Intel at IndieCade: The Cost of Diversity in Games

Marginalized developers suffer from an industry-wide epidemic that withholds basic income from hard-working artists for the dubious privilege of exposure. But despite popular belief, we are not in dire need of exposure, petty consolations, or a tent on the outskirts of a major industry event.

by Veve Jaffa on November 23rd, 2015

Still from Rihanna's BBHMM video: she is staring into the camera, blood covering her face.

Still from Rihanna’s music video for BBHMM.

This year, I adopted a practice to invoke what I desire most in life. While community, love, and artistic fulfillment reside at the top of that list, they do not guarantee my ability to afford cost of living, especially as an independent video game developer. So I instituted my ‘get money’ mantra. At the start of each day I bump an ever-growing playlist of tunes invoking wealth and success: Kanye West’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing, D.R.A.M’s $, Rihanna’s BBHMM. These songs inspire me to go out in the world and unapologetically demand what I’m owed.

Last month, this musically-inspired mentality empowered me to sing BBHMM at the IndieCade town hall, emphasizing my concerns as a featured developer in Intel’s “Gaming for Everyone” pavilion. The pavilion had a noble goal: “promoting underrepresented groups and their presence in gaming and game development.” Despite appearing as Intel’s invited guest to show my game Shoot to Kill, I made my trip to L.A relying solely on the help of generous friends, without compensation or corporate sponsorship for my travels, lodging, or time. My experience reflects a growing trend of corporations paying lip service to diversityand collecting all of its PR benefitswhile demanding unpaid work from underrepresented developers, perpetuating our social and economic marginalization.

Basic remuneration for work isn’t a unique goal for folks who make video games; marginalized developers suffer from an industry-wide epidemic that withholds basic income from hard-working artists for the dubious privilege of exposure. But despite popular belief, we are not in dire need of exposure, petty consolations, or a tent on the outskirts of a major industry event. Like everyone else working in this industry we need money, plain and simple, to continue producing the work that represents much-needed diversity in our field. 

Y’all should know me well enough

A lot of things happened at IndieCade this year. Most heart-warming to me was the indisputably large presence of marginalized developers, the majority of whom were sadly not selected to share their work, but made it out nonetheless to form a diverse community and my most treasured experience at IndieCade.

Perhaps most important for the visibility of marginalized developers’ struggles, was John Sharp’s public announcement that he was stepping down as co-chair of IndieCade. Using his privilege and platform to emphasize community concerns, he addressed the lack of support game conventions offer developers working in the periphery of mainstream games, questioning whether our presence does more to benefit the organization than our careers:

For me, a big motivation for volunteering my time to co-chair the IndieCade conference has been giving marginalized voices a platform to share their work. Events like IndieCade and GDC’s diversity track give these developers and critics a platform to share their work, but I fear these events are not providing sustainable, long-term benefit to those outside academia and [established mainstream] game development companies…

We are starting to see some government support for games as an artform, but for things to happen, we need individuals and companies to get involved. For companies to really help in this area means doing more than simply sponsoring conferences. It means recognizing the importance of creating an infrastructure to support the medium and not just the commerce. We need non-profit foundations that see the importance of supporting games along the margins—not to help turn them into developers of saleable games, but to allow them to make games from the messy, fragile lens of art.”

While working for exposure is treated like the greatest gift imaginable to a rising artist, it’s about as flattering as asking any other professional to do their job for free. Marginalized creators are especially in need of industry support and recognition, as we face overwhelming challenges breaking into sustainable creative roles, with fewer opportunities to reach our target audience. Even with these harsh realities in mind, it’s no surprise to us, or the corporations that bait us, that when offered any chance to rub elbows with accomplished developers and games publishers who could potentially fund our projects and make our dreams come true, we desperately cling to hope and sacrifice whatever’s necessary to take advantage of the opportunity. 

Tweets from Anna Anthropy (@auntiepixelante) reading: "yo let's try and imagine things games conferences can provide for marginalized developers beyond just 'exposure.' you can't pay your rent with exposure. but you CAN die of it"

Tweets from Anna Anthropy (@auntiepixelante) reading: "there's an idea that showing up, getting exposure will help you get work and money. for marginalized creators, that's rarely actually true. if we're going to keep having games conferences, we need to think about what they're doing for the developers instead of vice versa."

