Anastasia Staten isn’t able to auction off cool vacations to game industry executives at an in-person charity dinner this year due to the pandemic. But the executive director of the ESA Foundation, which uses the donations to make grants to nonprofits that work on behalf of kids, is still campaigning on behalf of the women and underrepresented minorities that the game industry needs to fill its ranks.
Through online events such as the recent Red Bull virtual roundtable during the Latinx in Gaming’s Unidos Online event, Staten carried the flag on diversity in games and the importance of creating educational opportunities for children. After a spring and summer that gave us Black Lives Matter protests, urban unrest, and #MeToo allegations of sexism in games, I thought it would be a good time to catch up with Staten about how we have an opportunity for change now, as well as a great deal of skepticism to overcome in the cause for greater diversity.
I talked with Staten about the challenge of inspiring people to get into the industry, even with all of the issues that women and minorities face, and doing the work that will inspire a new generation to play and make video games.
While diversity is a partisan issue in the presidential campaign, I found it interesting to have a conversation with someone who isn’t a partisan politician and tries to focus the industry on ideas that everyone can agree upon, about the need to educate our children better. The ESA Foundation supports more than a hundred charities, nonprofits, and schools.
“You look at the moment we’re in right now, and to some extent it’s intangible. But look how many people are saying, ‘This is it. This is a moment,’” Staten said. “It may not be the moment, because there’s going to be a series of moments that are born out of this moment that will ultimately create change. But did any of us think back in May or June, as the summer rolled through, that we’d still, in October, be having conversations about change, about investment?”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview. GamesBeat will hold a conversation about diversity on December 9 in an online event.
Above: Anastasia Staten is executive director of the ESA Foundation.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about the importance of the issue of diversity in the industry as it is today?
Anastasia Staten: First and foremost, the conversation that our country, as well as world, is having right now about representation, about diversity, about equity — it transcends our industry. It’s a part of the fabric of a lot of our social discussions right now. But specifically speaking about the video game industry, this is an industry that in some form or another is always experiencing growth. It’s always experimenting with change and technology. While born out of some very painful experiences by others, it’s a moment in time where never before has our industry been more focused on these types of conversations and issues.
Investments have been long made internally and in the wider community, but now there’s this wonderful coalescing to be a part of the conversation and push change. That’s from internal employee research working groups. The activities inside companies are growing. But it’s spreading across the industry to not just those that we particularly view sometimes as the traditional silos — publishers, developers — but to the community as a whole. Activities are growing out of that.
When people say “industry,” there’s a very narrow view. A large industry, but a narrow view. This is really about community. So many people that work in the industry are also part of the community. In the article “Gamers Like Us” in the September issue of Red Bulletin, there was a comment made about how video games are about community. It’s about connecting people despite their barriers. As with all communities, there’s work to be done. Our industry has always understood that, but now, as a whole, we’re embracing that and putting forth some unprecedented energy toward seizing this opportunity for growth and change.
GamesBeat: It’s interesting to see how diversity has moved from one of 10 things on the agenda to something that has a lot of CEO-level comments and companies putting money behind it. Zynga is saying it’s going to invest $25 million in the next few years into these different diversity-related opportunities. Riot as well has stepped forward. That feels like a sea change, now that it’s something they’re putting a budget behind over time.
Staten: One of the things that’s a very positive conversation and outcome of all of this is that — for a very long time, particularly from the Foundation’s perspective, the work we do and the partners we have in community brands like Red Bull, or within the publisher and developer space, Electronic Arts, Limited Run Games, PlayStation and Xbox — there’s been this great focus on underrepresented talents and the spending pipeline. There are a plethora of amazing programs out there. Not enough — there’s never enough — but there are amazing programs out there that we’ve supported and our partners have supported.
What you were talking about, with some of the things at Zynga and Riot — Humble Bundle did something too. As an industry and a community, we’re looking beyond that leaky STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] pipeline and looking at as a whole life cycle. Developers and publishers and game makers who are at various points in their careers, how can we support those underrepresented voices to have the same opportunities and access that others might have? Those initiatives coming out of this conversation, as you said, it’s a sea change. It’s a conversation changer. That, combined with some of the things that have been going on for a while, gives a huge opportunity.
