March 24, 2023

7 Min Read

GDC 2023: Unlocking the Power of Neurodiversity in Game Development

More than 1 billion people around the world are neurodivergent, and that population is well-represented within the gaming industry. Results of a 2022 UK games-industry census conducted by trade group Ukie showed that 18% of game developers in the UK self-identify as neurodivergent, which is more than the 15% representation among the general population. More specifically, two conditions were over-represented, with twice the number of individuals than in the general population: ADHD placed first with 10%, followed by autism with 4%.

Coined by sociologist Judy Singer in 1998, the term “neurodiversity” refers to variations in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Neurodiversity is also a social movement, rooted in the autism-rights movements that started in the 1980s. This movement does not consider neurodivergences to be illnesses, but rather neurological variations through which people experience the world in a different way.

At the Game Developers Conference 2023 (GDC), Neurodiversity Talent Program Director Pierre Escaich and Red Storm Associate Game Designer Aris Bricker discussed how neurodivergent individuals can bring their best talents and skills to their work when they are understood, included, and supported. They detailed Ubisoft’s journey with neurodiversity: Ubisoft’s neurodivergent employees formed the Neurodiversity Employee Resource Group (ERG) in 2021, which now has 400-plus members; In addition, an official neurodiversity talent program was created as part of the HR team to support and improve neuro-inclusion at the company.

Above Average Skills

“These individuals have talents and skills, with some far above the average,” says Escaich. These heightened skills include creativity, authenticity, hyperfocus, innovative thinking, resilience, sensory awareness, honesty, and verbal skills. For example, people with ADHD are able to think outside the box and may find patterns and connections more quickly than others. Escaich and Bricker shared examples of how some colleagues’ ADHD comes into play at work: one called themselves a “professional chaos manager,” another said he has higher focus and output in times of crisis, and another said her ADHD helps her to deeply investigate problems until she finds all possible angles to identify the best solution.

Dyslexia, the most common neurodivergence across the world, is a learning difficulty that can affect reading, writing, spelling, memory, and concentration. However, “many of our dyslexic colleagues have an acute visual perception and above-average 3D-visualization skills,” Escaich says. “They tend to think in pictures more easily. Their creativity is strong, with often-great verbal skills. They can easily see the big picture.”

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) includes a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech, and non-verbal communication. Autistic people often experience their senses more intensely, meaning the world can feel overwhelming at times. No two autistic individuals are the same. Escaich and Bricker shared personal stories from autistic members of their ERG:

“My condition makes me very reliable and thorough, and a quick learner,” says Andreas; “I can see issues coming far before they become critical blockers months later,” says Sophie; “My organization and attention to detail helps me excel at work, but it doesn’t mean that I excel in teaching others how to do the same,” adds Dallas.

Despite their talents and skills, neurodivergent individuals face major challenges such as a general lack of accessible support in terms of evaluation, diagnosis, cognitive training, and accommodations. Additionally, while neurodivergent employees bring unique skills to the workplace, there is often a concern that those neurodivergences would be perceived a hinderance. Escaich says that when your behavior or traits are stigmatized, you adopt a coping strategy to fit in, which is called “masking.”

“To mask, you need to spend a significant amount of energy,” Escaich explains. “And you have a limited amount of energy to go through the day. To avoid masking, we need to fight stigma and recognize individual specific needs within the work environment.”

Building the Ubisoft Neurodiversity ERG

[UN] GDC 2023 Neurodiversity Panel Recap - ERG Logo

In February 2021, Ubisoft formed a Diversity and Inclusion department and formalized an ERG program. Escaich posted an article on Ubisoft's intranet calling for the creation of the Neurodiversity ERG. “My hope was to create a community that could help people to not feel isolated,” says Escaich. Bricker quickly joined and took on a leadership role. To recruit more people to join, the founding members organized an awareness-week event in April 2021, alongside World Autism Awareness Day. The ERG’s fourth awareness-week event is planned for October 2023, and in the meantime its members are also participating in external events like the GDC to help extend awareness even beyond Ubisoft.

Over the past two years, Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity ERG has recruited 400-plus members across 20 countries, with a wide range of jobs and seniority levels represented. The ERG maintains a safe, non-judgmental space for all members, and welcomes neurotypical members as well. “Everyone is neurodiverse,” says Escaich. “We strongly believe that we can only progress on neuro-inclusion together, both neurodivergent and neurotypical.”

ERG involvement is voluntary, and each member can be as involved as they would like. ERG leads at both the global and local levels manage the community and activities, and can dedicate up to 10% of their work time to ERG-related work.

Beyond awareness events, the community has also organized a Neurodiversity game jam, offered mentorship opportunities for students on the autism spectrum, used surveys and discussions to gather feedback and insights about needs within the workplace, created a sub-group focusing on disability and chronic illnesses, and formed peer support groups for each neurodivergence where members can share their experiences at work and ask for feedback, tips, and other useful information.

“The peer support groups strongly contribute to psychological safety at work,” says Escaich. “The ERG brings meaning by recognizing and explaining neurological differences, and it also brings purpose by giving all members the opportunity to raise awareness and drive change.”

Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity Talent Program

In addition to supporting a successful ERG, Ubisoft has now created a neurodiversity talent program as part of its global HR team. “This program is absolutely necessary to turn neuro-inclusion into a reality, with specific attention given to creating tools and tips to ease the way,” says Escaich. In addition to supporting the well-being of team members, there is also a business case for the company program: Embracing neuro-inclusive best practices will optimize the return on investment in employee talents.

“As a game company, our main assets are people. We recruit people for their skills and talents,” Escaich says. “Once recruited, it is in our best interest to do everything in our power to create the optimal work environment for each individual.” Escaich warns that when companies refuse to accommodate neurodiversity or set up a one-size-fits-all policy, it may result in poor levels of creativity and innovation, and says Ubisoft can boost creativity and pave the way for future recruitment by taking care of current neurodivergent employees.

The team established a multi-year plan, kicking off with the development of a training program and implementation tools for teams within Ubisoft. The next step is ensuring HR policies that promote inclusion are put in place throughout the company's more than 45 studios and offices, which will help with employee retention and motivation, and can bring in other neurodivergent talents. Escaich says the biggest benefit to the program is that every employee will benefit in terms of communication, feedback, management, and ways to collaborate.

Lastly, Escaich says we must embrace flexibility as much as we can. “No single way of working, from where or when we work to how we communicate, is optimal for all of us. Implementing flexibility at the core of policies and practices can be a game changer for your teams’ efficiency.” Flexibility also means accommodating the needs of individuals.

“Accommodations are a matter of equity, and equity is about providing each team member with what they need to succeed,” says Escaich. “Unlocking the power of Neurodiversity in game development means embracing neuro-inclusive best practices in order to fully unleash our talents and skills.”

Read about how the games industry can create better support for neurodiversity, and check out our spotlight on Ubisoft’s Neurodiversity ERG. For more about the teams and employee resource groups at Ubisoft, visit the Inside Ubisoft hub.

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