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The business case for a diverse game character cast

"Our audience is leaving us behind," says Microsoft Studios narrative designer Tom Abernathy in a session from the GDC Narrative Summit. Being inclusive doesn't just make better games, it makes better business sense.
Microsoft Studios narrative designer Tom Abernathy opened his narrative talk at GDC with an anecdote about his daughter. "[My daughter] made it clear that she didn't like listening to songs that weren't sung by girls, watching movies without girls, reading books not about girls, and her least favorite thing was when she'd be playing a game and she had to play a guy. Or when the Kinect camera would misidentify her as a boy -- she would go ballistic. It wasn't until I went out there to try and find her games she'd like that I discovered how little there was out there for a girl who wanted to play as a girl." But as Abernathy advocated for a more diverse character cast in the games he worked on, he learned about how the business side of studio leadership often stood in the way. "There are certain business circumstances you have to deal with, even if you want to make this kind of thing happen," he said, "There will be people who point specifically to business interests in order to make sure you don't do this...The only things that matter to businesspeople in a business setting is a business argument." Rather than dwell upon the moral and creative reasons to build games that represented a wider span of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality in game characters, Abernathy presented a set of industry statistics meant to shore up the dollars-and-cents case instead. "There is hard data to indicate that you will attract more players and make more money when you have more diversity in your games," he said, "The business case that you need to persuade people that this is okay, that it won't hurt sales, it does in fact exist." Adults outnumber children in games 2-to-1: An ESA study found that 37% of surveyed game players are over 35 years old, 31% were in-between 18-35 years old, and 32% were under 18 years old. Player populations are highly racially diverse: According to a ZDNet study from 2009, 51% of white respondents, 51% of black respondents, and 63% of English-speaking Hispanic populations played video games. Also, 56% of urban respondents played video games, compared to 53% of suburban respondents and 47% of rural respondents. Latino/Hispanic players are big buyers: A Univision/GameSpot study from 2010 found that Hispanic players were twice as likely as other groups to buy a game in the next 30 days, 54% more like to buy a game on release day, 15% less likely to cite price as the most important factor in a game purchasing decision, and 32% more likely to cite games as their primary entertainment source. Women are the new core: According to an ESA study from 2012, the game player population is 47% female, 53% male. When broken down by age and gender, boys comprised only 18% of players, compared to 30% for adult women. A PopCap survey from 2010 also found that 55% casual game players and 60% of mobile game players are female. "Our audience is leaving us behind," Abernathy concluded. "When you're looking for a way to make your product stand out in the marketplace, choices like this are a savvy way to do it."

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