There are a few numbers in the industry we talk about, and sometimes you don’t see a lot of change in them, when it comes to representation. But this moment and these initiatives have the momentum to start moving those needles more significantly than they have. I’m proud to see all of that happening across the community.
GamesBeat: How do you have the conversation with people where they could be very skeptical still? When people have been working at this cause for so long that they’re not sure this is going to result in change now. My example about that, I worked at the Los Angeles Times in the 1990s. After the Rodney King riots, we had a big internal discussion about diversity in the newsroom. We created a diversity committee and pushed for hiring and all that. And after the riots this summer the same thing happened, where again, the minorities in the newsroom felt that the paper wasn’t doing enough to cover communities of color in Los Angeles, that they had to do more.
One of the guys from there contacted me and said, “Hey, do you have documents from the ’90s?” I got them out of my attic and sent them over. They came up a couple of weeks ago with this apology for the Times’s role in racism over the last 100 years. I thought, “Wow. I would never have expected to see that editorial run in the Times.” It was heartening for me to see that, but at the same time, it’s so sad that came almost 30 years after we tried to change some things there. To me, this moment feels like an opportunity, but I’m still skeptical as well.
Staten: Even the most optimistic, advocacy-driven, passionate individuals — I’d classify myself as one of those — have our moments of skepticism as well. It’s a human response. You can stand in a moment and look back and say, “Wow, why didn’t it happen then?” We had so many chances to change the dialogue. Why didn’t it happen then? What makes this moment special?
I ask myself some of those same questions, but I think back to where I started my career in politics. Finding myself drawn toward empowering communities. What I do now is an extension of that, helping provide access and opportunity to create change, helping people fulfill dreams, helping fight sometimes, in many respects, systems that prevent advancement.
Above: Samantha “Persia” Hancock, Abby Sherlock, and Keisha Howard spoke at We Are booth at E3 2019.
But you look at the moment we’re in right now, and to some extent it’s intangible. But look how many people are saying, “This is it. This is a moment.” It may not be the moment, because there’s going to be a series of moments that are born out of this moment that will ultimately create change. But did any of us think back in May or June, as the summer rolled through, that we’d still, in October, be having conversations about change, about investment? Seeing more people getting on board, seeing people double down and want to continue to drive change.
I look at some of the companies in the industry, and not just to pick — it’s hard to pick one or two, because almost everyone is charting their own path in their own time. They’ve all participated in some way. But many of them are coming through. Even the ESA Foundation. To simplify it, we kicked off our commitment. We’ve renewed our focus on needing to have this conversation and address this. We’ve already put some money behind it. Now, what do we need to do next to make it sustainable?
From my perspective, between being part of politics, moving into the non-profit space, and then the non-profit space inside this industry, this is having a lot of conversation about empowering future generation, empowering underrepresented communities. Students who want to get into games making games. I have not seen, in this industry and outside this industry, true sustained conversations about how we actually bring sustainable change. Not just putting out individual flags and markers and hoping in that moment, in opportunities in the past. This is a sustained thing.
I don’t want to be too optimistic. It’s not an overnight solution. Change is not going to happen on a dime. But if we all are committed to realizing we might fumble, it’s a long road, and we all need to help each other — that includes sharing in the responsibility, sharing in the opportunities to educate people, raising our hands when we need to, and making room for others. I don’t know. I feel pretty good about it.
I separate myself from the industry. By doing that, partly that means I turn and look inward to, say, our scholarship recipients, or some of the women, including myself — the three women who are our scholars, Geneva Heyward and the two women in the Red Bulletin article — you hear their voices. I look at our scholarship recipients. I hear their voices. We’re all on a Discord group together where we chat and share resources. They share what’s going on in our lives. That includes, sometimes, the challenges they face. But the conversations they’re having as individuals within these smaller ecosystems that are part of our larger industry and our larger society are amazing.
