Everyone comes away from their week at the Game Developer Conference with a different angle on what was said, what the trends are, and what's being valued in the industry. The theme of your GDC might be different from mine, but mine couldn't have been clearer. The through-line for me was loud, and emphatic, and sometimes justifiably angry:
You can call it “greater diversity,” or “tolerance,” or “acceptance” if you'd like, but “inclusiveness” is the word I prefer.
I hope this isn't a revelation to you: There are people who feel less welcome than others in the world of gaming because of categories they happen to occupy.
If “categories” sounds dehumanizing to you, it's because they are. We should never consider another human being as a category first, and a person second.
Since we are all a part of this world, we can all be a part of the solution by working towards banishing misogyny, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and on and on. These things turn a human person into an Other, at which point their humanity can be forgotten or ignored, and the cultural atmosphere comes to say, “You are not welcome.” No one deserves to feel that way. The games industry can and should be better than that.
I'd like to take a detour for a second to define “Political Correctness” as one of my favorite professors always did: It's not about walking around on eggshells all the time. It's about not being an asshole if you can help it.
I'm guessing you don't want to be an asshole.
Many of us came to gaming because it was a level playing field where we found a sense of belonging. It didn't matter if you were no good at sports, or if you didn't fit in with this or that clique, or maybe you were struggling with an illness, or a disability, or gender issues, or sexuality issues, or any number of other things which make it difficult to be a still-developing person. If you felt like you didn't belong anywhere, games were there for you. In a certain light it may sound a little sad, but games gave us a place where we didn't feel so alone. That is a wonderful thing. Games engaged our minds, told us stories, and they gave us fun, sure, but in our enthusiasm for them, many of us also found a community. Now imagine if that community casually discriminated against people like you, then told you that's just the way it is, so you should just get over it. Some of you won't have to imagine that.
Games are for everyone— At least, they should be.
There have already been great strides toward inclusiveness. A number of companies in particular should be commended for bringing their progressive stances on sexuality into the mainstream space — for example: BioWare, Lionhead, Bethesda, and even Interplay as far back as Fallout 2.
The critical success of their titles proves that greater inclusiveness does not necessarily ostracize the supposed core gaming demographic: young, white, heterosexual males. What's more, bringing equality into the consciousness of the gaming audience will promote inclusiveness and diminish bigotry in the real world — which makes it more and more of a non-issue in games. This is a positive feedback loop, in every sense of the word “positive.” The growing success of the gay rights movement is due, in large part, to mere visibility. When we see people as people, and not a collection of categories, the Otherness fades away..
I look forward to a time when we don't need to call it “progressive' when a game accepts and includes homosexual characters, because it's just the way things are — or better still: I look forward to a time when the inclusion of anyone in the LGBTQ spectrum is a complete non-issue.
This isn't going to just happen on its own. That is why Mass Effect developer Manveer Heir issued an impassioned call to arms: keep pushing for it, keep working for it.
It's not just LGBTQ issues though. Jennifer Allaway, Brandon Sheffield, Michelle Clough, and all the speakers at the #1ReasonToBe panel — Leigh Alexander, Laralyn McWilliams, Lauren E. Scott, Anna Kipnis, Coleen Macklin, and Dierdre “Squinky” Kiai, who all spoke brilliantly — have shown us that sexism is alive and unfortunately well in the gaming industry. And we probably don't need anyone to remind us of the lack of ethnic diversity in games. Neither of these things should be a revelation.
You've heard the stats, you know that the mythical young, white, heterosexual male is not the only person playing games. It's past time to stop acting like they are. And I hope it's obvious that on some level, that idea is a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more you cater exclusively to a certain demographic, the less relatable the content will be for everyone else.
I'm one of them, by the way, one of those young, white, heterosexual males. And I can tell you that I do not feel ostracized when I see people who are not like me in my media. In fact, I'm hungry for it. We go to media not only to see ourselves reflected but also to see through the eyes of others.
Games can put a player into the shoes of others more directly, and with more immediacy than any other medium in the world. That power can be used for good. It can make the world a better place for everyone.
When we put different kinds of people into our games, we say unequivocally: You belong here. You're welcome here.
One more great example: The character Joker from Mass Effect has a degenerative bone disorder which makes it almost impossible for him to walk on his own. He also happens to be the most badass pilot in the galaxy.
Inclusiveness starts with the industry. It starts with you. It starts when you make your company, your office, and your social circle a safe place for all kinds of people.
As much as we might want it to be, this can not be a passive process. Bigotry and prejudice and exclusionary culture must be actively resisted. If you're at the top of a company, make sure your policies on these matters are not only defined, but well broadcast. Make your company culture a safe space for those who want to speak up for equality, and make it clear that things like sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia will not be tolerated.
Games are for everyone. And they can be.