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White as a Sheet
by Ryan Creighton on 01/01/13 12:59:00 pm   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

[This article by Ryan Henson Creighton is re-posted from the Untold Entertainment blog, which is awesome.]

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. :)


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Comments


Ardney Carter
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Just write characters and don't worry about what people say about it. Someone, somewhere will always have something to complain about. If you know you're not writing from a place of hate then that's good enough. Trying to please everyone is a trap.

Ardney Carter
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The industry doesn't "get anywhere" by telling anyone they can't write something either, whether they're small or big. If you feel like putting something in your game, go for it. If I don't like it, I'll skip it and move to something else. The only issue arises when you start telling people they CAN'T make that 'something else' in the first place.

And to address Lars' remark below, there's nothing wrong with doing some due diligence to make sure you aren't inadvertently being insensitive or communicating the wrong thing. But if that crosses the line to actual FEAR of doing something that you wanted to try as expressed in the post or in your comment, then that can be an issue. Fear of what the partisans are going to say shouldn't hold anyone back. They're partisans...that's what they do. Ignore them and move on.

Joseph Miller
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Yo, you should read this, my friend: http://weeklysift.com/2012/09/10/the-distress-of-the-privileged/

Suffering the fear of being insensitive is not equivalent to suffering the effects of systematic insensitivity and prejudice.

I don't know how wide your definition of "partisan" is, so maybe this doesn't apply to you. Generally speaking, I think the philosophy of "do what you want and don't worry about the whiners" is almost always symptomatic of privilege.

Emppu Nurminen
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Exactly that attitude of not considering what people might think is what makes these PR-scandals to begin with. You need to acknowledge more than one aspect of your story just because you can then overcome and develop the idea further. I think it's quite rigid thinking if the initial idea can't be developed to something that at least eases the reaction to it as something being a part of the story. Not developing something like that is clearly lazy and should be called out. There is thing called "overcoming" difficulties, not wallowing stunned in the bed you made.

Equally rigid thinking is to think your story and characters as tropes and stereotypes. That's an instant failure for anyone.

Lars Doucet
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I have Tourette's Syndrome, I'm making a game about Tourette's Syndrome, and I *constantly* worry about what other people with Tourette's Syndrome will think about it.

So at least in my own case the fear of being perceived as insensitive doesn't go away even if you belong to the group in question, because although you gain identity-politics credibility from being part of the group you're talking about, the catch is people then see you as "speaking for the group."

Leigh Alexander has expressed something similar, for instance, how she resists the (very common) perception that because she's a woman she speaks for all women and is a defacto specialist in games-journalism-as-it-relates-to-female-stuff.

James Coote
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No two people with tourette's are going to be the same, so there's no point in trying to please them all. As long as your story is genuine and from the heart, then it is valid

Curtiss Murphy
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For me, the safest path is to tell my own stories - related to what I know. Broad generalizations get me in trouble, but writing/developing around my own experiences creates personal vulnerability and is relatively safe from PR-scandals. I don't speak for ALL families with severely handicapped children - I just speak for mine.

Jacek Wesolowski
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In my job, we have a Pillar of Ideas where anyone can add a sticky note with a game idea on it (the core rule being that the entire idea needs to fit into single sticky note). I recall one idea that says: "generic action game with a generic story in it, except all characters, including the main character, are randomly generated every time you start a new game." Things to consider for random generation: hair colour, eye colour, skin tone, weight, height, body shape, and, of course, gender. The dialogue would have to be slightly procedural so that people are addressed and described correctly regardless of who they happen to be.

I think I would make this game fairly short with some strong incentive for playing through it more than once. I think I would also give it a truly generic story on purpose, so that in-game situations correspond with stereotypes as often as possible.

Joseph Miller
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Read Yo Is This Racist by Andrew Ti for humor/perspective and stuff by Mattie Brice for good thoughts on this subject.

As diversity increases and we see more examples of female and minority voices in games, I think it will become more clear to those of us who are white and male how to write for those types of characters. Like if you wanted to write me, personally, into your game, you'd ideally know me, right? You'd know how I describe myself. We need to create an environment where we can learn how women and minorities want to describe themselves in games so that we can write them accurately and respectfully. We need so many examples that we don't fall prey to the trap of assuming that one woman can speak for all women. We need to see many examples of female voices so that we men can see a wide array of ideas of how to portray women respectfully and accurately.

