Time passes strangely these days, so it is easy to forget things that happened or were said or were pledged just five months ago.
But it was indeed in June 2020 that institutions around the world, including video game companies, vowed to do better by their Black customers and Black workers for the cause of racial justice.
During a recent interview with Xbox chief Phil Spencer, I asked him about this. His company, Microsoft, had made several pledges, including to do better by its Black employees, to recruit more Black workers to the tech giant, and to “double the number of Black and African American people managers, senior individual contributors, and senior leaders in the United States by 2025.”
That was in June, when everyone was talking about racial justice.
“One of the worries is you kind of get hyper-focused at a certain time, and the election comes along and months go by and you almost just kind of shift,” Spencer told me. “The conversation turns to something else. And I do think it’s something that we should come back to.”
We came back to it when we were speaking last month, during a conversation that was set up ostensibly to talk about the next generation of Xboxes, which we talked about plenty. We put the Xbox hardware talk on pause, though, when I asked how Microsoft was following through on its pledges. At one point in the exchange Spencer and I talked about Black people’s prominence—or lack thereof—in game studios and in leadership.
“The area where I think we really need to focus more as an industry, including my own team, are, as you said, those visible leaders,” Spencer said. “Because there was a generation where this didn’t happen.”
For years, Spencer was noting, Black people have not been given many chances to lead in gaming. Other people—the implication being “white people”—have ascended in the ranks at Western game companies.
“And as those people move up inside of the organization, you get a lot of people like me,” Spencer said, acknowledging that he’s yet another white guy in power. “And we don’t need more people like me in our organization. We need a more diverse team. So I’d say, for our focus right now, I think about manager representation.”
Microsoft and its Xbox division, like many tech and gaming companies—hell, like many institutions throughout America—have a long way to go and a lot to make up for.
The company’s 2020 diversity and inclusion report, released late last month, showed that 4.7 percent of the company’s U.S. workforce is Black. That’s an increase of just 1.1 percent since 2016.
By contrast, Black people comprise 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census.
Microsoft’s report also showed that Black employees at Microsoft hold fewer than 5 percent of leadership roles. None of the figures, including that one, are broken down specifically for the company’s Xbox division.
Carl Varnado, the chairperson for the advocacy group Black In Gaming, says this is far from just an Xbox thing. The percentage of Black people in the video game industry has been extremely low for a long time, hovering around 2 percent.
“The numbers have always been consistent,” he said in a phone interview. “Black developers have always been between one and two percent of the industry, and that hasn’t changed in 30 years.”
He noted that a Black man, Jerry Lawson, was the pioneering force behind the first cartridge-based video game console, Fairchild’s Channel F. “So we’ve been there from the beginning.”
In June, as protests spread across America, Spencer tweeted support for Black Lives Matter and for his company’s diversity goals.
Later that same month, however, Milan Lee, a former employee of the Xbox team’s game-streaming service Mixer, wrote a searing public account of his time at Microsoft. He called the experience “the worst I’ve ever had professionally and it’s all due to RACISM.” He described being one of the only Black people working at Mixer in his two years there, worrying he’d been hired to fill a diversity goal. He recalled becoming angry when a manager likened herself to a “slave master” and then seemingly was not penalized during an HR investigation. After Lee went public, Microsoft declined to comment on the results of the investigation, but Spencer met with Lee to discuss his experience.
As Spencer and I spoke about the Xbox division’s need for greater diversity, he brought up Lee before I could ask about him.
“Where we start is the makeup of our teams,” he said. “What is it? And not just from ‘how are our numbers in terms of representation?,’ but the inclusion factor of our teams? How does it feel to work here? What’s your lived experience?
“We have work to do,” he continued. “I have work to do in that. You can look at the Milan Lee situation and the conversations he and I had in June. And, you know, PR won’t love it that I bring those things up in conversation.”
I mentioned that I was about to ask about Lee anyway.
“I think it’s important that we are forthright and open about the lived experience of everybody on our team,” Spencer continued. “Are we reaching the goals that we have for ourselves? And we have work to do in that space.”
Lee did not reply to a request for comment, but after speaking to Spencer in June he said he had explained “to Phil what I believe is a correct course of action. Actions like releasing data showing diversity statistics of employees at Xbox and how we can improve year over year.”
Lee had also called for the firing of the manager whom he said made the slavery comment. Asked about that by Kotaku, Spencer said he didn’t “want to talk about specific employee relations.” I appreciated having the conversation with Milan and had a couple conversations with him,” he said. “I learned from every one of those interactions, and they’re helpful.”
In 2015, employees at Microsoft formed a community group called Blacks At Xbox. A statement on the group’s old community spotlight page explained BAX’s goal: “Our shared blackness does not make us all the same, of course—we come from a variety of cities (and countries), socioeconomic backgrounds, and professional experiences—but we have a common mission: to connect with and uplift the black community within the gaming industry.”