They are optimistic. They are driven. They are excited. They want to contribute. They understand that they’re finding ways to overcome, and they’re so creative in doing it. We have one scholarship recipient, he was not fortunate enough to have the access and opportunity that some do to go to summer camps for coding or game design, or even really had a school that had a robust arts and computer science program. He’s mostly self-taught. He didn’t have people who encouraged it as a career path. As a college student now, he says, “I don’t want other people to feel that way, that they have to completely self-educate and boost themselves up without that support system.” In his free time, over the last year, he wrote a book. He published it free online for other students that might have similar experience and want to learn.
I just think that’s an amazing thing. Coupled with the focused and sustained conversation and effort of industry, of community, and individuals contributing in the ways that they can, it’s all — not to be cliche about it, but it raises all boats. I’m not sure that in many of our lifetimes, we’ve felt that much optimism, that much power, and people stepping into their own as individuals and as communities.
Above: Girls who play games are three times more likely to get a STEM degree in college.
GamesBeat: Have you seen the Foundation itself benefit at this time in terms of new energy or new money?
Staten: The Foundation is in a unique position in the industry. We’re very much a part of it, but we’re also legally and financially separate. We made a decision that we were going to be a part of helping the industry coalesce and have a conversation around what we were talking about a second ago, how we can sustain this conversation. We’ve been putting a lot of effort into helping create partnerships for ESA member companies and taking some extra time with our scholars this year. They’ve lost a lot of opportunities. They’ve lost internships. Many of them, being from underrepresented and underprivileged backgrounds, had to scramble off-campus in the spring and face uncertainty in the fall. We’ve pulled back a lot of what we would normally do in terms of fundraising and public exposure to focus on our community and helping raise up everyone.
As we now move into the fall, you’re beginning to see the fruits of some of that. You’ll see some more partnerships from the Foundation announced. Even when we look at the We Are initiative, where we partnered with Red Bull, a lot of that was based on the ability to convene people. In this time of COVID, that’s simply not possible. It’s also changing the way that we tend to connect, how people are willing to connect. We’ve also been taking a lot of time in just helping support our communities digitally through professional development series online. The women and individuals who have appeared as part of our We Are initiative, either as role models or facilitators in panels, connecting with them and bringing them into opportunities, particularly to support our scholars and individuals who are early in their careers. Just making sure people at this time don’t feel disconnected and feel supported.
From a programmatic standpoint, the Foundation has seen a lot of opportunities. But with COVID, it has strangled some of our financial resources. Hopefully, that’s something that, as we go toward the new year, we’re able to capitalize on. But I’m proud of our work. All day long I would be happy to focus on building community and building our program to help people.
GamesBeat: What direction will the industry pursues? An example of that came up in the U.S. vice presidential debate, where Kamala Harris was talking about taking on issues of systemic racism and sexism. And Vice President Mike Pence was saying it’s not systemic, that all these fine people in law enforcement are just doing their jobs. The implication is that if there are any problems, they exist on an individual level. It feels like that’s a dividing line, between people who believe that there are systemic issues to take on and people who don’t.
You can do diversity initiatives that make both sides happy, like scholarships, opportunities for young people. But then there are things that are more divisive when you take them on, because you are trying to take on something systemic, to make a change that’s bigger. I wonder if you sense how this is going within games.
Staten: When you look across industries, I think you would be hard pressed to find an industry that also has a fan and enthusiast base that sees itself as a full community. If you define community as a group of people that have this feeling of fellowship and share a particular set of characteristics and passions and attitudes and goals, I think that’s what you describe when you describe people who are passionate about video games. Whether you’re playing them or making them. If you’re making them, you’re also playing them.
I just don’t — I feel our community has a lot of people that are willing to raise their voices and point out issues. That’s what you see right now. The people doing that are not saying, “This is just a couple of bad actors. That’s their problem.” It’s not. It’s a community problem. As a unit, we’re all here to raise our voices.
What I’m really trying to say is that unlike maybe general pockets of society or other industries, you have people with a passion, who want to nurture and ensure that this community, the community of video games, is as healthy as it can be, and people get what they love out of it. Because we’re already prewired for that, I think there are opportunities to push for change and take advantage of them, especially since there’s this larger conversation happening.
