Why Diversity Matters in Games

Why Diversity Matters in Games

Video games can take you to far away worlds populated by all manner of beasts and humanoids. You can form alliances with elves, talk to dragons, and shake hands (or exchange laser fire) with alien races beyond anything from your imagination. In fact, the only life form you’re unlikely to meet in a video game is a person of color.

Regardless of how fantastic a game’s setting might be, and no matter how far beyond the stratosphere an adventure stretches, you can usually lay safe money on the protagonist being a white male. And while that’s not a bad thing–after all, a characters’ actions, motivations, and morals go deeper than skin color–it’s worth wondering aloud why we don’t see much diversity in our game heroes (not to mention our movie heroes, our television heroes, our comic book heroes, etc).

Mind, there is an ongoing change in game heroes’ skin colors, albeit a slow one. Gamasutra recently posted an interview with BioWare Montreal designer Manveer Heir, who talked at length about his aim to bring more diversity into video games. “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,” Heir told Gamasutra. “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.”

Indeed, some of BioWare’s games, including the massively popular Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age series include the much-appreciated ability to decide on the skin color, gender, and sexuality of your hero/heroine. In fact, many western RPGs–and even a few Japanese RPGs (including Square-Enix’s Dragon Quest IX)–let you build a non-white main character. Video games even attempt to explore issues of racism and discrimination through fantasy races, like Dragon Age‘s City Elves, who exhibit parallels to the ghettoized Jews in Nazi Germany. But real-world examples of race, religion, and discrimination are rarely explored in games.

The main reason is likely tied to a valid fear of offending minorities by neglecting to depict them “properly” in-game. Writers like to nestle down into a comfort zone: There’s a reason why Stephen King doesn’t write Harlequin romance novels. A white writer may feel like he or she has no “right” to assemble a character of color, because they’ve not walked in those shoes and therefore feel they are incapable of producing a genuine voice for that character.

Again, a valid fear. But cowering away from the subject doesn’t offer any solutions. Research is key, as is simply trying. Screw-ups might happen, and people might get offended, even if the writer’s intent was not to offend. The next step is to listen to criticism, try again, and screw up less.

After all, Stephen King might not write Harlequin romance novels, but damn, it’d be interesting to see him try it once.

An inevitable response from the peanut gallery on matters of games and race is, “Why bother? Who cares if game protagonists are mostly male and white? It’s all fantasy, anyway.”

And the response to that is, “Why not try something different?” Aside from writers’ hesitation to write outside their comfort zones, what argument is there against casting blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. as protagonists? Critics sneer about games and comics caving to “political correctness” when a hero of color comes to the fore, but what, specifically, is politically correct about simply going outside, looking around you and saying, “Hey, wow, people come in all kinds of colors,” and then choosing to reflect that in your game?

As Heir pointed out, we don’t know where games will be in twenty years, but hopefully we’ll see more diversity in our game heroes–and more diversity in the people who create them. It’ll take time and a lot of effort to break the mold thoroughly and completely, but happily, some cracks have started to appear.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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