Rukari Austin, a former on-air host for Xbox news shows who was laid off from Microsoft in 2019, recalled the Blacks at Xbox meetups being positive experiences oriented toward making things better. He noted Milan Lee’s bad time at Mixer and that Black employees’ experiences were heavily dependent on the quality of their managers. For example, when he’d heard that another person in a position of authority described him with the racially coded phrase “well-spoken,” that person was receptive when another employee told him they shouldn’t say that.
“Microsoft being as big a company as they are, they can and should do more,” Austin said. “Given my experience in life, I was well prepped for it.” He attributed some of his ability to do well at Microsoft to being able to code-switch. He acknowledged that he wrestled with his own doubts and discomforts about fitting in.
“I never thought anything Microsoft explicitly did was hindering me,” he said in a phone interview, “but I would watch myself—and I think a lot of Black people in America face this. When I walked into a [Microsoft] building with my hood up and baggy clothes, I would wonder if they could hear my rap music. Then I stopped myself and thought: ‘Why do I care?’”
Austin described a crisis of confidence when he’d appear on those Xbox news videos, watching the more established (and white) hosts going through the news, while he’d be off to the side giving reactions. He fretted that he was just “shucking and jiving,” just “sitting at the kids’ table” and not belonging. He talked to his manager about it and found her to be sympathetic.
He also realized that moments that may have frustrated him could still be inspirational to others. He recalled a moment when he went to E3 and ran into multiple groups of Black fans who recognized him from those news shows and even commented on how he’d wear different, stylish shoes from episode to episode. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, y’all appreciate that.’” That moment of appreciation at E3 was an epiphany.
Black In Gaming’s Carl Varnado says that the Xbox group, Microsoft at large, or any other gaming groups that are serious about recruiting and empowering more Black talent are facing a major but essential challenge.
“Hiring Black talent and placing Black talent into your company takes a level of commitment at various levels,” Varnado said. “You can’t just shoot a dart at the wall and say, ‘Okay, I want 100 Black developers in my company right now.’”
Spencer had pointed to some actions Microsoft is taking, such as increasing recruitment at historically Black colleges and universities and striving for a diverse internship program. Varnado said that as poor as the industry-wide stats are, he does see Xbox as doing better than some other gaming companies.
Varnado notes that for the industry to make meaningful improvements in terms of diversity, there needs to be major commitment and investment. He identifies three things that oppressed people need to succeed: access to get into the room, agency to be in that space and treated with respect, and autonomy, which means providing resources to people of color and advocacy groups with no strings attached.
He floated the idea of a company like Microsoft reaching out to a group like Black In Gaming, LatinXInGaming, or the Independent Game Developers Association’s charitable foundation and offering full support to empower those groups to increase diversity in gaming. “They could write a $10 million check and say, ‘We believe in your thing and go do it.’ The thing that happens is everybody attaches things, because they want to achieve their own goals. And then the response usually has to do with individual company goals. Sometimes those are great, but I don’t know if they always address what was originally thought about.”
And while Varnado supports the idea of adding more Black people—and more people of color overall—as leaders in the games industry, he believes any such effort that only tries to promote people from within gaming will fail. “We have to recruit more leadership from other sectors,” he said. “The idea of climbing a ladder is one of the flaws in the model. That’s going to weed out a lot of people.”
He noted that the game industry’s recruitment problem co-exists with a retention problem. People get burned out or demoralized. They don’t stick around. Good leaders in other industries could probably transfer a lot of their skills to gaming, Varnado said, and help diversify leadership in the games industry.
In early October, Microsoft revealed that the Trump administration had questioned the company’s pledge to double its Black leadership by 2025. In a company blog post, Microsoft general counsel Dev Stahlkopf said that the Department of Labor had sent the firm a letter questioning whether the company’s pledge would result in illegal race-based hiring decisions that violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Stahlkopf denied this was the case and said Microsoft’s plans were lawful.
“We are clear that the law prohibits us from discriminating on the basis of race,” he wrote, “We have decades of experience and know full well how to appropriately create opportunities for people without taking away opportunities from others. Furthermore, we know that we need to focus on creating more opportunity, including through specific programs designed to cast a wide net for talent for whom we can provide careers with Microsoft.”
Spencer said he was glad Microsoft had made its statements in June and appreciated the company’s response to the Labor Department. He said the company and the Xbox group had an obligation to proceed with making gaming a more inclusive place.
“When you talk also about the representation in our games and in the industry and the role that we have as Microsoft, I think about the fact that we’re at a $1.5 trillion market cap company in the games industry,” he said. “We should be a platform for all creators—from creators, different storytellers, from different perspectives, who can help each of us that are playing these games learn through the lived experience of the creators, which we all do every time we play somebody’s games. But I’m definitely starting with our team.”
Former Xbox host Rukari Austin would love to see some progress, too, but his own experiences as a Black man in America have made him resigned not to expect much. “The apathetic Black American in me understands this is bigger than all of us,” he said of Microsoft’s goals. “And I know why they are working toward change, but what change is possible, we’ll see.”