Activision Blizzard touted its Diversity Space Tool in a blog post on May 12, in which it claimed that both the Call of Duty: Vanguard and Overwatch 2 development teams beta tested the tool with much enthusiasm, then quickly walked this statement back on May 13 and said the tool “is not being used in active game development.” Ow! My head was hurt in its confusion! But my head will have to endure more suffering—a disastrous clip from 2017’s Game Developers Conference has resurfaced on Twitter and shows Activision Blizzard’s mobile acquisition, King, demonstrating the tool, meaning the backlash tour continues.
The awkward GDC footage shows a visibly nervous speaker describing the diversity tool’s results when applied to Super Mario characters, who she determines to not be diverse based on their apparent straightness. (I don’t know, doesn’t Princess Peach seem a little bisexual?) The absurdity of the clip, along with continued criticism from developers, is keeping Activision Blizzard firmly trapped in its own hot water.
In its too-late blog post edits, Activision Blizzard emphasized that the diversity tool was only in beta, and pretended it hadn’t just said it was using it on current games. “[The tool] was designed as an optional supplement to the hard work and focus our teams already place on telling diverse stories with diverse characters,” Activision Blizzard wrote, “but decisions regarding in-game content have been and will always be driven by development teams.” Activision Blizzard did not state, however, what game developers’ beta testing entailed, what results a beta test would yield, and how those results might be implemented in under-development games like Overwatch 2, if at all.
If we had to guess based on that snippet of Activision Blizzard’s 2017 GDC talk though, we might say that the goal of a beta test is to confirm that Super Mario games are diverse because Mario is small and Italian, like a Caucasian meatball.
“What we noted here is that Mario is short,” a speaker said during the talk about applying the tool to Super Mario, “like he’s actually shorter than Peach, so we gave him quite a high [body diversity] score for that.” Hopefully the census bureau will act in kind and start collecting short king data soon.
But if Activision Blizzard development teams are using the company’s tool to check for arbitrary diversity points the way the company claims, they don’t all seem to be currently aware of it. Melissa Kelly, a character artist at Blizzard who worked on Overwatch, said on Twitter that “Overwatch doesn’t even use this creepy [dystopian] chart, our writers have eyes.”
“You know what drives our diversity? The devs!” she continued in a thread. “We have people who work on the game from these cultures. That’s it! That’s literally it.” A senior engineer working on Overwatch 2 confirmed on the same day that the Overwatch team has not used the tool and even “didn’t know it existed until yesterday.” Neither Overwatch team member returned Kotaku’s request for comment.
The section of Activision Blizzard’s blog post on “how it works” also leaves much unexplained—there are few details on how the tool actually works. “Once it establishes a baseline for typical character traits (which is done by the creative team working closely with [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] experts),” says the post, “it can then weigh new character designs against it to measure their diversity.” The blog post does not detail how a “baseline” is determined nor what some “typical character traits” might be, but on May 14 game designer Margaret Ó Dorchaidhe wrote her own post trying to dig into Activision Blizzard’s details.
“How do you order ethnicity? How do you quantify it? More importantly, how do you quantify it without being horrifically racist and introducing your own biases?” Ó Dorchaidhe also asked about the data plugged into the diversity tool. “So what did they do? Well…as far as I can tell, they assigned random numbers that felt right to them.”
This assertion seems supported by King’s 2017 GDC talk, which is full of speakers referring to characters being assigned high or low scores based on things like ethnicity and sexuality. “What does that even MEAN?,” Ó Dorchaidhe asks in her post. “What does it mean to have a distance of 7 between Arab and White? What does it mean for a cis woman to be a 5 in gender? Well…nothing at all, really.”
Stephen Totilo reports on Axios that MIT research scientist Mikael Jakobsson, who was involved in creating the tool up until 2019, had planned for the project to be offered “as part of a workshop, alongside readings, and to avoid putting stats on character traits, lest it reduces efforts for diversity to ‘a numbers game.’” Though it’s in its beta stages (another meaningless phrase), the Diversity Space Tool will likely continue to receive backlash if Activision Blizzard continues to focus its project on numbers that deliver reductive and utterly useless information. When all is said and done, though, I do hope I score at least an 8 for gender.