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Moving Forward On Race In Games: Manveer Heir Speaks

BioWare Montreal designer Manveer Heir on how we should bring new types of characters into the medium, and how "it's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games."

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

August 5, 2011

24 Min Read

[BioWare Montreal designer Manveer Heir on how we should bring new types of characters into the medium, and how "it's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games."]

While there have been some recent announcements of high profile, triple-A games that feature black protagonists -- StarHawk and Prototype 2 -- it's far more rare for games to deviate from heterosexual white males when it comes to leads. Is there a need to push the medium in new directions when it comes to characters?

Manveer Heir, senior designer at BioWare Montreal and outspoken proponent of bringing more diversity to the medium, would say yes. In this interview, he discusses why he believes that more diversity will only make games more compelling to players, and more meaningful.

"It's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games," says Heir, who considers the goal his own personal quest in the industry. "I hope that in 20 years I personally would have been able to do something on my own by then, to at least help advance things, but who knows where the world will go in the future."

You've talked about the fact that, in general, people don't want to deal with race. And so then when it comes time to put it into a product that has to make money, people are perhaps even less inclined to address that. How can this be something that is viable to undertake when you still have all these budgetary concerns?

Manveer Heir: I think there are a few things... First off, I don't think the game having a black character, that shouldn't be the selling point of the game. It needs to be an interesting game regardless of the protagonist, but that potentially when if someone plays that game, they discover the background of our protagonist has a better-defined character or something, or the race of the character actually affects the way characters talk to the player.

Things along those lines, so that when you're playing the game, you discover something new that maybe is happening in the game that you aren't used to, because you're being treated differently, or you're understanding the other side that maybe you don't belong to, depending on your background. So, I think that if you market your game as "a game for black people" or "a game for Asian people", it's going to flop the same way most of the games for women flop. I don't think that's the good way to position that.

So, for me, it's less about selling your game based on those merits, and rather having those merits be in there and be discovered by players.

Fallout 3

Like in Fallout 3, a friend of mine, he played an Asian character, and he got at some point some comments about, you know, like "Damn Chinaman" or something like that, and he's like, "Whoa, that's crazy."

MH: Really? Because, yeah, I think I have an Asian character in Fallout 3, so I'll have to check that out. I don't remember that. That's really cool. You can think of fantasy games where if you were the dark elves, you know, the Drow, were always looked upon... They were the black people of the fantasy world, right? And if you played the dark elves, you were treated like garbage by many of the townspeople. So, my only question is... why can't we do that when we're actually talking about real people?

That's the thing that people seem to do to get around the issue. This happens in Mass Effect, or Dragon Age, or whatever is you have these racial distinctions, but they're based on fantasy or aliens and stuff, so it's much easier... It's an easier pill for everyone to swallow because it's like, "Well, I'm not saying this about any person." It's so ambiguous. People are afraid to make any kind of direct statement about anything.

MH: I mean, it is an uncomfortable topic, especially in the U.S., where racial issues are always going to be a hot-button issue, from my perspective -- just on the way the country was founded, right? So I don't think there's ever going to be a solution there, but ignoring the problem doesn't necessarily solve anything. And we're not necessarily trying to solve anything with the video game; we're just trying to make commentary essentially, or make the player reflect in certain ways. So I think it'd be really, really interesting...

While I love plenty of games that use these alien and fantasy characters, I don't even think they go in saying, "I want to make this commentary on this culture." They're just like, "We have these fantasy characters", and once they've made those races or whatever they have, oftentimes, they just start making parallels to what you see in life. It becomes like, "Well, this race is like this race." You know, "This is the Asian race. Let's do it this way." I think it's actually kind of accidental. I'm not really sure. I haven't been a creator of fantasy worlds, but that seems to be the way it always happens to me.

It's more like an incidental thing that helps with conflict. You can define these different groups in the games through conflict with each other and whether they like each other or not. It's just an easy thing to do, and so it might actually not have a direct correlation to our human ethnicities.

MH: Right. And often times it will feel like an entire race is pigeonholed. They're all the aggressive, angry people. Like humanity isn't all aggressive. There are pacifists in humanity, there are racists, there's everything in between, right? But oftentimes in a video game, I think it's just the maturation of the writing and the medium that when we write a new species, or a new race, in a game, we often make it all about one thing. There's no gray area in between there, right? So, I think that's part of the problem, too.

Night of the Living Dead has a black protagonist, and the fact that he was black, it wasn't super important to the narrative of the film. But it was important to the meta-narrative that he was a black protagonist in a popular movie, and that hadn't happened so much.

MH: Yeah. And I think we're starting to see some games do that or try, but yeah, I definitely agree, though. We need to just change the default a handful of times and see what happens. We're not going to really find out. I don't personally believe your game is going to sell worse if the protagonist's skin color changes, and everything else in the game was the exact same. Nothing else changed about the game. All you did was default the white guy to the black guy -- you know, that's the easiest route. Or any other race.

