool of workers. Giving staff agency by inviting opinions and feedback throughout the production process creates products that are diverse by design. And involving marginalized communities in the planning and decision-making processes of games creation is non-negotiable.

Ultimately, the potential benefits of having a more diverse, healthy, and happy workforce are significant. Tapping into new demographics can help solve the ongoing industry labour shortage, while EDI practices help retain workers once they arrive.

Furthermore, improving work environments from the inside out increases employee satisfaction across the board — and will save your company money.

Fig 2 36
Data related to employee turnover in the gaming industry

Reviewing the business case

Inclusive practices — namely expanding audiences in emerging and export markets, and optimizing workforce efficiencies — would create significant opportunities for games companies in Canada to unlock higher earnings.

There are also additional cost savings related to reducing video game employee turnover, which can be achieved by developing an inclusive work culture and adopting best EDI practices, which are outlined above.

To conclude, the “money left on the table” can be summarized thusly,

Table 1
Table 1 - Summary of Business Case Results

Developing more inclusive video games, and creating a more diverse industry is not just “the right thing” for Canadian companies to do — it is the financially intelligent thing to do.

To the tune of CA$634 million in additional revenue and cost savings per year. 

Laura Beeston
Laura Beeston is a writer, editor and content strategist from Winnipeg. In 10+ years of media making, she's worked on a variety of projects but was notably a breaking news reporter for The Winnipeg Free Press, The Montreal Gazette and The Toronto Star, and an arts reporter for The Globe and Mail. Since 2017, she's worked as multimedia content producer and is a media advisor and mentor at The Link.
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