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A Few Provocative Thoughts by Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson, designer of the ToeJam & Earl games, and 33-year independent game developer, shares his views on publisher intervention and ethnic diversity in games, as these topics relate to ToeJam & Earl.

Greetings!  I’m Greg Johnson, the designer and co-owner of ToeJam & Earl.  If you’re in the game industry, you may have run across my name because I’ve been making games as an independent developer for about 33 years now.  Perhaps you may have heard about me recently because of the new, indie, Toejam & Earl KickStarter campaign I have going on at the moment (until March 25th).  But I’m not here to talk about that.  I’ve been given the opportunity, by GamaSutra, to write about ToeJam & Earl in a broader sense.  Aside from answering interview questions, this is the first article I’ve written in quite some time.   Interviews are great, but you’re pretty much bound by the topics presented to you.  Usually the challenge is coming up with new way to answer familiar questions,  so you can keep things fresh and interesting.  “How did you first come up with the idea?”, “What problems did you encounter in your development?”, “Why did you decide to make this game now?”.  Understandably,  game-industry interviewers don’t usually steer into very deep philosophical or ethical waters.  It’s not really in their job description.  Even if they happen to be inclined to let their inner-Oprah flow, it’s tough for them to know what area the interviewee has thought deeply about, and they’re usually too considerate to put their interviewee on the spot, and make them look stupid. 

Here, in an article, it’s a totally different matter.  There is totally nothing stopping me from making myself look stupid.  Furthermore,  I know where the deepest waters in my psyche are, so I’ll just bee-line straight for them, and see what happens.  How is this related to ToeJam & Earl?  I’m getting to that.

Here are 2 simple questions that I thought I might try and answer…

  1. How do you maintain the integrity of your creative vision, when your publisher wants to steer you in a completely different creative direction?
  2. Why is there so little cultural and ethnic diversity in video games?

No point going half-way, right?  Let’s just jump straight into the deep end…headfirst…with rocks tied to us.   And I’m still not going to tell you how these questions relate to ToeJam and Earl.  I have a feeling that as I go that will become clear.  If it doesn’t, I hope you’ll just politely look the other way and pretend it was all terribly relevant.

How do you maintain the integrity of your creative vision, when your publisher wants to steer you in a completely different creative direction?

Some of you may have heard the stories about publisher involvement in ToeJam & Earl. In an exceptionally small nutshell, here is what happened:  the design for the ToeJam & Earl sequels were aborted and re-directed twice due to publisher dictates.  The first time was when we started building a sequel very similar to game one, which as you may know was a random map, isometric-view Rogue-like game.  We had gotten 3 or 4 months into the new game, only to be told by Sega to shift direction and make an entirely different style of game instead.  They wanted a side-scrolling platformer with big characters and lots of fast action.  The second time we were re-directed,  was when we made the third ToeJam & Earl game.  Once again we set out to make a sequel faithful to game one, and this time we got ¾ of the way through when we were told to abandon our stacked level structure, to forget about letting the player characters die and start over, to add bosses, mini-games, gates, locks, collectables, quests, and cinematic sequences.  All things that were , in a word, rather alien to the original Toejam and Earl (and I don’t mean alien in a good way).

Now, this is hardly the only story in the game industry of publishers, or investors, taking the creative reins away from developers.  For anyone who is naïve enough to think game-designers get the luxury of making the games they envision, it might be worth stating in plain language this simple truth.  He(or She) who writes the funding checks, gets to make the final creative calls.  Needless to say, this is only relevant when there is a disagreement.  When there is, you have two choices as a developer, you can be the self-centered Prima Donna, stomping your feet and shouting, “I am the visionary here! and I will make this game how I want!” or you can smile, bite your lip and agree with whatever your publisher  is saying in order to keep the paychecks flowing, and prevent the boat from rocking.  Of course you risk getting criticized by the public and the game reviewers later, since it’s presumably “your” creation. 

Now you may notice that I am painting the developer here as a pretty sad victim, but that’s mostly because the drama is more fun that way, and that’s often how developers perceive themselves.  Also, as mentioned, this issue doesn’t always arise, at least not necessarily in a confrontational way.  Some publishers are wise or gracious enough to let developers make their own creative choices, even when they don’t agree with them.  More often, publishers are rather like the giant kid next door who owns the toy you’re playing with and who could crush you without thinking.  When they make a suggestion of how you should play with their toy, you simply find yourself motivated to think it’s a really good idea.

