Riot’s Soha El-Sabaawi Is Working To Reprogram Gamer Culture To Be More Inclusive

Half an hour into an in-depth chat about gaming and diversity with Soha Kareem, Riot Games’ Manager of Diversity Outreach and Community, I learn “Kareem” is not her actual last name. It’s a pseudonym, one she began using shortly after Gamergate to protect herself from the doxing and online harassment being hurled at her fellow female gamers on various social platforms.

That was six years ago and if there’s one tangible metric for measuring how far the industry’s come in terms of inclusion, it might be best represented in Soha’s name. Her real name. Soha El-Sabaawi, which she feels more comfortable sharing after years working at both small and big game studios to open the space to players who look more like her.

Or who look completely different from her, which is the whole point of her job.

Nearly five years ago, when she started working at Riot Games – a developer, publisher, and tournament organizer responsible for the massive gaming phenomenon known as League of Legends – she didn’t know of any Diversity and Inclusion positions at other large gaming companies. Riot itself was struggling to create a more inclusive atmosphere. The company would later be the subject of an earth-shaking report by Kotaku detailing sexism and allegations of sexual harassment from current and former employees. It’s been a long road since with ESPN offering a concise rundown. A look back by Kotaku a year after the initial report in August of 2019 indicated that the company had taken real steps forward, but while it’s not related, the spotlight again found Riot recently when an executive resigned after causing outrage by posting a meme about George Floyd.

“Riot hired me partially as a way to be like, ‘Hey, this [Gamergate] highlighted to us how systemic these issues are in the industry and we need to start deliberately investing in this space to figure out what happened and why it’s like this,'” Soha tells UPROXX Gaming.

Amidst Kotaku’s investigation, Riot addressed the toxicity plaguing their work environment, and their League of Legends arena play, letting numerous employees go and committing to hiring more staff to work with Soha on the external side of the Diversity & Inclusion initiative to make the space welcoming for women and minorities in ways it might not have been before.

“That really drove us to respond swiftly and strongly when it came to confronting our own D&I challenges,” Soha explains. “We wanted to be a better company. Everybody showed up and was like, ‘This is not okay. We don’t want these kinds of behaviors.'”

Riot continues to fight against its perceived “bro culture,” something Soha is actively working towards with the knowledge that “diversity” is an ever-shifting marker.

“It doesn’t just end, this is an everyday movement,” she says. “So that’s been the biggest learning [curve] for all of us — you don’t just fix it and it’s cool we solved the D&I issues. Diversity changes. It’s always evolving.”

She wants the gaming world to keep evolving too, which is why she’s advocating for new voices and underserved communities to have a hand in crafting what they like to play.

It’s a shockingly novel concept, particularly because, for the longest time, gaming has catered to a specific demographic which, in turn, stunted its growth. Sure, effects and platforms and consoles got better, more refined. But characters and storylines were becoming stagnant, and diversity was only happening at the micro-level.

Soha had been a casual gamer since she was five years old – when her family immigrated from Saudi Arabia to Canada and she was introduced to titles like Doom and Prince of Persia.

“Probably not the best age to get into Doom, but that’s when I started really getting into video games and would sneakily play them while nobody was really paying attention,” she recalls. “From there it really just grew into a solitary escape for me. It wasn’t really until I got a bit older that I started playing games with other people.”

But even for someone who spent her life gaming, studied film and storytelling in college, and got connected with the indie game scene in Toronto later on, it wasn’t until she hooked up with the nonprofit Dames Making Games (DMG) at a video game art festival called Vector Art that she realized how limited her view of the space was.

“I was like, ‘This is a really cool space that I didn’t think existed,'” Soha says. “As a consumer and as a hobbyist of games at that point, it was very much like ‘What are the big titles and what are the big games?’ And that must take geniuses to make. It just feels so untouchable to even think about creating a AAA video game.”

