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Games and Diversity

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In response, (or agreeable comment) to the Guardian’s ‘A divsersity challenge for developers’.

It’s an article about how the games industry is slowly, slowly starting to change how it represents things – primarily its protagonists. games are moving away from the straight, white, male leads in their droves as they rush to properly represent their audience – apparently. If they are, which a few isolated cases would suggest maybe the tide is turning….it’s not quick enough.

The excuse used by many for why there isn’t a diverse gallery of mixed race, bisexual, old protagonists in inter-species relationships is usually ‘It took the film industry nearly sixty years to stop projecting stereotypes to its audience, and even today it still has problems’. And this is true. The film industry was slow to change its representation of women, race and sexuality – and on the whole is still appalling at it; but so what?

This doesn’t excuse games being the reactionary preserve of the white, overweight, male, middle class gamers. The film industry grew up in a nation where segregation still existed. Films changed with the world, often glaringly behind the world but still it adapted to suit the modern world when it realised films with female or black leads wouldn’t be box office poison is when it finally, properly changed. And still today the most bankable stars are white and male (except maybe Jennifer Lawrence is changing this?) – but in the end it was financial motivations that heralded a true change.

It will be the same with games. It shouldn’t be, but it will.

Part of the problem may be the players themselves, or at least a segment of the player base that is vocally resistant to change. “Mainstream fan communities tend to be overly hostile when diversity issues are brought up, and I feel that they tend to get much more hostile and abusive when the person bringing up the issue is a member of a minority demographic,” says Regina Buenaobra, North American online community team leader for Guild Wars developer ArenaNet. “Games are meeting the needs of straight white male gamers, but when others say that their needs aren’t being met, they just can’t empathise. A market that doesn’t cater to them is beyond their experience.”

This is exactly why games creators need to lead their fanbase (the core of which might be these bigots) by the nose into the 21st century. Kicking and screaming if they have to. The problem is developers can make as many indie games as they want, it won’t change the paradigm. As a community we need two or three Triple A games to come out with non-white, or female, or gay, or transgender leads to change how people consume their entertainment. Creatives need to go out on a limb, in an attempt to change attitudes; to drive the conversation.

“Without speaking for others, I think there’s a fear of exclusion, rather than an appreciation for the opportunity for inclusion,” says Noah Hughes, creative director on the recently rebooted Tomb Raider. “They might be losing people by making these choices, as opposed to flipping it around and seeing that you can invite more people to have these experiences.”

The issue of representation has drawn increasing focus over the last 12 months from those working in the industry. At last month’s Game Developers Conference in California, the subject was a key talking point. Microsoft’s Tom Abernathy went as far as stating that “women are the new core”, and called for greater diversity in games, saying: “Our industry, our art, and our business stand to gain in every sense simply by holding a mirror up to our audience and reflecting their diversity in what we produce.”

Tomb Raider made an effort. It wasn’t perfect, and it failed more often than not – but it tried. And it was successful. It was a successful game. It’s time that the games industry started recognising that while white, male, straight gamers might be the people who post on their messageboards, or @ them on Twitter, or write them emails, or run blogposts on them (like me), or attend their conventions – more and more gamers are coming from backgrounds that aren’t this.

It’s true that we need to change how we think. We need to stop thinking “This type of character will lose me the white male audience unless it’s stereotyped in a way that is comfortable to them”. It should be “This character will open up a whole new stretch of people who can enjoy this game – and forget the bigots who don’t want to come with us.”

Promisingly, parts of the mainstream industry are already heading in that direction. Telltale Games‘ episodic adaptation of The Walking Dead won near universal acclaim last year for its emotional clout and sympathetic cast, including black lead Lee Everett, and developers at Sony’s Naughty Dog studio fought for co-lead Ellie to be prominently featured on box art for forthcoming post-apocalyptic thriller The Last of Us.