Have you ever seen any market research that has studied this? I don't actually know if anyone has studied whether a protagonist's race changes player perception or player interest.

MH: No, I've never seen that market research, and I've never even heard from anyone in marketing directly say, "You can't have that race character. It's not a good idea." I have heard from other people in the industry where they try to pitch a game with a protagonist that was not white, and it was slightly encouraged that they rethink that. So, no. To my knowledge, I don't know of any research like that.

My guess is -- this is purely conjecture -- that it doesn't necessarily exist. It's a gut feeling that marketers have. It's the same in the TV industry, where you're still not seeing that huge a diversity with characters, right? You still have entire TV shows where the entire population is all white, or an all-black show, or something like that. They market themselves that way.

But there's people who want to both. Look at what The Cosby Show did, I think that was an amazing show, for being effectively a middle to upper-class white family, but they happened to be black, right? Everybody loves the Cosby Show, so clearly people are willing to accept it.

It feels like more Indian people, or people who are on a show identified as Indian, are making it onto TV now, which is kind of interesting. The shows that they're on tend to have them better integrated now.

MH: Well, first, my people are just a better people than all the others. [laughs]

But seriously, yeah, I've actually found that really interesting and cool, just being an Indian person. "That's really cool." I don't know why it happened. There's just been a growth of Indian comics, like Aziz Ansari, Russell Peters, and guys like that that, who have made it big. And movies like Slumdog Millionaire probably helped, you know?

Maybe it's just like, it's more, I don't know, trendy to have an Indian character on your show? Obviously there's a whole show Outsourced that's even filmed in India -- though I'm not 100 percent sure on that. I've only watched a couple episodes, but it seems funny. People seem to watch it. I think it's really cool, that there's this growth, especially in a community that's pretty small. I don't know what the actual numbers are. Like, when I grew up, I didn't really have Indian friends. I had like one or two.

I feel like there are a lot of Caucasian writers in the game industry. And Caucasian writers are often afraid of putting characters of other ethnicities into their games because they don't want to get judged for it by the ethnic groups that they're putting in. How do we step people down from that? With the last game I was working on, I was trying to put in a bunch of different types of characters, but I was nervous about it, I'll admit.

MH: So, how do we get writers to basically feel comfortable writing characters that aren't themselves?

Yes. And also there's the question of how do we get more writers of different ethnicities into the industry? That's a totally different, larger problem than we can solve right here, I think.

MH: Right. Well, I mean, you look at like TV or film, right? Aaron Sorkin is obviously a very famous writer. People have lauded him multiple times for being able to write the female perspective in an interesting and well-thought-out way, as well as his overall writing style. Obviously, he's not a woman, so I think he's probably considered a good writer in part because he is able to capture a viewpoint that is not necessarily his own. So, I think that's just the base staple of a good writer versus a writer -- somebody who can capture that viewpoint.

So, next comes the courage, or the ability to be able to stand up and say, "I'm going to try this. And, no, I'm not going to worry about what other people think about if I've written for a different race or a homosexual character or a female character, and if it feels out of tone."

I think we just need to have more writers in the industry in terms of more mature writers. This is not everyone in the industry. I do not want to diminish writers. There are a lot of amazing writers. I've worked with a lot of really amazing writers. But I've also come across bad writers unfortunately, like you would everywhere.

And the bad writers were just doing it for a check and not really trying, and those people are hurting us, just the same way that bad designers are hurting us and bad programmers are hurting us.

So, if we make sure that we try to promote and push with our good writers... we give them the backing that they need, the support so that they don't feel like they're left on an island. And that we also challenge them. We challenge each other as an industry.

The reason I speak up on this all the time isn't because I want to be the only guy doing it. It's because I feel the need to challenge the rest of the industry, including myself, to try to think about these things and do better. And I think if we start challenging each other, we're going to improve as a medium.


The lack of racial diversity in games is sort of symptomatic to a greater lack of diversity in game universes, where we don't have as many positive or realistic female characters, or non heterosexual characters, or transgender characters, or things like that. People don't necessarily think about this stuff. Maybe they don't want to put it in because it's not even something they feel is necessary or they consider in their lives at all. It seems like to move forward, we would want to be able to have all subjects open to us.

MH: Right. And I think part of it comes down to most games, I feel like can still be drawn down to the male power fantasy of saving the world effectively. When you do that, there are only certain types of characters that make sense for that, right. You're not going to have an elderly woman save the world. If you did, and you pulled it off and it's awesome, you're amazing.

