February marks Black History Month, and one of the ways Ubisoft is observing is through activities created around the theme “Authentically Us,” which seeks to highlight and celebrate Black employees and cultural diversity. As part of this theme, Ubisoft News helped facilitate a discussion between two Black employees living on different continents with different backgrounds. Writer Arden Youngblood, who’s currently working on an unannounced title with Ubisoft Quebec and Content Director Gilles Matouba, who works with the Open Innovation Lab to help developing indies, spoke about the challenges of being yourself at work, the threat of unconscious bias, and how valuable diversity can be.
Arden Youngblood: I started at Ubisoft about a year and a half ago, and I'm a writer on the narrative team of an unannounced game. We're in preproduction right now, but it's been great being on the project this early.
Gilles Matouba: Is that your first game in development?
AY: Yes, this is my first time. I got started in videogames about a year and a half ago, during COVID. I got very lucky because during the pandemic, I started working on a young-adult novel. I had been doing business strategy and operations and partnership development, but I'd always wanted to try something more creative. I just didn't really know how. Then, one of my older sisters happened to meet a writer at Ubisoft, and she was like, “Arden, you should send him your writing samples.” So she connected me, and I sent some samples, and then next thing you know, I got offered a job. It was such a quick turnaround.
It was really a lesson in networking and I’m hoping that gradually, more Black people can tap into networks, build their own networks, so opportunities like this come their way more frequently. Now we've got a small group of employees at Ubisoft who have a unique opportunity to recruit more Black people into a field they might not be as familiar with, from a career perspective. I certainly didn't know it was a possibility, but I'm so glad I found it – or that, you know, it found me.
How long have you been in games?
GM: I'm quite experienced. I've been in the videogame industry for 22 years now. I joined Ubisoft in 2003. I left Ubisoft for a bit but came back, and I’ve been here for 14 or 15 years in total. For me, at least, as a person of color in the industry, it was very bizarre, because back in the day, I was the only one in a lot of rooms. And I would say, of course, in Europe and France being Black is not treated the same as it is in America.
For a long time, I was colorblind of myself; “I’m just a game developer, I’m just like anyone else, I'm just blending in with the rest of the people.” And I just pretended that this was true until about six to eight years ago, when I started to get more social consciousness. This new awareness is impacting the way I see things and the way I create as well, but also it is impacting the way people see me, and I should be more mindful of it.
Back in the day, we had virtually no people of color and no women; it was just white guys. That was the norm, and when you’re young, you don’t want to question it. You prefer to work and focus yourself on being creative and being the best.
AY: Right, you go into survival mode, and you’re trying to assimilate and blend in and hope no one notices.
GM: Exactly. I was focused just on trying to do a great job. I was pretty ambitious, and I wanted to believe that I was very talented, because I quickly moved through the ranks, and I became a game designer and eventually a game and creative director.
Originally, I'm an artist, a comic book artist, and then I found gaming and loved it. I quickly transitioned into game design because I'm passionate about world-building and systems, and back in the day, you could easily move from position to position if you really had the drive for it. That’s part of the reason I was able to quickly move up.
I think when I started becoming more senior is when I really started to ask certain questions: “Why me?” “Why are people talking to me like that?” because I was so just in the mode of trying to fit in that I forgot that I'm a 6-foot-4-inch Black person with a strong voice, and maybe people have biases when I show up or speak up. I was starting to question my interactions with people, and realized that there might have been something else going on here, and that made me decide that I should stop acting like there was no difference like I always had been.
AY: Yeah, because whether or not the differences are acknowledged, they are there. And they are influencing your interactions.
GM: And it was taboo as well. You had no one to talk about it with, to share that with. According to the French constitution, everyone is equal; and unlike some other countries, our census does not collect information about racial identity, because everyone is supposed to be equal in the eyes of the government – but it’s a big myth, because at the end of the day, racism still exists. On one hand, it can make you feel like you belong more, but on the other the issues are still there, and people don’t acknowledge them.
AY: That's in the US, too. We have this founding idea for the country, that “all men are created equal.” But then there were so many exceptions to that rule, and, unfortunately, still are. We’re in Black History Month right now, and even though it's called Black History Month, a lot of the struggles and triumphs that Black people experience throughout the globe are not only a part of history, they're not things that happened in the past; they're still very much happening in the present. These struggles and triumphs might look a little different than they did before, but we need to understand how that still influences the Black experience today. Black History Month is about recognizing that, and taking steps to address that. Black History Month almost reminds me of Valentine's Day in a way where, like, that shouldn't be the one time of year you show your partner you care.
GM: Exactly. Like we only care about Black people this month.
AY: Right. It's more of a symbolic reminder of something you're committed to throughout the year; Black people need to be seen and heard and celebrated all the time, not just this month. That’s how the videogame industry needs to look at it: that it's in all your ongoing commitments. It's being dedicated to recruiting, developing, and highlighting Black talent all the time, even when it's hard. It's helping remove the barriers that were put in place a long time ago, that still prevent these types of careers from being readily visible and accessible to Black people. It's also giving Black people another creative entertainment platform to express themselves, and that will only be good for the industry.
