Valuing diversity the corporate way – some case studies

I am currently absolutely obsessed with Dragon Age. At this rate, I’m going to have to ask people to pry me off the PS3. The reason this is remarkable is that I am Not A Gamer. I am Not A Gamer to the extent that when I played Devil May Cry, I got two levels in and the game offered me the “You seem to suck at this, here’s the extra special easy version for you” option. With an extremely small number of notable exceptions, I never really got past Tetris. So how did I get to the point where you have to pry the PS3 controller from my cold dead hands?
The story starts with No More Lost, an LGBT rights blog I occasionally read. Some time last year, they covered a story about a role-playing game which – *gasp* – allowed same-sex relationships within the game setting. Not only that, but when challenged over this by a self-identified “Straight Male Gamer”, BioWare, the company behind the game, took an extremely principled stand in favour of equality, even in gaming. That was the first time I ever heard of Dragon Age. That was all the marketing I ever needed for it. I wanted to give BioWare my money. After checking with Paul that he was interested in playing it (I believe the words were something like “You’ll do the fighting and I’ll do the gay”), I bought both Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 for Christmas.
What we’ve found since then is that Dragon Age is that once-in-a-decade game that actually really appeals to me. There is a strong overarching plot, characters you can truly care about, a combat system I can cope with, as well as some truly unique features like the player’s choices making a significant difference to the overall plot. Yet, had BioWare not shown that great principled stand on equality issues, I would probably never have found out about their game and certainly never bought it. I am willing to bet that this is the case for a significant number LGB gamers and allies out there. Market research shows that the LGB community is considerably more loyal to brands and companies who take the time to acknowledge we exist than your average consumer. And why not? All things being equal, if I have a choice between two otherwise superb products, of course I’m going to go with the one made by people who care about me.
There is, however, a fine line between engaging with a community and showing them you care and, frankly, taking the piss. Case in point, yet another Facebook privacy controversy. In this particular one, Privacy International alleged that Facebook’s targeted advertising had “destroyed” a young man’s life. Despite not openly revealing his sexual orientation on the social network, “David” started seeing a lot of adverts targeted at gay men until one day his parents spotted these and kicked him out of the house. Facebook in their eternal wisdom call this a case of “appalling discrimination and unauthorized access to a person’s account, not advertising”.
Yet here is why this is very much an issue of advertising, and an issue of how Facebook treats its users. (Remember, for Facebook we are not customers – we are the product. Nevertheless some minimum amount of decency and dignity should be expected even in this business model.) There was a time after I told Facebook I was bisexual and before I discovered the wonders of Adblock Plus when I used to see adverts on the site. Pretty much the only thing Facebook ever advertised to me were “lesbian cruises”. Which makes me wonder – if Facebook’s algorithms can figure out my sexual orientation even without me disclosing it, why can’t they figure out that there is more to me as a human being than just my sexual orientation? Why am I reduced to that one characteristic and then mercilessly targeted for it regardless of any other aspect of my life?
Here’s what BioWare did right: They created an awesome product and in the process thoughtfully included some options targeted at the LGB community. It’s important that Dragon Age isn’t about gay characters. It’s about characters who have adventures, who just happen to to be gay if the player so chooses. To top it all off, BioWare then stood by that product in the face of criticism, showing they had backbone to go with their amazing creativity. What Facebook does repeatedly wrong, on the other hand, is reducing us to a single characteristic they think they can turn into money and then disavowing responsibility the minute something goes wrong.
Thus ends today’s “Marketing to the LGB community” lesson.

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