Acclaimed game developer Anna Anthropy speaking on the exploitative practices of indie games conferences. (Tweet sources: 1, 2, 3, 4)  

Back in June I wanted nothing more than to properly apply for IndieCade and show off my work as an official selection. But without $80 to spare for the submission fee, I resigned any hope of attending. Imagine my surprise when four weeks before IndieCade, Intel offered an opportunity to highlight work by marginalized creators, saying it would fund the cost of travel and lodging for ten selected developers or organizations.

In the submission form, applicants were asked if they would be able to afford to attend IndieCade without Intel’s financial support. I answered ‘No’. Given the uncompromising terms, I expected a simple “yes” or “no” regarding my acceptance. Instead, along with eleven other developers, I was offered the opportunity to showcase my work, but without compensation of any kind from Intel including the travel costs they had committed to selected developers. Intel gladly put $150,000 towards sponsoring trivialities like coffee, but only allocated $10,000 to the featured organizations and their travel costs. The decision to withhold the additional $12,000 needed to fund travel for the invited developers felt remarkably cruel, especially considering their recent $300 million pledge to support underrepresented programmers and diversify game development.

With outside pressure building around corporations to support content that speaks to audiences outside white, cis-het male demographics, association with marginalized artists is increasingly vital to their relevance. But banking on the desperation of the industry’s most marginalized creators to boost public image doesn’t read as social change; it’s a predatory attempt for Intel to appear human against its corporate competitors.

Pay Me What You Owe Me

With so much money in play, Intel’s process for representing diverse voices at IndieCade was inexcusably lacking. Among the ten grant recipients, only one was a development studio, with the remaining nine represented by not-for-profits. Of those nine, eight of the organizations describe themselves as offering services to underrepresented people in games, while at least six are run by white cis founders. Allocating the majority of funding to organizations whose goals address diversity removes pressure for Intel to support marginalized developers directly, while absorbing success stories second-hand to benefit their public image.

While many of the organizations Intel funded do offer very real opportunities for marginalized developers outside of IndieCade, it’s important to recognize existing deficits in non-profit support, and the critical need to support developers directly instead of funneling money through organizations that often fail to pass their resources beyond their founders. Intel’s funding should have been split among developers whose work we’ll never see, who cannot gain an audience without industry and community intervention. As I recently addressed:

“Organizations run by primarily white, cis, straight founders train the majority of their focus on alleviating alienation for white cis women in cis male-centric spaces, but do little to dig deeper into other marginalized identities and access needs […] Many not-for-profits operate with top-down models of progress, assigning leadership roles to white, cis, professionally established and financially privileged individuals from the community.” 

Sponsored packet of snacks, branded with Intel logo.

Popcorn for Everyone: I’ve heard of being paid in peanuts but this is ridiculous

The criteria for funding called for “people who are increasing diversity in games”, and I can’t think of anyone doing that more effectively or courageously than marginalized creators of media, especially when it comes telling our own stories. There is still an appalling lack of representation for Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Middle Eastern developers, and while work made by marginalized creators alone is worthy of attention, we are tasked with the daunting position of combating an overwhelming culture of games that depict us as villains and monsters, worthy of death at the hands of their protagonists.

Perhaps the most obvious offense to the pavilion’s guests was the diversity mascota visiting alien from outer space. Undoubtedly a product of a majority-white board, these kinds of tasteless decisions reflect a larger problem with corporate intervention: they never ask marginalized people what we actually need. The most damaging aspect of these strategic, corporate bids for allyship lies in a refusal to take our needs into consideration before taking action. Even if Intel had done the right thing and paid marginalized developers for our participation, that would only be a first (albeit big) step in the right direction. Large corporations setting an example for the industry that marginalized developers do not deserve to have our presence exploited for exposure would lend progress to our ongoing struggle with unionization, fair wages, and unpaid labour.

Logo that reads "Gaming For Everyone" with icons of a planet, rocket ship, and alien.

Photo by Spinach Williams, Easy Street Photography

Please don’t call me on my bluff

On the final day of IndieCade, a public town hall was held for a community discussion with Intel representative and global developer relations lead Lee Machen. Given the circumstances under which they had coaxed me, and a dozen other developers to IndieCade, I wasn’t expecting much recognition for the struggle developers face, and even in the presence of awe-inspiring courage from countless developers who spoke to the dire state of our place in the industry, very little acknowledgement or solutions were offered.

