Rovio has reached billions of players through games and movies based on its Angry Birds franchise. And now it is taking a stand for inclusivity in game design with its a diversity-focused playbook for the industry so that it can reach even more.
The mobile gaming pioneer unveiled its comprehensive Playbook for Inclusive Game Development and Marketing at its flagship event, RovioCon. This playbook marks a milestone in the gaming industry by sharing the learnings of Rovio’s approach to creating more inclusive games.
Sharing insights and expertise amassed over years of game development, the Helsinki-based gaming giant acknowledged the profound impact of games on shaping societal perceptions, even in casual gaming. In a bid for transparency and to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, Rovio introduced its playbook, aiming to ignite industry-wide conversations and reflections on inclusive game design.
Heini Kaihu, Rovio’s chief sustainability officer, emphasized the pivotal role of the gaming industry in defining norms and fostering acceptance.
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”We in the games industry have enormous power and responsibility in defining what is normal and what is acceptable. There are no simple hacks or shortcuts to building diverse and inclusive games, it all starts with building diverse and inclusive game companies,” said Kaihu.
The Playbook takes a deep dive into critical facets of crafting inclusive games, offering actionable insights and concrete strategies. It addresses pivotal themes such as non-binary characters, game accessibility, inclusive narratives, and the eradication of harmful stereotypes in gaming. Developed internally by collating best practices from Rovio employees, it stands as a testament to the company’s commitment to fostering a diverse and inclusive gaming landscape.
“While we are proud to share our accumulated learnings from creating one of the most beloved game franchises globally, this playbook represents just the initial phase in our journey toward truly inclusive game development,” said Kaihu.
Rovio seeks to engage core audiences and stakeholders in furthering diversity and inclusivity in gaming by evolving the playbook in the future. The Playbook, available for free download, serves as a comprehensive resource for industry professionals striving to create games catering to a diverse audience.
The company’s shares are listed on the main list of Nasdaq Helsinki stock exchange under the trading code ROVIO. Sega Europe Limited holds more than 90% of Rovio’s shares and aims to delist the company from Nasdaq Helsinki once permitted under applicable laws. I caught up with Kaihu for an interview.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Thank you for doing this call. I’ve been covering diversity for a long time. And I was just doing an interview yesterday. It was something that related all the way back to the Los Angeles riots of 1992 that I got involved in. I am always happy to cover diversity topics here. Is there a place you wanted to start the conversation here?
Kaihu: Perhaps we can tell how it all started and why we started to actually make something like this. And why I personally and obviously also think that this is important. Within the industry, there’s a lot of discussion about what games are and what is happening in the games, and so forth. But I think that it may be overlooked as a form of entertainment. If we think of how massive the player base is globally, I think we see that it’s definitely an influential force.
And because of that, there is both power and also responsibility that we define what is considered normal, what is acceptable, what kind of narratives and worlds we build and so forth. That’s something that we have been discussing at Rovio and also obviously with industry colleagues for a long time. This is definitely becoming bigger and bigger also in our industry. And especially if you look at the younger generations like Gen Z, they almost hundred percent actually play the games. I think that makes it even more important.
That’s why we think that this is important. How it started at Rovio? I’ve been with Rovio for bit over 11 years now. I joined the company in 2012. And at the time, it wasn’t that systematic. We didn’t necessarily even have the words for the concept of the diversity, equity and inclusion in games. But from the get go, we were always thinking that we make Angry Bird games for everybody.
GamesBeat: When you joined, what was your title? Was it under the sustainability officer?
Kaihu: I’ve been doing many different things at Rovio. I joined Rovio to actually lead with the free-to-play transformation. At the time Rovio was in Finland and Supercell created Hay Day. And so it was clear that the industry and especially mobile gaming was going to the free-to-play world. And that was my background. I used to work with this product called Habbo Hotel. Which was this virtual world for the teenager. It’s really like a game and from the get-go it was free to play.
My old colleagues had joined Rovio and then when Rovio started their journey from the paid games to free to play. I did that for a while then, and then started a studio called the casual puzzle studio that ran for I think five-ish years.
