Activision Blizzard’s head of inclusive design on Pride, joy and acceptance in the industry

For Pride Month 2024, the games industry is celebrating its LGBTQ+ gamers — we recently watched the Gayming Awards, which awarded prizes to the games with the most authentic stories and compelling LGBTQ+ representation. This is not a small thing, either. According to a recent study by GLAAD, 17% of gamers identify as LGBTQ+.

But what does it mean to work on inclusive design — and inclusive workspaces — behind the scenes in the industry. Recently, GamesBeat spoke with Adrian Ledda, Activision’s head of inclusive game design, about the company’s work with AbleGamers. Ledda incorporated AbleGamer’s accessible player training (APX) into the company’s design process. His work also includes contributing to the company’s pronoun policy and he also leads the company’s LGBTQ+ and Allies employee network.

I got the chance to speak with Ledda about his work on inclusion in the industry and coming out at Activision Blizzard, as well as his history with games. Here’s an edited transcript of our discussion.

GamesBeat: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me! Could we start by talking about your work in general? How did you get into gaming — as a hobby and as a career?

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Adrian Ledda: As someone who’s been playing games since the old SNES days, I can’t separate who I am from gaming. I also had to go through a discovery of what it was like to be part of the LGBTQ+ community. Combining those two identities of being a gamer, but also being gay was challenging, because we didn’t see too many representations of that, or if they did exist way back when it was stereotype. So, in a lot of ways, this is such a lovely coming together of the evolution of how gaming as being more inclusive. It’s a wonderful joy to be able to speak on these things, because the work that is happening across the industry to make games more inclusive and accessible is fantastic.

I started at Activision Blizzard about 15 years ago. And it was just a dream come true to be able to work in games. I was able to then transition a little bit into more design thinking focus, where I was previously a programmer. In that time, I became a little bit more conscious of not just how efficient or smoothly the games run — but what are we creating and why and for whom? It was just an opportunity to step back and think — not just about making games for the purpose of making games, but what games that we’re making and for whom. What kind of representations, or features can we create that help make it feel more accessible and inclusive?

This started to become my interest in why accessibility and representation in games really creates an impact for players. And I was not alone. So many people in our company felt the same way: That we benefit gamers so much when we’re able to reflect the world that they live in. To have them feel like they are part of these worlds that it’s immersive, and players can see themselves. I think that’s really the center of the heart of what we do.

GB: Can you tell me more about your coming out story at work?

Ledda: Around 2014 I started dating a guy. I had long known I was LGBTQ. But I chose to stay closeted at work. Because, for a lot of people in this community, we have to make that decision on is this something we want to do? And it’s our choice to do so. I remember, as we were dating, I had all these stories of joy: We went to go see this movie, or we went to this museum and saw this awesome thing. And I remember thinking about doing what we call the community self-censoring. I wouldn’t say, “I went out on a date with a guy” or “I went to go see a movie with a guy.” It’s more like, “I went to see a movie with a friend.” And after a while I realized, why should anyone have to do that? Why am I doing this to myself? And why am I hiding this joy that I would otherwise want to share with my friends and my family, my coworkers?

So around that time, I worked with our local HR partners, and we decided to do a Pride celebration at our studio that I was working with at the time. During that celebration, we talked about experiences of the LGBTQ+ community: Some terminology, some differences and experiences and why that mattered. And as part of this is I chose to come out to the studio. I just thought it was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. In some ways, it was easy. It’s who I am and who I was. And in other ways it was hard, because you show this vulnerability to people you’ve worked with, and you wonder if they’ll think differently of you or if you’ve just ostracized yourself or anything like that. And in that moment, I just thought, boy, I can be myself because I trust them and I love the environment that I work with. The people have always been supportive of me and of the things I do at work.

And after coming out, nothing changed. They treated me as they always did. They respected who I was. And I think it opened up this dialogue where other people the company started to be able to talk and ask questions about things about their kids who are transitioning or how to support people during Pride. I don’t think I can describe how gaming and Activision Blizzard was so much a part of helping me feel welcome and confident in who I was, but also feeling pride in the joy of who I am.

About a year after that after same sex marriage became legal across the U.S., I got married to my husband and I brought him to work to go get lunch. The studio found out I was bringing my husband and they called everyone in the studio to our lunch area. And it was just such an amazing surprise Rachel: They threw us a surprise wedding party at work! This was unbelievable because my husband and I didn’t even have our own celebration. We just went to City Hall, signed the papers, said the vows — which was amazing of course but that was that. To have people around you at work in an environment where you’d never sure: Will they choose to care or not? They chose not just to care but to embrace. And it was just amazing. There was cake. The cake had to sit two male figurines on top of it.

GB: That is so sweet — and funny to picture your husband showing up thinking you’re just going to lunch and suddenly there’s a celebration with wedding cake.

Ledda: That moment of cake, and welcoming and just feeling the freedom to be who I was and the joy of what that felt like — I think I wanted that to also be in our games more, and for our players to feel and see that more. Over time, we were able to develop this function that I lead: Inclusive game design. And I think it’s a focus on the joy.

I was thinking, as I said that, “Did anything change?” In some ways, no. Everyone just treated me and behaved the same way. But also in some ways, yes. We opened up a opportunity for the culture to ask questions, and that is certainly an important change. Even on the work side of things some of our teams would ask, “What does accessibility look like when we’re developing a new game?” I think it’s this wonderful evolution of talking about topics that might be difficult to understand, or we don’t know about, or maybe our experiences that we are not familiar with. But we can ask, we can learn, we can do better. And I think that openness to experiences, is this an amazing superpower that we can have to not just make our games better, to help our players feel like they’re seen that they’re valid, that their experiences matter.

