Monoculture is Death

I get sick about twice every year, usually some kind of head cold that puts me down for a few days. This has happened since I was young, and is usually exacerbated by stress and seasonal changes, to the degree that, like clockwork, I would get sick the day after our High School Theater productions ended in early Spring.  I spent my sick time reading, and mainly science texts, trying to figure out what was going on in my body, whether it was bacterial or viral and what the difference was, and what could happen to make it better.  I learned a lot about biology, and probably by no small coincidence, my AP Biology Test was the only one of the four AP tests I took that I top scored.

It turns out that, whether bacterial or viral, a cold is caused by a lot of the same organism disrupting the patient. Bacteria multiply, splitting to make copies of themselves, and viruses instruct the existing human cells to turn into viral factories, churning out more viruses like tiny little Makerbots operating on a molecular level. Biology, at a cellular level, is an incredible example of chemical mechanics. This replication process has a flaw, of course, and that’s that the near perfection of every copy (mutations are introduced, yes, but they’re usually inconsequential) means that an antibiotic agent that can kill a single bacteria can kill all of them, or an antibody produced by the immune system that targets one viral receptor will block all instances of that virus.  The patient becomes sick, but the uniformity among the disease becomes it’s own undoing, and the patient adapts, improves, and moves on. The disease is a monoculture, so incredibly uniform that the correct adjustment by the larger body completely knocks the disease out.

Hold those thoughts for a moment.  I want to talk about something different.

Way back in college (I attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), after attending a few Fraternity rush events, I decided to join the local chapter of Psi Upsilon, which was the only co-educational social fraternity on campus. We had male and female brothers, and in fact, I actually shared a dorm room with a female brother of the fraternity for one year.  I wanted to be part of an organization that reflected the real world, because I knew the work force would not just be a group of men. In my professional life, one reason among many that I decided to go into Computer Games was that there were so many different types of jobs involved in making an entertainment product. Sure, there were the developers, but there were also producers, artists, animators, riggers, designers, sound effects people, musicians, a dizzying array of different skills and talents.  Talking to all of these people, about all of their backgrounds and what they brought to the experience, was fascinating and engaging, and I used to love to hear about what games people had worked on, or what they did to build up their craft, or what techniques they used (the audio guys for the first Forza Motorsport spent hours rolling cars onto dynos and recording the different engine, exhaust, and turbo spin-up sounds, for example).  Even talking to the business people about how we would diversify our games portfolio, and how we could make games that appealed to children, teens, and adults, was interesting.  Being around lots of different people was, and still is, a thrill.

The last few weeks, however, have brightly shone a light on the fact that not everyone embraces difference as much as I do, and that women, in particular are often either cast aside (at best) or actively harassed and alienated (at worst). While this started coming to a head with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s flippant comment about women asking for raises, the degree to which anti-woman sentiment ran deep in technology was blatantly exposed via GamerGate. There are several excellent articles that already exist about the what and the how and the why of GamerGate, from this New York Times article, to this opinion piece on the effects of toxic masculinity, to this NPR piece on how women were sidelined from computer science due to advertising and collegiate attitudes. Polygon (the online gaming magazine) finally came out with an editorial blasting GamerGate, but I have yet to see the other major industry players take sides as vocally.  I want to ensure, first and foremost, that it’s understood that SyncBuildRun is an organization that embraces diversity, and that harassment is something that will never be tolerated here. It’s part of who I am, and it’s part of what I want this company to be.

When I spoke to one set of peer-leaders about diversity, there was an instant backlash. “Affirmative Action is bullshit! Why should someone get a leg up just because they’re black?!” I was taken aback that this was their interpretation of the very word, “Diversity”, and further taken aback that these otherwise smart, rational managers were suddenly so emotional.  It was, in essence, a spark in a powder-keg that I suppose I saw coming, but did not understand how large it would bloom until last week.  When I said the word “diversity”, I always used it at face value: I wanted to work in an environment with many different types of people, from many different backgrounds. When I assembled and hired up a Gaming SDK Team for the Amazon Fire Phone, we had experienced developers, new developers, designers, artists, men and women. Likewise, when I left to start SyncBuildRun, my last team at Amazon was incredibly diverse, with three women (a SDE, an SDET, and a TPM), two people from India, one of Chinese background, one of Russian-French ethnicity, a Canadian, and several Americans. My managers at Amazon alone were also incredibly diverse, with one from India, one from Turkey, one an Asian-Canadian, and one American. One of my favorite managers (although we did not originally get along) was a woman who helped propel my career forward, and is now a trusted advisor and a good friend.  I have worked with people who were Muslim, Mormon, Christian, Jewish, Atheist, Liberal, Conservative, Straight, Gay, and even one Transgendered person.

The root question, of course, is why do I value diversity so much? The answer is simple: I have learned so much from people who are different from me, and these people have improved the workplace and the products we build by bringing something to the table that no one else could. Their unique background, their experiences, shaped them as people and provided a perspective that enhanced, not diminished, the overall result.  Even when we disagreed, even when there were lively but respectful debates, we all walked away improved as people, because we learned something about another person or culture that we could not have possibly known before.

When I look at the outrage stemming from GamerGate, that ostensibly is about game journalism, but really is about anti-feminine (not just anti-feminist, but anti-all-things-associated-with-being-female) culture, I am deeply dismayed. Game culture, and games themselves, cannot simply be the domain of the White-Straight-Male. When I work with, and engage with, diverse peers, I do so not merely out of altruism and a desire for personal growth, but because I understand that my non-white-male peers are representative of people who also hunger for engaging game experiences.  To exclude people unlike myself from games is to force games into a shrinking market. From a business perspective, this is terrible. It leads to companies in decline as they try to shoehorn their products to fit into an acceptable box, instead of expanding and experimenting and trying new things. It is a self defeating attitude, as these GamerGaters would inevitably see more sameness and less content that they themselves would want to play. Ultimately, it’s toxic and destructive, because it enforces the one thing we know can never survive: a monoculture.

The only constant in the Universe is Change.  Yes, games are changing, just as all media is changing, and business is changing. If the GamerGaters of the world want to push for a monoculture where games are all about male power fantasies, where the critical voices of women are not allowed, where women and the Culturally-Different are shamed and threatened, then I am letting you know now that you will not survive. The world of gaming is changing, with Moms making up a huge number of gamers, along with children, and seniors, and other groups you would not have considered being gamers just a few years ago. Like any other monoculture, the GamerGaters will be rejected by the host, and wiped out almost completely. While other companies have not yet been vocal about it, SyncBuildRun will lead the way, and state outright that if you support the harassment of women, if your desire is for sameness in the gaming industry, you will not be welcome here. We will not employ you. Your toxic point of view will not be part of our Positively Inclusive Diversity.

You would not like it here anyway. We are a healthy company, and we add positive value to the world by embracing Positive Values. I’m looking forward to our Diverse Gaming Portfolio, and to creating experiences that delight many different people, from many different backgrounds. Here, no constructive point of view will be silenced. We will never be a monoculture, and so we will not only survive, but we will thrive.

2 comments

  1. Daniel Hickey

    Well written Paul. Completely agree and it’s nice to see you call out all groups including seniors. I think that’s a group many gamers don’t even consider in terms of both hiring and potential audience. It’s a shame we haven’t made more progress across the board but important to keep pressing on this in gaming and everywhere. Great to see your post and also hear you’re speaking up to your peers.

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