Emma Smith, Head of Talent at the UK’s largest video games developer, Creative Assembly, sits down with Louise Sinnerton from myGwork
Emma Smith started her career as a 999 operator, and worked at the NHS and Citizens Advice Bureau after that. She has been exposed to all sorts of situations and has always worked to make sure that everyone has access to opportunity. “Working as a 999 operator really hardened me to what happens in society, and then with the NHS I would be helping people in the community, or nurses, for example, to get the equipment, resources and care they need. Although this work was emotionally difficult, I feel lucky to have been exposed to all sorts of situations and I don’t bat an eyelid when people tell me problems that may shock other people.”
When a role came up to work with the Citizens Advice Bureau in one of the most deprived areas in the UK, with very low social mobility, Emma knew it aligned with her core value of helping others. “The Citizens Advice Bureau was formed to give free legal advice to all members of society around the time of World War Two and has developed to do so much for people. It’s an open door, talk to anyone, free access service, I learned a lot about myself and I consider myself fortunate to have spent some of my career there.” Emma worked supporting the advisors, connecting with all sections of society, and was lucky enough to see positive outcomes for many including a case where the bureau worked in collaboration with Stonewall. “People would come in and ask for employment advice with regards to all sorts of issues including those that effected members of the LGBTQ+ community, as an example. I found that I was often unaware of their situation and it made me feel so angry when I learned what people had experienced . That really opened my eyes, and motivated me to focus my career where I could be people-orientated, where I can shine a light on diversity.”
Emma’s broad experience of people’s individual circumstances has led to her ability to be incredibly tolerant and somewhat unshakable. This is a skill she’s developed through her career into her current role. “Being an open book and going into conversations without preconceptions puts people at ease straight away, people need that and to be received with calmness and empathy when they are sharing personal or professional issues. A clear and understood response helps them to rationalise their own thoughts and see that there is help and tools available”.
Emma came to work in the games industry by chance, when her partner asked her to move from Wales to England. “I had a life change when I came to England, this opportunity came up at Creative Assembly and I had always dreamed of working in the video games industry, but when I first got here I looked around and thought where are all the women, where are the people of colour, where all the LGBTQ+ people? I didn’t see the sectors of community that I was used to seeing being reflected in the work force. That was 11 years ago and now things in games are very different.” According to a diversity and inclusion census in the UK Games industry 21% of staff are LGBT, 19% EU, 28% female, 10% BAME (UKIE). “We are more diverse than we are often perceived and actually the young people coming into games now are hugely diverse. We want to shout about that and make sure people from all backgrounds realise the games industry could be a home for them.”
Throughout her career with Creative Assembly, and now in the role of Head of Talent, Emma has refocused on recruitment and the things she really cares about: fairness and giving everyone opportunities being key. With the team, she founded and developed the Legacy Project, which is all about the long-term impact of the studio and pivoting the way that people might see the gaming industry. “A large number of our staff are Creative Assembly Ambassadors, they represent a wider cross section of society and are important role models for students and others looking to get into games”. The Legacy Project has seen Creative Assembly develop educational programmes for three year olds right up to postgraduates, hold game jams with local schools and BAFTA, partner with women in games, support charities (such as their current charity of the year, Young Lives vs Cancer), and host an annual game jam in honour of a young employee who passed away from cancer.
Creative Assembly has come to be known and respected for the Legacy Project, and won an Education Outreach award in 2019 as part of the GI.Biz Best Places to Work Awards. “We want to give back to the games industry and beyond, it’s about kicking the door open so that anyone and everyone can be a part of it. We have the experience and expertise to share, and my god we care about it – so we will do it!” The initiative also helps employees to develop transferable skills and a voice. “Giving people a voice that is outside of their usual role is quite powerful and something they really enjoy. We hear so often that our social responsibility and outreach work is why people come and work for us, or why people carry on working for us. People don’t just want a good job, they want to work somewhere value driven that is aiming to do the right thing for the industry and wider society.”
Looking to the future is part of Emma’s day to day, and there’s no shortage of things she’d like to achieve. “I’m always thinking four to five years ahead because we’re all about legacy. Further and higher education outreach is definitely a massive area for us. We’d love to help schools develop game development focused content they can run themselves when it fits into their academic program, with Creative Assembly support. Then we’d like to expand our ambassador program and have ambassadors both inside and outside of the studio.” It’s clear that Emma strives to give back to the industry and foster the next generation of talent. Looking inward, she has never felt that her wings have been clipped at Creative Assembly; “That’s why I have been here so long, I started as an HR and operations assistant, and now I’m Head of Talent. That’s what drives me, working to see us as a studio grow and flourish, and give other people a leg up.”
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