At Vector Art, DMG led a panel discussion on feminism in games but also on the idea of DIY game-making, talking with experts, and hosting an arcade full of titles that members of the community had made. The chat opened Soha’s eyes not only to a new audience of gamers hungry for variety but also to the idea that gatekeeping, at least in the gaming ‘verse, was dying out, seemingly opening up opportunities for anyone who had the skill, time, equipment, and want to program their own storytelling, mold their own characters, and build a world they hadn’t seen before.

“They were so powerful,” Soha remembers when recalling the immensely creative games she saw on display at Vector. “Some of them were very personal stories. Some of them were retro 80s kind of style of games. There were horoscope games and tarot games. Bright pink ones. And I was just like, ‘This is something I didn’t think of as a step forward in game design.’”

She now sits on the board of DMG, who continues to create mentorship programs to invite new voices into the gaming space – incubation initiatives like Indigicade which targeted young indigenous women and non-binary people between the ages of 14 to 25 and helped them craft their first games.

But she’s also taking that desire to see a variety of ethnicities, nationalities, genders, and sexual orientations represented to Riot Games, heading up projects that are starting to ask wildly different questions of gaming developers.

How do studios attract new players or players they haven’t targeted before? How do you make a game that’s accessible? How do you make a champion that resonates with players in different countries? What can you do to make gaming a more social, connective experience?

Riot started answering some of those questions, and they’re doing it by creating characters like Senna, League of Legends’ first Black female champion.

She was created largely by members of Riot Noir, Riot Games’ employee resource group for Black employees. Soha’s team connected Riot Noir to League of Legends’ champion team so that they’d have input on how the character was ultimately formed.

“We’re really, really proud of what she represents, not only to Black players and aspiring Black players but also to our Black Rioters who felt like they had a say in almost every single thing,” Soha says. “Down to her voice, her facial features, her skin tone, her hair. We really put in the work to make her look as authentic and real as possible. And so it’s things like that, that have sparked a lot more conversations.”

Senna has become one of the League’s most popular champions.

“People just want to play something cool,” Soha says. “They just want to play a character who’s cool. And that coolness can be defined in so many ways. A character’s beauty and general appeal can be defined in so many ways that resonate with a huge amount of people. I feel like K/DA (League of Legends K-Pop inspired champion group) and True Damage (League of Legends virtual Hip-Hop group) are big examples of that. Suddenly, my family members and friends who don’t play games, or if they do play games, they’ve been too intimidated by League, are just like, ‘This is pretty dope. How do I get into this?’ And it’s because they’re seeing cool aesthetics and the cool aesthetics happened to be on our female champions and on our champions of color.”

It sounds like common sense – to attract a wider audience, you need to represent that diversity in your gameplay – but it’s taken years of working with developers and studios for the vision of more inclusive gameplay to start coming to life.

“It’s like if you build it, they will come,” she explains. “If you make a super cool Black female champion, people are going to get excited and then people are going to think, I want to work there. I want to work for a place that makes that. Start getting into your discomfort zone and make something that is not for you and learn what it’s like to not be you.”

Challenging the traditional notion of gameplay, not just what characters look and act like, but also how games are played, feels even more vital in the age of COVID-19, as more and more people hop aboard the gaming trend. Riot Games is focused on expanding their mobile gaming outreach which might be the next frontier in terms of diversity in the space, and Soha says they’re seeing an uptick in non-competitive forms of play – like Animal Crossing.

“It’s just a game that encourages people to be nice to each other,” she explains. “I usually would not go on a subreddit to be like, ‘Oh, who’s turnip prices are really good?’ But everybody is so sweet. There are laws of etiquette that we all abide by. So that’s actually been a really nice escape. Just seeing how creative people can get has been really awesome.”

The popularity of this socially-minded game is another reason why the industry needs to continue making real progress in inclusion. If more people are playing and gaming is becoming an increasingly (and rare) vital space where we can interact with each other, then all people, of all interests and backgrounds need to be represented.

“What we can do is give people a space to just be themselves, to just have fun because the world feels really tense right now,” Soha says. “I feel like as a service, we can ground people and we can just keep them in the moment. And hopefully they make some friends along the way too.”