"I think the difference right now is that some demographic groups get more opportunities to produce their own stories and experiences, and they get more opportunities to fail"
GM: I think that’s partially what generates that kind of fear, because through our writing and the characters we create, we can break the clichés and archetypes that have been in the industry for so long. I think this is the value we bring. Bringing more life experience creates richer material because we see the world through a different lens.
AY: There’s beauty in that difference.
GM: Right, that’s where innovation comes from.
AY: It's nice seeing someone like you in a higher position at the company, because we're talking about how diversity in creative positions leads to new stories and experiences. People with diverse backgrounds need to be in the room, just in general, from the very beginning, and they also need to be decision-makers as well – the ones who influence the production process. They can't just be used as a stamp of approval on content that's developed in the same way by the same people who always develop games.
Everyone really needs to be open to being challenged and trying new things. I often wonder sometimes, “What's the worst that could happen?”, “Seriously, what is everyone so afraid of?” Every demographic is capable of making bad things, and every demographic is capable of making amazing things. I think the difference right now is that some demographic groups get more opportunities to produce their own stories and experiences, and they get more opportunities to fail, but it's a numbers game, and if you keep letting more diverse people produce, they're going to produce more and more amazing, different things. And eventually you're going to see things that you've never seen before, and eventually people are going to appreciate the beauty and the tragedy and the commonalities and differences of those experiences of people who may not look anything like them, which is what minorities have been doing for years with straight white narratives.
GM: I think some of what you’re talking about is already happening, but more so in the indie space, where you have smaller teams. Because if you take someone and add them to a team of hundreds, then suddenly the thing they care about and are passionate about will get slowly smoothed over and polished so that the spice is just diluted.
The theme of the month at Ubisoft is “authentically us.” What does that mean to you?
AY: It means being able to be accepted without being expected to change any more than what's expected for other individuals when they step into certain spaces, whether it's an online community or an office. For example, in a professional environment we will be able to share our humor and lingo and stories and hairstyles and perspectives in a way that won't negatively influence people's perception of us, or jeopardize opportunities for us at the company or the industry at large, just because it's different. People sometimes conflate what's considered unprofessional with what's considered Black, just because they’re not used to seeing something different, and I think it's time people expanded their definition of what makes the workplace productive and safe for everyone. That means having more Black people around so we can feel camaraderie and safety in numbers. And it means having more allies around to support us and learn from us as well.
GM: For me, because of my senior executive position, I am unfortunately still surrounded by white people, mostly. The people I report to, the people I pitch to, the people that need to trust me, are white. So it's difficult for me to find space to be authentically me, as I need to be in "executive performance mode" most times. If you start becoming a bit too forward about your color, you never know how the often very important people you interact will be receptive to it. It's not worth the risk most times. Also, to be honest, I am a mixed person, and I was raised in a very white French environment, so it's natural for me to act the way someone white act would act.
AY: Yeah, code switching. I find myself doing that as well.
GM: Right, I’m acting automatically, and I don’t know what is ‘authentically myself’ at this stage, because I’ve been doing this for such a long time. But what I know is that the thing that prevents me from fully expressing myself, and the thing that sometimes prevents me from saying what I want to say, is trust. The higher you go in the industry, the less it becomes about your performance review and the work that you actually do, and the more it’s about “Do I trust this person?” This is where, for me, the real glass ceiling is. At the end of the day, when you arrive at the point in your career where you are lined up next to 10 other people, trying to convince stakeholders that your idea is great or that you simply have the capability to do the job, but the stakeholders need to make a selection purely based on trust, this is where the true difficulty lies. When you realize you mostly end up on the side where trust is not awarded, what can you really do about it?
“Oh, I like that guy, he’s talented, but he’s not the right guy for this job.” “Oh, I’m not sure if that’s the right way to go, seems risky.”
There are a lot of reasons why they might not trust someone, because it is not expressed or quantifiable. I have learned the reflex not to say certain things about my ideas, because I fear it's gonna trigger that. “Ohh, it's cool. It's fresh. It's important. It's innovative. But yeah, it’s risky, right?” So, you lose trust points because you get associated with risk. I still don’t think, right now, I manage to be authentically me in all my actions because of those reasons. The more people like me who join the industry, the more people who will be able to provide trust to younger, upcoming people. Right now, we have to continue to get to the point where every person at the company can be authentically themselves, and not just saying things halfway so as not to trigger people’s perception of risk. People often internalize bias as risk. It makes me sort of sad, because when I think about it; even after all this time, most of my most important interactions are driven non-authentically.
AY: When we talk about trust and unconscious bias, it’s really natural for someone older to look at someone younger and see themself in the person who looks like you. It's like, “Oh, this reminds me of myself, and I want to help this person because they're like me,” and that's totally normal. But it can be not-so-great in terms of making change, because there are certain people who are in a majority position right now – so if people don't check their reflex or impulse and try and change and do something different occasionally, then it's going to result in the same cycle over and over again.
