Phil Spencer, executive vice president of gaming at Microsoft, spoke from the heart about diversity and being a leader in building a better culture at the company at the opening of the elite game conference, the DICE Summit, this week in Las Vegas. I was proud to see a leader of the game industry and one of the top people at Microsoft call for the game industry to do a better job embracing inclusiveness.
Spencer, who joined Microsoft as an intern a couple of decades ago, delivered this message in a personal way. Spencer noted how he was stopped by a man in a wheelchair once at the Brasil Game Show. The man said that the Xbox was his outlet, the truest expression of himself in the world, where he could play as an equal with everyone else on Xbox Live.
“It’s one of those lightning bolt moments that change you,” he said.
Spencer also had a moment of failure in 2016 at the Game Developers Conference, when Microsoft sponsored a party that offended many women (and men) because it featured scantily clad go-go dancers. Spencer had to apologize for the “unequivocally wrong” mistake. Spencer said he took the blame because “it is a leader’s job to take the hit” and learn from failure.
“The backlash was furious,” he said. “Internal backlash was even harder.”
He said those events, one of inspiration about the accessibility of games, and another about a blind spot that made people feel unwelcome, were both part of learning how to evolve the company’s culture so that it can embrace diversity and find a way to deliver games to more of the world’s population.
Spencer’s father was a chemical engineer, and he gave his kids a Sinclair computer when they were young. They played and built games together on that computer. In 1997, Spencer got hooked on the game Ultima Online, one of the earliest massively multiplayer fantasy online role-playing games.
“It was a fully imagined world, a living world,” Spencer said.
Game companies have excelled at creating worlds for gamers, taking the intersection of art and science and making magic out of it, Spencer said. He talked about the amazing worlds of games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Uncharted, Halo, and Minecraft.
But he noted how Microsoft lost its way, as employees were demoralized as the company missed major trends in the tech industry.
“Morale hit a low,” he said. “We were massively frustrated we kept missing big trends.”
Inside the company, there was a tradition of infighting and fiefdoms, Spencer said. In meetings, the goal seemed like to prove you were the smartest person in the room, and quieter voices were often ignored. Spencer said it would have been better…
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