I was the chief people officer. And now for the past two years, I’ve been Chief Sustainability Officer. So I have looked at the product and the industry and business from very different angles within one company.
Organically, we understood what should be done in terms of accessibility issues. We wanted people to be able to play regardless of what kind of device they had and so forth. That thinking was somehow organically built into our game teams. But then we also realized that there is actually more to it, and especially later on when the new studios started joining Rovio, we knew that perhaps this kind of organic approach to insight and knowledge wasn’t enough.
And then maybe two or three years ago, we did our first version of the guidelines, which was at the time a Google Slides document, with do’s and don’ts. And we used our games as examples of do’s and don’ts. We also used other games as do’s and don’ts. But then when we wanted to make it something that we could share. Wee realized that we need to look at it from a different angle.
GamesBeat: I am curious about your title sustainability. Is that referencing how to take care of the planet and climate change, and does that title somehow encompass diversity and inclusion?
Kaihu: Yeah. The sustainability strategy has three different pillars. We have safe and responsible gaming. We have the people in society, and then we have the climate and environment. And basically when it comes to inclusive game design, there is a very strong link between safe and responsible gaming, as well the care for people in society. When we are looking at what kind of products we make, we of course need to look at that at the same time at how our game teams are built, how we are organized, how the diversity and inclusion sources are there. It’s all under the sustainability umbrella at Rovio.
GamesBeat: And then at what point did a lot of this attention focus on inclusion and diversity? What helped lead to the creation of this guide. How far back does that go?
Kaihu: I think that the first version as I said was probably like two or three years ago. This version started early this year. We started kind of thinking of all that we want to include. And then I started working on it. I created the first draft together with one of the art directors in the company. And then we shared it for comments and got great comments and then iterated it further. And now we are about to launch the first version of it during the RovioCon which is going on.
GamesBeat: And I’m curious about how Rovio came to care about diversity, in the sense that you know, in Finland, you have a much different kind of local diversity than we do in places like the United States or other places, right? And so for you guys, did diversity start from some place that was very local in a sense, and then evolve to some thinking about, about global diversity?
Kaihu: That’s a very good question. I would say that Finland is a small country and there are only so many game developers there. From the company perspective, Finland may not be a country that is very diverse . Among the other companies in the game industry, we have always understood that we are not able to recruit all the talent we need from within our own country. And we needed from the early on to reach out and actually invite people from other countries to come to Finland to work for us.
And as a company, we are actually fairly diverse. Culturally, we have over 50 different nationalities working at Rovio. There is also organic diversity in some of the areas. But then obviously, when you look at the global culture, and how a lot of our business is in the U.S., and you see what is happening there and with GenZ, we realized inclusion was not only the right thing to do but is good business.
GamesBeat: I guess one of the jobs is to educate Finnish developers about the rest of the world on the diversity topics are worth paying attention to.
Kaihu: Yeah, you’re right. In Finland where the majority of the game companies are located here in the Helsinki and Espoo area. And we have a culture of sharing really transparently what we are working on. And also then working together on different topics. And this is definitely one of those things that’s really made sense. We don’t just keep it something that is internal for Rovio, but we also share it. Anybody else can benefit from it, and that is better for the whole industry. And there has also been some material [on diversity and inclusion] distributed beforehand — the IGDA has have created really good material — it is a way for us to give back the bit. There can’t ever be too much guidance on this topic.
GamesBeat: Yeah. And I guess the other thing that’s interesting to me is that is diversity relevant when you’re designing the game that has, you know, cute animal characters, as opposed to, you know, humans who are of different types?
Kaihu: Really, really good question. We have been getting it within from our own employees. At the time when we started putting together the first version of some of the guidelines, we also had projects that were more human-like characters. If we do have birds as characters, birds and pigs, we treat them often times with backstories and how they come from different backgrounds. We borrow from human world. And for that reason, I think that it’s also important to think about the diversity and inclusion even though we are mostly working with the birds and pigs.
GamesBeat: And let’s see. As far as just the kind of content that’s in there, what are some sort of some of the maybe interesting tips or observations that you guys have come up with that sort of reflected a lot of years of learning, I guess?