Now, let’s imagine we’re broad-minded enough to flip our metaphor around for just a moment, and see it from the big kid’s point of view.  It turns out the big kid might not understand their own toy as well as you do, but they have a lot at stake if it breaks.  Their parents may come down on them hard, so they get really nervous when they see you taking risks with it.  You can’t really blame them, and they can’t help it if they are much bigger than you.

I hope you’re still with me.  I think I’ve stretched that metaphor as far as it will go.  Basically the point is publishers aren’t evil.  They do have a lot at stake.  Developers also have a tremendous amount invested creatively and it’s very easy to find yourself faced with choosing between the “prima donna path”  vs. “weak-kneed coward’s path”.

So what’s the answer?  How do you maintain integrity in your creative vision, and still honor the risk that the publisher is taking?  Well, the thing I have learned from years of thinking back over the ToeJam & Earl story is that you need to be like Bones on Star Trek.  Bones is the embodiment of passion.  You are protecting the lives of the crew and you will stand up to Captain Kirk if you have to, to make sure he understands what’s at stake.  You may need to forcefully remind him that “You are the doctor here!”. (I hope you’re still with me, this is a metaphor – you’re not really Bones)  Ok to continue…     It’s OK if the Captain (i.e. publisher) gets angry with you because it’s part of your ethical responsibility to be the strongest advocate possible…,“This man is DYING, DAMN IT!!”.  Nevertheless, Captain Kirk is, ultimately the Captain and it’s his (or, of course, “her”) responsibility to make decisions for the ship.   Ultimately Captain Kirk will make the call regardless and you just have to hope you will be heard.  After the decision,  you will do your best to not look back, and to work with what tools you’re given, even if Kirk tells you that you need to heal this crewman with “sticks and dirt”.   No regrets,  no blame, and no whining.  At this point, if you can manage it, you flip it around into an exciting challenge and see what you can do with sticks and dirt.  After all, you signed up to be a crewman on this ship, and that was part of the deal you made to be here, so tough it out and get creative.  Coming back out of metaphor land, when the press blast you for poor decisions, you suck it up and don’t blame anyone else – well unless 23 years have gone by and you’re telling it because it is history that people are interested in.

Sometimes I ask myself this question:  As TJ & E’s  designer and primary advocate, did I do justice to the passionate spirit of Bones?  Would Bones be proud of me and Mark?  I’m afraid he would probably give us a barely passing grade, and lecture us on being stronger and more effective advocates.  Well thankfully this is just video games and not people dying.  I think I can live with a C+ pretty well.  No regrets.

Why is there so little cultural and ethnic diversity in video games?

OK, so here we are starting with an assumption built right into our question.  Clearly, if we are asking “why cultural diversity is missing” we’re first asserting that it IS missing.  Just to be super clear, and perhaps a little overly blunt, what we really mean is, “Why do American games always seem to feature white people?”   Now, there are plenty of Hispanic and “Black” people in Grand Theft  Auto, and there are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian strike-team-members in almost every shooter, or on every pirate ship.  That’s not really what we’re talking about.  We’re talking about “culture”;  specifically, people being represented in ways that are respectful and thoughtful of their styles of language, mannerisms, music, history, and beliefs.  Believable somehow as people, and celebrating who they are.  So does anyone want to take issue with our premise?  No?  Great.  While we’re at it, we can also tag the gender question as a highly-related topic, and for that matter sexual orientation; but for now we’ll stay focused on culture, or in the case of American life, it’s probably more accurate to say sub-culture.

