Activision’s ‘diversity space tool’ video game sparks backlash
Activision Blizzard’s unveiling of new software intended to increase diversity in video game distributions has become a classic example of what not to do.
Driving the news: The publisher announced the “Diversity Space Tool” last Thursday as “a leap forward for inclusion in gamesbut Friday night had rubbed these words and more since it was announced online, as the company’s developers started criticizing it.
Details: The tool starts users off with a blank chart, asks them to set a standard in the middle for a character in a given game genre, and has them plot how different a given character is. This will create a larger shape for a character who is, for example, non-white, queer, or disabled.
- Activision touted it as a method to “avoid symbolism, stereotyping, and exclusion” and described “enthusiastic” reactions from its Call of Duty and Overwatch development teams.
- He called the tool “tangible software that would create and monitor guidelines for character design and creation.”
But the announcement, which included tool images showing numerical values assigned to characters’ ethnicity and sexuality, garnered backlash online and in gaming media. It was labeled “slightly dystopian,” “sinister” and “a glorified Dungeons & Dragons character sheet that does not make any sense.”
- Two Overwatch designers tweeted that they didn’t used or seen the tool before, and references in Activision’s announcement to teams praising the tool have been removed.
- “God, I swear our own company is working to tear down any goodwill that the developers who made the game have built up,” Activision character artist Melissa Kelly wrote in a tweet that went viral.
- “You know what drives our diversity? she added. “Developers! We have people working on the game in those cultures. That’s it! That’s literally it.”
Between the lines: One of the tool’s early architects said it was not intended to put a score on diversity or replace “common sense” when developers create a character in a game.
- “The idea was to slow down time a bit and have a bit more discussion and reflection at this crucial stage of creation,” MIT Gamelab research coordinator Mikael Jakobsson told Axios.
- The project began several years ago at Swedish mobile studio King by developers inspired by a presentation by Anita Sarkeesian, a prominent cultural critic who regularly speaks out against stereotypes in game characters. King’s designers created a paper prototype to graphically represent the diversity of a character, the current at the Game Developers Conference in 2017 and appealed to MIT to help create a digital version that could eventually be used by game makers around the world.
- Jakobsson’s involvement with the project ended in 2019, when MIT gave the studio a workable build. The vision, he says, was to offer it in a workshop setting, alongside readings, and to avoid putting stats on character traits, lest he reduce diversity efforts to “a numbers game”. He lost track of the tool in recent years and assumed it had been scuttled.
- Last spring however, well before presenting it to the public, Activision spoke about it in a message to shareholders as a focal point for its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.
And after: The Diversity Space tool is not used in active game development, Activision said Friday.
- A tweet from company president Daniel Alegre last week celebrating his announcement has since been deleted.
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