And that's what I have to share today.
Before we go any further, yes, I am aware of the recent kerfuffle. (Understatement? Perhaps. But I like to keep things polite here.) As for how I feel about it? Let's just say that M.C. Frontalot, brilliant nerdcore hiphop artist and someone I have admired since meeting him at PAX '09, said it best.
So with that in mind, let's talk about non-standard representation in video games. Or rather, the lack thereof...
Everything We Know is Sexist. Now What?
Regina Buenaobra (Community Manager, ArenaNet); Jessica Price (Project Manager, Paizo Publishing); John Sutherland (Writer, VidGameStory), Anna Megill (Narrative Designer, Airtight Games), Matthew Moore (Game Designer, ArenaNet, Cameron Harris (Editor & Story Consultant, Freelance), Tom Abernathy (Writer & Narrative Designer, Freelance)
Note: Matthew Moore was kind enough to give me a copy of the slides from the presentation, so the following notes include those, but also include a lot of the elaboration that happened at the panel. I was delighted that all of the panelists encouraged me to share this.
Note from the Panelists: We are about to present opinions that are our own and not necessarily those of our employers (even when they probably should be)
What’s the problem?
- Sexism, for one …
- Though we’re also talking about issues of race, sexual orientation, etc.
- The 2012 game player gender (market) is 55% male, 45% female.
- The gender of protagonists in games from 2012, however, is 51% male, 45% choice, and only 4% female. (This number is closer to the number of people working in the game industry.)
- The potential game player market in the US is 51% male, 49% female.
Human beings have a tendency to do their creative work from their own thoughts, needs, and life experience.
When recently creating a game, one panelist sought ideas for vignettes for NPCs, and every suggestion was sexist. The people making the suggestions resorted to stereotypical situations without even being aware of it.
Why do we care? Why should we?
- Lack of diversity in general.
- There’s a creative side to it as well: new takes make it more interesting.
- Creative consequences of the same old stuff: boredom, lack of expansive information. Not unrelated.
- Who’s making these games really has an impact on how they get made and the broadness of the vision.
- We don’t want to read and see and experience the same thing again and again and again. That won’t happen if we keep relying on our tropes.
- Hollywood is telling fresh perspectives of stories.
- Stories about a straight, white, male are getting old.
- The gender of protagonists in movies from 2012: 65% male, 19% female, and 16% mixed ensemble.
- The gender of protagonists in books from 2012 is much better: 43% male, 41% female, and 16% mixed ensemble.
- The TV market is getting better, splintering, targeting small groups and bringing those to life. And they’re reaching wide audiences because of it.
Why else we should care: Video game dollar sales are slightly, steadily down from 2010.
- Not growing.
- Not reaching out to new audiences.
- Probably because they’re not trying new things.
- We don’t want video games to become a niche medium.
Furthermore: Lack of diversity in viewpoints, characterizations, plots, story structure, etc. limits the potential of games as an art form.
- Game consumers are artistically malnourished.
- Art that gives its power to move us is commonality, but also diverse experiences.
- Sexism hurts everyone.
- It hurts men too, because the typical male protagonist presented is a man who’s physically strong, the ideal man. Marketing executives point to and justify how much money that stuff makes and assume the game will sell better with it.
- On a professional level: Paternity leave, child care issues; sometimes men have issues that are perceived as falling in the female realm that aren’t extended to them because they’re men and not women.
- We need more interesting characters with diverse backgrounds. It doesn’t make it easier to make them if we stick to the tropes.
- If you like shooters, they are still making them. The number of action and shooter games offered at the launch of each new X-Box has increased.
- Most importantly: Making more types of games doesn’t mean less of games people already like (the core game types) will decrease. Just that it makes more options available to consumers.
So, what should we do?
1. Check our assumptions and our perceptions.
- Look around at the crowd in this room, at the number of people here. How many are women? Turns out that there were 3 men for every 2 women were present at this panel. (Even though most attendees thought there were either more women, or that it was a 50-50 split.)
- This is important because our perceptions of what is fair are now off.
- Geena Davis Institute: “We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there’s 17 percent women, the men in the group think it’s 50-50. And if there’s 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men.”
- In games, even when the lines were divided equally, the men had the more important lines. That’s the first step you have to take.
- Use the Bechdel Test: Find a movie with two women talking and if it’s not about a man, then that passes the test. Observation. How many of them actually pass? Games pass it even less. Think about this test. Do you have women in it, do they have names, do they talk to each other? Is it about a man, a relationship, parenting, shopping? This is a good rule of thumb, the lowest bar you can clear, when dealing with diversity in video games.
2. Read, watch, and play things made by people who aren’t like us.
- The canon English literature: almost all of it is by men. Shapes how we write. This becomes problematic because even women learn how to write women from men because our perception has been shaped by male writers. Literary voices have been shaped by male writers. It’s been changing. The best way you can learn to write those characters is if you learn from the horse’s mouth. So, read people who aren’t like you.
3. Learn to recognize tropes.
- Trope: A literary or narrative device.
- Cultures have common sets of tropes. Tropes have baggage.
- A trope is not evil or bad. They can be useful. Just use them mindfully.
- Do it in a way that subverts the trope, or defend to your league so they know why you’re using the trope as is.
- Marketing wants quick story hooks.
- The more you know what a trope is, the better you can put it into a game and sell it and make your vision happen.
4. Ask ourselves why we like the things we like.
- Rather than just mindlessly liking them.
- What is it that you actually like about it? Can you get things without mindlessly importing all the details (like with pulp)?
- The presenters aren’t saying these stories can’t be told, just that we need to think about this stuff.
- And think about who the perceived audience is. Who is the character designed to appeal to?
- (Aside: Google “Lawrence Croft”)
- (Aside: Google “100 Sexiest Men Alive”. Turns out they’re not the muscle-bound men we see in video games.)
5. Improve our work!
- Try to be inclusive (even when we are afraid we’ll suck at it.)
- Look over your work. Does everyone have to be (straight, white, male, etc?)
- Make sure you interrogate yourself while you do your craft.
- Practice “flipping” exercises with gender, orientation, race, etc. What happens if this character is a man / woman / different race / gay / trans / etc?
- This has often resulted in stories that are more moving, more interesting.
- Experiment with trope subversion.
- Constantly ask yourself, is this what I want it to be, or is this just intellctiual comfort zone stuff, tropes too well worn, or The Unexpected Choice? That moment you take readers/customers in a direction where they think they know you’re going, then change trajectory: it’s important. If you do that, you’ll constantly be surprising people. And the more you do it, the less you’ll find yourselves having to revise your choices.
- Show your work to people from different groups to critique.
- Friends, family, people you trust. Generally you can recognize the broad strokes. But words have baggage. E.g. Calling a woman “frigid”, or an African American person “articulate”.
- Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good”.
- Complaint from male writers who don’t know how to write women so they don’t bother trying
- Writing anything is this: trying to make something knew, exploring the scary white page and trying to fill it up with stuff.
- If you are not secure expressing the experience of those you don’t know much about, get to know them.
6. Address issues.
- Support inclusivity; be an ally to undeserved groups and those who are working for change.
- If you see it, you don’t have to be the person being victimized to take that issue on.
- Speak up when something is troubling.
- Listen to the people who are telling you it’s a problem, and do something about it.
- Address the issue vs. trying to appease the people coming to you. Not “Should I put in more women characters”, but “Fix the dialogue.”
- Be aware. If you’re the creator, it’s hard to step back and look at what you’re doing, but it’s worth it.