Do developers really deserve recognition for including diverse characters in games?
Authored by Jeanine Celestin-Greer
It seems like these days the “cool” thing to do is to embrace diversity and encourage others to do so as well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining – it’s about time in my opinion, and will only help the world head in the right direction. That diversity is finally beginning to spill over into video games, which is one of the most closed-minded industries when it comes to catering to anything besides their interpretation of young Caucasian males. People of all races, genders, and sexual orientations have been playing games for years. But the games industry only seems just now like they are beginning to notice.
As a result, it feels like everyone who puts a character other than a short-haired white male with brown hair on the cover of a game is giving themselves a huge pat on the back for doing so. It’s commendable to go against the grain, but it shouldn’t have to feel a sacrifice or act of courageousness, or the questions then must be begged, why didn’t you do it earlier? And what is your reason for doing so? Is it because you want to be praised or because you’re trying to make the gaming world reflect this one? The answers are probably obvious, and most of the developers trying something new aren’t the first and only – though you’d think they are.
Recently one of the developers of the upcoming game Remember Me gave an interview about how Remember Me was rejected by publishers at first because it featured a woman – one that was sexually ambiguous at that. They then go on to talk about how more developers need to push the envelope. It’s all true, but still I can’t help but think about how BioWare has continuously pushed that envelope by including incredibly strong women in their games, as well as a fully fleshed out option to be one. As for sexual orientation, one need only take a look at Mass Effect, Dragon Age or Star Wars: The Old Republic for that.
Another developer has been talking about their strides in helping to change the world of gaming, starting with one who has been apart of gaming for over 10 years – though not always realistically represented.One of the writers of the latest Tomb Raider game (which has been a critical success) Rhianna Pratchett spoke to Kill Screen about LGBT characters and females. Pratchett insisted that we need to focus first on getting these kinds of characters into video games, getting audiences comfortable with that and then introducing stories that didn’t ignore their differences.
Like I said, getting more diverse protagonists is important, and just getting them in there will be the first step. But I do think it is a bit disingenuous to have a gay character and then not speak to that. It’s kind of like having a straight character who happens to like people of the same gender. Exploring something about what it means to be a gay character, bisexual character, transgender character, in games, that would create some interesting stories. I’m not sure we’re there yet. But I think getting those representations into games is the first step. Once we’re more comfortable with that, actually speaking to those issues a little more broadly will be possible.
Pratchett also stressed the needs of getting more writers involved in this process, and getting them comfortable with writing characters’ that aren’t necessarily like them.
But also getting more writers in the process and people that aren’t afraid to write about characters who aren’t them. That’s what writers do! You’re always exploring people who aren’t you. Once you get your head around it, you can feel comfortable in that space. So I think that once more writers and narrative professionals get involved, the more comfortable they will be to write different and diverse characters.
And like I said, from a narrative standpoint we didn’t completely ignore that Lara is female. But we didn’t sort of yell it out either. It wasn’t all about that—being female. But we did bring it in, because it’s part of who she is. She is a young woman, so we wanted her to feel like a real young woman. That was one of the problems in the past with old Lara. It became all about her gender, particularly about her boobs. There is more to gender than what you have on the front of your chest. [laughs]
Pratchett also questioned why we don’t see more of a focus on the characters’ differences within the game.
I’d love to see more of that. It’s a shame that developers don’t do this. Are they just really nervous about doing anything that’s not men? So I think: Ok, this is where writers can help. Because we have to! Otherwise it would be Mary Sues as far as the eye can see. But like I said, first step: getting them in. Second step: exploring that more once we’ve got them. Ideally if we get that in, we can explore it more. But it has to be right for the game and the experience.
Referring back to my earlier mention, Pratchett didn’t mention games like BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series, where you can be a female (though admittedly, there’s not much to identify you to be a female outside of voice, appearance and love interests noticing) but also be and have LGBT encounters and relationships. But there isn’t a focus on those differences in those worlds – because in these worlds these things are either considered normal or are ignored for the most part. Whether or not it was a cop out on the writers’ part, or intended for the story worlds, I can’t say.
And again devs of Remember Me also attempted to push the envelope by not only including a female character, but one whose sexual orientation is a mystery and mixed race. Pratchett also doesn’t mention the need to see more minorities in games, but we can look at Ubisoft for that. They’ve had Middle Eastern, native American and African American protagonists in Assassin’s Creed, which is an AAA series, something which I deem an extremely positive sign for the industry.
But outside of that, how many games can we really name that have realistic human protagonists aren’t heterosexual, Caucasian men? And furthermore, when we will come into a time where we can talk about it within the context of the game without worrying about whether we are making what the industry perceives to be the target audience for games, white males, ages 18-25, uncomfortable?
When will the games industry and more importantly, the publishers and marketers deem gamers mature enough to handle differences without ignoring it altogether? And when will it stop being something worthy of praise and interviews when game developers do it? Your guess is as good as mine, but if it takes recognition by society of their “bravery” for developers to offer players new and interesting perspectives and role models, then I think it is a small price to pay after all.