So what it comes down to is that we simply need more designers and teammembers who aren't white, straight, cissexual, male, etc. As a white male designer you cannot really solve diversity except by helping to cultivate diverse talent, whether that be in your own teams or in the community at large.

In the meantime, I think if you HAVE to write females or minorities, you should probably hire out someone like Mattie Brice to consult with you and look over your script so she can tell you what she thinks. http://www.mattiebrice.com/

Ardney Carter
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"We need to create an environment where we can learn how women (group) and minorities (group) want to describe themselves in games so that we can write them accurately and respectfully. We need so many examples that we don't fall prey to the trap of assuming that one woman can speak for [the whole group of women]"

Do you see the issue there? It's this kind of idea that leads to people like Ryan not wanting to write characters because they're afraid of doing it WRONG as if there's some homogenous way to write a character. If you are writing individuals than let them be INDIVIDUALS.

Ok, an example: I was reading an article on X-Com a while back and someone in the comments said something to the effect that he felt the professor in the game, Dr. Shen(?) wasn't really Asian but was 'just a white man'. Another commenter then pointed out that he already had asian features so the only way to make him 'more asian' would be to turn him into a racist caricature.

This is my problem with these discussions. People claim they want to see 'diversity' but then get upset when they are confronted with diverse CHARACTERS. So screw them. Write characters and don't look back.

Joseph Miller
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Right, but when writing a character they are typically not based on a single individual. They are based on an amalgamation of characteristics. So you want to draw from a realistic and respectful pool of ways to represent those characteristics.

Furthermore, there may not be a "right way" to portray a woman, but there are definitely wrong ways. And those wrong ways change over time. Many games now portray women as capable fighters. So it must not be sexist, because it's not like they're in the kitchen, right? Actually wrong, of course. There are plenty of ways to portray a fighting woman in a sexist way. The only way to combat this is to allow women to speak for themselves as to how to respectfully portray women in games and then we can learn from that.

Ardney Carter
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If the "wrong ways" change over time then they weren't actually "wrong" to begin with. Now we're talking about tastes, which do change. Which is where I'm coming from. There aren't 'wrong' characters. Characters are interesting or not. If you make an interesting character and have it doing interesting things then I'll engage with the work. If you don't, I'll move on. The character's made up gender, skin color, or country of origin isn't the primary issue.

And this is my point. Go ahead and write characters. Make your casts diverse. If it's done well people will engage with it. If it's done poorly they won't. And regardless of how it's done there will be some people who don't like it. So don't hold back because of that guaranteed group.

I firmly believe that the closest anyone can hope to get to a 'solution' to sexism, racism, etc. in games or any other media is simply to ensure there aren't unnecessary barriers to people making content.

And upon reflection, I think what really irks me about all this has to do with how I was raised. My family traveled a good deal and we interacted with all different kinds of people. I was brought up to watch people and judge them by their actions and time and again it was proven to me that a person's skin color tells you precious little about how they're going to act or talk. People can behave in a myriad different ways. So when I heard people saying things to the effect of 'you can't say X because you're white' or 'he isn't black because he likes Y' it really irritates the hell out of me. Because it just isn't true!

So if a white man wants to write black characters and they don't talk or act a certain way it doesn't bother me one bit. Are the characters interesting and do I care about what they're doing? That's my only issue and any other consideration is pure BS as far as I'm concerned. I like stories and resent forces that tend to constrict their creation.

James Coote
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The answer is that you need to get women (or black or hispanic or whatever people) who you trust, to give an honest opinion on the believability of the characters you are writing.

Justin Speer
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It seems as if you consider your perspective to be too narrow, too male, too white... and that you're too cowardly to open yourself up. I'm not trying to insult you here... but it strikes me that if you work on the last one a bit it could do a lot to broaden your perspective.

I actually think seeking out media produced by different types of people in an authentic voice, say by doing some research and digging into Netflix or seeking out particular books is the way forward for most people. If you were still in school you might have access to courses like women's studies, African American studies, South American literature, East Asian cinema, etc. etc., but assuming you're out you're lucky enough to work in downtown Toronto, man! You should be embarrassed by the wealth of cultural experiences and potential friends of different backgrounds available to you if you're not taking advantage of your own backyard. There are constant festivals, meetups, events, and entire subsections of the city open to anyone and everyone. You're talking as if you're somehow culturally isolated by your identity, and I have to call bullshit here.

In fact I'm starting to feel jealous of you, since I no longer live there. Do some research, my friend. Go out there and live. It's a new year, after all.