Kaihu: When we were working on it, we also realized that obviously we don’t have all the answers. But we tried to look at it quite holistically so that we are not talking about just the design. We are also giving tips for player research. The actual teamwork and culture. The one question that we had that we were actually thinking about and don’t necessarily have an answer for that, is about how game development and game operations are really data-driven. We do a lot of A/B testing and so forth. That’s how we ensure that we measure those who are not the majority.
We take into account the ones who don’t represent the majority of the players. And for that, I think the best answer that we have is that it needs to somehow be a combination of the data, but also have some safeguards where we think about the personas or other mechanisms. For example, we can take into account the data from visually impaired players. And then just one more point is that in addition to having the guidelines we need reference material.
We are also creating the player cards that actually work or we are hoping that they actually inspire the teams to consider in their day to day work. We then have checklists. We have different kinds of open questions that designers and teams can think about. And then we have these scenario cards that think about the situation and then a question like, how would you work in this situation? So we are really trying to see things from different angles and then see what kind of things actually work with the teams. We can also make it a bit playful for the developers.
GamesBeat: Accessibility is something that seems a bit newer in terms of a diversity and inclusion focus. Are there things that you can do for people with, like say poor eyesight or hearing, or any other kinds of accessibility issues?
Kaihu: Yes. Again, a great question. If I go back to my being the studio lead days, there was a really interesting example of what we were thinking. We had made a really great game, and it was really fun for us to play. And then the game was called Angry Burst. It was a bubble shooter game. And then we were interviewing some of our players, our top fans, and there was this elderly lady who absolutely adored and loved the game. And she was when she was explaining how she likes playing the game. Then just in almost as a side note she then said that the poppy levels, named after the kind of birds we had, had a time limit. You needed to end the level within a certain time to pass it.
The older layd said she waited for her daughter to come home to play those through because she too slow for that. And that was an eye opener for us. There are definitely a vast variety of people who would love to play the games, but have different restrictions for playing those. And obviously hearing is one of them. With mobile games, you almost can’t take that into account already because they are often played when on the go. So you are not even able to always have the sounds on.
And the game shouldn’t rely on having the sounds. I think that with eyesight and for example, with different kinds of colors, how are you able to see the colors? And there are different kinds of filters in the tools that can be used for that. Accessibility may be a bit new, but I would say that when we are thinking about casual games and thinking how can we reach a wide audience and create joyful experiences for them, then that is definitely a key consideration for us.
GamesBeat: Interesting. And I guess if you look at the whole game industry and, and its record, do you have a viewpoint of how it has done so far, like a report card on diversity and inclusion?
Kaihu: I would say I’ve been in the game industry myself for over 20 years. And when I started, there weren’t that many, for example, women in the industry. And things have changed. I think that things have improved. I think the transparency is good. Both players but also employees are being really vocal. I would almost say that it started after GamerGate. After that, it was something ignore anymore. And I think that things have definitely been going in a better direction. More new generations are actually entering the industry as employees and so the more fresh ideas we get.
As I said in the very beginning, we are also understanding our responsibility. And the players also actually point it out for you. You need to react and respond. Of course the industry still has a long way to go, but definitely it has improved at least during what I’ve seen in my career.
GamesBeat: In the balance of men and women, how do you think Rovio has done and then the Finnish game industry, and maybe then also just anything to say about the larger game industry?
Kaihu: If we look at the averages at Rovio, I think that we are doing, I would say, OK. We have roughly 30% women and other genders in the company. And the Nordic game industry is a bit over 20%. So compared to that, I think that we are good.
However, I think that when you drill in a bit deeper, then we see that we would love to see more women game leads and more in the programming craft. There are definitely more women there than there were. But we are working not only just in the games industry, but also in the Finnish and Nordic tech industries as a whole to make these companies craft more interesting work for the younger women that are just thinking about what to start studying and, and what fields to enter.
GamesBeat: And how do proliferate the guide into the ranks at Rovio as well? How do you train people on diversity and inclusion?
