Inclusivity in gaming shines at the 2019 DICE Summit

Every year in Las Vegas, members of the gaming industry and press gather at the annual D.I.C.E. Summit for a few days of networking, keynotes, roundtables, and awards—a celebration of the industry’s past accomplishments and future innovations. The theme of this year’s summit was “Trailblazers,” highlighting the risk-takers that push the medium and the industry forward. I had the pleasure of attending D.I.C.E. this year, and, for GLAAD, this theme fits perfectly with our objective to advance gaming as a platform for LGBTQ representation and acceptance.

Last year’s D.I.C.E. keynote from Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, was a stunning breakthrough moment for discussing diversity and inclusion in the industry. Spencer boldly proclaimed a vision of gaming as a uniquely inclusive and powerful force that builds community, empathy, and understanding. “We have the responsibility to make gaming for everyone,” he said. “Gaming has the unique ability to bring people together. Gaming is the only art form where you walk in someone else’s shoes.”

The keynote for D.I.C.E. 2019 was a worthy follow-up, this time delivered by Sony Interactive Entertainment president Shawn Layden. In a time where the business demands of game companies are becoming exceedingly rigorous, Layden surprised everyone by praising his peers at Nintendo and Microsoft for their efforts to expand and grow the gaming community. He framed inclusivity as a vital mandate for game developers: “As an industry, we must lead from the front. We must continue to make gaming more open to everyone — open to all gamers of good faith and good humor. All are welcome.” Despite the often contentious nature of the gaming business, Layden refocused the industry's attention to the higher purpose that drives and unites everyone who works in the field. “We don’t compete against one another," he said. "We craft art, and art is founded on the creative, not the competitive.”

Following Layden’s Tuesday morning keynote, the remainder of the day was chocked full of incredible talks from pioneering leaders across the industry. Sarah Bond, Head of Global Gaming Partnerships and Development for Xbox, discussed how the worldwide community of gamers will grow to 4 billion people by the end of the next decade—and how Microsoft is doing its part to meet the requirements of this expanding player base. A fascinating discussion between Double Fine CEO Tim Schafer and famed game writer and director Amy Hennig gave a glimpse into the future of game design, one that broadens the appeal of gaming and brings the power of interactive storytelling to unreached audiences.

Wednesday featured a number of workshops and roundtables for attendees, off-limits to the press. Many of these were geared toward inclusive game-making, like the afternoon workshop from game user experience consultant Celia Hodent which explored “some of the most common cognitive and social unconscious biases that trick us into making bad decisions and prevent us from building a more inclusive environment.”

I was honored to lead a GLAAD roundtable on the topic of marketing video games to the LGBTQ community, which GLAAD believes is an undervalued discussion in the games industry. Much has been written about the historical marketing of games to (presumed straight) boys and men, and while this legacy can still be felt today, the gaming community is rapidly evolving. Despite this expanding diversity, game marketing strategies haven’t really kept up. Given the powerful nature of games to provide safe environments for exploration and discovery to LGBTQ players, it’s crucial that publishers and developers reach out to this audience. And from a business perspective, we believe that LGBTQ consumers are eager to see themselves represented in the games they play, offering greater sales potential to LGBTQ-inclusive games. 

The summit concluded Wednesday evening with the 22nd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards. This awards ceremony celebrates the achievements of games released in the previous year, as voted on by industry peers and members of the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. The star of the evening was, by far, God of War from Sony Interactive’s Santa Monica Studio. The critically acclaimed game walked away with nine of the 23 awards. The only other game to receive multiple awards was Celeste, an independent game with a touching, emotional story of self-acceptance and overcoming mental illness.

In his acceptance speech for Outstanding Achievement in Character, Kratos voice actor Christopher Judge powerfully summed up the power of games to instill empathy and compassion. He talked about how his child came out as transgender while he was working on God of War and how that tested his ability to be understanding: “The stuff between Kratos and Atreus really set the table for me to just be able to listen to someone and hear them out without judgment, without anything preconceived. I will always be in [the game's] debt for allowing me to be ready to hear whatever my child had to say and be okay, and be supportive, and be loving, and to give my child a safe place to be, every single day.”