Johnathon Lipscomb
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Although I generally agree with much of what you've said here, the idea of learning about diversity from Netflix and books, as a starting point, strikes me as very counter-productive. Netflix, like most traditional libraries, is filled with racist, sexist, homophobic, hate-filled blather. The only way to navigate the profusion of material without falling into common prejudiced ruts is to enter with some cultural sensitivity and consciousness. You have to remember that a lot of what may be considered racist/sexist propaganda now was, and still is by some, considered civil, enlightened thought.

Getting into living a diverse and accepting life is a much better teacher, if you keep your wits about you. Plus, it doesn't require a study guide (though a good friend can help). That said, "you can lead a sexist/racist to diversity; but, you can't make him compassionate enough to give up sexism/racism."

Johnathon Lipscomb
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As you point out with the title, "The Seeds of Fear," it seems that it is your own fear of the racist and sexist views you know you hold that keeps you from exposing yourself through attempting diverse characterizations. This is typical of most people. It is also a strong and well worn crutch to stand on.

Rather than facing your latent or overt prejudices, it is always easier to wear the mask of the respectfully befuddled liberal who only avoids diversity out of sensitivity to others. In decades past, this crutch came out of many peoples' mouths as, "I don't even think of you as [Black/a woman/Asian/gay/insert non-white-straight-male sub-group here]."

The joke of such a perspective is, obviously, that women and people of colour have been creating believable, well-rounded white male characters for centuries. They do it on a regular basis, even today, for their white male coworkers. It isn't a miracle or a great hardship that costs them dearly. It's simply a product of being forced to come to terms with their own identities in relation to others and accepted social norms. Women and people of colour often do not have the privilege of ignoring the realities of white male characteristics because they have to negotiate these characteristics to survive day to day. I

t doesn't take a great deal of compassion or introspection to achieve an awareness of others realities. It does, however, take some personal effort, attentiveness and objectivity. It is the kind of mind, like Tim Schafer's, that says, "I don't know enough about this and it is okay to leave it up to some who does" that begins the journey to accepting and promoting diversity. Still, that mind set doesn't quite meet the mark.

As a white male, you will be better equipped to create characters who are not white males when you take the time to open yourself to the non-white male experience. That means that the people you know and care about have to be as diverse as the characters you seek to create. Being friends with the Latina who hangs out with the white guys isn't enough. You have to get as comfortable and compassionate about other people, and their perspectives, as you are with the white male perspective.

As Justin Speer said above [before he rewrote it], "You should be embarrassed by the wealth of cultural experiences and potential friends of different backgrounds available to you if you're not constantly running into new things. " You can't create things you don't know about successfully. Writers must write what they know. Creators must create what they know. Getting that knowledge is a lifestyle choice that you either accept or reject.

Zack Wood
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Well put! The author seems to be aware that his own viewpoint is limited and that he is ignorant of other people's experiences, but instead of concluding that he needs to broaden his own viewpoint and experiences, he laments that he doesn't know what to do in order to avoid being perceived as narrow-minded. The easiest solution is to make a concerted effort to become open-minded, instead of somehow learning to say and do the right things while remaining narrow-minded.

People who aren't in a position of unquestioned privilege (ie minorities in any society) think about things like this all the time, so in American society, it is only straight, white males who are capable of holding these kinds of viewpoints. It's up to you whether you want to educate yourself and broaden your mind, or to stick to the straight white male characters that you know best and avoid variety and diversity out of fear.

Justin Speer
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Maybe that one comment was better before I rewrote it... phone writing/editing is always a challenge.

Regarding the netflix/books comment, I want to stress the "authentic voice" part, meaning works that are produced by people immersed in the culture/subject matter. There is some good stuff in there, but lime I said, do some research! There is good stuff in there.

Don't presume that you can get the vitamins you need from Hollywood, obviously.

Michael Joseph
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"content diversity"

That isn't diversity at all. Yet this article comes across as very self congratulatory.

But at least the voice actors weren't all "white as hell" apparently.

I don't want to discourage folks from making games where minorities are not all depicted as rapists, muderers, drug dealers, and heavy on the brawn light on the brains thugs. But this is not a matter of "diversity." Fair and balanced depictions of other races is just doing the right thing.

Johnathon Lipscomb
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I'm glad to see that after a few thought out edits, you got to a well placed point. Thanks for that.

Much of the sexist, racist inanity that exists in games and this article, as with all of the arts, is put there on purpose by people who aren't interested in diversity. That is obvious to anyone who cares to notice. Most people who succumb to social pressure rather than any egalitarian or compassionate ideals get as far as the author did (and no further).

