Activision Blizzard today announced a tool it plans to deploy across all its teams in the coming months. It is called the “Diversity Space Tool” and unlike other game development tools, it is not used directly to generate game content, but rather to evaluate the diversity of game characters and quantify that diversity in numbers and spider diagrams .
The tool is apparently made by the team of Candy Crush developer King, and tested on games like Call of Duty: Vanguard, featuring an international cast of various characters who fought against Nazis in World War II. It has also been tested by the Overwatch 2 team, which expressed “optimistic first impressions”.
There is a lot of good intentions behind this new tool. King Globalization project manager Jacqueline Chomatas explained in Activision Blizzard’s blog post that the intent of the tool was to evaluate game characters as they replay, to show their creators that stereotype patterns can be expressed that reflect classic ideas about sexism. reinforce racism or other prejudices.
Chomatas called it a “measurement tool,” explaining that the tool aims to “identify how diverse a set of character traits is and in turn how diverse that character and cast are compared to the ‘norm’.”
King employees also apparently spent time developing this tool in their spare time as a “voluntary” effort, which doesn’t bode well for a company that claims it’s an effort to prioritize diversity.
Again, there’s a lot of good intentions here. But game developers on social media are mostly venting negativity following the Activision Blizzard announcement. If you delve into how the tool works, it gets very uncomfortable very quickly.
Chomatas’ explanation of how the tool works highlights a core complaint many game developers have: all characters walking through the tool are judged by a “norm”, and that “norm” appears to be a valid, white, cisgender honest man. Character diversity scores are increased when they deviate from that description.
A screenshot of overwatch Egyptian medical sniper Ana emphasizes how inconvenient this gets. She has been rated on a number of axes collected in a spider diagram and has given ratings on them. Being Egyptian earns her a “Culture” score of 7, as does Arabic. Her age (60 years) also gives her a 7, and her physical ability (one eye only) is rated a 4.
Her ‘cognitive ability’ is rated with a 0, indicating that whatever Ana’s cognitive ability is, it is part of the ‘baseline’ that other characters can be judged on.
I cannot express enough how very uncomfortable that paragraph was to write. I tried to write three paragraphs emphasizing how even Ana’s normative “cognitive ability” demonstrates the dangers that bring about such a norm and removed them all because of how disgusting they all sounded.
Why is the “norm” so strongly favored?
Michael Yichao, a narrative designer at Phoenix Labs, nicely called how it was weird to create such a system that judges characters against a standard. “This tool assumes a white male as the basis against which ‘points’ are earned through deviance, which in itself reinforces rather than re-imagines current non-inclusive paradigms,” he noted.
It doesn’t help that many of the stats chosen by King and Activision Blizzard uncomfortably reflect the true beliefs of racists and bigots. The eugenics movement of the early 20th century particularly enjoyed the 19th-century study of phrenology; a practice in which one’s intelligence (or cognitive ability) supposedly correlated with the size and shape of one’s skull.
By some coincidence (it wasn’t a coincidence), phrenology experts would consider the skulls of non-white groups such as Native Americans or Black Americans to be aberrant, which was often used to justify atrocities such as genocide or slavery against said groups.
It’s likely that whoever added “cognitive skills” to this list wasn’t trying to make the same connection. But treating people with cognitive impairment (or just different, varying scales of cognitive abilities) as aberrant still has implications for people today.
Given that many, many game developers have talked about the battles they’ve had with corporate executives to diversify their game casts, this tool seems like an uneasy natural extension of the game industry’s toxic logic over non-white, non-masculine characters.
This week, Respawn Entertainment developers spoke out about the pushback they reportedly received when they advocated casting a black woman as the hero of Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order† in 2020, a former BioWare writer described complaints ffrom her creative director on the addition of another Asian character to the game’s cast.
Activision Blizzard says the Diversity Space Tool can “clearly delineate between symbolic characters and true representation,” but it could actually do just the opposite.
The unveiling of this tool will also be: deep uncomfortable when you weigh it against Activision Blizzard’s years of reckoning with a series of lawsuits alleging sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination against the company.