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Meg Jayanth: 10 ways to make your game more diverse

Writer Meg Jayanth’s GDC talk “10 Ways to Make Your Game More Diverse,” brought her experience on Inkle’s award winning mobile story game 80 Days to bear on this sensitive topic.

Katherine Cross, Contributor

March 17, 2016

9 Min Read

Of all the talks I’ve attended in GDC’s beautiful sea of tech verbiage, none was quite so passionate in its eloquence and reason as writer Meg Jayanth’s “10 Ways to Make Your Game More Diverse,” bringing her experience on Inkle’s award winning mobile story game 80 Days to bear on this sensitive topic.

Although much of her advice was familiar to those of us who’ve beavered away at this issue for years, she brought a richly researched, and characteristically sharp perspective to the matter. Here were her eponymous ten tips, with my commentary:

1) Develop Diversely

In order to make games that reflect the diversity of those who play them, we need diverse groups of people to make games. As Jayanth put it in no uncertain terms, don’t wait for minorities to come to you, reach out to them. In addition, even if you’re not hiring, seek out experts and pay them for their advice and time. The value of such consultancy is laid out by our history: Jayanth noted that a number of inventions, from the telephone, to the transistor, to email were developed as a result of diverse-design (in this case, designs meant to help disabled people). As she put it, “We had to be diverse in our thinking because that made the game better”

2) Do The Research

Jayanth asseverated that while hiring people from diverse backgrounds to make games is important, it’s also a worthwhile goal to empower all kinds of people to tell all kinds of stories. This is both desirable and necessary; we’re all human beings and, with sufficient knowledge, research, good faith and empathy, capable of telling stories that stray beyond the province of our own experience. To this end, doing research is not just desirable but vital.

3) The “Authenticity” Trap

Recognizing that authenticity and accuracy are not end goals in themselves for videogames. This appertains particularly to the “but it’s based on Medieval Europe!” Trope, used to justify everything from rank sexism to an absence of non-white characters. Put another way, authenticity and accuracy are multifaceted; there are plenty of authentic ways of representing the past that are inclusive. People of color, women, and queer folks did exist in the past, after all. In Jayanth’s efficient phrase, “respectfulness is the opposite of nostalgia.” Nostalgia for an imagined history can often obviate humane characterization and originality alike.

Don’t squander the opportunity to do something new.

“Stories are suppressed because they are dangerous,” Jayanth said. “Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that because diversity is a moral good that it is boring.”

4) Examine Your Own Biases

Do not allow reverence for the legacies of those who have gone before to prevent you from challenging those ideas and, thus, your own. “Arrive in the present,” Jayanth said, arguing that you can update your ideas and challenge old ones while still admitting plenty of influence from revered canonical icons. By challenging your biases and received wisdom about things like race and gender, you can actually discover things you wouldn’t have otherwise considered; you might be compelled to research parts of history you didn’t even know existed. 

5) Fairness is Unevenly Distributed

This segment was meant to talk about a very specific kind of bias, where we may presume fairness and equity in what is, empirically, an unequal environment. Quoting writer and game designer Naomi Alderman, Jayanth advised, “If you want gender parity, count the number of women in your game.” It seems silly at first but research has shown that men assume a given group of people that is less than one third women is actually gender equal.

6) Normalization vs. Visibility

This was less a specific piece of advice than a broad directive to navigate a particularly complex issue. How do you portray a person of color, or a gay character, fairly without overemphasizing or tokenizing their identities? It’s a very tricky balance, to be sure; one wishes to avoid making a queer character, for instance, whose sexuality or gender identity is the entire point of their presence in the story. At the other extreme is the Dumbledore problem--if a character’s sexuality, say, is never broached at all, then they’re assumed to be straight and the attempt to diversify the cast has categorically failed. Jayanth, sounding quite sympathetic to the struggle and weary at this point, advised game developers to keep that tightrope in mind and avoid falling to either extreme.

7) Avoid the “Single Narrative”

To that end, she gave fantastic advice that draws from the work of Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: avoid the myth of the “single story,” reducing whole peoples to a single, stereotypical, story, or using a single character to explore the entirely of a race/gender/tribe/etc. To short circuit this, have more than one “token” character in your game, and liberate them from the pressure to be the “strong female character” or “model minority.” Show these characters disagreeing with each other, and having complex, contradictory impulses and humanity. 