Kaihu: In many ways, obviously this is when we talk about the product diversity and inclusion this is one of the tools. We believe in our team’s independence and autonomy and creativity as all the decisions related to making games actually take place in the team. And for that reason, it’s like a model for us. It could be that we have some sort of committee who says what is okay and what is not, but we actually need to equip the teams to be able to make the decisions themselves. So we educate and then provide tools like this. We also have these low threshold channels for anybody to actually get feedback, ask help and so forth, in the topic of inclusive game design. Then when we talk about the organizational culture and the diversity, equity and inclusion. We work on all the different levels.
We provide in our executive leadership coaching. We help the supervisors and they have their special training on how to be inclusive leaders. And then obviously we also provide training, education and inspiration for all the Rovians. For example, we just started this fall the neurodiversity training. And they have been getting really positive feedback from everybody in the company. So for us, diversity is diverse and we try to look at it from many different angles. And we provide everybody at Rovio an inclusive workplace and also then by doing that, we help our employees to make inclusive game experiences and product experiences.
GamesBeat: Okay. And then how many people are there at Rovio now?
Kaihu: We are roughly 500. Yeah. And the maturity of us is in Finland and Sweden. But we do have studios in Canada in Denmark in Spain and then the high International studio in Turkey.
GamesBeat: And do you have enough people for different employee resource groups that are sort of, you know, diversity related?
Kaihu: That’s actually a good question. We have tests this year kicked off the the ERGs and we are still experimenting how to make it so that we actually support the local employees. But then we have big enough groups for them to work on a global level so that if we have a small studio then they are not left out. So, that is still something that we are experimenting with. We have the generic DE&I group that is global where people from every studio can join. But then, for example, in our Stockholm studio, we have their own DE&Igroup which then looks at all the topics holistically for all the people who are working at Stockholm studio.
GamesBeat: What are particular lessons in diversity? Is there anything that stems from particular personal experiences you’ve witnessed?
Kaihu: That’s a good question. I think that I like often being the, the only woman in the room, like throughout the years. I’m probably am already quite used to it but I think that I would actually like to use the example where in our efforts we do different themed campaigns. Something might look good for a Finnish artist but it might be completely off for a member of that particular culture. So that is something from our game development side that really shows the importance of really going to try to check, not assuming anything, but actually checking with those who actually know how things go.
GamesBeat: When you’re in that situation where you are the only you know person in the room that’s like you, do you have suggestions for how to communicate with the rest of the folks in that room to make them aware of anything that they need to be aware of?
Kaihu: That’s when we talk about that people may actually not understand what they’re saying, what they are doing in an unintentional, non-inclusive way. What I’ve noticed is that everybody I have met wants to learn. That opens up the possibility to say something if you feel like something isn’t right. My advice for everybody is that it doesn’t have to be just about gender-based diversity. It could be about a language in a conversation. It may be completely OK in one culture but not inclusive in another. You need a safe space where you can point that out.
GamesBeat: How do you communicate why inclusion is good business? If a game is more appealing to more people around the world, then it can be more popular, right?
Kaihu: I think that is exactly what you say, especially when we are talking about casual games. We try to appeal to a large number of people. And the more people we can make feel good in the game, the more welcome they feel, the better their retention, the more likely they are to tell their friends. But then the other side of that is that you need organizational diversity and inclusion. Making games is being creative, and it is innovative. Innovation doesn’t really come if everybody thinks alike.
And I think that for that, diverse opinions, backgrounds are needed for the kind of creativity and innovation to happen. But then obviously it doesn’t happen if the culture and the environment is not supporting them, so that there needs to be that inclusion. And inclusive culture for the space to be safe enough for those diverse voices to be heard. So I think that in that way, I see the DE&I is really a business imperative for any game company.
GamesBeat: Very good. Any other things you’d like to mention?
Kaihu: I think that this is like we’ve been talking about the DE&I very holistically. I think that that’s really nice. I’m really looking forward to being able to share the playbook with the other game developers, and I’m especially excited about the card concept.
I think it’s something that really spice this up and make it super fun. And it’s really going to be a great conversation starter because, as I said, there are no wrong answers. It’s about actually understanding the discussion together as to how we take into account different players in our games.
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