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, "It's good to be the White King."

Of course, women, people of colour and the LGBTQ need to demand that they be depicted fairly; because, the powerful do not freely give up their ill-gotten power.

Will Bradley
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Constructive feedback from various comments posted to Twitter: first, this article comes across to some people as self-serving ("I tried to be progressive, go me!") -- I think you could improve this by simply describing what you've done, maybe asking for help, without going into how hard it is for you to do the right thing. Also, it seems you didn't actually try very hard. -- Surely you have (or can find) friends of other ethnicities/genders/etc to help you create genuine characters.

Ian Schreiber
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I once had a situation where, in a classroom setting, I asked students (on a written survey) if anything would offend them, since we talk about video games (and therefore, things like sex, violence, and profanity tend to come up). Once I had a Black student who wrote "racism."

My first thought: oh, good, I wouldn't want racism in my class either.
My second thought: wait, there's racism in games?
My third thought: wait, maybe there's racism in games all over the place, and I just don't notice because I'm a white guy. How would I know? Now that I think about it, I don't even know if it's better to say Black or African-American or something else, what's correct and what's offensive, so I could very well be bringing all kinds of racism into my class without even realizing it. Crap.
My fourth thought: I know, I'll just ask someone I know in the industry who's Black about this. Wait, I don't know anyone. I am so screwed.

I eventually did get this thing straightened out, mainly through conversation. I talked with the student about it, admitting my ignorance and asking for pointers. I reached out to my extended social network and found resources to help.

Sounds like you were in a similar situation, wanting to step out of your comfort zone but being afraid of screwing it up. My advice would be to ask for help. Want to create compelling female characters? Sign up on women-in-games email lists, forums, Facebook groups, etc. and ask for help and resources. Want Black characters in your game, but don't want to reinforce negative stereotypes? Find message boards of Black gamers and game devs and introduce yourself. Want an LGBT character in your game? Yeah, those groups exist too. Generally, anyone who has been marginalized by the game industry for the past 40 years will be more than happy to point you in the right direction if you ask nicely for help and show a genuine desire to do things right for once - that's miles ahead of what most straight-white-male dev studios do :)

James Hofmann
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The way you know you're doing good creative work is: IT'S SCARING YOU.

If you feel the need to apologize for satisfying your own comfort zone, you've already screwed up.

Johnathon Lipscomb
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I love this ideal. It's very hard for creatives to live by; but, very rewarding if they truly do. Still, it does leave a lot of room for interpretation that can lead to silliness, q.v. Alestair Crowley and his "do what thou wilt" cult calamity.

The gist, that great art comes from conquering fear, seems to work best only if the art is intelligent and self-aware enough to make the pursuit honestly.

Curtiss Murphy
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Well said James! I design around my own life now. It makes me vulnerable to outside judgement and it scares me sometimes. But, it's my life and my experiences - they are real and meaningful. And people respond with powerful reviews.

Emppu Nurminen
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There's thing though; you have to be sensitive with dealing these issues. People not being sensitive enough are the once that are in the trouble. Like in your text, proving yourself being unable to describe your teacher mere than over-used stereotypes is just so juicy to show how little you are sensitive enough to tell a believable story with believable characters. Thanks to that, the whole story of yours starts to reek of Shit That Didn't Happen. Note; not saying it's STDH, just saying it's bit hard to believe with all those so convenient short-cuts, loosen fat and black'n'white attitude in it.

Like one perfect lady in web comics once said: "When you treat people like people, there is no limitation where from or what the characters has been through". The key word is to TREAT them like people, unfortunately so many people even in creative industry has no god damn clue how to treat people like people. Because that requires that kind of sensitivity what is gone after so many years of
1) hate-seeded grudge used as the only main story device,
2) the black and white attitude (as in other words "principles"!) that is glorified in every aspect of entertainment industry and
3) exploitative violence isn't helping to call it "Well, I got my revenge, lets call it a day!"-problem-solving with serious issues like feeling bad about how justice never happened.
But then again, it's just so easy to relay those, because people still eat that stuff up, and in worse cases, think those are the "right way" to take influences in their lives.

Also, everyone should leave those tropes alone, they just shrink you god damn creativity and turns everything mediocre or worse. I don't fancy Sarkeesian's commentery relying such massive amount of trope pandering to begin with. It makes it seem like she is trying sent a message to people looking like spoon-feeding the ADD-kittens that cries for every limitation which is thrown at them. But then again, it seems like she successes in something since she still manages to make people present the nasty side, like the ADD-crybabies they truly seem to be.

