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I'm Offended. Is It You, Me, or the Character?

In this article, game designer Sande Chen distinguishes between offensive characters and offensive material, and explains why it's important to keep track of authorial tone.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Diversity.]

"I'm offended because it's so misogynistic," said one of my classmates in a playwriting workshop years ago.  I was stunned, not only because she had dared to make an objection against the work of the Theatre Department's current media darling, but that she had given voice to the uneasy feelings I had about the play presented before me.  The young white male protagonist in the play made bawdy jokes about women, the kind that would usually be followed up in real life with, "Awwwww, c'mon, can't you take a joke?" This led the professor to question, "Do you think it's the character that's misogynistic or the play that's misogynistic?"  At some point, I came to the private conclusion that the play itself was misogynistic because of authorial tone, which would suggest somewhat that the author himself was misogynistic.

Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at

If a character in a fictional work is misogynistic, then it's seen as a character trait that isn't reflective of the author.  The character trait could be balanced or justified.  It depends on the situations presented in the fictional work.  There might even be other characters that offer a liberal viewpoint, as in the 1970's popular sitcom, All in the Family.   The viewpoints of the "lovable bigot," Archie Bunker, are constantly challenged and therefore, the show and its authorial tone becomes more about promoting tolerance in society.

Even when a fictional work can be considered to be misogynistic or racist and so forth because of the authorial tone presented, or in the case of games, because of art or game mechanics that can be interpreted in societal light, it's hard to say that there is one person at fault when it's a group activity.  An unproduced script has only the author, but a play on the stage is subject to the interpretations of the director and the cast.  The blame often goes to the person who is seen to have the most creative control.  Filmmaker D.W. Griffith is considered a racist for A Birth of a Nation, but it turns out that he might not have cared about racial politics.

In game development, there are so many moving parts.  Who exactly is in control of authorial tone?  Is it the narrative designer, the creative director, or the artist who decided to add something extra?  Whether it's due to lack of research, lack of sensitivity, or a lack of understanding how the content will be perceived, there will be players who find offense.  The offense doesn't even have to be about gender politics.  Maybe the player doesn't like how a mythological creature looks because the creature has symbolic meaning in the player's country.   It's known that Chinese and Korean players are offended by the Imperial Japanese rising sun flag.  Are these players just too sensitive?

From a customer support viewpoint, it really doesn't matter.  This doesn't mean that a game needs to changed right away or at all, just that an understanding reply can mean the difference between a player who feels his or her concerns are heard and a player who is mad enough to lead a campaign and rile people up.  If players are so offended that they won't buy the game or buy an in-game item, then I'm sure the marketing department cares about that.

The best approach, of course, is to carefully consider these issues before the launch of the game.  How will the situations in the game be perceived by different populations?  Does the game have a particular message that could be considered offensive?  How are minorities and underrepresented subgroups treated in the game?  Are there stereotypical characters?  Ask others for their opinions.  Learn and listen.  Games are cultural artifacts and as such, they do reflect the values of their makers.  Thus, game makers should be concerned about the game's meaningfulness.  If players are offended and no offense is intended, then that's a sign that something has gone awry.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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