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. :)