Michael Joseph
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In Star Trek, black, asian, hispanic, native american, green, blue, purple whatever people were all fully integrated members of the crew and fully integrated members of the mainstream society. None of these ethnic groups beyond their obvious differences in appearance, were portrayed as noticeably culturally different. Black characters didn't fist bump, talk jive or walk with a swagger for example. *In the world of Trek, the end of -isms and full integration of all people into the society is the end of all these little signs of cultural rebellion or rejection.

If you watched these shows when they first aired, this protrayal of minority races was pretty radical... even for TNG in the late 80s. Today I think we don't even notice the fairness of the portrayals anymore (even though it's still atypical) because... it's Trek. But by doing so, the show encouraged it's audiences to view characters' skin color, shape of eyes and noses, hair texture and styles as completely insignificant. Knowing those superficial qualities did not automatically give you 90% of the insight into that character allowing you to fill in the blanks with stereotypes. In the real world, non stereotypical minority characters in tv/film are labeled tokens. I think that's unfortunate, but that's a whole other topic.

Fairly portraying characters of different _____ is easy. Complete the written script and then roll dice to see which ______ each character is. Remove your prejudices and preconceptions completely from the equation. But if you want to do more than that, if you want to get inside the head of someone who grew up with a very different experience because of their ______, then sure, I think then you need to ask yourself why it is you want to do that and what it is you hope to accomplish and how important the character's background is to the game. Because getting inside the psyche of a minority character is going well beyond merely wanting to represent a diverse society.

p.s. Matrix trilogy is another rare example of a story where the racial experience of growing up _____ in a _______ culture was completely insignificant to each character's development (particularly the natural born Zionists). The common post apocalyptic human experience they shared was all that mattered.

Michael Silverman
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Race was quite important in the Matrix. My favorite scene involves a black man standing up and breaking his chains after a powerful white guy in a suit explained that the black man's species was a virus and tried to drug and brainwash him.

Its important that people think of the connotations of race as they would any other detail they assign a character, rather than just rolling the dice.

Michael Joseph
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The black man's species? Sorry. I don't see that as significant. Any actor could have played Morpheus and broken those chains and the scene would have been just as effective. Race here could have some symbolism, but it's incidental. We can disagree here but I suspect we wont convince each other of our positions.

Race can be important depending on the story sure. But not in the Matrix films or a series like Star Trek.

Incidentally, I read that Will Smith passed up the role as Neo.

Michael Silverman
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If Morpheus and Smith's casting had been swapped the Matrix would have sucked. The movie is in large part about slavery, it is explicitly stated. I assume you don't think Neo's death and rebirth has anything to do with Jesus either?

Edit: If you could tell me that a white actor was considered for Morpheus I would reconsider.

Curtiss Murphy
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I never noticed the connection to Jesus. I suppose I can see it now, but it feels more like a standard, king/hero-centric story. Similar to Star Wars - the little people are meaningless - only the heros and villains have worth. Which is sort of natural. After all, what happens to me and my family is what concerns me most.

The tropes that bother me most are the ones I see in real life. The ones where a successful black woman, striving to overcome obstacles, is outcast by her family and friends. Instead of being cheered for her successes in school and work, she is put down as a sell out. I think we'll overcome sexism and homophobism long before we overcome such deeply rooted beliefs. Sad.

Jack Nilssen
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Wait, isn't this the dude who exploited his 5 year-old daughter for all that press in '11?

Doing my best Rorschach "hurm" here.

Ian Schreiber
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http://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/genetic

Laura Stewart
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The majority of my federal coworkers are black, and as far as entertainment goes, they are completely obsessed ... with a white family, the one on the Walking Dead. And whether or not the mother is dead. If you had asked them before the show aired if they would watch a series with zombies, they would have said no. Only a handful of them have ever seen a zombie movie. And when they describe the extended cast of the show, they reference them in terms of their emotional states and relationships, not by their race. That's not to say that race doesn't exist in the world of the Walking Dead, but the characterization of that show doesn't prevent them from identifying with the characters just because of their race.

I would say from that, I think regardless of race or gender, we all think and prefer to think of ourselves as human with our own profoundly human stories, and we want to feel and have our feelings validated. The story and emotional journey of the character should be the connection to the player, without relying on the player to engage in projecting their own life experiences onto a character because they happen to have a shared physical trait. I would say a basic test is if your character is compelling without knowing their race/gender, the perception of the importance of their race/gender drops below "what are you saying about x" and the character becomes an individual.

