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Commentary on the state of accessibility in the games industry, and the importance of free resources - Emily Dervey

Emily Dervey - Junior Environment Artist at XR Games - writes about why accessing free resources are so important when it comes to the art side of games development, diversity in the industry, and the organisations making a difference.

As a 3D artist, most of my observations pertain to the art side of accessibility to the industry. If you want to become a 3D artist, Blender is a free, industry-standard modelling package with plenty of free tutorials, easily accessible online! You can also dabble in 2D and 3D animation. It is incorrect to say that Blender is not an industry standard, that is a classist statement and only serves to gate-keep the industry.

The state of UK Games Education:

Games education needs to be split up and streamlined - there is a disconnect between what the industry needs from new hires and the skills students leave education with. I believe this can partly explain why over the last few years we have seen an increase in companies taking initiative themselves, offering apprenticeships and internships to marginalised groups to improve diversity. Wider, generalist courses do not provide students with the specialist knowledge necessary to fit into the workflow of games studios. I find this particularly true for those wishing to join the art side of the industry. Unfortunately, initiatives to improve this, such as GamesEd, struggle to take off or receive attention.

Attending the right institution is critical for a swift transition into the industry, but the institutions listed on industry-respected websites like the Rookies - which judges courses for employment success rate, amongst other things - are not the same as the ones you would typically find on “mainstream” websites like The Guardian, or FE News. Additionally, the content of games courses is too wide, and language is conflated in their titles and general conversation. “Art”, “Animation”, “Programming”, and “Design” courses are lumped together in the same tables claiming to list the best degree courses to take to get into “gaming” when in the workplace they are treated as entirely different disciplines. Parents and individuals without prior knowledge are missing out on key information and are being misled by typically trustworthy, or at least familiar, sources.

That being said, the top recurring institutions (Rookies) for the UK game art courses are:

University of Hertfordshire, Escape Studios, University for the Creative Arts, Staffordshire University, Norwich University of the Arts, Games Academy Falmouth University, Leeds Arts Academy.

Further to this, I think a lot about the discourse that suggests a degree is not necessary to join the industry, given the wealth of free and industry-standard resources available. While I would love to champion this and believe in it to an extent, I do not think this is useful to push on marginalised people, as workers in the industry without a relevant degree are a minority (in my experience), and the industry is not quite there yet with arms as open to the notion.

I also believe that suggesting marginalised people should rely entirely on teaching themselves can be simplified as an example of expecting them to work twice as hard, to achieve the same opportunities, as others from more privileged backgrounds. As much as I celebrate and stress the importance of free resources and self-teaching, I understand that my degree (MA in Game Art, Escape Studios) and the quality of teaching I received from it was absolutely instrumental in equipping me well enough, in a variety of ways, to land my first industry job swiftly. Poor people do not have the luxury of time to patiently wait to get a job, or fill their time improving their skills alone across a multitude of software, hoping to finally break in.

The State of Diversity Initiatives:

Unsuccessful and false diversity initiatives result in a lack of industry talent from lower socio-economic backgrounds, marginalised genders, people with disabilities, neuro-diverse people, and the BAME population. Initiatives should not just be focusing outreach on children - the focus should shift to adults, and people who want to switch careers. Embracing life-long learning, and offering support to retrain, is the way forward. We need to create schemes specifically targeted to people on universal credit.

I have seen schemes before from creative industries aiming to recruit those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and there is a discourse on what is the best way to determine eligibility: for example, declaring your parent’s income from when you were age 14. I would suggest that schemes need to be focusing on the present. Being on universal credit is a fine example. Why is this not the norm? Why are we afraid of people on universal credit? What connotations have we been socialised to attach to poor people? I would urge people to reconsider their biases.

Ukie is the trade body for the UK games and interactive entertainment industry. They’ve done two censuses (2020, 2022), and both are worth a read. Amongst other things, the 2022 census showed that:

  • 89% of the games workforce is White: people of colour make up less of the games industry than they do the UK’s working-age population.
  • Men make up two-thirds of workers.
  • Around three-quarters of the UK games workforce is heterosexual or straight.
  • Games industry workers are significantly more likely than the general population to have grown up in a household where the main income earner worked in a managerial or professional job or to have attended a state selective school or independent/fee-paying school.
  • 18% reported physical health conditions: this is higher than the equivalent in the working-age population.18% of respondents reported a neurodevelopmental condition.
  • This includes one-tenth of the workforce reporting a condition affecting concentration such as ADHD. The games industry has more autistic people and more people with ADHD than the equivalent in the working-age population. I believe we should create initiatives unashamedly aimed at people with Autism and/or ADHD, and give them a place to thrive.
  • From my own experience of working with remote colleagues, remote working is entirely possible and fruitful in the games industry and provides opportunities for people with disabilities. We should not succumb to “return-to-office” pressure, and celebrate our workforce potentially growing due to the opportunity for accessibility this could present.

I have also noticed games companies partner with women-positive initiatives and charities to promote open roles - however oftentimes the majority of the roles listed are either senior/director level or entirely specific (eg, lighting). These are what I define as false diversity initiatives:

  • In 2013 women made up 6% of the UK games workforce (Gina Jackson - see article at the end)
  • The industry has been proven to struggle to retain women, in particular for a long enough time to become senior-level. The Ukie 2022 census shows that the age 25 and under contains the highest proportion of women and non-binary people.
  • Why are companies spending funding on targeted advertising, for roles that are incredibly unlikely to even have eligible applicants? Something to think about.

Overall, transitioning to a career in games is entirely possible; there are funding opportunities for education and training, online communities creating spaces for underrepresented groups to thrive, free tutorials for relevant software more so now than ever before, and degree-level courses with high (and swift) employability success rates. But alongside this, we should all embrace life-long learning, and the games industry has a responsibility to improve its accessibility: big names should come together to clarify curriculums that will produce appropriately skilled graduates, and the industry overall should better target its diversity attempts.

Resources:

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