So, I think when we don't try to do things that are out of our comfort zone, we fall back into comfortable patterns. And like you said, the lack of diversity just in the general industry, at least in North America... I think how to solve that is a much harder and bigger question. I think it's having more minority people in video games recognized.

I don't mean necessarily calling them out because they're a minority. Rather that in general, game creators are not recognized. Besides a handful, people don't really know them. And I only know of a couple that I can think of that aren't usually white males.

There's Amy Hennig at Naughty Dog, and Jade Raymond at Ubi. Those are like the two who I think of when I think of like the non-standard creative director, executive producer-type. I hope that down the road we start promoting our talent more so that someone's coming up to a school, and they can say, "Look, oh, this person has the same kind of interesting ideas that I do. I'd really like to follow that person's path" the same way you do with directors in a film.

I know games are not the same authorial control as a director -- you know, games are made by teams, not individuals. It's not exactly the same. But I think we can promote our talent, not just at the top level, but at the lower levels as well. That gives more visibility to the talent, as well as it gives visibility to people from the outside, on who is making these games.

I agree with that from the perspective from the traditional large-scale big team industry, but it does seem to be changing in smaller teams, which are having increased success. There's thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago, and there are more people of color and people of various gender and sexual orientation making a lot of waves in the indie community. You've got Anna Anthropy, who's trans and a game designer.

And as that becomes more of a viable space. I think maybe it will be where the innovation is. But getting these perspectives actually into games that do have authorial control, which is possible in the indie space, could help make the industry on the whole have a wider breadth of content.

MH: I totally agree. I'm a huge fan of the indie space. I was fortunate enough to be a judge on the IGF this year, and I got to check out all these really awesome games. To me, the leaders of the indie space are leading the industry, not just the indie space. Because they're guiding what the mainstream space is going to go to in a few years, many times.

You're seeing concepts taken from the indie space. Yeah, sometimes they're altered or, for lack of a better term, even dumbed down to fit a wider audience. That's naturally going to happen when you move up in the zeros at the end of that budget, but at the same time, I think that's really cool because, if the publishers are wary -- and I get why they're wary.

Most publishers are losing money, or they're not making a ton usually. If you're wary, but you can point to something else that took all the risk for you basically, and they've been successful, that's empowering for the team who are interested in the idea. And then maybe the publisher isn't going to be wary to take more of an opportunity or a chance on it. So, I really hope that more indies are going to keep doing that. They definitely are. I just want to see more of it.

It seems like innovation can filter up if the right champion is there to be like, "Look at this, and look at that. We can make this work." Hopefully that's what we'll see.

In your opinion, should we be taking small steps toward a better representation of race and gender or orientation? Or could one game sort of break it out and do it all?

MH: I think both are possible. I think that taking small steps is more likely given the risk-averseness, especially in the triple-A space. Nintendo just announced a new console at E3. Sony and Microsoft will, too. As developers, we have to worry about new hardware... Our budgets are probably going to go up again, right. Our budgets just keep growing at an insane rate every time we get new hardware, because of the fidelity rate. And because of that, I think we're going to become more and more risk-averse.

You can see most major publishers doubled down on that on video games, and make less video games, trying to make that small amount much higher quality, versus making 20 and hoping that two hit. So, I don't think you're going to see that change. I hope it happens. Maybe there will be somebody in the independent space that will sign a deal with a major publisher, but they fund a lot of it on their own, or something, to get it done.

I can hope, but I'm not holding my breath. So, yeah, I think any progress is good progress, even if I'm talking to you in 20 years about similar things. I hope that in 20 years I personally would have been able to do something on my own by then, to at least help advance things, but who knows where the world will go in the future.

Prototype 2

For people that do want to write, and write characters that are not the same race as them into games and things like that, would you have any advice for taking criticism? A while ago, Erin Robinson did a cool indie game (Puzzle Bots), and she got criticized for being sexist by a feminist writer based only on the trailer -- it was disappointing for her.

MH: I think first you have to realize that there's always going to be someone who speaks up against it. Especially when you're kind of forging your ground. There's always going to be someone who is offended.

As a society, my personal opinion is we're too worried about offending other people. I think if what you're doing is coming from a good part -- it's not coming from a place of hatred, like you don't actually hate a culture or bring them down, and you're just trying to represent them the best you can -- I think just go for it.

Secondly, I think just research, you know? If there's a dialect, if it's a Southern character, or there's a certain way they talk and there's a dialect, figure out how those people talk, to capture the essence of wherever they're from. That goes for race, religion, sexual orientation, any of those things. You just have to understand where people come from.

And also peer review. If you have peers around you that are also well-versed at writing... I hope there's a group of them just like there is in the design community. I can ask people in the design community questions, and they'll give me their thoughts. I hope the writing community has the same thing, where they can throw ideas by one another and get some feedback, and that, I think, will strengthen them as a group.

