The need for diverse voices and inclusive storytelling extends far beyond the entertainment industry, making its way to the gaming world where companies like Riot Games see representation as more than just a buzzword or a one-time conversation.
“Diversity and inclusion takes practice, it’s like exercise. You can’t just do it once and then expect to be fit. You really have to exercise with great regularity,” said Shauna Spenley, Riot’s global president of entertainment. “When it comes to creating a diverse environment to create, you have to look at who you’re hiring, who you’re partnering with and ultimately the stories you’re telling.”
On Saturday, Spenley joined League of Legends Vice President and executive producer Jessica Nam, and Principal Game Designer Candace Thomas for a Comic-Con conversation centered on the progress of diversity at Riot and the gaming industry. Erin Ashley Simon moderated the panel.
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Nam and Thomas kicked off the conversation by reflecting on their early years as game-makers. They recalled experiencing imposter syndrome and loneliness upon entering a field primarily dominated by men.
“I struggled with really grappling with my identity when I walked into the door – first of all I was a woman who was a gamer,” Thomas said. “For a very long time you feel the need to prove yourself.”
Gaming has since opened up to include and celebrate a more diverse crowd, ranging from gamers part of the LGBTQ community to women developers behind popular video game titles. Moving forward in terms or gender and racial diversity and representation, however, doesn’t come without recognizing the past.
The conversation touched on Riot’s own history with controversy and its lack of diversity. In 2018 Kotaku explored a “culture of sexism” at the Riot work place and earlier this year, Riot CEO Nicolo Laurent was under investigation for gender discrimination and sexual harassment allegations.
“As that accumulated and there were cases that we didn’t talk about…it was a reckoning,” Nam said. “When time stopped, it really felt like every team looked inwards and had the deepest retrospect of their life.”
According to Nam, the moment opened up the dialogue and allowed employees and members of the community to speak freely about the difficulties of working in the industry. Similarly, Thomas said that she has since reached out to other women to gain feedback on how Riot can improve or do a better job at listening to employee concerns. They agreed that Riot’s controversies and its efforts to improve could serve as a lesson to other parts of the gaming community.
Beyond internal dynamics, listening and representing diverse opinions has carried over to Riot gaming and entertainment content – from a new South Asian League character to upcoming entertainment projects such as Netflix’s Arcane. Though the Riot execs recognize that there is still work to do, Spenley said that conversations about diversity and inclusion have become a fabric of Riot’s identity.
Constant conversations now will result in franchises and titles enjoyed by generations to come, she added.
“I want these stories to feel representative of our children and our children’s children and for them to be long-lasting franchises that multiple generations after us get to enjoy,” Spenley said. “Part of that is digging deeply and finding those representation stories and storytellers that are going to do this right.”