White as a Sheet

i began a brief Twitter conversation with Theodore Waern of SkyGoblin, whose graphic adventure game The Journey Down debuts on iOS this week at an introductory price of 99 cents, which at least one reviewer has called criminally low. i haven’t played the game myself (it’s been sitting in my Steam queue along with the hundreds of other casualties of the service’s too-good-to-pass-up software sales), but it looks gorgeous. The game’s characters have African-inspired masks for faces.

The primary argument for increasing the diversity of the mostly white, mostly male game development workforce is that it will result in a similarly diversified product. “New and varied stories can be told, and new voices can be heard”, to cop a few phrases from film and/or National Public Radio. The Journey Down had me curious about whether a diverse dev team had led to a “black” cast of characters, so i asked Theodore how many SkyGoblin devs were black. “Actual devs are white as hell”, he answered. :)

i looped lily-white Tim Schafer into the conversation, thinking back to his game Grim Fandango, which starred a cast of primarily Hispanic characters. The game wasn’t at all maudlin or stereotyped (but, being white myself, how would i know?). So how did Tim pull it off?

“I relied on my Spanish-speaking actors to make the dialog more authentic. Tony Plana came up with a lot.”

Theo took a similar approach:

“I encouraged our actors to experiment a lot with the script as well. Definitely killed off some of the überwhite.”

i would hazard a guess that neither Tim nor Theodore approached their games thinking “i want to make a game about people of colour”. Rather, they both saw a cultural art style (Día de los Muertos and African ritual masks respectively) that they wanted to use in their games, and it made sense to hire voice actors to suit the style (although The Journey Down advertises a “black African twist”, while the characters’ accents are West Indian – the confusion over which prompted my original Twitter question to Theodore).

Do Not Go Gently Into That Non-White

It got me thinking about how i approach diversity in my games, and the best word i could come up with was “fearfully”. Our upcoming game Spellirium was originally intended to reach the PC downloadable “mom” market, and yet it stars a white male protagonist. Why? Because i don’t dare write anything but white, for fear of someone calling me out for my non-white or non-male character being stereotypical, offensive, or – at the absolute worst – outright racist or sexist.

Spellirium is a very male-dominated game because i am cowardly. The sex divide, at this point, is ten male characters to three females. i took (what i felt was) somewhat of a risk having a female in the main cast of characters. i patted myself on the back for asking our character designer to give her a small chest, and for marring her face with a big red scar to “de-beautify” her. Despite this, she still turned out smoking hot:

(if you’re into ice-cold ass-kicking redheads, that is)

All in all, i was pretty happy with the Hunter. Here was a woman who was holding her own in the apocalypse, living off the land and sustaining herself, defending her hand-built log cabin with a blunderbuss and a snarl. She isn’t in the game to be a love interest for the main character; she knows more about the game world and its creatures than anyone else, and she joins the quest to satisfy her revenge sub-plot. She makes it through the game without anyone kissing her. She does get rescued at one point, but the Spellirium is self-referential, and the characters cheekily mention how disappointing the moment is. So … pretty good, right?

Well, no? During development, along came Anita Sarkeesian’s controversial Kickstarter campaign with her run-down of female video game tropes, and my Hunter character could arguably fit at least three of them – the “Sexy Sidekick”, “The Fighting F#@k Toy”, and “Man with Boobs”. Sssssuper.

Give Him Enough Trope …

i will point out, though, that it’s possible to disagree with Sarkeesian civilly, and i do. Her final video is titled “Positive Female Characters”, implying that every other trope on her list is negative.

Simply identifying a trope (and feeling all clever for it) does not necessarily beg a value call on that trope. TVTropes.com (one of my favourite websites since they shut down thisIsWhyYoureFat.com) is packed with oft-used scenes, characters and story elements … but because a trope merely exists, i don’t believe we should stop using it. i defy anyone to try writing a story that doesn’t use a single trope from TVTropes.com … or to try writing a female video game character that doesn’t even remotely fit one of Sarkeesian’s depictions.


