Best practices for hiring First Nations talent in games, according to Awesome Black

The social enterprise organisation lays out some sustainable hiring practices in regard to recruiting First Nations employees and partners.
Artwork courtesy of Awesome Black, and First Nations Creative Social Enterprise organisation.

In June 2023, the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) partnered with Indigenous-led creative social enterprise Awesome Black to host a webinar outlining existing support for First Nations people within the Australian games industry, and best practices for industry leaders.

The talk, titled So, you want to hire Blackfullas? comes in response to consultations IGEA have had with numerous game developers, associations, and organisations that gauged what support the industry currently has in place, as well as the desire of these studios to hire First Nations talent more appropriately.

Awesome Black is a not-for-profit organisation first founded in 2020, that works to generate opportunities and support for First Nations employees across creative industries. They produce a number of entertainment programs in partnership with Spotify Australia and New Zealand, and you can find more information on the work they do through their official website.

Hosts Travis De Vries (Awesome Black Founder) and Ben Armstrong (Awesome Black Head of Gaming and Partnerships Lead) led the discussion regarding how companies can begin to implement more sustainable hiring practices and cultivate culturally aware workplaces. It highlighted areas of improvement for those not yet adequately equipped to support Indigenous employees.

An overview of the Australian industry

The session opened with a brief overview of the industry’s current support for First Nations employees, highlighting a call for further representation and pipeline shifts for Indigenous folk seeking to enter the field. 

Referencing the 2022 IGEA Australian Game Development Survey report, which states there were 2104 Full-Time Employees (FTE) at the time of publishing, Armstrong noted that Indigenous employees would make up less than 1% of this statistic, assuming they were all full-time employees. 

The report also mentions that 85% of respondents develop their own IP, and De Vries emphasised there is still, anecdotally, an overwhelming amount of issues surrounding the use of culture in games, and Indigenous Cultural and Intellectual Property (ICIP) more specifically.

The overview communicated that whilst many companies are eager to hire more Indigenous employees, it’s vital to first have an innate understanding of these factors so they can be better equipped to support new staff beyond the initial onboarding process. 

Hiring do’s and don’ts

De Vries and Armstrong stated that companies are in a stronger position to hire First Nations people when they have clear, foundational understandings of Indigenous communities. 

Companies should seek to have a solid understanding of not just how these communities engage in gaming and creative sectors specifically, but have a broader education in relation to history and land acknowledgments. Leaders should be making a concerted effort to actively listen, empathise, and identify their places within these historical contexts. 

De Vries also spoke on the importance of adopting appropriate ICIP protocols, as these aren’t protocols that are yet enshrined under Australian Intellectual Property law, but should be respected in professional contexts for their intrinsic cultural value when used across multimedia. 

Read: Dinkum and the erasure of First Nations People in Australian video games  

You can find more information on ICIP protocols and their applications in the Arts via the Australia Council for the Arts website.

Organisations should also seek to have a clear understanding of cultural expectations for their candidates, and communicate what their role should achieve. 

There should not be an expectation for potential employees to represent a company on Indigenous topics unless they are comfortable, it has been clearly communicated within their job role, or the employee has directly led the conversation themselves. 

Armstrong and De Vries noted that Indigenous employees should not be hired for the sole purpose of ticking a ‘diversity hire’ box, but because companies want to invest in and support their talents, as well as nurture their individual perspectives within the role. 

Companies who see short-term internships as meaningful career progression should reconsider this approach before hiring First Nations staff, as Armstrong explains these types of roles don’t often benefit marginalised communities or create long-term career opportunities down the line. 

Similarly, with regard to one-off consultations and short-term contracts, there is less room for companies to develop long-term, ‘non-transactional’ relationships with Indigenous employees. They’re also often undertaken very late in a project’s timeline, as many studios aren’t considering the cultural implications of their IPs or building these relationships early on in development. 

Building careers 

Armstrong and De Vries brought attention to the lack of readily available career opportunities for Indigenous talent, mentioning there is currently no supported pipeline for First Nations employees within tech or gaming sectors. 

Companies can play a role in shifting this when they generate defined and supported pathways within their own organisations, and use the privilege held in their positions to advocate for Indigenous staff.

Armstrong spoke on the surface-level intent some employers can hold in regard to Reconciliation Act Plans (RAPs). He explained that whilst a lot of First Nations people do gain employment as a result of these action plans, these companies often have shorter retention rates because they are dedicating less focus to sustainable career growth and investment.

Cultivating a workplace culture that fosters careers over jobs doesn’t just create higher retention rates, it creates an environment that Indigenous employees can begin to value, respect, and feel a sense of belonging. It’s imperative for leaders to research how they can contribute to creating more positive environments, and to understand that it is ongoing work that should be considered consistently and at the forefront. 

Alternative steps before hiring

For companies who may not yet be ready to hire and support First Nations employees, there are a number of actions that can be taken to inform hiring practices, and create further cultural awareness within their organisations. 

De Vries mentioned that engaging with Indigenous communities is a positive step for businesses looking to grow in this area, as being an active participant in these spaces aids in developing authentic relationships over transactional ones. Awesome Black is one port of call for companies looking to build these connections, and the team can also lead interested parties to other relevant organisations.

Read: Indigenous games express culture through play

There is also the route for paid partnership opportunities with Indigenous artists and creatives, which is a more sustainable alternative to short-term contracting. De Vries also notes this can create more sustainability for the artist/s, particularly if they profit from cultural IP that a studio implements into their game on a seasonal basis.

Studios can also utilise portions of their project budgets to support other Indigenous-led organisations, and to invest in existing and emerging creators. Referencing a personal anecdote, De Vries mentioned that studios that provide creators with opportunities to revise an underquoted invoice is one example of how to take a more supportive approach, and doesn’t undercut the value the individual brings to the company.

The full webinar is available to view above, or on the IGEA YouTube page.

Emily Shiel is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia who is passionate about all things accessibility, mental health and the indie games scene. You can find her on Twitter at @emi_shiel