Constructive Conversations About Racism and Sexism

Deborah Hendersen, Melissa Boone, and Jerome Hagen

As the gaming industry becomes increasingly focused on inclusion and diversity, we’ve seen a wonderful shift towards intentionally inclusive design.  But a lot of this discussion has focused on topics that are easier wins and has ignored two of the biggest and (potentially) most hurtful areas: race and gender.

These topics are super awkward to discuss. Most people don’t view themselves as either racist or sexist, and even if they recognize that we are all subject to unconscious bias, being caught out as messing up either of these things can lead to exceptionally defensive responses.  These conversations, therefore, can be profoundly stressful.

As user researchers we are advocates for the audience, whatever their background or identity. This advocacy can put us on the front line of needing to confront designs that (unintentionally) have been either sexist or racist.  These conversations are super difficult to have, however, because they are often embarrassing and awkward: no one knows what exactly to say and there’s a high probability someone’s feelings will get hurt. Additionally, it turns out that what constitutes sexism or racism can be very hard to operationalize and explain.  The lack of a standard vocabulary or diagnostic criteria can lead to everyone feeling sort of incompetent – either because you know something is off, but can’t explain it, or because someone is saying “This is bad!” and you have no idea why they think that or how seriously to view the feedback.  These conversations are also high risk, carrying significant potential for long-term negative impact on the relationship between the UR and the designer.  Finally, not having these conversations simply isn’t an option for URs, whose role is always to be a voice of the consumer and in particularly the voice of consumer pain.

This roundtable will be a constructive discussion of the problems URs have face, the tactics they have tried (successfully or not), and the ways they try to think and communicate about these topics.

  • Category: Roundtable
Deborah Hendersen, Melissa Boone, and Jerome Hagen

Deborah Hendersen is a Sr. User Researcher and the Studio Lead for Global Publishing. She has worked of a variety of titles ranging from Double Fine’s Happy Action Theater, to State of Decay, to Ryse: Son of Rome, to Quantum Break. She is know for proposing Narrative Usability as a method for early iteration on narrative, and has given numerous presentations.

Melissa Boone got her PhD in social psychology and public health from Columbia University, where she studied how people’s social interactions influenced their risk for HIV and drug abuse. She currently conducts research across the Minecraft franchise; she also investigates diversity and inclusion across Xbox’s games and experiences contributing to the Games For Everyone initiative by co-leading Blacks at Xbox.

Jerome Hagen started working on the research team all the way back in the pre-Xbox, pre-broadband days of 1998. He has led research on game franchises including Minecraft, Halo, Fable, Crackdown, Project Gotham Racing, Phantom Dust, and Kinect Sports. He has a background in social/cognitive psychology and loves the intersection of science, the arts, and an understanding of what it means to be human. He has led Team Xbox LGBTQ and is part of Xbox’s focus on Gaming for Everyone to help make Xbox a place where everyone is welcome, respected, and supported.