Why so little diversity? Here are a few answers that come to mind:

  1. Games aren’t usually about people, and when they are, they are usually about how those people avoid getting killed by something.  There isn’t much opportunity to represent culture when everyone is bashing the zombies’ heads in.  Even in games like Age of Empires, with cultures aplenty, there’s simply not much opportunity to go deep when the name of the game is “survive”.
  2. Games cost a LOT of money to make – and the people who spend that money are hugely risk averse and are afraid of alienating their largest audience, white America.  The general market-driven orientation is: “the game will sell more if the audience identifies with the protagonist”.  (Why we are able to identify with people of other cultures and ethnicities in books and movies but not in games beats me.)
  3. The American game development community is comprised of white males by a vast majority.  Generally people build what they know, and it can feel presumptuous to do otherwise.
  4. Games have a very narrow bandwidth for communicating character and when you squeeze characters into this narrow space they become stereotypes.  No one wants to feel like they are stereotyping, and absolutely no one wants to be accused of it.
  5. Developers who might be inclined to make games featuring characters from some subculture become targets of the media and of the internet and this is a huge disincentive.  For some reason, which I’m hesitant to analyze, game industry media is very touchy about this subject, so developers take the safer path.  It’s simply not worth the risk.

Now, with your permission, I’d like to focus on the last reason I just gave, and bring this back to ToeJam and Earl.  That way we can finish this article, and you can get about your business doing something else.  Toejam and Earl are aliens, red and orange, but if you know the property, and if you stop to consider their ethnicity, it should be clear that they are African-American, i.e. black.  “Yo, wha’sup!   This is my homeboy Big Earl!”  Now, in case you haven’t seen my photo, I’ll just tell you,  I’m white, or at least I Iook white.  “Master G is in the Hizzay!”.  Er…did I offend you yet?  I might have.  Am I making fun of black people?  You see what I mean?  How did I get onto this thin ice so quickly!!  Believe me it gets much worse if you put this into a video game.

So here is the deal, my dad is black and my mom is white.  It has always pissed me off (can I say that in an article?) that there is so painfully little representation of black people and black culture in video games.  Similarly my wife is from Japan and my son is Japanese.  I have the same complaint, but perhaps to a lesser degree concerning Asian culture in video games. I have no doubt that Hispanic people, or Filipino people, or, well pick your non-white culture, are acutely aware of something missing in the games they and their kids play. 

Here’s a semi-interesting story… years ago I made a game with my old TJ & E partner,  Mark Voorsanger, called Orly’s Draw-A-Story.  We hired a woman from West Moreland Jamaica to voice the character and she spoke in an authentic Jamaican patois.  She said things like, “Dat man him come from de submarine”.  You should have seen the reaction.  We were accused of depicting black people as being unable to speak correct English.  Orly had a cute little gap in her front teeth and suddenly, somehow, we were saying that all black people looked funny.

Oddly enough I have a similar story in regards to Doki Doki Universe, my last game.  I created planets based on Japan, South America, the Arctic, Hawaii, one that was Egyptian, and one on that was based on Africa.  For some reason, some game reviewer decided to take offense at the fact that I called that planet “Afri” (pretty horrible right?) , and that the tribal people on Afri were living in huts, and that they didn’t know what a robot was.  Clearly I was denigrating all modern black people.  And that got picked up by some other reviewers, who seemed happy to have a podium to stand on, and I saw that story all over the place.

Hmmm.  I seem to be ranting a bit, aren’t I?   Well I don’t get to do this very often.  Let me just say this clearly.  ToeJam and Earl are inspired by black American culture.  The game is a celebration of black American culture and music, and brotherhood.  I don’t want to romanticize anything.  Every culture has good people and bad people, and positives and negatives.  Still, there is plenty to celebrate in every culture.  I’d like to offer the strong suggestion that we don’t need to BE that culture to celebrate it.  That perhaps in this industry we should make it more of a priority to praise attempts to diversify, and not be quite so sensitive and ready to climb up on our high horse.  Sure, if you want to complain about depicting African-Americans and Hispanics as thugs in games like GTA then I’ll be right with you.   It’s a matter of intention, and if you stand back a little ways, people’s intentions aren’t really that hard to see, especially when you’re inclined to give others the benefit of the doubt.  

The only way we’ll get to a more diverse set of subject matter in the game industry is if people take risks, and if we broadcast that this risk-taking is a good thing.  This also means we need to come to the defense of these risk takers when we can.  I know this may sound self serving but I stand at the ready to praise brave people who are willing to take the heat from the Internet trolls, and from those few vocal attention seekers in the gaming press.   As it happens, I know some great people in the press who are already out there fighting this battle for diversity, and standing up for underdogs.  Power to you!  Represent!

Ok, now I just need to breathe.

 Before I go here is the link to my KickStarter page.  I hope you will go and check it out.

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