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Why You Need Diversity in Your Games

This is article targeted at people who already agree that they need diversity in their games. It is largely targeted at developers who are themselves in the current majority (white, cis, male, etc.) though it should be useful for all developers.

Christopher Barney

March 5, 2017

13 Min Read

So to start this out, a little about me. I’m a privileged white cis male game developer. I care passionately about diversity in games. It’s not the only topic in game design I care about, but it’s the one that I feel most compelled to focus my efforts and energy towards. I’ll dig into the reasons I feel that way as we get into the topics below.

In past years, I have given talks at ECGC and at BFIG, diving deep into the sociological theory of social capital, how it can be used in making games that make a difference in gamers’ lives, and how if games can have positive effects in people’s lives then we have to admit that they can have negative effects. It’s a good talk, and I’ve written a series of posts covering its content: 

The Nature and Purpose of Games: Toward Social Justice
This is the first is a few posts based on a talk I gave at the Boston Festival of Independent Games in 2014. The talk…medium.com

The problem is that it’s a bit academic, and it’s interesting to people who pretty much already agree about those kinds of things. But it’s not very actionable, and it’s not directed toward people who need persuading about social justice issues.

So this year at ECGC, my talk will be titled “Why You Need Diversity in Your Games.” 

Before I go further, I think I need to talk about what I mean by diversity. The easy answer is anyone not in the dominant group that makes and gates the creation of games. So, anyone that is not a cis white male… but that’s not good enough for this discussion. I am specifically talking about (in no particular order) women, people of color, people of diverse sexual orientation and diverse gender identity, and people with disabilities. The above list is not exhaustive, and is just intended to give a sense of the scope of the individuals currently under- (or not) represented in games. 

We have all met or work for the creators of our medium, and they range from good to truly exceptional human beings. And yet we work for an industry that at its best lacks in diversity, and at its worst models systems of misogyny, oppression and hate.

Since I expected that the talk would still only attract people who already understand why they need diversity in their games, I decided to target it toward the cis white male game developers in the audience who already agree with me and provide them with both the arguments and practical things they (you?) can do to convince their (statistically cis white male) bosses and coworkers who don’t yet understand. And also, why they are the group that should be stepping up to do that convincing.

The short version is that, as I said in my previous talk and in the article linked above, social capital is “the resources, norms and values shared by virtue of belonging to a particular social group, and the sense of entitlement to the privileges that are granted by class membership.” It is very close to if not exactly the same thing that we also call privilege. As the privileged group in game development, we have claimed most of the resources and leverage that could be used to help change the industry for the better. 

We did not earn that position of privilege. It was created by thousands of years of history, and is maintained by our actions every day. Game design though, started in our lifetimes. We have all met or work for the creators of our medium…and they range from good to truly exceptional human beings. And yet, and yet…we work for an industry that at its best lacks in diversity, and at its worst models systems of misogyny, oppression and hate. That is what happens when we ‘just make games for fun.’ In order to do better, we have to actively fight against the easiest and clearest design choices that we face every day.

What we as privileged cis white male game developers do not, and can not have is the lived experience of being marginalized in the ways that some of our co-workers or players are. What we can do about that is educate ourselves…and if you are here then you are already on board with that. I’ll go into some detail on how we can educate ourselves to use our privilege as a more effective tool to push for diversity below.

We all get that we need more diverse games. Maybe some of us have specific reasons for feeling that; maybe some of us just know that it feels true. But if we want to be able to convince our bosses or co-workers who are ‘really nice guys’ but don’t think a lot about that kind of thing, then we need good clear reasons, not just personal drives and strong feelings. We need to be able to answer the question:

Why do we need diversity in our games?

In a very practical sense, worldwide game audiences are diverse and becoming more so 

If we make games that only portray characters like us, then they will be less appealing to players that are not like us. That’s true for the entire spectrum of diversity described above. And that’s just looking next door; going further out, our world is incredibly culturally diverse. Games set in western cultures will have a harder time connecting with non-western audiences. I sometimes hear the counter argument that “It’s fine for games to be diverse, but I know me and what players like me want, so I should make games about what I know.” There is some validity to that: it’s hard to reach outside your comfort zone…and it’s dangerous! If you make yet another game with a white guy as the lead, the chances of getting called out for doing it wrong are pretty low, but if you try to make a game about something outside of your experience and get it wrong…well the internet might well eat you alive! When that argument is made to you, acknowledge it and be happy — the person you are talking to is already halfway there! They would like to make a more diverse game, but are a little scared, and that trepidation is reasonable. When faced with a failed attempt at diversity in a game or other media, marginalized players or game critics often don’t have the energy to separate good intentions from an offensive product. And the truth is that they don’t — and shouldn’t — have to. So, acknowledge the person you are talking to, agree that it’s a risk, and dangle the size of the audience they are missing out on in front of them. Then talk to them about ways that they can do a good job at making a more diverse game. (I’ll get to those in the second half of the article.) Also, if the person is receptive, point out how much less risky or even dangerous it is for them to include diversity than it is for any diverse and thus marginalized developer. 

