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Op-Ed: Game development in a time of upheaval
"To create inclusive characters is not to surrender the creative vision, and to say that embracing diversity means losing that agency or that it is a creative burden is simply untrue and must be rejected," writes Michael Chu, newly-hired narrative director at 2K's 31st Union studio.
July 28, 2020
6 Min Read
Michael Chu is a twenty-year veteran of the games industry and is now Narrative Director at 31st Union. Most recently, he was the lead writer of Overwatch and has worked on other game universes including World of Warcraft, Diablo III, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II.
In the middle of a tumultuous year, it can feel like videogames have been more important than ever as a welcome refuge to pass the hours and days while sheltering in place. They’ve provided an invaluable service as a vital connection to our friends and family that we have been so thoroughly cut off from. I traded fish and fossils (and for a day, created gigantic unseemly piles of bug and fish cages) in Belltown, my idyllic Animal Crossing island, was transported back to a formative gaming moment of my youth with the awe-inspiring reimagining of Final Fantasy VII Remake, battled it out with friends in the soothingly optimistic world of Overwatch, and most recently, fought to take down unjust systems as a Phantom Thief of Hearts in Atlus’s expanded masterpiece Persona 5 Royal.
The latter is a perfect example of how games at their best can serve as a potent vessel to ask important questions of the real world we inhabit. Just as in recent weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement and a greater examination of powerful social, cultural, and political issues have seized our attention. It has reaffirmed to me that as the creators of entertainment that people around the world invest their time, emotions, and appreciation into, we as game makers have a significant part to play in this important discussion.
The entertainment we consume affects and shapes how we see the world around us and the people who live within it. We have more ability than ever to tap into the tremendous inspiration of the world around us. Moving forward, in service of a global audience of gamers, we want to be proactive in embracing a wide variety of new and diverse stories, while also giving greater visibility and voice to people who can authentically tell these stories. This will help us make more nuanced, interesting, and relatable characters and worlds, and provide a platform for new creative expressions by previously underrepresented groups.
I believe that today there are few opportunities greater than delivering authenticity in our characters, which is an endeavor that has had special importance to me. As an Asian American who rarely saw characters who looked like me, I am keenly aware of the power of seeing yourself in the media you consume: an affirmational experience that for too many groups has been absent. Moving forward, my goal is to continue to tackle this issue, and find ways to continue to expand the viewpoints games can represent.
As we strive to represent diverse peoples from diverse backgrounds, we must do so responsibly and carefully. This means adding concrete new steps to our creative processes. It means that we seek out new voices and ensure that these voices can be heard. It means casting talent for our characters that authentically represent the backgrounds of our characters. It means that we should seek out expert opinions who will help us avoid stereotypes, and more importantly, highlight aspects of our characters that will ring true with the groups we hope to represent. If we are successful, we create well rounded characters that seem familiar and yet new and will speak to the diverse players who spend time in the worlds we create.
Diversity is not a checklist. It is not a set of rules and guidelines which inhibits our creativity. Rather, it represents an invaluable tool for greater originality. It is impossible for it to be a formula because we as people cannot be reduced to formulas. Well-rounded characters are a tapestry woven of the specificity of the culture they grew up in, the places they have lived, the occupations they have held, and moreover the series of events that molded and shaped them, just as we all are. Creating a character is a process of finding their human story and pairing it with the authenticity of experience. The more that we put into our characters, the more chances there are for people to identify with them. In Overwatch, as many characters identify with Tracer’s peppy, sassy attitude, or her heroic ideals, as with the fact that when her day is over, she returns to the apartment of her loving girlfriend. People enjoy the accessibility of Soldier: 76’s gameplay, perhaps identify with his military service, his terrible fashion sense (please see Grillmaster: 76) or the fact that he is gay, or perhaps all of these things.
To create inclusive characters is not to surrender the creative vision, and to say that embracing diversity means losing that agency or that it is a creative burden is simply untrue and must be rejected.
As we seek to do better on these accounts, it is inevitable that we will make mistakes along the way. For my own part, I have made mistakes: but I have strived to listen, push forward, and learn. As with any part of the grand creative endeavor that is the creation of any game, the unattainability of perfection and the imagined freedom from criticism that would entail cannot dissuade us from the attempt.
On a personal note, it is towards this goal that I’ve joined a new project as Narrative Director at 31st Union. I could not be more excited about this opportunity, and to collaborate with a group a group of talented developers who are committed creatively and organizationally to building a studio and creating games that represent these values. Our mission is not only to tell diverse, representative stories, but to create systems that will enable us to authentically and accurately represent underrepresented groups from around the world, and perhaps most importantly, to foster an inclusive environment where these stories are told by a broad and diverse group of creators who speak with their own voices, from their own experiences.
At 31st Union, I found a team equally committed to this goal. The team and I look forward to sharing the vision that will bring these viewpoints to life soon.
Jurgen Klopp, coach of the recently crowned Premier League champions Liverpool described football during a time of global pandemic as “the most important of the least important things,” and while it can be easy to think the same of games, we must acknowledge that tearing down the barriers between people and rejecting systemic and problematic portrayals of marginalized people is our responsibility as well.
Games have the power to change the way we think and connect to our neighbors, near and far, and to shape a world where we see each other as more than our preconceived notions, where we move forward as one. For my part, I vow to continue to tackle these problems headfirst in my new endeavor and role at 31st Union, and hope that we will speak as a voice in an ever-larger group of diverse creators who strive to better represent the world we live in in the games we make and love.
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