education · Resources · Thoughts

Mentoring for Diversity: Getting things Done

We can all make big statements on social media about increasing diversity in the video games, but when it comes to making things actually happen, it turns out that the problems are systemic at the core, and that it feels like there is little that we can do. We could throw one hands up in the air and give up. Or we can try to hack the area of influence that we may have – if we all manage to modify the cogs of the machine one piece at a time, maybe we can overhaul the system. It’s hard, but worth it.

For some of us, one possible way to do so is through mentoring of people of underrepresented groups who want to work in games. As mentors, we can help them navigate this broken system in which we’re trapped, teach them so they can figure out how to break into the industry, as well as how to thrive, persevere, and have the career they want and deserve.

This article is for those of us who are in a position of relative power in education and the games industry, and it is mostly based on my experience working in game development and education for the last decade. I cannot claim to have figured it out – I’ve made many mistakes myself, though I’m listening and want to do better. What I’m sharing here is what seems to have worked so far.

The Problem

The first thing to know about mentorship is that it is hard work, which not everyone may be in a position to do. Mentorship involves emotional labor because, more often than not, the support that mentors provide involves listening and understanding what our mentees struggle with, and offering guidance tailored to their experience. Real mentorship builds a relationship over time. Chatting with someone and giving them advice a couple of times can help, but productive mentorship needs to be a longer commitment.

The second thing to know about mentoring is that those who belong to underrepresented groups often feel like they do not belong. Again, it’s a feeling – hence the emotional labor. It has nothing to do with their talent or capacity for work. The world around them is constantly telling them that they are not good enough, that they have to like the “right” kinds of games and behave in a specific “gamer” way in order to “fit the culture,” and even when they do, they may remain invisible and still be shut out. This also means they feel they cannot be themselves, but rather follow someone else’s script. It can take a toll on their mental health. It also leads to almost unshakeable impostor syndrome, and makes them more likely to quit.

People from underrepresented groups have to do a lot of extra work in order to prove their worth. You may have heard the phrase that Ginger Rogers had to do the same as Fred Astaire but backwards and in high heels. That’s true of most people in underrepresented groups. The impostor syndrome is exacerbated by the fact that they are held to standards well above the average, which require extra effort and commitment to achieve.

The higher standards to which they’re usually held are also due to implicit biases that we all have – even people who think of themselves as progressive intellectuals fall into these traps. White men tend to be regarded more positively, and their faults are also more often forgiven – their threshold for making mistakes is way higher, whereas if a woman / BIPOC / LGBTQ+ slips a bit it’s often catastrophic and regarded as evidence that they cannot do the job.

Your potential mentees have to prove their merits, but meritocracy is a myth that elites invoke to keep their privilege. “Merit” involves having access to specific groups and knowledge, which are often selective and (surprise!) not diverse at all, so the vicious circle keeps going. Factors that can provide an advantage are being able to attend a renowned school, living in or near a city that grants access to meetups where they can forge social relationships in person, developing a specific taste that allows you to connect with like-minded people. Having access to games and a computer to make them is a form of gatekeeping – not everyone can buy games at full price on release date to be part of the current discourse or buy a high-end PC, for example.

Is there a solution?

The lack of diversity is a very difficult problem, and we’re not going to solve it in a few months, even if we have the best of intentions. But we cannot stand idle. So here are some suggestions that may work for you and your (future or current) mentees:

  • First of all, a bit of self-reflection. Check your own biases. Yes, this part hurts. But it’s for a good cause.
    • Who are you giving preferential treatment? Why are you doing it? How diverse are they? In an educational setting, students can tell who is getting extra help and guidance – and people of underrepresented groups can tell it’s usually not them.
    • Of your mentees, who has been successful? Who has fallen through the cracks?
    • Those who fell through the cracks, is it because they were not committed or talented? Was it financial? Mental health issues? Is there anything that you could have done to improve the situation? Would a white cisgendered male have eventually been given a pass in the same situation?
  • Offer yourself as a mentor, seeking spaces that may bring you into contact to underrepresented groups. Post it on your social media; if you’re an educator, reach out to students. Make yourself visible. Find groups that are looking for mentors, or team up with other mentors. The hardest part of this is that these potential mentees are less likely to ask for help / mentorship – remember, they are told they do not belong. But forcing yourself to mentor someone is definitely not the best way to make them trust you, particularly if you hold some sort of privilege (e. g. being white / male / cisgendered / in a situation of power). And trust is the foundation of mentorship.
  • When you mentor, listen to and try to understand your mentee. Acknowledge who they are, what they want, and what is getting in the way. One of the main reasons some people give up on their studies / careers is feeling that they are not listened to. Taking a moment to say “Let me see if I understand…” is a basic exercise to connect with your mentee, get them to know better, and get to know them as people and artists.
  • Reach out regularly once you’ve established a connection. As I said, this takes work. And again, your mentees are less likely to ask for help. So remind them you’re there. Calendar reminders, recurring items in your to do list, are easy ways to remind you and check the last time you talked to them.
  • Fight for your mentee. Show their worth to others. Send them job ads. You may be in a position where others are more likely to listen to you than your mentee, have access to contacts and information that they don’t. This is all work beyond meeting with them.
  • Provide constructive feedback. One of the main obstacles to keep underrepresented groups in games is that they often feel they don’t have the talent or skills, as part of the false meritocracy that rules the industry and academia. Feedback needs to be honest, because they’re learning and that’s why you’re helping them. But feedback that just points at what they do wrong without offering solutions or support does not help, and reinforces the sense that they do not belong. So when giving feedback, remember to:
    • highlight what they’re doing right. Remind them what they’re good at.
    • point them to how to make it better, if there’s something that they’re struggle with, or can be improved. Provide them with references (web links, video tutorials, articles, books if they can afford them).
  • Teach them the invisible rules (if you know them). One of the things that prevent people from thriving in specific industries and groups is not knowing the etiquette of a group, from social expectations to creative standards. This is another very challenging problem, first of all, because as a mentor you may not be aware of what they are. Maybe because you take them for granted, or maybe because you’re also part of the underrepresented group. The main challenge is mentees may feel like they have to change their behavior and who they are in order to adhere to those “invisible rules,” which are not explicit or easy to formulate, because their invisibility and haziness is what helps excluding others. Help them understand that these are arbitrary rules, that change from place to place (e.g. AAA vs casual vs indie; North America vs Europe); the balance they need to find is how to operate within those invisible rules while still being true to themselves.

These are just a few points – many come from having had great mentors and really terrible ones. I could have fallen through the cracks many times, so a lot of this comes from my experience as a recipient. It also comes from working with students; now that I’m in a relative position of privilege, I’m trying to do the work. I cannot claim I have figured things out, but I’m trying my damnedest to change the world, one bit at a time.

Thanks to my colleague Naomi Clark for her feedback on this article.

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