I feel like a lot of people may not see why this is important to do. Perhaps there's no convincing anyone that doesn't already think this is something that needs doing. Do you have any thoughts for how people can be convinced that this is a thing that we should care about?

MH: Sure. Like the number one argument I hear against it is, especially, what I just said, worrying about offending people. "Why do we have to put a minority character or a female character in a game just so we don't offend minorities or females?" To me, it's never been about that, at all, to me. It's not about fairness, it's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games.

I've played certain characters over and over in video games. Every time I save the world, it gets less interesting. It doesn't matter what the journey was to get there. Ultimately, I know what's going to happen. I know I'm going to save the world at the end, and I'm going to play the same like archetypical character to get there, because mythology says there are certain archetypes -- the savior.

So, to me, thinking about the sexual orientation, the gender, and the race of a character can change... Even the age of a character -- that can change the way your game is structured, what your game is about, the things a game can comment on, the mechanics of a game. They can bleed into several areas.

I find that to be incredibly interesting because I don't want to see this medium get ghettoized, like what happened with comics, where we're just making superhero things the entire time. Then there are games that are certainly trying to be more serious and more mature. And I'm not saying all the games need to be like that, but I would like to see a subset go that way, because that's what I'm interested in. So, for me, if we make more diverse characters, when we do it well, we can make new and interesting experiences, which potentially can tap into new and interesting emotions.

That, to me, is the best-case scenario. So, this is just one tool in the toolbox. There are many ways to add to games. This is just the one that I'm interested in. This is the one that I'm pursuing as best as I can while working in the industry. And I just hope that other people will think about it and hopefully join the cause.

People tend to design stuff based on what they already know or what they already feel without doing any kind of research or getting some extra insight into doing something that they might not be fully aware of. The research, I think, is pretty important.

MH: Yeah. I can totally agree. Research can be a pain in the butt. Some people love research, some people hate it. I totally agree. If you were to make a game in the 1960s, you would probably research the time period. The art director would probably research what the architecture was like in that area, whatever area your game resides in, right? You're going to do all that work, so you would do the same thing with the game characters.

And if you have a game that's fantastical, or in the future or something, where you can make more up, you still know the background, the history up to this point of what has happened in the world. So, you can invent... "Well, this is the race trouble that's happened in America for a hundred years, and here's the equality or non-equality that occurs," right?

There's been some controversy recently about white actors being cast in Asian roles. If people are doing that in movies like Akira or Avatar: The Last Airbender, it feels like somebody must be doing some market research. If some white dude is going to be called Akira, and some white dude is going to be called Kaneda, it's going to be like, "What is that? Why are these people calling each other that?" That's almost more jarring, isn't it?

MH: Right. And it's also a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Like if a marketing person says, "When Asian people are on the screen, we don't sell as many tickets to the movies, so we're not going to put Asian people on the screen." Well, then there's less evidence to prove against that, because you just keep reinforcing it by not having Asian people on screen. And anytime a movie flops, but there was one Asian guy in the cast... It was all his fault, clearly. Obviously that's generalizing and not exactly how it goes, but yeah, if we don't ever actually try, we're not going to know these things.

And then Harold and Kumar and Slumdog Millionaire come out, and people are like, "Oh, alright. I guess maybe you can make money sometimes if you want to."

MH: Seriously, when Harold and Kumar came out... I loved Harold and Kumar because they're stupid stoner comedies. I literally went to that film with my friend who is Korean, so there's an Indian and Korean guy walking into a theater full of white people. We're like, "This is kind of hilariously weird that all these guys that we'd think would never want to watch a movie like this..."

Everyone was really interested. It was college, you know? Everyone wanted to see it. It was a hilarious movie. Everyone loved it. It made fun of racial stereotypes. It had a sense of humor about itself, which was important. It was self-referential, and that's important to have.

And wasn't Harold and Kumar written by two Jewish guys? Again, it comes down to confidence... I mean, it's more than just confidence. If you're good at your craft, you should be able to handle multiple viewpoints. It's the same way there are times that I design things that are not like what I would like to play personally, right? But I understand that what interests me, sometimes, in video games does, not necessarily interest the vast majority, and my job is to make a game that is going to be the highest quality game possible for a mass audience.

That's why I have to go, "That's a little too hardcore of a mechanic that would be awesome for me, but that's probably not awesome for the average gamer who's sitting down on his couch." So, I have to know to pull myself back as a designer and say, "Okay. Here's how we change that mechanic to work for generals."

The same thing applies to writers. You just need to know how to pull back and apply something to a different group of people. And I've seen that good writers in the industry are doing that. We just don't have enough of them because most good writers want to be movie writers. Most that I have come across. It's mostly anecdotal. We'll see what happens.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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