Inclusivity in this industry should not be overlooked
myGwork sat down with Emma Smith, Director of Talent and Social Impact at Creative Assembly, to discuss representation in the video games industry, the privilege she feels being an ally, and why inclusive workplaces matter.
Inspired by Marion Ravenwood, the fictional heroine of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Emma Smith hoped to be an archaeologist one day. “I didn’t intend on arriving at the games industry — I wanted to be like Marion, this strong woman who was treated on equal footing in the story throughout.” As she traversed the world of work, from the NHS to retail and the charity sector, she realised that in many ways, she was like Marion; only the hidden treasures that caught her eye were people. Fascinated by how people work, Emma found herself surrounded by creatives in no time — a world she didn’t even realise she craved until she arrived in it.
Recalling her 14 years at Creative Assembly, Emma struggles to pin down a favourite highlight amongst a sea of achievements. “Probably forming the Legacy Project, our education outreach programme,” she says. “With a diversity and inclusion focus, we enable young people to realise the games industry can be a place where they can be themselves.”
When Creative Assembly attends National Student Pride, for example, Emma highlights how many conversations with student attendees quickly came to the topic of representation in video games and how this affects students playing those games. Perhaps that is why it’s little surprise to us when Emma shares that an estimated 21% of people working in the UK games industry identify as LGBTQIA — clearly, outreach such as the Legacy Project is encouraging the creatives of tomorrow.
The Project grew out of people wanting to tell their stories, to show people outside the industry that anyone could get into it and succeed. “It was about ensuring that we still have a games industry in 50, 100, 200 years because people feel they can get into it.”
In addition to founding the Legacy Project, Emma is the Director of Talent and Social Impact — in her words, she’s “Wearing many hats at the same time.” She feels strongly about promoting diversity and inclusion in these roles and building a workplace that meaningfully stands by those values. “Policies aren’t just for the company; they’re a mark of your integrity. It marks who you are and what you stand for.” She points to the HR team at Creative Assembly and the support provided to staff who want or need it. HR has also actively been building policies to support trans employees, with specific attention to supporting anyone who may be transitioning in the workplace. This also interlinks with creating a culture where people feel they can be open about who they are and where they know those around them will always accept them.
“Employees will know they have people around them who will give them the time off that they need, who will signpost them to the resources they need, and who will be working to ensure other employees know how best to be supportive of trans people and trans rights,” adds Emma.
It’s an issue close to Emma’s heart; with trans family members herself, who she recognises had a difficult time growing up because of a lack of support, initiatives like these are helping to change the stories of others for the better. “Change can be anything from encouraging people to be more empathetic, thinking about the language we use, and supporting people to share their stories and journeys.” As an ally to the LGBTQIA community, she sees her role clearly; she never wants to see anyone being treated differently or having their self-confidence or self-belief knocked because of who they are.
“Being an ally is not about shouting louder over a person, but it’s standing by their side and listening. It’s about hearing them and asking them how you can best support them — there’s a lot more listening than doing. Being an ally is a real privilege, and we’ve all got a duty to be an ally in some way, shape or form, whether that’s as a parent doing that for your children, for your partner, your friends, or your community. It’s finding a way to support people and make them stronger.”
It’s helpful being in an industry with so many LGBTQIA creatives, Emma admits. Media as an art form, especially interactive media such as video games, creates much space for individuals to express themselves. From behind screens, online in spaces with people who maybe aren’t in your immediate vicinity, or even just in single-player experiences following the stories of diverse characters, individuals can begin to explore and map out their own identities authentically without fear of the same obstacles in their lives that may limit their ability to do so offline.
With many LGBTQIA people both creating and playing games, the games industry has a responsibility to ensure everyone can see themselves in characters. LGBTQIA representation within games is increasing, and the Creative Assembly team have embraced this, explains Emma. For example, a recently announced game, Hyenas, includes a kick-ass drag queen named Galaxia. In creating this character, the developers worked with the drag community to ensure she embodied the type of character they would want to see, and everyone involved was excited for the opportunity to collaborate and showcase a character that hasn’t traditionally been represented.
“Representation in games means so many things to so many different people. It’s so meaningful to find someone like yourself and follow your character through a storyline that’s not the life you’re living now. It is such a release for so many people. It is about representing the different people making those games as well. So, representation absolutely matters not just for the people that work here but for the people that can lose themselves and escape through games. I recall a documentary I watched in which two men — a gay black man and a trans woman — discuss what they loved about video games: everyone started in the same position, in the same place. Being able to choose a character like themselves or someone completely different afforded them the freedom to feel like they belonged. Immediately, obstacles that permeate socially just melt away.”
As a parent, Emma is quite mindful of these social obstacles. “My job as a parent is to create that safe space for her to discover and grow how she wishes to, with as much confidence and resilience as possible.” That involves looking to the future and using transformative leadership — starting in the workplace and trickling onto the streets — to expand these safe spaces and uplift everyone. Whether it’s striving to increase workplace diversity or using intersectionality to lift up marginalised groups to enable them to achieve their full potential, so much can be done to build a better world — and video games are a vital part of that.
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