A Cry for Action at GDC 2014: A New Dawn for Diversity in Gaming?

If there’s one thing we gaming reviewers at LGG&F can agree on, it’s that there needs to be more diversity in video games. This isn’t some revelation I’m pulling out of my ass: we’ve been saying it since the start, whether it be more people of color placed in the spotlight, women being allowed to have characterization beyond the easy pitfalls of tropes, or any representation of the LGBTQ+ community. Basically any character that’s not a chiseled, cishet, 5 o’clock shadow-ed white dude. Cries for a wider cast of characters have echoed across the subculture for what feels like eons, but the fact remains that until the industry decides to take up the mantle, the opportunities for change will be limited to break-out indie hits. However, my conscientious readers, we may be on the precipice of a new dawn. That is to say, the industry may have just had a breakthrough.

Manveer HeirJust a few days ago at the Games Developer Conference in San Francisco, Manveer Heir, a gameplay designer for BioWare Montreal, took the stage in front of a packed room to deliver a panel entitled ‘Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where do video games stand?’. During the panel, Heir called out the Western games industry for clinging too closely to the AAA game formula of white straight dudes saving the girl and doing cool things, and called for a change in not only how the games industry forms their future stories, but also how they view their audience. In a wise move, Heir reassured his audience that his speech wasn’t made so he could waggle a disapproving finger at his fellow game devs; instead it was to be seen as a nudge to an industry that has grown all too comfortable in their safe little niche. It’s a nudge well-needed, however.

Heir’s arguments included the oft-used fact that inclusivity is important for more than serving a need to be politically correct or knocking another tally off the diversity checklist. I say fact because it’s the truth is inescapable: representation is important. In fact, it’s more important than much of the mainstream media is willing to admit. However, it’s also an easy thing to nod your head at and agree with, but ultimately do nothing about. Luckily, Heir also addressed one of the many roots to this problem of exclusion: so-called ‘realism’. He states:

We need to stop giving into the realism excuse, especially when most of our games are fantasy games … and not historically accurate, and [instead] question whether realism even makes any sense for our game. If it does, then we need to make sure that the realism isn’t boiled down into such a simplistic model that it creates more problems. (x)

Borderlands 2 RolandPersonally, I find this a very nuanced statement. How often do we hear new games coming out being lauded for their realism? The question is, what does ‘realism’ actually mean? Is realism related to solely to graphics, or is it connected more to the human condition? To claim the former is to completely discredit the impact of every single character you come across in a video game. It is, of course, a combination of both. And again, of course, it’s a lot of work to include the two. However, where representation is concerned, taking shortcuts is more than lazy, it’s disingenuous to the audience and the narrative environment of the game. For example, one of my favorite games, Borderlands, has a Black person as one of the main four characters: the steadfast soldier, Roland. However, there’s nary another Black person on the entire damned planet. So, while it’s great that we have a person of color taking the lead—and kindly refraining from dying until the end of the sequel—why are there no others? Are we to believe that since Roland arrived from off-planet, Pandora is home to no other Black people?  The world of Borderlands is fantastical, but it also plays off a very human, and in that sense ‘realistic’, world that isn’t so different from ours—and though this issue was addressed somewhat in the sequel, that doesn’t excuse the lack of representation in the first game. Luckily, this also shows that developers aren’t beyond learning. And it’s clear that some developers are trying to be more inclusive, but to put it bluntly: they aren’t trying hard enough.

It’s unclear if this seeming stagnation is caused more by the developers themselves being unwilling to try something new, or if it’s the fear of new ideas not being understood by the audience they either want to reach or want to maintain. Honestly, that’s an idea that had never occurred to me in more than sarcastic remarks: do the developers think we, as an audience, are just too stupid to understand the complexities of diversity in an entertainment medium? Or, perhaps the more polite way to put it: do developers think their audience will shut down at something that breaks the norm? At least Heir has our backs on this. He comments:

I find it very cynical to think that our audience is not smart enough to be able to accept and handle and embrace a gay protagonist or more exclusive women protagonists in games that aren’t glorified sex objects and actually have personalities beyond supporting the men in the game. There are plenty of examples of this being accepted in other media […]  (x)

Hi. Yes. More of this, please.

Hi. Yes. More of this, please.

Our generation, and every following generation, is no stranger to cynicism, so to hold this ideology isn’t exactly surprising. Unsurprising as it may be, it’s still detrimental from both ends. If game devs are so convinced that their audience isn’t willing to accept anything new, then they’ll stick to shilling out the same old story rather than risk losses—both monetary and audience-wise—on an audience that they’re convinced has no chance to appreciate something new. From this regurgitation of stories and characters, the audience will then become increasingly more attached to this formula and even more unwilling to give new stories a shot because, much like the devs, change frightens them.  It’s true that there will be a certain subset of assholes that will refuse to play a game simply because it does break from the white, heteronormative, patriarchal standard, but that doesn’t mean those games shouldn’t be made. Even if a specific medium is mainly used for entertainment, one portion of the audience’s wish-fulfillment shouldn’t be met any more than others. In a perfect world, more games would take the initiative and break these stereotypes, and indeed some games like Mirror’s Edge and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation have done very well. These games, which both star women of color, have made their mark on the industry with their success, but we’re still far away from any true acknowledgement from game devs of the importance of minority representation.

I appreciate Heir’s speech deeply, but at the end of the day this speech has been made before and will most likely be made many more times before we see a true change. And, well, I guess that’s progress. I’d love to say that this speech will spark a new diversity-renaissance, but that’s just not realistic. However, as long as people like Heir enter the games industry and continue to voice their beliefs that yes, games should be more diverse, I do believe that the industry can change. It’ll just be a slow, rocky climb. I hope you all brought your mountain climbing gear.

1 thought on “A Cry for Action at GDC 2014: A New Dawn for Diversity in Gaming?

  1. When worlds collide… This was recently posted in a research community that I follow as part of my grad school work: http://dmlcentral.net/blog/liz-losh/gaming-and-new-gender-paradigms. I think the educational games community doesn’t pay enough attention to the conventional gamer community, to be honest (e.g., why can’t we look for the educational benefits of popular video games that already exist, instead of making new ones specifically “for learning” that end up not being as cool ?). So while it’s great that, as this article says, more women are getting involved in educational games, those games aren’t really in the mainstream of geek culture and thus aren’t going to really change the overarching conversation.

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