(What – we’re not allowed to do the “hand over your badge” scene any more? Preposterous!)

i had a hard time when Anita launched her campaign, because as a white male who was already nervous about writing non-male, non-white characters, i felt that Anita was making it even more perilous to do so. Let’s face it: not every game calls for Jade from Beyond Good and Evil. Sometimes you need that cigar-chomping roid-raging testosterone-stuffed space marine. Sometimes you need a sidekick. Sometimes that sidekick is female. Any why not make her attractive while you’re at it? Entertainment media is no place for ugly people.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: no fatties

The Seeds of Fear

When i was in the eighth grade, we had an assignment to draw a character from a historical fiction novel we were reading, which starred a boy and a girl. i opted to draw the girl, because i thought it would be a nice challenge. i had trouble with her chest. i had almost zero experience with boobs, and this was in the early 90′s, when … ahem … source material was hard to come by. So i did my level best, and was pretty proud of the results. i showed the teacher, whose eyes bugged out. “What’s the matter?” i asked. “Good God, Ryan,” she said, “She’s a 13-year-old girl.” i took that to mean her chest was too big? Ashamed and embarrassed, i don’t believe i drew another female until i was in art college.

i feel like i should include some sort of picture here, but plugging “13yo big boobs” into Google Image Search is problematic.

i was in a performing arts program in high school as a drama major. We were placed in groups, and tasked with putting on a short play. It was my first role as a director. We had been reading George Bernard Shaw, and i chose his play Passion, Poison and Petrifaction, which had three roles: a husband, a wife, and a villain. One of my group members was the program’s only black student. i cast him as the villain, because being a Shaw play with its antiquated language, it was a period piece. As my reasoning went, i figured i couldn’t cast the black kid as the husband, because an interracial marriage in a period piece would have been conspicuous. i didn’t even consciously consider the villainous nature of the third role, or the connotations of having a black villain. i caught hell for it from our lesbian feminist extreme-left drama teacher.

Again, if i add a picture after “lesbian feminist leftist”, i’m a dead man.

So for me, striving for game content diversity is a case of being once bitten and twice shy. i’ve hired both women and people of colour to work with me at Untold Entertainment, but i’ve always been terrified of saying the wrong thing around them. i’m altogether too nervous to write a female or a person of colour in one of my games, for fear of the Anita Sarkeesians and the drama and English teachers of the world calling me out for inappropriate chest size or for perpetuating harmful stereotypes. And on the flipside, i worry that i’ll catch flack for continually writing games with only white male protagonists.

i’m not offering up any real solutions here – just thinking out loud. i guess i hope that as my depth and breadth of experience grow, my writing and confidence will grow along with them, allowing me to shake this fear and trepidation. But those who are banging the drum for increased diversity both in the games workforce and in depictions of women and minorities in games could, i think, help things along by approaching the subject from a position of love, patience, understanding and humour, and a commitment to appreciate honest attempts at increasing diversity without the Damoclean threat of lawsuits, placards, shouting and ostracism.

And with that, i humbly present to you the blog comments section. :)

6 thoughts on “White as a Sheet

  1. Quinn

    Speaking as a straight, white, cisgendered male myself, I understand where your fear comes from – but you can (and should) work past it. Feminists and people who care a lot about equality and inclusiveness – in terms of race, sexuality, gender, or anything else – generally don’t bite :) It can feel lousy to get called out for doing something other people see as harmful or backward, but keep in mind that it hurts way more for women, people of color, queer people, etc. to watch as year after year goes by and entertainment still treats the straight, white male as the ultimate default in any story in any medium, while they still have to fight to have their own voices heard (and are often shouted down or even threatened with violence, like Anita Sarkeesian was, when they do).

    As long as you approach your characters as complex, nuanced people, you can make them very different from you and pull it off. You might screw up and step on some toes, and you might get some angry reactions, but don’t think of that as an injury to you – it’s an opportunity for dialogue, and to learn some new and interesting things. Learning and growing in full public view can be scary, but it’s also really valuable, because other straight white cisgendered guys need to see that challenging the status quo and exposing oneself to criticism doesn’t have to end badly.

    Most of all, don’t treat feminists and social justice crusaders as scary monsters who just want to make you feel bad if you put one foot out of line. We don’t. Most of us are civil and even-tempered people who just want to have productive discussions; we’re annoyed when people shut down that dialogue before it can happen, for fear or any other reason, but we’re thrilled when other people seriously listen to our concerns and work to change bad habits. Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal fame made a comic once that pissed off a lot of women gamers and feminists; he responded with genuine concern when he found out he’d said something hurtful, and he was lauded for his response: http://www.themarysue.com/the-oatmeal-gamer-girl-comic/

    (You don’t have to donate any money, FYI, if this ever happens to you. It was the sincere apology alone that took everyone by extremely positive surprise).