From first-hand accounts of poverty and underrepresentation, to mounting frustrations over being led to IndieCade with the elusive promise of more, the message from attendees was loud and clear: developers are not being respected. Among the voices of marginalized developers who spoke at the town hall, 2015 Indiecade speaker and acclaimed game designer Squinky had this to say:

“I firmly believe that the most exciting work being done in games right now is by marginalized developers whom most people haven’t even heard of, who are struggling to find money, time, resources, and exposure for their efforts.

While initiatives supporting the encouragement of diverse groups of people making their first games are well and good, they falter in the end when we don’t put any work into supporting developers who are already making games but struggling to find community and financial support in doing so. If companies such as Intel, with their multimillion-dollar diversity initiatives, were to put their funds into creating micro-grants in the thousandsor even in the hundredsof dollars, that may not seem like a lot of money for larger companies, but for individual developers, could make a huge difference between being able to make rent that month or not.’’

Squinky playing Shoot to Kill on a heavily-stickered computer.

Squinky playing Shoot to Kill at Intel’s Gaming for Everyone Pavilion

Lee’s attempts to avoid criticism and blame Intel’s bad decisions on ignorance grew increasingly evasiveat one point he admitted he simply did not realize developers would require money to attend IndieCade (was that not why Intel offered funding in first place?) He attempted to coax sympathy for his precarious status as an ally, claiming the consequences for “accidental” oppression were too severe. He suggested we instead earn our allies’ support with an approach more palatable to them, investing more uncompensated emotional labour to patiently educate people with privilege. At his most out-of-touch, in response to the topic of imposter syndrome, Lee pointed to his white forearm and said, “I’m not usually the skin colour that’s targeted, so I feel like the real imposter”.

The only useful advice he offered was in response to a question about how marginalized people could demand accountability from companies, without putting ourselves at risk. He recommended using social media to apply public pressure, though he completely ignored the latter half of the question not a safe option for people who are already the targets of online harassment. And of course, he specified that while social media activism was sure to be successful with Intel’s competitors, we should totally never do that to Intel.

As John Sharp asked in his farewell post, “By inviting a developer or critic to speak, are we doing them a favor? Or are we doing the organizations or ourselves a favor?” Every developer who voiced concerns at the town hall answered the latter question resoundingly. It’s time marginalized developers stopped giving time and resources to corporations who can easily afford to pay, and choose to work with people who are committed to our well-being.

Bitch Better Have My Money

To all corporations intent on continuing to use the work of marginalized developers:

Pay us.

Stop offering us opportunities without the means to attain them, dangling our hopes and dreams in front of our faces with a thousand dollar price tag we cannot afford.

Pay for our travel, accommodations, and provide us stipends to feed ourselves while attending your events. Pay us for our time, whether as speakers or developers, because our work is valuable and worthy of remuneration.

If you want to continue profiting off of our presence at your events, our image in your press releases, and reap the free PR and social relevance our hard work buys you, then pay for it.

To allies and supporters of marginalized voices creating the diverse media that we all love: use social media to publicly hold corporations responsible. Widely share the stories of marginalized developers and our fight for fair wages, starting with this one.

Let Intel president Renée James (@reneejjames) and CEO Brian Krzanich (@bkrunner) know their $300 million investment isn’t helping marginalized programmers and developers as they claim, and let Lee Machen (@lmachen) know that coming to a town hall with little more than apologies for the whiteness of his skin does a disservice to the power his position could wield to benefit our communities.

Throughout the BBHMM video, Rihanna tries to claim money owed to her by a crooked accountant. Driven by desperation and a dwindling account balance, she kidnaps his wife and holds her for ransom, but he doesn’t pay up. Threats and extortion just don’t cut it, so in the end she comes after him directly, and finally, in blood-splattered victory, leaves with her money.

Marginalized creators can ask corporations to include us and hope they’ll see the value of supporting us. We can threaten to withdraw our presence, no longer allowing them to use us as proof of falsely manufactured progress. They’re never going to voluntarily hand us what we’re owed, even while they use our image to bolster theirs. I’ve taken a lot of expensive risks in the name of exposure, without receiving funding or opportunity in return. As I see it, these corporations owe us some money.

Bitch, give me your money!