Connect with us
An image of Blizzard's Diversity Space Tool An image of Blizzard's Diversity Space Tool


Activision Blizzard’s Diversity Space Tool Doesn’t Understand Intersectionality



On May 12, Activision Blizzard revealed the “Diversity Space Tool,” which is being created to somehow help developers make games more diverse. The tool claims to be a “measurement device, to help identify how diverse a set of character traits are and in turn how diverse that character and casts are,” according to project manager Jacqueline Chomatas. Almost immediately after the post, Activision Blizzard was blasted with criticism, and people pointed out the many serious problems with the Diversity Space Tool.

Looking at the tool, it is clear that something feels off, but it might be unclear exactly what the problem is. This article hopes to illuminate the major problems with the Diversity Space Tool and its limited understanding of diversity. Hopefully, it will also be able to propose some solutions for how to improve on these issues and advocate for a system that could actually improve representation in gaming.

One of the most common complaints about the Diversity Space Tool is that it seems like a way to avoid actually hiring a diverse development team. Using data and metrics for diverse characters instead of simply hiring more diverse people to write these characters is an obviously lazy move, and a bulk of criticism has focused on this issue. Activision Blizzard has responded to this criticism by arguing that the tool was designed as a “supplement” and that they are still invested in diverse “hiring goals.”

However, the problems with the Diversity Space Tool run much deeper than simply the suggestion that it might be an excuse to avoid diversifying the workplace. This article will explore some of the fundamental concepts that the tool completely misunderstands, and examine what a better approach to diversity in gaming might look like.

Sojourn from Overwatch 2 - Diversity Space Tool
Image: Activision Blizzard

Issue #1: Intersectionality and the Additive Model

The popularity of the term “intersectionality” is often attributed to the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, who uses it to illustrate the ways that Black women face unique forms of discrimination. While Black women face both misogyny and racism, they also face a particular form of discrimination that comes at the intersection of these two issues. This form of discrimination cannot be understood as just the addition of “sexism + racism:” it’s a more complicated phenomenon that is more than just the sum of its parts.

Her most famous example looks at the case of Degraffenreid vs. General Motors. The plaintiffs, in this case, pointed out that they were facing workplace discrimination because they were Black women. However, because the employer wasn’t facing discrimination charges from Black male employees or white female employees, people argued that they couldn’t be racist or sexist. Crenshaw pointed out how this approach was flawed because it looked at racism and sexism as purely separate issues and didn’t understand how they functioned differently in situations where they intersected. Black women face forms of discrimination that are not fully articulated by just looking at sexism and racism as two distinct issues that don’t influence each other.

The term misogynoir has recently emerged as another way of talking about how the unique discrimination that Black women face goes beyond racism or misogyny towards a specific phenomenon. In general, it is important to understand that someone who experiences multiple forms of discrimination does not simply experience these things separately; they often combine in unique ways that make them more than the sum of their parts.

Since Crenshaw’s foundational work, intersectionality has since become adapted to refer to a broader set of ideas, including identity and cultural categories, instead of primarily focusing on oppression. At the heart of most of its uses, however, is resistance to the “checkbox model” or additive model of diversity. Intersectionality goes beyond simply “adding up a bunch of categories and seeing what the final result is,” but demands that we think about how these different categories inform each other, creating entirely unique experiences at each of their intersections. Black lesbians do not simply experience identity as the addition of “Black + gay + woman” but rather form unique communities, identities, and experiences that go beyond simply the sum of these parts.

It should not be surprising how the Diversity Space Tool misses this point. The tool separates different forms of identity from each other, then adds them together to figure out “how diverse” a character is. A tool like this does not leave room for understanding how combinations of different identity categories lead to unique and unexpected forms of both identification and oppression. It would be like seeing a pie as if it was the same experience as eating sugar, butter, and flower separately.

As Harsha Walia argues, “even an intersectional approach that acknowledges the overlapping and layered nature of power and privilege can lead to a flattening of all oppressions – a simple “additive effect” rather than ‘entirely different conceptions of people’s lived realities.’” We need to avoid “diversity checkboxes” but rather look to a deeper conception of how different forms of identity and oppression emerge.

Baptiste, Cole and Mei from Overwatch
Image: Activision Blizzard

Issue #2: Oppression Olympics

Another issue with the Diversity Space Tool is that it seems to be designed to categorize which groups count as being more oppressed than others. Different races, for example, seem to be assigned different point values based on which ones will add more “diversity” scores. This approach sees racism as something that can be measured by quantity as if all groups that aren’t white experience the same type of racism but just in different degrees or amounts.

Of course, the problem is that oppression looks different for different groups in different contexts; it’s not the same thing experienced to varying degrees but a complex and varied experience. In a North American setting, a gay Muslim from Pakistan and an Anishinaabe Two-Spirit person are both going to experience a combination of imperialism, racism, and queerphobia; however, these forms of discrimination work in completely different ways for both. Rather than trying to figure out how many “oppression points” each one gets, it’s much more valuable to understand how these systems look different for each and how they reinforce different, if often overlapping, harmful structures.

Discussing the problems with the “Oppression Olympics,” Walia argues that “Antioppression analysis becomes rigid in its categorizations when the question becomes who is more oppressed, rather than engaging in a dialogue of how oppression, which is relational and contextual, is specifically manifesting.”

Anduin from WoW - Diversity Space Tool
Image: Activision Blizzard

Issue #3: Who Gets to Be Normal?