GM: I think we need to identify where we have a trust bottleneck. I think when it comes to certain decisions, committees can be a good way to minimize bias, rather than giving one person all the power. Putting everything into the vision of one person will guarantee that it’s all seen through the filter of that one person, and everything they already believe will be in, and everything that challenges that view will be out, and that’s a liability. We’re in a different era, and collaboration is more important than ever. We need to identify the bottlenecks where things are filtered through one person, and start to break those.
"People sometimes conflate what's considered unprofessional with what's considered Black"
AY: I appreciate you sharing your experience and thinking that there's still work to be done in terms of you being able to fully be yourself at work. I was thinking about my experience in videogames, and for me it’s been surprisingly nice, especially being a new person in the industry. I feel like there are other reasons why people could be condescending or not take my opinion seriously because I'm new to videogames, I'm new to writing. So far, people have seemed to value my opinion equally to theirs. But as I am at the company longer and in the industry longer, if there aren't more people that look like me, there is a risk of people not being able to differentiate the experience they're having with me versus the experiences they're having with Black women or Black people. If I'm the only data point they have to reference, it starts to get very risky, where people might start to draw conclusions off of very little data. Like, “Ooh, well, last time I worked with a Black person or a Black woman it went like this. So I don't know about working with another, I'd rather just work with somebody who looks like me.”
I've had a good experience so far. But I think over time, it's inevitable that I'm going to have different experiences working with different people. And I think there's safety in numbers in terms of people being able to separate their experience with individuals from conclusions about the greater group.
GM: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that it’s not just about having diversity, but about, as you said, having that safety, and that’s why it’s so important to change the whole dynamic of interaction. As someone who has often been that data point, I really feel that.
AY: It’s daunting. I've been in a similar experience growing up with a lot of white people in school and work and the environments I've been in previously. In some ways, I've already gotten used to adjusting and code switching so that people are more comfortable with me, but it is a lot to think about and it is always there. Maybe not top of mind, but at least back of mind. Everything I do, I think about how it reflects on Black people, how it reflects on women, or Black women, the intersection of my identity, because if I'm the one person you know, you might judge all people of that identity based on me.
GM: It’s always been something in the back of my mind on pitches and presentations and is something I’ve completely internalized without ever voicing. “What if I show a more authentic version of myself and something bad happens? Will that be put on the entire group of people who look like me?” I had never really realized it until I listened to your smart and sensitive analysis on it. That additional pressure you have, on top of all the pressure you have to sell your product, to sell yourself, you have all these additional burdens.
I pitched to the CEO of another company I was at, and he said something that I laughed at originally, but it really stuck with me in a negative way. He said, “oh you’re the Thierry Henry of videogames.” Thierry Henry is a Black French soccer player who was super successful. I took it as cool at first, but it turned sour to me afterwards, because I realized I was being reduced to that. Being reduced to the Black star of the sports team. I was the French Black guy who was doing well, so people connected me to another successful French Black guy even though we have nothing to do with each other. I was just bundled into a huge cliché. It really says a lot about how people act when they aren’t surrounded by much diversity; they project. Just because you see a Black guy on TV, and you like me because I’m going to make you money, doesn’t mean we’re the same.
AY: It's tough when you don't feel like you get treated as an individual. It’s like you don't have your own individual identity. In some cases, it's meant to be a compliment, but also sometimes the comparisons or associations end up being offensive.
GM: Exactly. It’s like would you say to someone, “You’re like the Leonardo DiCaprio of videogames.” They would say “What the hell? What’s the connection?” But that happens to Black people all the time. You get put into boxes, and you get appraised somehow.
"People often internalize bias as risk."
AY: They asked us what advice we’d give to the next generation of Black developers, and I think one thing I’d say is trust that you have the potential. Don't get discouraged because you don't know everything, just be committed to learning. There's a little bit of a luck component too; you obviously have to find the opportunities, and be prepared to take them when you see them. But something I can encourage is reaching out to people and talking to people. Figure out how the talents and interests you possess now are transferable to a role in the videogame industry. Some people go to school specifically for this, there are some skills that are very specific and technical, but there are also plenty of other skills that are very transferable, just like with any other job.
The last thing I would say is, always show why different is good. People should be proud of coming at things from a different perspective, and having a different background like that can really be a benefit to a team.
GM: I agree with that completely. I’ve seen some young Black people say, “this industry isn’t for me.” “I don’t recognize myself in the industry.” I would say look, go looking for it, find the diversity that’s already in there and become a part of it.
AY: And be open. We expect people to be open to us, and Black people entering a new environment need to be open to the different types of people they might work with.
GM: It’s a vicious cycle, where people think a field isn’t for them, so they don’t pursue it, and then it never becomes “for them.”
AY: Being open and being patient is important, because things are changing, they're moving in the right direction. Be patient as people learn and adjust to new people and new things, because I think most people have good intentions.
For more on what Ubisoft is doing for Black employees, read our Employee Resource Group Spotlight: Black Employees At Ubisoft