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Mythbusting diversity in video games: Why studios need to stop hiding behind discredited excuses

Is the mainstream video game industry kidding itself and, by extension, us? Eugenia Woo unpacks the excuses often presented as reasons to avoid diversity. 

This essay was originally posted online on August 25, 2016.

The issue of diversity in video games is polarising. BioWare’s Manveer Heir said it best – “there is a vocal crowd in the gaming community that despises the idea of diversity in games.” We hear this from developers all the time as a defence for the dudebro playable characters flooding the market, as if doing justice to the complexity that comes with being human is something that detracts from the gaming experience.

But the worst part is, sometimes we believe it. What if companies do end up struggling to sell copies of the next Dragon Age game because BioWare implements non-binary gender options? It seems like simple business-model math: the majority of the people playing games think that having a female playable character divorces their experience from reality, therefore the chances of them buying a Grand Theft Auto where they don’t play as a caricature of a divorced gangster are slim. Gaming studios think that as soon as they stray outside the realm of angsty male heroes and sexualised, racialised violence a game won’t sell.

Michael, Grand Theft Auto

Those studios are right, but only up to a point.

Yes, it’s statistically likely that sales will dip if the female and/or queer antagonists in games are given some kind of relevance to the plot other than the “they were hot ‘til they went mad with power” trope. Yes, there will be predictable backlash from the E3 crowd if Assassin’s Creed has another game where we can’t play as a brooding European misogynist. But what if, maybe, statistics don’t line up with the fears of gaming studios?

The Internet Advertising Bureau published figures in 2014 that show 52% of the gaming audience is made up of women. God knows how many of those women are fed up with how they’re meant to kill giant demons with ridiculously impractical leotards on before the game marries them off to some random guy. God knows how many other players are even more alienated because they simply don’t identify as male or female, let alone players who are trans and have their own host of concerns when it comes to accurate representation. We also have to take into account the racialised violence that videogames have, and the poor excuse that is given by creators who try and justify unacceptable depictions of xenophobia as evidence of a more immersive game experience.

Some of us want to see characters who are queer, non-binary, and/or people of colour represented positively in games. The BioWare approach of “let’s throw these stereotypes into a bag and see what kind of villain we get” was never really good enough and shouldn’t be the future of video game narratives. There is a lot wrong with videogame diversity, and a fair amount of it boils down to the intersection of games and media with society. When people say that they want ‘positive representation’, they don’t necessarily mean that they want to see themselves as the hero of every game ever made. Also, I can’t speak for every person of colour ever so if you’re thinking, “Hey, I’ve got that one Asian friend and she doesn’t think about games like this” then, well, don’t. People of colour shouldn’t be treated like one single entity of better-than-average mathematics skills.

But back to how being the hero of every game ever made would get dull – no shit, of course it would. Being overrepresented in mediums isn’t any fun either. Players are interested in the sort of representation that gives them a non-discriminatory origin story. They’re interested in representation where they can get their character in-game to look like them and to romance someone who isn’t either a) a rip-off of Arnold Schwarzenegger or b) a character based on what straight men think lesbians are like. Queer, non-binary, and/or people of colour should be able to feel how heterosexual white gamers feel – like they’ve been given the chance to tell a story that doesn’t assume things about their race, or give them dialogue options that are delivered in the standard, unobtrusive but grating ethnic accent that pretty much every studio assigns to its non-white characters.

A lot of what is marketed or trumpeted as diversity by video game studios is, in fact, constructed diversity. Bioshock Infinite is one such example. Most of the hallmarks of diversity are there, in a sense: different races are represented, a major female counterpart to the male lead has narrative significance, and there are other strong characters who don’t fit the traditional mould. Unfortunately, everyone who isn’t white is either in slavery under a fantasy KKK or dead as the result of the in-game Boxer Rebellion. Obviously, the parallels are there – the setting is a caricature of American history, of what would have happened if the race relations in the US during the 1910s had gotten even more out of hand. The fanatic nationalism and racism in the game has been defended as part of setting the scene, and the studio has deflected criticism by maintaining that the intolerance was just a “factor of the times”, and therefore warranted.

Bioshock Infinite

There isn’t really a way to respond to that which doesn’t read like a curtailing of freedom of expression to some people, but the crux of the issue isn’t about stopping people from making the games that they want. I’ve already acknowledged that Bioshock Infinite’s setting is a damn caricature. The problem is the fact that developers aren’t being honest. Let’s face it – the racism was obvious within the first 15 minutes of the game. Game studios are never going to stop setting games in controversial fantasy locations, and they likely will never exclude controversial content, but if they’re being asked about the inclusion of offensive material and its meaning maybe they should be upfront for a change. Don’t use the oppression of groups of people as a cop-out for why the studio designed a particular character or narrative. Fantasy oppression isn’t any less hurtful; if you’re going to be racist, just own it.

I don’t want to be that person who talks about what they learned in a lecture theatre at the dinner table but critical theories of technology are a good way to start when it comes to conceptualising why issues of representation are so rife in the industry. The theories deal with the connection between what’s created in new media (in this case, video games) and the lived experiences of the people creating that new media. They tell us what we already know about new media – that it is created by, and serves the interest of, people who maintain the current status quo. One look outside will tell you that the status quo is damaging and discriminatory. Conventional video games and their content are informed by the lived experiences of their creators. Game developers are overwhelmingly male and white. The games created by these people therefore serve their interests and reflect their beliefs and values. A lot of times, controversial content is clearly racist or violently misogynistic or transphobic, and critical theory infers that it’s included because it’s simply not part of the lived experiences of developers.

While matters of technology design are often presented as neutral technical choices, the fact is they manifest political or moral values. This phenomenon isn’t uncommon in game development. Ubisoft scrapped its plans to include female playable characters in Assassin’s Creed: Unity because they said that it would’ve been too expensive to animate female character models. Games blog Kokatu called it bullshit, and lots of people wholeheartedly agreed with that description. For the sake of clarity, maybe an alternative way to look at this is to consider not which interests are being served but to instead identify which groups of society are being systematically ignored in the medium. The people being shortchanged by the video game industry are readily identifiable. Ubisoft’s reluctance to rig models of female characters isn’t just reluctance, it’s almost insidious.

Dudes

This isn’t a piece about how the gaming industry is awful. Tarring all games with the same brush would be manifestly unfair; there are some people out there making strides in positive representation, and alternative platforms like Twine have given rise to all new breeds of games that encourage the traditionally alienated. However, the problem is far from solved. This piece is about how people shouldn’t have to play a main character who looks like one of Taylor Swift’s reject love interests in every eight out of ten games. The fact is that in some games if you’re not playing as Calvin Harris, you’ve inevitably got to make out with Calvin Harris. That’s not everyone’s idea of a good time. Sure, someone out there in their mother’s basement is going to say “Screw you, political correctness is ruining Dragon Age” but if an angry Meninist keels over in the woods out of outrage and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a sound? Maybe video game studios should peel their ears off the forest floor and get with the times.


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