I see a community and an industry that is fueled by challenges. That’s the whole point of playing a game, overcoming a challenge. Our industry and our community is well-suited to identifying and mapping out how to overcome these obstacles. We’re going to see some meaningful impact. Again, it takes time. But I’ve seen conversations, and I’m heartened by them, that I didn’t think I’d see the world having so collectively.
GamesBeat: If we do have the opportunity, where do you think it is best directed, all this energy?
Staten: Particularly when I think about the Foundation, and I’ve shared some of this for you before — it’s about students. That pipeline is extremely important. The number of students playing or interested or watching video games is growing. I don’t think they have enough understanding that that passion could result in them working in games, in something that they love. I would like to see even more effort being put into showing the industry and the opportunity that’s there. And not just what students think it is. They think of it as STEM, and that’s not true. There are so many other jobs.
You have a passion for art history? There are opportunities. One of the cool jobs I just learned about is foley artist. People often associate that with the movie industry, using everyday sounds to replicate people walking on the floor or the swoosh of a dress, something like that. They have those in video games, too. If you want to be a lawyer, there are lots of lawyers in the industry. I’d love to see the conversation expand beyond STEM to all the opportunities that the industry represents, and I’d like to see those particularly brought into communities that are underrepresented.
A great example, this weekend, along with Latinx in Gaming and their three-day online event, we’re hosting a panel about breaking into the industry. We have individuals from media managers to creative directors to HR specialists. Everybody’s sharing their specific role, sharing their passion. That’s something important to see. In short, I’d like to see more effort focused on expanding the understanding of STEM and teaching those 21st-century skills, which I think the industry does an amazing job at. I’d like to see that expand to a more holistic conversation about industry opportunities.
I’d also like to see the sustained effort to nurture talent once it does make it into the industry, and providing opportunities for diverse individuals to make their way in. That’s going to have to be a focused effort. That’s going to have to be intentional. A lot of folks are ready to make it more intentional than it’s ever been.
GamesBeat: As far as what the Foundation is going to prioritize, is there anything different in how it’s going to operate? Do you plan to expand any efforts that have already been happening?
Staten: For years, you can look at our portfolio of work, between our scholarship program that’s exclusively focused on women and minority students in esports and video game arts and sciences, or our grants and partnerships portfolio. Ninety percent of what we do naturally focuses on underserved students. For us, not a lot changes. But what we are thinking about is what we talked about a second ago, where the industry is coalescing and brands are coalescing around shared goals of uplifting underrepresented communities and underrepresented voices in the industry. We’re looking for more ways we can help be a catalyst or further amplify their activities.
One example of that, we’re working with a number of companies right now, and a couple of non-profits, to see how we might be able to pull together all of our resources and create some larger, more sustainable change. That sustainable change is not just what we want to see happen in the long term, but also helping these organizations create sustainability so they can count on being able to do their work. Not just in this one moment where everyone is focused on them, but over the next two, three, four, five, or more years, so we can ensure that sea change that we’re talking about has that runway and that continued energy.
That’s one way you’re going to start to see, in 2010, the Foundation’s work — more where we spend our time, but our work is not going to finish. It’s only going to amplify. When we’re ready to talk more about it, we’ll be here to tell you.
Above: Hilaree Caldwell, Amanda Kane, Anna “rxysurfchic” Maree, Gaylen Malone, Mae “missesmae” Apelacio, and Annie Pei pose for a portrait at We Are booth at E3 2019.
GamesBeat: You mentioned that it’s been harder because there are no physical events. How are you adapting to the digital side? Are you finding some things that are easier or harder to do?
Staten: Everyone in the world is having the same experience. Some things are easier and some things are harder. Sometimes planning processes have an A and a B, and now they go A, B, C, and D. But the biggest opportunity that we anticipated being a challenge, but ended up not, is delivering mentorship, valuable mentorship and professional development opportunities for individuals in collegiate settings and early career. We’ve been able to execute and have greater participation for those activities than we’ve ever had. That includes everyone from panelists and participants to people joining the sessions. That’s been amazing.
We just had a conversation the other day with Activision Blizzard. They’ve always contributed amazing talent to us for mentors and other activities. But we had to ask them if they could just pause for a minute because we had so many people from the company wanting to participate. We had 19 that participated in judging our scholarship program this year, which was happening all during COVID. Things that we thought were going to be a challenge — getting people’s attention. With everybody being in chaos, would they focus and join activities? That challenge is not there. If anything it’s better, because we’re able to deliver more.