Elsewhere, Capcom’s impending sci-fi action title Remember Meintroduces Nilin, a mixed-race woman. “I want to keep faith in humanity and in the fact that gender doesn’t matter when a protagonist is created,”Remember Me‘s creative director Jean-Maxime Moris says. “We are in 2013. It is high time game companies noticed what has been happening in other forms of storytelling in the past couple of thousands of years. In the world and the story of Remember Me, the only choice we had was to go with Nilin. We didn’t consider having a male character, and we hope she resonates well with players from all ages and countries.”

Maybe there are calls to be optimistic. It’s already happening.

Or maybe we should remain pessimistic and realise that until they start losing money making the same homogenised game again and again, nothing will change. Like the Republicans drubbing the election, when they suddenly realised maybe they should try to include people. Maybe games should try to include people.


About thommurph

A History graduate from the University of Liverpool blogging about history, politics, music, television, gaming and literature.

4 responses »

  1. Thanks for posting this…I think this is a good opportunity for discussion.

    You present the idea that gender is irrelevant; that it doesn’t matter whether a character in a game is male or female. In other words, you suggest that gender difference is really only a superficial thing. In doing this, I am wondering if you realize that the “genderless person” you describe (since your position supposes that male and female are really the same thing) is actually the same as what the male gender has always been. In other words, it seems to me that you are actually eclipsing the entire female population by denying that the female gender brings anything unique to human society.

    This is an important topic, and I am glad you brought it up here. I would like to know what your thoughts are on this.

    • Ahh, I’m sorry if it came across that way. That was completely not my intention. Of course I believe there are difference between the genders, and between seuxalities and races. My point was more that the presence of these non-male, non-white perspectives (because they would allow for many more narrative choices) should not be seen as a narrowing point.

      I was raised by women, and all of my friends are women. I know more than most men how unique women are, so I’m sorry if I offended you by not expressing myself properly.

      My idea was (supposed to be) the idea of having a woman as a protagonist shouldn’t scare the game industry – and that their (apparent) interpretation of the audience as being primarily straight white men is wrong. They might be the most vocal members of the audience (or at least the bigotted ones are) but there is scope for broadening the leads and other characters within games.

      And that’s not to suggest that women can’t identify with male protagonists or vice versa – I know from experience that having a male lead isn’t a barrier to a woman enjoying a game.

      Again, I think it was just a lack of clarity on my part – and it was written in anger. My point could be summed up as “The audience is bigger than just teenaged white straight men, and the games should reflect that – don’t be scared of losing money.” I didn’t intend to imply men and women were the same. Sorry.

      • Don’t worry – I was not offended, at least not in the sense you are talking about. I realize you are talking about just making game characters that reflect the consumer base. My point was to suggest that there is a cultural problem, manifested these days especially in video games, which causes us to not be able to see that women bring something unique to human society, and that this is necessarily different from what men bring.

        For example, we have Laura Croft running through the tombs, guns blazing. How many other video games do we have of men running around, guns blazing? Yet we now substitute a woman in for the man, have her do all the same things, and we say all is good and fair. But in reality not all is good and fair because this very action shows us that we had no regard for what the woman was before we swapped her in for the man; we simply assumed she was the same as the man.

        Again, I think this is a very important subject, and I am glad you posted it.

      • I guess I worry that that errs on the side of making “female friendly” games which I think is highly dangerous. There are women like Lara Croft. Just like there are female city planners, and female marines, and female politicians.

        I agree that a cookie-cutter approach to just swapping out characters would be totally stupid, and would I play a re-release of Gears of War where the only change was the avatar you control now had breasts – no, I probably wouldn’t.

        What I’m arguing for – and because FPSs are the dominant expression of gaming at the moment, i probably focused on those unfairly – is a change in how we tell (and consume) stories as gamers.

        I guess it was my hope that because the games industry is so new, and young that it could’ve lost all these preconceptions before they ever took hold. It was my contention that if any of the studios were particularly brave then we could’ve had triple A games that project a balanced non-stereotypical homosexual character by now. Just like we could have had more (although there are some) indie games that discuss transgender issues and issues of race.

        I wasn’t saying that all we need to do is change the sex and the race of the lead characters and have games remain exactly as they are. If games are to become more inclusive they need to be rethought from the ground up.

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