Creating opportunities through heart-based leadership. How Code Coven is taking mentors
The Path to Parity
Tara Mustapha began her career as a game designer more than 15 years ago. She’s worked on a breadth of blockbuster and independent game titles that have taken her all over the world.
Despite her talent, she saw obstacles at every stage of her career - from her role as a junior designer to game director - that she says shouldn’t have been there.
“In my experience, the game development pipeline doesn’t allow for diverse, representative interactive experiences to be told by authentic voices,” says Mustapha. “People, particularly those of marginalised genders, were leaving the industry after only five years of experience, these people being denied the same career and funding opportunities that the majority are offered with less experience.”
After seeing limited change via industry EDI boards and events, she sought to accelerate the process and founded Code Coven with the mission to move the needle and change the systems in place that weren’t allowing for diversity at all levels.
“For me, it wasn’t only about getting diverse people in the door but giving them a path in career advancement and mentorship.”
Mustapha saw the need to build a framework which established studios could rely on for guidance on evolving their culture, while also equipping developers with the tools and support they needed to thrive in those environments.
“Code Coven is the first global games industry accelerator for underrepresented talent. We built all-encompassing career programs with heart-based training in mind, creating a safe space where marginalised folks weren’t the minority in order to help them feel supported in challenging the current norms.”
Programs are curated to achieve parity in the games industry and bring rich, diverse new experiences to platforms.
“Video games is an industry that has the power to inspire, to create places for people to escape, to create experiences where people can discover empathy and collaborate.”
Code Coven offers real-time online courses, incubator/accelerator programs, masterclasses, workshops, conferences and networking events. The team comprises underrepresented game devs with diverse experience across the industry from indie to AAA. The focus is on the individual, says Mustapha, and ‘heart-based’ leadership.
“In everything we do we look for ways to reduce trauma and increase care, compassion and confidence.”
That means keeping class sizes small, holding regular check-ins, and adapting course offerings to the needs of the cohort.
“No two classes are exactly the same. Our accelerators are also the first paid accelerators for marginalised people in the games industry,” says Mustapha.
The Iterative Process
Code Coven has grown quickly, from humble beginnings. Mustapha started the company with her own savings.
"I had saved money to be able to run the first pilot program, and from that we were able to adapt the programs and gain traction. Just like a prototype, once we had harder data around what we were doing and its effect, we knew we were in the right lane."
From its initial 14-week bootcamp in 2019, Code Coven evolved to include a 12-week Unity Development course, and expanded to paid accelerator programs last year.
When the pandemic hit, Code Coven aimed to support students and recent graduates whose career opportunities had been canceled. They launched the Summer Program, an incubator-style internship that banded together multidisciplinary teams to create game projects from concept to completion. They offered classes, guest presentations, 1:1 and team mentorship to each participant.
In June, amidst the BLM movement, Code Coven launched a scholarship fund for POC students in their Intro to Game Making course.
“We received more than 250 applications from more than 25 countries in only three days, highlighting the need for this opportunity.”
They subsequently partnered with WINGS Interactive to launch ELEVATE: GDC Relief Fund Accelerator to support slightly more established indie studios with meaningfully progressing game projects to a pitch-ready or publishable state. In 2020 alone, Code Coven supported more than 100 underrepresented developers from more than 15 countries, distributed more than $110,000 in stipends and granted more than $25,000 in scholarships.
“Our graduates have self-published games, been employed with partner studios and secured deals with publishers.”
Many have also returned to provide mentorship and opportunities to subsequent cohorts.
“Success in our eyes is the ripple effect that transpires from our alumni and community members thriving in the industry and planting the seeds of social progress and change,” says Mustapha. “Success includes greater representation not only within the games workforce but also within the games created and distributed globally.”
Code Coven’s path to creating systemic change hasn’t been without its challenges.
“The challenges that made Code Coven come to fruition are challenges that the team still experiences on a regular basis,” says Mustapha. “We are a formidable, talented team who are all so committed to our mission that we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves in the process. Our team are all established developers who are underrepresented, so to have to do the work, but also do the work is emotionally and mentally exhausting.”
Keeping up the momentum for change is another hurdle, and parity in the industry is something we have to continue to evangelise, says Mustapha.
“People reacted swiftly to the MeToo, BLM movements and to the pandemic, however these issues don’t end with new government leaders and a vaccine. Sure we just make games, our games don’t save lives, but the opportunities that come with making them do. “
Mustapha says marginalised people are even more impacted by these global crises, and while the games industry is thriving, investment into creating opportunity at all levels is critical.
On a personal level, Mustapha says the difficulty is knowing whether she's doing right by her team. “There’s always a point of friction, especially because we’re trying to do things differently. We’re actively trying to reconstruct systems that were built off of an invisible, patriarchal system. I could always make the choice to do things as society has taught us to, but do those adhere to the values that we’re teaching? I have to constantly work on being aware of unconscious bias. I’ve had to be very comfortable with being uncomfortable.” This year Code Coven has been able to increase its number of courses due to sponsorship and is offering 15 scholarships for their Intro to Game Making course. “Our sponsors know that they are investing in a boutique, bespoke program that ensures movement towards parity in the industry and keeps our programs accessible. With every participant we work with, every studio that we partner with, we increase the number of like-minded game-changers in the industry.”