When our gamers see themselves or see a feature that invites them to play or feels like it’s designed with them in mind, that feeling of legitimacy leads to this feeling of welcomeness and joy, and that they can be part of gaming — often, in cases where they might initially feel like the game is not for them, or the community doesn’t welcome them. But the game is for everyone.

GB: Transitioning from your story to your work, you’ve done a lot of work to bring more inclusion and accessibility to Activision Blizzard games. Can you tell me more about the work you’ve done?

Ledda: I think this all comes from a place of curiosity. Our developers just want to make the best games possible. When it comes to accessibility, our approach is that accessible design is good design. I was working with the team in Albany a bunch of years back. They were supporting a Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2 Remastered. And they were investigating, like, how can they make this game more accessible. Their understanding of it and the scope was relatively limited — things like subtitles. Because that curiosity was planted, we eventually helped train their team more on accessibility features.

That team later on supported Diablo IV, which very much had an incredible focus on accessibility, everything from colorblind modes and such to really unique things, like highlighting players and items. It was completed by a fully blind gamer without sighted assistance. An amazing statement on like, how accessibility can open up opportunities for more people to play the game, and to enjoy it. The work at Activision Blizzard is largely about education and empathy, and also understanding that our games are better, and our gamers feel better when we are thinking more inclusively.

GB: You mentioned representation earlier. What have you seen in the community that shows the importance of the representation — not just to those represented, but also to those on the outside seeing the representation?

Ledda: I think any number of people in the LGBTQ+ community can point to something in games and say, “I related to that experience” in how they approach things, or their dialogue or their approach to romance. For me, a really personal example that I connect with was when Activision joined the LA Pride maybe five or six years ago. Our company was part of the parade, and we had a double decker bus that on the side of it had an LED screen. It showed a couple of characters and Pride visuals. And one of the characters that they had was Tracer, who, as some people may know, has same sex relationship with her girlfriend, Emily. She’s a really prominent LGBTQ+ character in gaming. And during the parade, holding my husband’s hand and seeing all these people along the streets of Los Angeles go nuts seeing tracer, and just celebrating. It was this surreal and beautiful combination of the gaming community with the real world community, where people were joyful and happy to see that representation and connected it with experiences in games that they love.

But also, these moments of celebration come in smaller ways in our games, when players see representation of their identities or their heritage showing up in our games. Or players see more characters that represent identities that are typically not as prominent is as they could be. I think that’s when you see this wonderful intersection of how the world is right now and how the world can be if we think for each other and of each other.

GB: It feels as though there’s been a shift in the industry, thanks to you and countless others behind the scenes, and of course the gamers in the community — all of whom have said, “We’re here. We exist. We want you to acknowledge that.” It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that it was a fight just to make a game with a femme-presenting character in the lead role. Where do you think the industry is with that, and what more is there to accomplish?

Ledda: I think this has always been happening. We’ve always had developers who wanted to tell different stories, maybe ones about themselves that were difficult to tell in the real world but could be told in gaming. I think the story of humanity is that we’ve always had this richness of experiences. For gaming, maybe it took a little time in order for that to come out. But it has come out over time, because I think we’re building on opportunities for each other — for all of us, not just on the industry level, but also for gamers who feel like they are in a space where these stories can exist. So I think of it as a progression. It used to be, “Can we tell these stories?” And maybe 10 years ago, the answer would be “Yes, we can tell these stories.” Great. Now, I think we’re at a point where the question is, “How can we tell these stories better? How can they feel real? How can they feel connected? How can we reach a broader range of humanity’s experiences in gaming?”

It feels like an all-at-once thing, but also it’s always been there — this richness of experience and diversity, what our games are about, the people making the games. It’s been wonderful! As an example, the stories of characters coming out in Overwatch, and how different they are, is a wonderful and nuanced example of how coming out happens. The comic with Tracer and Emily was relatively subtle — they’re rushing around to get a gift for their loved one at the last minute — but there are also stories like Soldier 76, who’s also part of the LGBTQ+ community but is more hidden and less happy.

That is not fully about joy, and sunshine and rainbows, but that’s okay. There are different experiences in the community about coming out or showing our identity. So it’s wonderful that more of these stories are showing up and they’re nuanced. It’s not just a single story. There are so many different ways to tell the story, and so many ways for compassion and authenticity and — bringing it back to my husband — joy to show up in these stories.

GB: How do you think the games industry is doing with regards to helping not just gamers but members of the industry feel accepted and included? And if you could, what would you tell game studios about how they can make their spaces safer and more positive?

Ledda: The way that I think about it is that it is always a journey. The end goal might seem abstract, and hard to get to. Just thinking about, “How do you make a game accessible for people who have sight loss?” is a huge goal, but it’s continuous work. Making progress, telling the stories, having people celebrate the successes — all of that I think helps build on that work. And a success, no matter how small, is a success, especially when it’s around inclusion and having people feel like they’re welcome. Those “small” successes have amazingly large repercussions for how people feel inspired, that they could be part of this conversation and be part of the game. And that’s how I think the progress happens.

So it may be slow. And it may not be like as fast as we’d like it. But the fact that it’s a journey, that we bring all of us together, and it’s a learning journey — that that can be emotional, right? It can be very close to our heart, because maybe we empathize with the experience. It can also be challenging, because maybe we don’t empathize with the experience or the representation. But, I think, as we tell the narratives, as we open up the opportunities to be able to speak about this, or to have people feel welcome, or to bring wedding cake. All of that is just how positivity is a journey towards inclusion, and how creating that belonging is just a wonderful space to be.