For instance, "Redhead lives in a shack in the woods and she can shoot a gun better than you" leaves Redhead as the most emotionally connective aspect of this Hunter character. There's mention of a revenge backstory. Why is her catch-your-attention value her physical possessions and not her life?

Emotions are what matters-not writing what you know and experience. JK Rowling was never a little boy in a boarding school whose parents had been murdered. Tolkien was never Eoywn-but the Shieldmaid of Rohan is a phenomenally well written female character. Neither Harry nor Eowyn are arresting characters because of a scar or a mane of Pantene hair, but because they are emotionally vivid people.

Curtiss Murphy
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Well said Laura.

Ryan Creighton
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When you describe Harry Potter, you don't describe his "emotional vividness". You start with his physicality - and maybe even nationality. Harry Potter is a young British schoolboy with shaggy brown hair and specs, and a mysterious lightning bolt scar across his forehead. (You actually DO describe Harry Potter by his scar!) His emotional range only bears out across seven books (or eight movies, depending on how decent an actor you feel Daniel Radcliffe is.)

If you want to go a bit further, you say Harry's parents were killed, and he's been raised by his Aunt and Uncle in Dickensian squalor, until (SPOILER ALERT) he's told he's a wizard and is whisked off to magic school. If you ever even touch upon his emotional state in an initial description, you might only say he's "timid", at the very best.

Comparatively, the Hunter from Spellirium is a tracker who lives off the land in a log cabin of her own construction, near the 20th floor of a ruined skyscraper. She bears a large scar on her eye which she keeps hidden behind a shock of red hair. The scar was given to her by a magical creature that she can't physically harm, despite her knack with firearms. She seeks vengeance against the creature through our hero Todd, who CAN destroy the creatures.

Not a whole lot of difference between describing Harry and describing the Hunter. It's nice, i think, to mention her guns, because they are the *only* guns in the game. This is not a might-makes-right story, where force solves problems. (MAGICAL WORD-SPELLING SOLVES PROBLEMS! :)

You can infer from the description of Harry's situation that he's likely unhappy. You can infer from the Hunter's description of isolation and self-sufficiency that she may be emotionally distant. Their full emotional spectrum doesn't actually emerge until you spend time with them in the story.

An INappropriate and objectionable approach would be to say that the Hunter is "a redheaded A-cup, with strong, smooth thighs."

(btw i worry that pornography has ruined the words "redhead", "blonde' and "brunette" for us by sexualizing those words. You don't go very far describing Anne of Green Gables without mentioning her red hair.)

Anyway, enough yapping. Let me squirt some gas on the fire by asking this (from a strictly Devil's advocate position): if your black co-workers are completely enthralled with a white family on The Walking Dead, then why is it even important for black people to be depicted in media? If it's all about a human, emotional connection, then why is there such a fight for broader minority representation in games? Sounds like it doesn't matter, as long as the characters are relatable?

**raises shields**

Joseph Cassano
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@Ryan

It's important because the alternative is thinking that "white" is somehow "default" (same goes for "male"). Once you think that, you ARE making race an issue.

The best solution is as Michael Joseph described above: if race/gender/whatever doesn't matter for your story, roll some dice. If it does, do some research and empathize.

Laura Stewart
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Ryan: My post references JK Rowling in answer to the comment about "writing what you know" to point out that she wrote an undeniably successful story about something far outside of her own experiences. Sorry for not starting off the last paragraph with a clear transition phrase.

Now you did offer a limited amount of information about your Hunter character, and on that information alone (as someone looking at the game and thinking about buying it) asked if that character avoided being a stereotypical X trope.

What I gave you was honest feedback, based on the three things you defined her character by (Looks, Crashpad, Toys). You say that writing female characters is made perilous by criticism by women of the way female characters are written, yet that's not true. Spellcheck doesn't make writing more perilous does it?

First impressions really are everything. When you introduce a game character, you tell a player what's important about that character. Her revenge motive is at first dropped in at the last second, and you hurry away from it.

Consider the classic Western "The Searchers." You wouldn't talk about a movie about guys wearing cowboy hats, riding around on horses, sleeping by a campfire, then in the last sentence mention they are looking for revenge against some evil Indians. You would be describing stereotypical cowboys and Indians, which does no justice to the actual movie.

