damonpackwood

Diversity in Games

In Culture, video games on September 27, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Video games tell far too many stories about white guys and in my latest article I dig into some pretty credible research to discuss why this isn’t a good thing. Diversity in games is a fun topic and there are number of things that would make for interesting discussion. The narrative potential. The relationship between low national  math and science scores between some minority groups and the lack of those groups in the industry. What are the concrete reasons why diverse characterization is not considered important to publishers and developers. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dive in as much as I wanted to. I turned in more than my required 1200 words on this piece so you’ll be reading not only a stripped down version of what I wrote but a piece of what I think is worth exploring. Nonetheless, I came upon some good research to at least begin a conversation and in today’s web journalism age, that is the whole point isn’t it?

Most of the article revolves around the research of Dmitri Williams, an associate professor at USC. He did some research on something that has been painfully obvious for years now. Most games that are released in a given year feature largely white male characters but he put some actual numbers behind it. That part of his research was good, but I have a problem with his belief that it is because the industry is largely filled with white males.

He is right about the industry demographics but his research was not about the behavior of video game developers so I’m not sure why he believes, as he said at the DICE Summit in 2010, that developers make game characters that look like them. I think it’s an insult to the intelligence of game developers to assume that they are not aware that all of their characters look the same and they are incapable of doing anything about it. I’m a bit surprised that no one is challenging Williams’ opinion. It’s obvious that he is making an educated guess.

As gamers like my self get older, we start expecting more from the games that we play, more than prettier graphics and more enemies on screen. We want to play a game that has something else to say. I know that is hard to believe for such a young and somewhat juvenile entertainment medium, but games do say something even if it is something simple.

Take this year, for example. I enjoyed the hell out of playing Hispanic demon hunter Garcia Fucking Hotspur in Shadow of the Damned. He had a cultural identity in the game that was unique to the genre. Witty but not very smart, the scenes of him struggling to read are priceless. Charming but not very attractive, like an old boxer, he looks like a dude that tussles with demons. And, he’s a tad chauvinistic but a hopeless romantic for a girl who has one hell of an ex-boyfriend.

Hotspur was a thug but not in a urban street crime sort of way that is common in depictions of Hispanics in games. He was more like Daniel Craigs’ version of James Bond in Casino Royale, a brute well on his way to becoming a legend. The experience had a slightly different feel to it than the typical white-anglo-saxan-protestant hero that we’re accustomed to seeing. Hotspur isn’t a virtuous character. He isn’t trying to save the world. He’s attempting to rescue a girl that no normal person would dare go out with, someone who is just perfect for our tattoo covered hero.

On the flip side, playing Cole Phelps in LA Noire just made me wonder what Easy Rawlins was up to while I drove around the city of angels. I realize that they’re trying to sell people on the experience of playing iconic Hollywood films like LA Confidential, Chinatown, The Two Jakes, even movies set in Chicago like The Untouchables. But, why not sell people on experiencing something much more unique, the underbelly of Los Angeles from the perspective of a wholly different perspective? It is a quality that made Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas so appealing and Team Bondi could have borrowed from great cinematic and literary material that isn’t obscure but also isn’t as widely familiar.

And, Issac from Dead Space 2, a wonderful game but one that left me wanting to experience more. I mean, Imagine if that character removes their helmet at the end of Dead Space 1 to reveal a girl. Suddenly, the player realizes they’ve been playing a queer woman the entire time. Sure, it would be risky but no less cool as shit. There would be no need to change the core gameplay, the emphasis on gore or anything else for that matter. But, at its center is a slightly different story that gives the player a fresh perspective on an old genre.

But, again, that is not what the NAM article is about. In this one I’m simply stating that the demographic of gamers is changing and perhaps it’s time that the characters we play and the worlds they inhabit should change as well?

UPDATE: Apparently, the NAM piece stirred some discussion on N4G where someone reposted it. The 91 comment discussion is fascinating and it supports an idea that I discuss with my buddies a lot. Too many gamers look at diversity as an “other.” I’ll leave this idea for another post but I do find it fascinating that despite the various ethnic groups that comprise the U.S., particularly states where these video game developers preside  (California, Washington, Texas), many gamers still view a person who isn’t white and male as an alien.

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  1. In the New America Media article, you discuss Williams’s article about ethnic diversity in 150 games. I’m a graduate student interested in researching communication technologies such as video games, and I think that this article would really help. Could you pass along the citation or the title of this article? Thanks.

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