Members of diverse audiences hardly ever see themselves in games

It is fundamentally unfair that the vast majority of the world’s population must choose from a few dozen games if they want to play someone who is like them when white males can choose from literally thousands of games. That is to say that all things being equal, there is nothing wrong with another game about a white guy…but all things are not equal. In fact, making another game about a white guy makes things less equal.

This is a good argument, but you need to be careful when making it because most people see themselves as essentially ‘good.’ When you tell someone they have done something that is not good, they naturally become defensive. So this argument is most effective when it’s not calling out someone but instead directed at ‘the state of the industry.’ If you can set up the discussion to position the person you are trying to convince as the hero who can help stand up for something good, then they are far more likely to be swayed by the argument. 

This is a first step. As I will say below in more detail, the best long term answer to having more diverse games is not for the current generation of privileged game developers to just start including diverse characters in their games! But I think that using this argument to start someone down the path to pursuing diversity in games is acceptable.

All games by their nature make a statement

If we think we are making a game ‘just to be fun,’ then we aren’t even thinking about what we are saying. If we are going to say something with our games whether we like it or not, shouldn’t we say something we can be proud of? This isn’t to say that games can’t be fun, or that you have any agenda beyond making a game ‘just for fun.’ But all games have meaning. It may not be a big splashy social justice (or injustice) meaning, but when you are making a game with a setting and with characters then you are making a choice as to what those will be. Whether you intend it or not, another game about a ‘normal’ white guy like you is reinforcing the systems of power that exist in the world. Now, one its own, that doesn’t mean a lot. No one game is going to uphold the systemic oppression that we see around us. But a thousand games, played over the course of a lifetime, do help shape the way that players think about the world around them.

The world is full of stories that aren’t being told in games 

Though there has been some change, the gaming industry is largely dominated by white male game developers. As per the argument cited above, many find it easier or more natural to make games about topics they are familiar with and people like themselves. Even with no intent to suppress diverse narratives or limit the kinds of stories that get told, the world seen in video games is very limited, cosmetic specifics like elves and spaceships aside. Since making games is expensive and companies tend to be risk averse, there is a significant amount of resistance to trying new things in games. That is mitigated to some degree by gamers’ constant clamour for something new. But without active effort to overcome the friction and inertia of the status quo, we will miss out on telling and hearing the amazing stories that can show us a broader world and allow diverse audiences to see their stories echoed in the games they play in the way that we take for granted.

How do we make our games more diverse?

I will start with this one because it’s the most important if not the easiest.

Go work for more diverse developers

If you are pausing to think that that may not be practical because you can’t find enough diverse lead game designers or game company CEO’s, then you begin to see another reason why we need the games themselves to be diverse. I think that train of thought is worth following: we need the games to be diverse to attract diverse players, so that they decide to become game developers and rise to run companies that make diverse games. You see the problem though: that we don’t have the diverse games to attract the players in the first place. That’s why we have to kickstart the process by making the games even if we can’t be working for companies with diverse ownership.

Hire diverse developers

So, the next best solution is to hire diverse developers. That’s a little easier; they do exist, but you will have to look for them. If you use recruiters you will have to ask explicitly, every time you talk to a recruiter. Just doing that is a step in the right direction. If game companies create a demand for diverse developers it will eventually be filled, though that kind of change takes years… so start asking now.

Make games with diverse characters

Next, make games with diverse characters yourself. Do the research, which is to say use the internet and libraries to learn about the subject matter of your game. When you think you know enough, do more research. Find subject matter experts to talk to about your game and characters. Pay them. Just because someone you know has a diverse background does not mean they have the desire or responsibility to consult with you about your game. 

A word of warning: Adding a bunch of stereotypes to your game is not a good way to make your game diverse. Games in general have a problem with shallow two dimensional characters. When you combine that with a person from anywhere on the diversity spectrum you can cross from archetype to slur very quickly. You may not be able to see from your perspective when something is a offensive portrayal of a stereotype. So, if you are working on your own, double down on the research and consultation. Remember that since you are not the group that might find your portrait offensive, you are not the one who can decide if it is offensive. You are far better off paying a consultant from the diverse group you are including early and late in development than finding out that you were blind to something after you launch your game.

Make games about hard issues

In the U.S. at least, diversity is and has always been a difficult topic. For all of our desire to represent freedom and liberty and justice, we have a dark history on just about every front of diversity. So it may be hard to make a diverse game without facing those issues. Whenever you can face them, do, and do it with honesty and sensitivity. Games can be about difficult topics, or include difficult topics and still be good games. They will be dramatic. Do the research.

Listen

I said earlier that I think that privileged cis white male game developers need to be stepping up to the task of making sure that diverse games can get made. That is true: we have the leverage and risk the least when we raise our hand in a meeting and call our boss on a stereotype, or on having an all white cast. We don’t have to live every day of our lives fighting this fight, so we have the energy and privilege to decide to take this on. 

BUT! We are also the worst choice to make diverse games. At best we can step up and kickstart the cycle of diversity in games by including diverse characters and settings…but we can not let ourselves fall into the trap of thinking that we are the best qualified. If you want to make diverse games, look for a chance to work with, or better yet for…well let’s go with anyone who isn’t a cis white male. 

And when you find that chance, listen. Every time you can shut up and allow your partners to be heard, do it. The best thing you can do is to make the argument for diversity, sell it, get the door open and someone more qualified than you through it.

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