The pixel is mightier than the pen, but with that power comes a greater need for inclusivity and a change in the sometimes toxic culture that infests pockets of the video game industry.
That was the overall message – a powerful call to arms – delivered to the game industry on Wednesday by Microsoft's executive vice president of gaming at a gathering of game development luminaries a the annual DICE Summit in Las Vegas.
Spencer made the point in a nearly hour-long keynote speech that explored his personal beliefs in the power of video games, the importance of inclusivity in hiring, development and gaming culture, and the terrible damage toxic culture does to everyone in both the game industry and game culture.
"With all these new tools empowering new creators," Spencer said. "And with the increasing reach to new gamers around the globe, I think we – as an industry – are at our own crossroads. Has gaming reached its full potential and power to reflect and shape the world for all of us?"
Spencer launched into his speech by talking about the long-lasting importance of UNESCO's World Heritage sites and why the worlds of video games are also important. For Spencer, that realization came with the launch of massively multiplayer online game Ultima Online in 1997. "Ultima Online changed everything for me," he said. That's when he saw the power of living worlds and an immersive fantasy populated by other players in a community of gamers. "I was immersed in an alternative world. The character was me."
Later, after a team of players killed his character and stripped him of his virtual possessions, Spencer said he had a single moment of realization when he felt the power and potential of gaming. "It was the moment I really felt a lasting connection – not just to my dead character, but with a community. It was the first time I didn't just love a game, but an entire virtual world."
Over time, he said he came to understand that while stories can serve the worlds in which they're created, epic world-building serves the story. But, he added, to deliver on such an impressive goal his team and the culture of his group had to be up for the task. "If the core mechanics of our team and internal culture stumbles, everything stumbles. We’re learning this first had right now."
In 2014, Spencer was promoted to lead the Xbox team by recently appointed Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. The changes Nadella brought with him to Microsoft were noticeable almost immediately. "He assigned the leadership team to read 'Non-Violent Communication: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships' and started quoting poetry," Spencer said. "It was obvious Microsoft needed a reboot; morale had hit a low, we were frustrated we kept missing trends. In some ways, it felt like real innovation was impossible."
So Microsoft, Spencer said, hit refresh on everything, not just on internal communication but the entire culture at the company. Now, four years later, the company is still in the midst of a comprehensive top-down, bottom-up, rethinking, reframing, reimagining of its culture. “We went from being a know-it-all culture to a learn-it-all culture. Everything is changing: the way we relate to each other and to our partners and to our competitors. The way we build teams and run projects. The way we commit every single day to making Microsoft a safe and inclusive place for all.”
Even after four years of hard, demanding work, Microsoft still works toward the best solution and learning how to figure out this new culture. "Four years into it," Spencer said, "it's still sometimes incredibly slow and incredibly painful to get everyone on board, much less to admit your own biases. Four years into it, it still requires a growth mindset, a commitment to keep listening and keep learning since culture change is always ongoing. Four years into it, we are still taking actions and changing behaviors.
"We keep at this cultural transformation because we know it enables our best work," Spencer said. "This is our quest."
That quest has run into problems, like when a Microsoft hosted event at GDC in 2016 included dancers dressed in provocative clothes. Spencer at the time said that the use of dancers was not consistent or aligned to Microsoft's values and promised to do better in the future.
Speaking today, Spencer was a bit more blunt about the incident calling it unequivocally wrong, unequivocally sexist and unequivocally intolerable. "Backlash was justifiable and furious and internally the reaction was almost harsher."
Spencer said that the company doesn't tolerate any employees or partners who create a hostile environment. "We stand for inclusivity. I personally committed to do better. I think it"s a leaders job to absorb the hit, to take personal accountability. And to be clear about our culture: who we are and what we stand for."
Today, as the executive vice president of gaming, Spencer thinks a lot about how this approach can extend past Microsoft and into the broader world of gaming. "Just as culture is renewing Microsoft, I think culture can be the tool that enables us to realize the true power and potential of gaming," Spencer said. "The time to get our culture right is now. There are massive tectonic shifts in technology, customers, and entertainment itself that can ultimately help us create new games and welcome new gamers. Our reach and impact will be so much greater if we’re ready."
Spencer pointed out that some estimate that the gaming audience will grow to be more than two billion in three years and that the grow brings up an important question: "How do we transform our industry to prepare for this massive growth and opportunity?"
That transformation is necessary because soon more than ever before, the audience for games will include people from all over the world. And that this new opportunity brings with it an "increasing responsibility to make gaming for everyone. How do we transform our culture to prepare for new gamers from different cultures, different backgrounds, and different world views?"
Along with this explosive growth in gaming and the increase in collaboration between creators and gamers, comes a blurring of the line between gaming and other forms of entertainment, he added. “2017, though, was the year where entertainment didn’t just blast open cultural change with #metoo, it marshaled the power of the medium to shift the narratives around identity. Art—literature, movies, music, even street art—has always played an instrumental role in creating empathy, changing perceptions and shaping worldviews. Gaming as an art form has done this, too.”
But, he noted, where books and movies are all predestined storylines, gaming is the only art form where it’s the player’s journey, decisions, actions, and consequences. “It is the only art form where you walk in someone’s shoes and you see the world from their eyes,” Spencer said. “It’s the only art form where you are on equal footing, regardless of age, education, socioeconomics, race, religion, politics, gender, orientation, ethnicity, nationality, or ability. This is why gaming can be one of the great equalizers and great unifiers for society. Together, we can make gaming a reflection of the world we don’t just want to see, but help change it into the world we want it to be.”
Spencer wound up his talk but taking on the toxic behavior that continues to eat away at the industry both in the form of pushing talented creators out of the industry and preventing new gamers from fully embracing games some games online.
“Honestly,” he said. “toxic behavior doesn’t just hurt the individual it hurts our entire industry. When toxicity is aimed at one of us, it stops with all of us. That’s why I’m encouraged when our community comes together to talk about specific actions. Let’s stand together to reinforce that — 'Hey, beneath the polygons and the pixels are real people who are here to have fun.'”