You mentioned that you gave the Hunter a scar to "unbeautify" her, not as at first a result of her fighting an enemy. First, a scar that does not disfigure doesn't tend to lower the perception of beauty, she would have needed to loose half her face, and not have it hidden from view. Second, there's the whole idea where you can make a character less stereotypical by making them ugly. What that ends up being is trying to modify being overly reliant on physicality to convey character by exchanging a physical quality for another physical quality. It's like swapping mozzarella for cheddar. You still have the same amount of cheese.

What if you did introduce the Hunter by her life and not her stuff? She has a scar- what does it matter? Instead of mentioning Looks/Crashpad/Toys, what if you sold her only on her need for revenge. What if you took a little of what you put in your second post and really ran with it. What's the point of a scar if she's not going blind or something? Given the scarcity of red haired genes and hair dye, why make her hair red? Jarl Ulfric Stormcloak is a redhead, but he is one (and it works) without it being a defining point in his character or going mentioned in any of his character bios. (Loki the Trickster God is also traditionally described as a ginger-red.)

Ah, talking about Skyrim makes me want to play Skyrim. Point me to a help group.

Ryan Creighton
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It's made a smidge trickier by the fact that she's somewhat of a bit player. Hagrid is the black-bearded, half-giant groundskeeper of a magical school, who has a heart of gold. (Does it matter that he has a black beard?... i digress.) The Philosopher's Stone is simply not Hagrid's story. It's Harry's.

Hagrid does have an interesting backstory that surfaces in a much later book. But Spellirium's not a 7-book thing. It's a graphic adventure/word game. What i mentioned about the Hunter is basically it - that's all i can really say about her during the game. Info on other characters with similarly-sized roles is just as sparse. Text is cheap, but game animation and dialogue are not (and i can't conveniently plunk a Skyrim-style book of backstory in the game somewhere, because writing is outlawed in the world of Spellirium!) You can't say a whole lot about Stan, Herman, Elaine or Carla from Monkey Island either.

Anyway, this is just idle jawing. Skyrim's awesome, right?

Jasmine Riviere
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Here are some interesting links about writing what you don't know. They apply primarily to writing books, but it's not so different, is it ?
http://missturdle.tumblr.com/post/10586835017/so-you-want-to-writ
e-a-fantasy-writing-what-you-dont
http://brown-betty.livejournal.com/325995.html
http://missturdle.tumblr.com/post/11759130989/gee-i-dont-know-how
-to-research-writing-characters-of

Krisanne McSpadden
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I'm not a game designer but I am a writer, and this is a problem I've recently had to think about a lot myself. I'm going to give you some merciless opinions in here, but only because I think a lot of what you are facing is simple reluctance to own up to the fact that you are a creature of our media, all of its flaws included, and that means you have probably done an awful job of representing women and people of color. No, you didn't intend to. I think very few people set out to say "I will ignore the fact that half of the human race is female and have men vastly dominate my game because that's how I like it!" Much as you didn't once choose to cast a black person as a villain because you stopped to think "Wow, black people are really evil!". But are you sure you didn't do that because of the narrative of our culture? That tells us that colored people are more likely to be villains or token and secondary good guys? That women aren't actually that common and really only exist to be proxy to the feelings or desires of a male character (the girlfriend, the daughter, the mother, the sister, but hardly ever a wholly individual character who has her own life going on separate from her connection to a male lead).

Sadly that is what our media and culture teaches us. How do I know? I'm a woma. I'm a woman and yet I have had exactly this same goddamn problem. I looked at my own writing and it was almost all men. The women were secondary to them, and the dominant aspect of their character often had to do with what they meant to a man, or what a man meant to them. All this despite the fact that I don't even have any dominant male figures in my life and have never needed them; no fathers, no boyfriends, no brothers, no sons. I wasn't writing what I knew, I was writing what I had seen written by others. And realizing that sucked, and was embarrassing, and I've spent the better part of several years trying to dig my mind out of the mire of badly written media so that I can do better. And you should do the same. Accept that up until this point you have sucked at this and then decide to fight it and do better. Yes, invariably you will fail sometimes and someone will call you sexist or racist. But guess what? Refusing to try is still sexist and racist. I love a lot of games that are dominated by white men, don't get me wrong. They have good things in them despite that. But it's still sexist, it's still racist, and if you're not fighting it you're contributing to it.

Now onto tropes.

