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Interview: Where is the representation in NZ gaming?

25 Sep 2019

Dhayana Sena is a gamer with ambition in the battlefield, but also with ambition to let diversity in gaming flourish. But as a Kiwi of Malaysian birth and Sri Lankan descent, she feels oddly alone.

She says she hasn't been able to find another ethnic Kiwi who is prominent in games or esports, bar one or two individuals that she found herself. We chatted to Dhayana about her story, the gaming world, and what we can do to promote more diversity.

How did you get into gaming?

I moved to New Zealand at age 12. I’ve always been passionate about pop culture and gaming from a very young age, courtesy of spending a lot of time with my uncles as a child, but I have always felt that my background and ethnicity meant that I could never succeed in a career in gaming or entertainment.

As a result, I became a barrister and solicitor turned PR professional who only delved into gaming as a casual hobby. Upon meeting my partner, who was an avid gamer and streamer for Microsoft’s now defunct ExpertZone programme in New Zealand, I was introduced to the programme and I began streaming for Microsoft as well.

Given my passion for writing, I began publishing video game review content on my personal blog, Attack On Geek. That essentially set me on my journey as a games writer, streamer and content creator within the gaming industry in New Zealand and beyond.

Can you talk a little about how you became the country’s first female partnered streamer on Microsoft Mixer?

Mixer is a young and growing platform and wasn’t as well known in New Zealand when I first began streaming on the platform. While others took to Twitch and YouTube, I remained on Mixer as I enjoyed the technological advancements the platform offered, such as its Faster Than Light (FTL) technology, which meant low latency and almost zero lag, when it came to engaging with viewers in chat.

As most of us are aware, gaming and streaming is still considered to be a male dominated activity, with very few females being highlighted, especially on Mixer at the time I started streaming. Couple that with the fact that there’s very little representation of Kiwis on Mixer and South Asian streamers as a whole, reinforced the idea that maybe South Asians were not suited towards career paths in gaming and would not succeed.

I didn’t feel that this was right and as someone who strongly believes that gaming is an activity that brings people of all races and backgrounds together, and an advocate for diversity in gaming, I wanted to show others who may have felt like me, that it was indeed possible to be a female underdog of sorts and still succeed in the games industry.

As such, I worked day and night to put myself out there, streaming practically every evening after my full time job and every weekend (on top of running everything for Attack On Geek from writing content to managing social media) to build my community, network with others, and essentially be a streamer worthy of being a Mixer partner. The long hours and hard work may have resulted in a lot of blood, sweat and tears over two years but it was all worth it in the end.

The IGEA’s Digital NZ 2020 report throws up some interesting stats – half of those who play games are women and girls, and the average gamer’s age is 34, turning a few gaming stereotypes on their heads. What are you seeing first hand in the gaming world?

Though the stereotype is prevalent, especially when it comes to esports, gaming as a whole has an almost equal split when it comes to gender. There are so many women and girls who play games and this is evident across the board.

Being part of the Xbox Ambassadors community and being involved in the games industry as a whole here in Australia and New Zealand, I’ve seen that there are so many women doing a variety of things in games, whether they work in game development or with publishers, are community or esports organisation leaders, presenters, journalists or simply play games for fun.

There are also a wide range when it comes to age groups and occupation. I’ve met several mums who game (some are even partnered streamers), those in the military who game, young children who enjoy playing what some call 'games for boys' and the like.

Gaming is not just a male activity anymore. There are more and more female and non-binary organisations and groups coming up that aim to dispel this stereotype.

I have launched a community to support and empower women and girls who play games on Xbox, called Women of Xbox, though we are still new and slowly building and growing. There’s also groups like Women of Esports, Women in Gaming, and even locally, WomANZ, who have hundreds of women within their community. Not only that, there’s even now a female only esports festival, which had its inaugural A/NZ event in Sydney earlier this year, called the Girl Gamer Esports Festival. 

With all this evidence of there being gamers of a variety of ages and genders, the stereotype is no longer justified.

Looking at game development and where NZ should start - Local companies like Grinding Gear Games have a pretty wide employee base. However, they don’t tend to publicise diversity stats. Do you think more game companies should openly share these kinds of stats? Why or why not?

I would love to see game companies share their diversity stats because it keeps them accountable for any promises or assurances of equal opportunity employment and diversity within their company.

To be fair, this isn’t limited to just gaming companies though. Even if publishing their diversity stats is not viable, there should be more opportunities or incentives given to companies to be more open and willing to discover the talent that women and minority groups may possess. The only issue would be conceiving what such incentives should look like and how it would be managed.

There’s a big movement to bring tech into NZ schools, starting with things like robotics, coding and Minecraft. Should game development be a core part of education’s tech curriculum and what do you think we should do to attract underrepresented people, or those affected by the digital divide?

Game development, as well as video game presenting, streaming and online behaviour should definitely become part of a school’s core curriculum. These are all areas that are growing and our current education system should be keeping up with changes by equipping the future generation with the right tools to succeed, rather than continue to push them towards traditional careers paths (especially in our growing gig economy).

Having these available to all Kiwis, regardless of age, race, or level of experience, while encouraging girls, in particular to get involved through education and using the right messages would be one way to bridge the diversity gap. Another way would be to educate parents on what game development, gaming, and diversity in gaming means so that these messages are being delivered to children at home as well.

Too often, especially in my capacity as an educator for TenForward, an after school technology lounge for children, have I seen parents come in to ask, “do you have any video games for girls?” or they’d only sign their sons up as opposed to their daughters, who would be taken elsewhere for their after school/school holiday care.

Not realising that girls too can play action games or FPS titles and teaching their daughters that there’s a divide when it comes to gaming, parents and teachers often instil this stereotypical idea into children from a young age.

So perhaps, the first step would be to educate parents, teachers and caregivers as a whole about the benefits of gaming for all.

Share your thoughts: Is there anything you’d like to add?

For me, personally, the best part about being a gamer and streamer is that it allows you to put your creativity and passions to good use, while being able to meet others who share in those passions. I absolutely love what I do because I’ve been able to make amazing friends around the world through content, be it my own or others.

It also helped me find my voice. As someone who always so shy and didn’t quite believe in herself, doing what I do for Attack On Geek has given me such confidence to be able to speak to anyone and everyone, while allowing me to find what my strengths are.

I hope that others like me, who may feel unsure of whether to delve into gaming, or believe that due to their position as an ethnic Kiwi, can’t develop a career in games, are able to find their own voice and be given opportunities to shine in the areas in which they are passionate about.

I certainly hope that more and more people and companies champion the notion that gaming is for everyone and encourage inclusivity and diversity in gaming so that the future generation will not be submitted to the digital divide.