Activision Blizzard today released a tool that it plans to roll out to its teams in the coming months. It’s called the “Diversity Space Tool”, and unlike other game development tools, it’s not directly used to generate game content, but rather to assess the diversity of game characters and quantify that diversity. in numbers and spider diagrams.
The tool was apparently created by the team of candy Crush developer King, and tested on games like Call of Duty: Vanguard, which featured an international cast of diverse characters fighting the Nazis during World War II. It has also been tested by the Monitor 2 team, who expressed “optimistic first impressions.
There are many good intentions behind this new tool. Jacqueline Chomatas, King Globalization Project Manager, explained in Activision Blizzard’s blog post that the intent of the tool was to rate characters in the game as they iterated, to help show their creators that they there could be stereotypical patterns being expressed that reinforce conventional ideas of sexism, racism or other biases.
Calling it a “measuring device,” Chomatas explained that the tool is intended to “identify the diversity of a set of character traits and, in turn, the diversity of that character and their casts relative to the ” standard “”.
King employees also apparently spent time developing this tool in their off hours as a “volunteer” effort, which doesn’t bode well for a company that claims this is an effort to prioritize the diversity.
Again, there are a lot of good intentions here. But game developers on social media are mostly expressing their negativity following Activision Blizzard’s announcement. If you dig into how the tool works, things get very uncomfortable very quickly.
Chomatas’ explanation of how the tool works highlights a basic complaint of many game developers: all characters the tool runs through are judged against a “standard”, and that “standard” seems to be a able-bodied, white, cisgender male. straight man. Character diversity scores are increased when they deviate from this description.
A screenshot of Surveillance Egyptian medical sniper Ana points out how uncomfortable it gets. It is scored on a number of axes which are put together in a cobweb chart and receives grades on these. Being Egyptian earns her a “culture” score of 7, as does being Arab. His age (60) also earns him a 7, and his physical ability (having only one eye) is rated a 4.
Her “cognitive ability” is rated at 0, indicating that whatever Ana’s cognitive ability is, she is part of the “baseline” against which other characters could be judged.
I cannot express enough how deeply uncomfortable this paragraph was to write. i tried to write three paragraphs highlighting how even Ana’s prescriptive “cognitive ability” shows the dangers of setting such a standard and suppressed each of them due to their gross sounding.
Why is the “standard” so strongly favored?
Michael Yichao, Narrative Designer at Phoenix Labs, clearly explained how It was weird to create such a system that judges characters against a standard. “This tool assumes that the white male is the base against which ‘points’ are earned via deviation, which in itself reinforces rather than reimagines currently non-inclusive paradigms,” he emphasized.
It doesn’t help that many of the metrics chosen by King and Activision Blizzard uncomfortably reflect the real beliefs of racists and bigots. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century took particular pleasure in the study of phrenology in the 19th century; a practice where intelligence (or cognitive ability) is believed to be correlated to the size and shape of one’s skull.
By coincidence (it wasn’t a coincidence), phrenology experts considered the skulls of non-white groups like Native Americans or Black Americans to be deviant, which was often used to justify atrocities like genocide or the slavery against said groups.
It’s likely that whoever added “cognitive ability” to this list wasn’t trying to make the same connection. But treating those with cognitive impairment (or simply different and varying cognitive abilities) as aberrant still has consequences for people today.
Given that so many game developers have spoken of the fights they’ve had with corporate executives to diversify their game casts, this tool seems like an uncomfortable natural extension of the gaming industry’s toxic logic. on non-white, non-male characters.
Just this week, the developers at Respawn Entertainment spoke about the rejection they would have received when they advocated making a black woman the hero of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. In 2020, a former BioWare writer described complaints ffrom its creative director about adding another Asian character to the game’s cast.
Activision Blizzard says the Diversity Space tool can “clearly delineate token characters and true representation,” but it could actually do the exact opposite.
The revelation of this tool also becomes deeply uncomfortable when you weigh it against Activision Blizzard’s year-long account with a battery of lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, abuse, and discrimination against the company.