“Negative stereotypes effect the identity of individuals in these groups”, these are not just the words of Manveer Heir, the Gameplay Designer on Mass Effect, during his talk at GDC (Games Developer Conference) in San Francisco, this is the proven truth of the effects of the media and those who watch, listen and interact with it. Key is this in video games, as the control of our characters makes it all the more important that the thousands of hours of gaming that we take part in each year aren’t full to the brim with offensive content that not just leaves out the diverse masses of gamers who are playing them, but poorly represents them when they are actually included. So the rest of Heir’s words then, that you can read after the break, are even more important.
The Games Industry of Tomorrow
A veteran of the games industry, having worked on Mass Effect for a long while, Heir’s words are clearly informed and they are respected too. His statement that
“Wherever we may stand today as an industry I am confident that we will stand somewhere far better tomorrow as long as you, right here, are willing to be an agent of change. I sincerely hope that you are ready for that challenge, because I sure as hell am!”
reportedly got cheers, with those watching his speech on the third day of the conference even giving him a standing ovation.
Not only this, but Heir pointed out gaming’s history of unchecked (and seemingly accepted) “misogyny, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia and other types of social injustice,” which too gained him a cheer, as he continued to explain that both women and minorities are left out and criminally so, a statement that is supported by my own video game diversity report.
The Deterrence of Diversity
Heir also rightfully pointed out the fact that in terms of diverse protagonists, developers try and justify their lack of inclusion by saying that it would make their games sell poorly. Heir mentioned this, along with the fact that this is total hooey, saying that
“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. We should use the ability of our medium to show players the issues firsthand, or give them a unique understanding of the issues and complexities by crafting game mechanics along with narrative components that result in dynamics of play that create meaning for the player in ways that other media isn’t capable of.”
How The Games Industry Can Move Forward
It’s not all doom, gloom and an offensive lack of representation, however, as Heir did point out that games like Assassin’s Creed Liberation are moving things forward, as a game with a mixed race, black protagonist, Aveline, that presents new ideas about not just slavery (which is covered heavily in the game) but also exploring the cultural implications of being both black and white, as well as the privilege that Aveline is given due to the status of her white father.
But these are rarities, with examples of leading female characters, people of colour and LGBTQ identified leads especially, being a once in a blue moon, or at least a once in 15 games type occurrence. Gamers were never only straight, white or male and even from the industry’s beginnings people from varying backgrounds were taking up controllers to ping dots off of panels in Pong, or chasing pixels as Pacman. While it seems obvious to say, it’s something often overlooked and it’s one of the reasons why publishers think women or minority-fronted games won’t sell – because they don’t understand that women, minorities and those who aren’t offended by women, people of colour and LGBTQ identified people (i.e the majority of gamers) are gamers too.
It has to change because right now, this consideration of representation of a risk is further making a hierarchy out of pre-existing privilege and, as Heir stated, the perceptions of women and minorities in the real world are effected by representations of those in virtual ones making it all the more important that video games get it right.
The games industry may not have listened to David Gaider (Lead Writer for Dragon Age) when he cited the importance of diversity in gaming, or Lucien Soulban (Lead Writer for Ubisoft Montreal) when he talked about the need for a gay video game protagonist, but as Manveer Heir tells a vocal GDC crowd that
“I want to see this in indie games and AAA games and mobile games. In board games, pen-and-paper games and every other type of game you can imagine. I want us, as an industry, to stop being so scared. If we make them I am confident that the audience will come and accept them.”
we can only hope that the video game industry will begin to listen.
Do you think the games industry is moving forward or does more work need to be done with diversity? – Leave a comment and let me know what you think.