As far as the true challenge, it being able to connect with folks and showing them the value of our work. We’ve had to be far more creative in connecting, even with our We Are project. We’re no longer able to go to PlayStation Experience or Capcom Cup or other in-person tournaments that maybe Red Bull might host, to create these in-person community groups, which are usually focused on women. We’re not able to do that. That not only hampers some of our funding, to be quite frank, but it hampers the experience to make sure that we’re having important conversations.
Part of what we’re talking about with this sea change, increasing diversity and inclusion, is creating spaces where people can share and connect. Online does some of it, but it doesn’t replace that opportunity of being in person.
GamesBeat: We’ve been trying to get sponsors for a diversity conference for a while, focused on games, and we couldn’t do it. We tried again for a December event. I don’t know if it’s just because we’re a for-profit company doing events, but it’s challenging for us to try to make these events happen.
Staten: I don’t think it’s a lack of desire or commitment. There’s so much happening in the space right now that everyone is trying to figure out where to focus their attention. I know even for ESA Foundation, we were talking about programming. We have wonderful opportunities like the Unidos Online. We’re doing something in addition to that on Sunday with Gordon Bellamy and Gay Gaming Professionals with some of our scholars who are active in the LGBTQ+ community. The opportunities are blossoming everywhere. It’s a wonderful problem to have. I’m grateful to be overwhelmed with so many opportunities. But it’s sometimes hard when you need to have a specific conversation. Sometimes it can be hard to break through on that.
GamesBeat: When there’s a lot of change happening, as well, it feels like it might be hard to stay focused on the issue. As you say, there’s so much happening. There’s a presidential election. There’s Microsoft buying Bethesda. These things change the game industry. You have to redirect the cats to where you want the focus to be.
Staten: Yes, and when everyone is completely disconnected. On top of all of these important, powerful things happening, you have COVID on top of it. People are having to deal with some of the most important conversations in a long time at the same time as everyone is struggling with finding a routine. I wouldn’t even say a new normal. People struggle with finding a routine.
I look at our scholarship recipients. In the spring, some of them were given less than two weeks to move home, out of their dorms. Most of us remember our ramen days. Packing up and getting yourself across the country when you have $20 in your wallet is a hard proposition. And then you face — how do you get back here for an internship? Paid internships are cancelled or postponed. I will say, that’s one way the industry, and professionals in the industry — not just companies, but a lot of individuals — we started a COVID emergency response fund for scholarship recipients, both for ESA Foundation and AIAS scholars. We were able to offer scholars who filled out a short application about emergency funding everything from everyday expenses to getting home. We had one scholar who said, “How am I going to complete my project? It’s a VR game. I usually use a computer in the lab. My home computer will never power this. I have to go home.” Together we were able to help him replace that.
You have all the other happenings at the same time, and you have the chaos of a pandemic on top of it. It’s a lot for people to focus on all at once. Our scholars are pretty resilient, but it’s hard on everyone.
Above: Anastasia Staten
GamesBeat: This summer, internships getting wiped out must have hurt a lot of different people, especially students.
Staten: It did. It was pretty rough. There were a number of companies that did a great job of trying to figure out how to create remote situations. Some of it is paid, but some of it is for credit. You need it for school. You’re in your senior year, and if you don’t have experience to show, how are you going to get a job? Now you’re entering a job market in an economic climate that might not be conducive to finding a job.
Some other companies didn’t just try to preserve, but really stepped up. Jam City was one of them. Jam City really stepped up for our scholarship recipients that were co-awarded with Gay Gaming Professionals. They offered all of those scholars 11-week paid internships and mentorship, but then they also offered them transportation money and additional scholarship funds on top of what we give them.
There’s a lot of creative empathy and community-building and people just saying, “This is the right thing to do. We need to band together and support everyone.” We’re an industry that’s having a period of exceptional growth. Seeing the way a lot of people have supported the younger talent has been really cool. A lot of cool unexpected things happening.