The third and final issue addressed in this article is the question of who is being centered in the Diversity Space Tool. Characters seem to be given “diversity points” based on how far they deviate from the standard of cisgender, white, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied men. One of the problems with this approach is that it centers cisgender, white, straight, neurotypical, able-bodied men by putting them literally at the center of the model.

Part of the problem with the wording behind the Diversity Space Tool is that it wants to figure out “how diverse” a character is. This creates a binary between “normal” and “diverse” that allows the most privileged to remain unnamed, invisible, and naturalized. Certain people get to stand in as the default while everyone else becomes othered as the “diverse” ones. When you don’t name a group, they can start to act as if they can speak from a place of objectivity, and it’s important to remind them that they are subjective

A lot of antioppressive work has demonstrated the value that can come from seeing the groups we think of as the norm as if they are the “others.” What would happen if we looked at whiteness, or heterosexuality, or cisgender identity as the strange “other” because we put a different group at the center and framed it as normal? José Esteban Muñoz, for example, asks what it might look like to see Latine perspectives as the naturalized norm, and how this would allow us to see certain peculiarities of whiteness when it is put on the margin and looked at as the “other.”

Susan Stryker has argued, for example, that the term transgender “increasingly functions as the site in which to contain all gender trouble,” pointing out how we need to turn the lens onto cisgender people to demonstrate how their experience with gender is no less complicated than trans peoples’. Similarly, Toni Morrison has shown the importance of studying whiteness as a cultural phenomenon, Jonathan Ned Katz has shown the need to interrogate and investigate the cultural category of heterosexuality, and Robert McRuer has implored us to look at how abled-bodiness as a concept is constructed. In all of these examples, it’s important to look at, destabilize, and decenter the normative groups as much as it is important to do work to center marginalized ones.

Diablo II: Resurrected Character Select Screen
Image: Activision Blizzard


Everything that I mention in this article is something that an undergraduate in gender studies, African American studies, postcolonial studies, or other programs focused on marginalized groups will learn by the time they graduate. The critiques reflected in it should not be particularly surprising to most people with a Humanities education. This raises the question: why did Activision Blizzard choose to consult with developers at MIT but not with scholars that study diversity?

Imagine if the developers had chosen to go to Howard University to work with Afro-American studies professors or to consult with gender studies scholars at U.C. Berkeley? Rather than waiting to hear about the problems with the Diversity Space Tool after releasing it to the public, Activision Blizzard could have saved themselves a lot of trouble by simply consulting with the plethora of scholars with entire degrees focused on these issues. Clearly, they were interested in university consultation if they worked with MIT to develop the tool.

This speaks to a larger problem with the way that entertainment and technology companies deal with diversity. There is a hesitance to consult with people who have spent a large amount of time studying exactly the issue that they are trying to tackle. Every year, students across the country graduate with degrees in African American Studies, Gender Studies, Indigenous Studies, and other areas of study that are directly relevant to the exact types of topics that the Diversity Space Tool was designed to tackle.

There are people out there with the expertise that is needed for this type of work. Questions about the complicated intersections that diversity and oppression produce are best tackled by people who have dedicated a large portion of their lives to studying these things. This begs the question of why these companies don’t bring more of them onboard to do the type of work that this tool tries to do. Creating new positions to hire people specifically focused on diversity, and bringing on more consultants to projects, is a major step forward. This, of course, should be in addition to – rather than instead of – bringing more diverse people on to existing creative and leadership roles at the company itself.

There are also countless books and articles that people can consult. Imagine if a company required their narrative designers to read work by Janet Mock and Roxanne Gay? What if they hired Kat Blaque to give a talk to their employees? In addition to diversifying the writing room itself (which is, of course, a top priority), what can be done to ask all writers to do the work of listening to accounts from other peoples’ perspectives so they can learn to better approach these issues with more empathy and understanding.

Lucio from Overwatch
Image: Activision Blizzard

Some Hope

Even amidst all of the obvious mess that accompanies the Diversity Space Tool, Activision Blizzard did seem to get one issue right. As they say on their website, “the tool can also uncover unconscious bias, such as why certain traits are seen as “male” vs. “female,” or why characters from certain ethnic backgrounds are given similar personalities or behaviors.” While these types of stereotypes are a relatively simplistic part of a much more complex issue, the idea of a tool that can give writers a heads-up when they are falling too close to normative tropes is promising.

The idea of someone getting a popup reminder asking them to give a female character more clothing, or an alert that all of their Black characters are written as evil or that all of their trans characters are subject to disproportionate amounts of violence, does seem appealing. The idea of the Diversity Space Tool is at its worst when it tries to measure how oppressed a character is or to quantify diversity. However, it could be at its best if used as a reminder of stereotypes or common misogynist or racist pitfalls. It still wouldn’t be perfect and isn’t a substitute for a real consultation, but it’s something!

In general, when you have issues as complicated and nuanced as diversity, discrimination, and representation, trying to find a cure-all quantitative tool is likely not going to work. In addition to diversifying the staff members who are actually in charge of a game at every level, more work could be done to engage in consultation, dialogue, discussion, and forms of understanding through listening, rather than just the desire to create another trendy metric tool to measure success.

Steven Greenwood is a Montreal-based writer & director, and the Artistic Director of Home Theatre Productions. He holds a PhD from McGill University with a focus on queer cultural history, and he teaches university courses in film, theatre, and popular culture. His work is influenced by his passion for queer history & culture, and he is a fan of all things geeky, pulpy, campy & queer. You can find him on Twitter @steven_c_g or on Instagram @steven.c.greenwood.