    The fact that you’re thinking so much about this already is an excellent first step. Don’t be scared to make mistakes, be willing to humble yourself, and you could be a serious force for positive change in an industry that definitely needs it.

    Reply
    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Thanks, Quinn. In my opinion, Inman has repeatedly proven himself to be a class act. But there so many folks who expect a person to exhibit “consistency of character”. i’ve seen that in politics where, if you dare change your mind about an issue, you’re called a “flip-flopper”. It’s rather unfair. Society has created a climate where once you hold an opinion, you need to keep holding it, and vehemently at that. Changing your mind is a sign of weakness. And lo, punditry was born.

      Reply
  2. Tabby

    I felt that was an honest and open exploration of your feelings/fears surrounding diversity. My take is that the best thing to do is just ask the concerned parties about how they feel about a character concept (for example), and if they could provide input. Like the above person noted, I don’t think most people will be mean about it, especially if you approach them with an honest question and make an effort to listen quietly to the response (as in, don’t argue about the way someone feels, because they can’t change that and neither can you).

    As a white female, I feel like I straddle the diversity line a bit. I can (to some degree) inform someone if/why I think a character exhibits sexist properties, but I’m more wary of approaching topics about racism because I don’t want to step out of line. I want to include people from a variety of backgrounds in my games, but I want to do so sensitively. My plan was basically just to proceed with character creation, then spend some time asking around the internet/friends about whether I’ve done something out of line, tweak, and continue. Having an art background that has taught me to accept critique does help, as I’m sure it’s helped you too.

    FWIW, your Hunter character sounds pretty cool. You mentioned some tropes that she may fall into but it seems like it’s more nuanced than that to me. In my opinion, it’s only a trope if it’s a loosely-defined charicature or situation that relies on familiarity with the trope/cliche to understand – like a stereotype. You can have a female sidekick who is also sexy but I think as long as that’s not the sum total of that character’s description and worth in the game, it’s not a trope. Your character, even from your brief description, sounds like a fleshed-out human person with unique motivations, and (speaking for most ladies) that’s really all we want to see! (She even looks dressed for her job, yay!)

    If you ever want to bounce ideas off a lady, just fire me an email! I promise I don’t bite and I won’t think badly of you.

    Reply
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  4. Kookiness

    Have you ever though about taking all of these things out of the equation? Just as an exercise, write a character that isn’t male/female or white/black/asian and so on. Create a character from another world or planet that is simply a blob with eyes. Give whichever characteristics you want to it, apply your own life experiences and whatever personality you desire. Once you feel the character has enough depth, ask yourself this: If I had to make this character a human now, would it be a white male or something else? Does it matter?

    The need for diversity is ultimately just a desire to see yourself portrayed in entertainment and large groups are under-represented. If we are honest with ourselves, stereotypes exists because they are based on some truth. For example, there are woman out there in the world that portray themselves as the tropes people complain about. It’s exaggerated in some games and entertainment but that character does exist in the world somewhere. The complaint is often not that they exists but they have become the poster child of a gender/race within gaming/entertainment. Often highlighting negative characteristic the majority of a group (or at least the people complaining) don’t want to be associated with.

    In my opinion it isn’t always sexist to have a big chested female character, the key is does their physical appearance fit the context? Is it just proportionate to the rest of their body? Perhaps the character is an out of work porn-star, then that’s acceptable and makes perfect sense. If they are supposed to be a police officer that is to be taken seriously and you’ve put them in hot-pants and high heels, you’re doing it wrong obviously. Think of the extremes and it starts to make more sense!

    Last of all, if you want to write characters to make your game more diverse then you have already lost the battle. If the purpose of doing it is purely for the sake of diversity then it’s unlikely to come across as sincere. When you approach the matter with that thought you’ll end up with a “token minority” and that does nothing for progression anyway.

    You’ve already started to ask questions which is good, I just think there are more questions you need to ask yourself. Do you actually want to represent different characters? Why? If you stop yourself out of fear then keep doing what you already do. If you want to push it, just do it. In the end if you have done it well, you should be able to stand up and defend your work, regardless of what anyone else says. If you can’t comfortably defend your own work, you shouldn’t be doing it.

    Reply

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