GamesBeat: People clearly see games are growing, and even thriving in the pandemic. Jobs in the industry might seem more attractive right now to people deciding what to study or getting out of school. They might more easily conclude that this is a career worth pursuing.
Staten: One of the things that, anecdotally, I see changing — I’ve seen this change for a couple of years, but COVID will definitely speed it up. But it’s parents. Working with after-school programs, or even some of our in-school opportunities and scholarship recipients, you frequently hear, in any group, a few stories about parents either — mostly not understanding. Not so much not supporting, but not understanding, having a difficult time understanding that this is a career that you can do. We had one scholarship recipient who said, “If I hear my parents say ‘lawyer or doctor’ one more time. …” And then she got a full ride to USC. That shut them up.
With parents seeing how their students are engaging with games, not only for entertainment but also for educational activities during this time, I think it’s going to spark a lot of conversations about potential careers in the industry. We’re seeing parents and teachers understand and be able to guide students toward those opportunities.
One thing that we’ve been excited about is esports, too. We’ve been talking a lot about video game arts and sciences, but this year was the first year that we launched our esports scholarship fund for women and minorities who are playing collegiate esports, regardless of their degree. That was born out of a lot of conversations with Red Bull, and the need that we were seeing at community events. We noticed there was a huge opportunity to diversify the players and encourage that.
The Foundation has also been talking to a lot of HBCUs, historically black colleges. We’ve been working with CSL about all of their efforts to create a league. It’s wonderful to see the HBCU Esports Alliance and CSL creating leagues and conferences and tournaments, but more important, doing exactly what’s at the heart of the foundation, which is also providing curricula to allow students — not just those that are playing in the ecosystem — to understand the career opportunities. That’s what we talk about when we talk about a sea change, how we commemorate that and move it forward.
The HBCU Esports Alliance is a wonderful new structure that’s helping build that. It’s not just creating athletes, but it’s about academic programming, career development, recruitment strategies, and helping students learn about the job opportunities that exist in video games and esports. You’ll see us partnering with them, but you’ll also — I think when we talk about sustainability and creating long-term change, you’ll see more and more partnerships like that, where we’re creating a holistic experience for students.
Above: Anastasia Staten, head of the ESA Foundation, at E3 2019.
GamesBeat: The whole idea of being paid to play games has been both controversial and funny, but it’s exciting to see it coming true for people.
Staten: It’s a wonderful way for — when people are so passionate about something, I love to see them be able to organize around it and turn it into a real opportunity. For a lot of students that will be participating in a program like this, it represents more access and more opportunity for them, both for the educational moment they’re in, but then also for the long term. Doing something that they love and having a chance to earn scholarship dollars and take advantage of educational opportunities. You can’t beat that.
GamesBeat: What’s motivating you most these days?
Staten: It’s still the scholars and the students we work with. Speaking of how all of this has changed us, we normally see them. We go to GDC together. We go to classrooms. We go to E3. But we had to come up with other ways to stay connected. One of the ways is Discord. There are days when, I’m not going to lie, I have to mute it. But just listening to them share and talk to each other is something that really motivates me.
We all have not so great days at work. That’s normal. Things are challenging. But all I have to do is go in that Discord channel and find one of the recent threads where they’re encouraging each other or celebrating each other. One of our scholars, Geneva, who also happened to be in the Red Bull article, they were just in a Windows X commercial. Someone said, “Oh my gosh, my friend saw you, here’s a link on Twitch.” And then just seeing everybody jump in and celebrate that experience. Sometimes they get on and say, “Here’s a link to my game. Here’s some of the new art. I’m struggling with this piece, what do you think?” To see them all get in there and help each other problem-solve — actually, three of them formed a group and they’re making a game that’s on Kickstarter. It’s going gangbusters. Just seeing that, I feel motivated.
When I think about how I’ve always been drawn to providing access and opportunity for others, which is something that I did and didn’t have growing up — I have a real passion for doing what I can to help students and younger people. I see them wanting to stay in the space, wanting to fulfill a passion they have, to express themselves. Any small way I can keep focused on that, I know I will always be motivated. So my number one motivator is really the Discord, seeing all of our scholars.
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