8) Subvert the Fairness Fantasy

This is one of the more complex and original ideas that Jayanth brought to the table here and, perhaps, the one that challenged me the most. As such it deserves a bit of a deeper explanation.

Drawing from a Grantland essay by critic Tevis Thompson where he discussed the appeal of chance-based videogames like Candy Crush, Jayanth pointed out that an often unmarked power fantasy in gaming is the idea that fairness is always possible. In Thompson’s words:

“If a game is ever cheap or unfair, this is a cardinal sin, a provocation to rage-quit, for the entire system is predicated on the understanding that gaming is a hermetically sealed bubble of justice. Within this bubble, players are closet deists. And their gods are always fair.”

As he puts it, a “game where you can make the best moves and lose, where you can accidentally win” sounds a lot like real life. This may be the very thing we’re running away from as players, naturally, but Jayanth argued that our tendency to do this is actually ossifying games and, inadvertently, excluding the reality that women and minorities live lives that are deeply unfair, where the deities of our universe are as capricious and merciless as the god of the Old Testament. Representing that experience in a game may require us to move beyond the American Dream-style idea that if you work hard enough and are skilled enough, you can always win.

Games that are fair, that you can min-max and optimize and always win are part of the fantasy of dominant culture; that you can always emerge victorious by dint of your own efforts, and all that matters is skill and effort; if you lose, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting fairness and an even playing field,” Jayanth asseverated, making clear she isn’t opposed to games structured around this model (much less the idea that such games are somehow inherently prejudicial). But this was where she started to win me over, by pointing out that this logic locked us into game models where winning was paramount. Yet playing to win is not the only way people have fun. Lots of us, Jayanth said, enjoy games we’re bad at; entertainment is not a state tied to victory. There are other ways games can get us there.

She cinched the argument, for me, when she used the example of 80 Days, which deliberately offers multiple ways to win or to simply play and end the game. As I’ve noted in my writing about the game, it’s significant that, although your primary objective is making it around the world in 80 days or fewer, the game doesn’t collapse into a “Game Over” screen when you go over time. It allows you to explore and even accept other endings, whether it’s Passepartout running off with a lover, or becoming partners in crime with a glamorous thief. Jayanth was proud to “Have an endstate that undermines the stated purpose, even the title of the game.”

Making a game “unfair” doesn’t necessarily mean making it a Candy Crush style diceroll, after all. It can simply mean decentering the idea of a clear winstate as an end goal and permit players to make their own meaning with the game environment.

Getting what you want, or what the game says you should want, isn’t always the most interesting way to play. This rather complex and easily misinterpreted point about game design belongs in a diversity talk, in my view, because diversifying game mechanics widens your storytelling palette; sometimes new ways to play allow us to tell new kinds of stories. In the case of 80 Days, its non-win endstates actually made secondary characters more significant in the game, allowing it to effectively tell the story of a gay man and a woman in a way that it wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. It suggested other ways of being, beyond staying on the track of the titular quest. This insight alone was worth the price of admission.

9) You Are Part of a Process

Recognize that you aren’t alone in the quest to diversify, you’re part of an ongoing conversation and your game sits in an ideological context. You can find help, and resources from others doing this work, and you can look to movements like #INeedDiverseGames for inspiration, and for a reminder that you’re part of a series of changes, not one person (heroically, or otherwise) struggling alone.

10) Be Open to Critique and Feedback

There is no single right way or perfect way to represent cultures and people, so learning from the insights offered by players is as necessary in this field as it is in accepting critique on, say, bugs and game mechanics. But, Jayanth said, “let us use this permission to criticize thoughtfully and kindly. Let us ask ourselves, do we want to be right or do we want to be better?” She addressed not only developers here in enjoining them to accept critique, but also asked players and activists to be reasonable and fairminded in their criticisms, to avoid Twitter dogpiling or invective and harassment. As a positive example of constructive dialogue in action, she used Failbetter Games’ iteration of its third gender options in its games, where mixed feedback from players was used to both change how your player was addressed in game, and more explicitly allow for genderqueer identities to be affirmatively recognized.

With that, the talk concluded and although I’ve been doing this work for years, much to the chagrin of some angry young men on social media, I have to admit that even I walked away from Jayanth’s talk with ideas I’d never considered before. Once this goes up on the Vault I highly recommend watching.

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