BLOG – Tokenism versus Diversity


A lot has been written, said and debated about the merits of diversity and inclusiveness. However, despite the best of intentions there are instances when studios, the games they make and communities get things horribly wrong when trying to adopt an open mindset. After all, where do you draw the line between a wholehearted willingness to impart an inclusive mindset and slip into affirmative action and tokenism?

It is an incredibly thin line, but what is tokenism? It isn’t this guy. Webster’s dictionary describes Tokenism as “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly”. The Geek Feminism Wiki expands on it by describing it as the practice of including one or a few members of a minority in a group, without their having authority or power equal to that of the other group members. It functions to place a burden on an individual to represent all others.

So why is tokenism a bad thing? Well, it reinforces inaccurate and potentially harmful stereotypes. There are numerous examples of this in games with many action based games particularly guilty of this approach and a multitude of instances where a social or cultural subset has been unfairly targeted for simply being different from the norm.

But most importantly, it leads to exclusion. Intentionally or otherwise tokenism reinforces segregation.


In an increasingly antagonistic climate, game developers, the gaming community and game education programs now face the conundrum of either maintaining the status quo in order to appease a vocal and vehemently oppressed majority or embrace the sea change within the industry.

So what exactly can we do to ensure we don’t fall into traps when applying diversity in all we do?

The exciting aspect of the present industry climate is the potential of what we can accomplish together. Wonderful initiatives such as Diversi, DONNA, Geek Girl Meet Up and many others that continue to sprout up is testament to that. And one the indie developers and groups such as the Copenhagen Game Collective have been keen to champion.

As a studio, you should:

Be vocal – Show your support by denouncing any prejudicial actions by your staff and your customers.
Open up – Define a studio philosophy and cultivate a culture that reflects that with openness as its base
Reach out – Seek out advice from experts to help the address any questions about the quality over quantity conundrum.

In truth being able to relate and empathize with a games protagonist or with a diverse workforce and community should be an organic process. At the end of the day, having people with a mix of cultures, perspectives and genders is no guarantee of success or effectiveness. It’s not about forcing change, but about instilling an environment that is open to one.

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