Tropes are not inherently bad. I've watched all of Anita's videos and I don't think she says that anywhere. White male characters are almost always tropes too. Even well written ones! Usually they are many tropes, but that's fine. You are not obligated to write something totally new and unseen with every single character. That would be impossible, and also probably nonsensical. Subverting tropes now and then is generally good, but even subversions of tropes are often tropes themselves. There's nothing wrong with that.

The problem is that women can tend to fall into, oh, maybe 20 or so tropes. You know how many tropes are on tv tropes? How ridiculous is it that most female characters can be neatly described by just a handful of those? And that they often don't exist outside of those tropes. They tend to be completely defined by specific 'female' roles, because the only reason that character is female is *to be female*. How many of your male characters did you make men specifically so that they could fulfill male roles? Probably not a lot! Maybe you say I need someone aggressive, or someone honorable, or I need someone quirky, man man man, even though there's no reason women couldn't fulfill all of those roles. Women appear in media specifically when a woman is needed: to be a mother, to be a girlfriend, to be a daughter, or to be eyecandy for a male audience, or to just be a token girl so that a writer can say they didn't only have men. Or to fulfill 'feminine' tropes that obviously only women can fulfill: the fuck toy, the damsel in distress, background eye candy. Try designing male characters that fit those tropes. I dare you. For real it would be a great exercise.

It's also a problem of patterns. You said there's no room for ugly people in media, but that's blatantly untrue, isn't it? I just went to look at your cast list for your game, and only two of the men are remotely what might be considered stereotypically 'attractive'. And let's face it, your 'hottest' male character, Brother Todd, is maybe a 7. Could be an 8 or even a 9 if he were dressed more attractively, but he's not, because being hot isn't his purpose, so his body isn't shown off and he's not more than a 7. The Hunter is 9, easy. And all your other characters? The *majority* of your male characters are not conventionally attractive, some are obviously intended to be ugly. So what's to stop you from having a huge furry female monster? (Bonus points if you don't give her boobs!) An overweight woman with flaming orange arm hair tucking her girth (not JUST her breasts, but her stomach and hips and thighs) into clothing that's just a little too tight? A pencil thin woman with a sharp smile, tiny sunglasses, broad gestures, in a waistcoat and pinstripe pants? A one eyed old woman with scraggly facial hair (yes, women can grow it too!) in a giant coat with a beer stein in her hand? Man, don't these chicks sound awesome? Christ, I would love to play that game. But a game with cute art and a bunch of kooky white guys? That's fun, but... I've seen it a hundred times.

Like I said, it's about patterns. You're worried about your token female character or token colored character being called out for being sexist or racist? Well you should. Because when you just have one, you are putting all of the weight of a million issues of representation onto one character. When all of your female characters are hot, when they are all young, when they are all attached to men, when none of them have their own hopes and dreams and goals independent of 'supporting a man', when none of them are pursuing their own desires, when they are all subordinate to men, when they are all dressed in such a way that their figure is more revealed than any of the male characters, when the dominant parts of their character or story always revolves around roles that only 'females' can fill... then the pattern is that women have been reduced and flattened to only existing so that men can find them attractive or so they can do work that isn't suited to 'masculine' characters.

Don't write one female character. Write ten. Write half of your cast and let them be female. It's okay. We're really not that much different from men, except that we barely exist in media and it's suffocating.

As for the matter of colored characters, it's pretty much the same thing: they are reduced to token positions, so any time you are writing just One Black Guy and he exists to be Black, to somehow represent all Blackness, you are doing it wrong. Write an entire cast of black people. Don't worry about making them 'black enough'.

The matter of writing a CULTURE is always a separate and difficult issue. Frankly I would be just as hesitant to write british culture or irish culture or french culture as I am to write mexican culture or black american culture. While there is nothing particularly indicative of 'what makes a girl a girl', if you are writing a lot of people from a specific area, you are going to be expected to do it with some skill that, I think, requires the hand of someone fairly familiar with that culture, or you personally spending a lot of time researching and working to understand it. I get around this by just not writing outside of what I know, or by creating completely new cultures. If I want to have a steampunk world dominated by black and brown people, I can! I get to write my own racial histories and create my own cultures and represent them in whatever way I want.

And you do still have to always be aware. Don't make a white culture that is historically good and a black culture that is historically evil. Don't make your very own black culture and then fill it with hiphop and fried chicken. If you really have a hard time with it, just make a culture, which you will probably think of as white, since that is generally the issue, and then just decide hey, now they're all black, or asian. Or who says you even have to have racial lines? Make the culture equal parts white, black, asian, hispanic. Make them green and blue and gold. Say this is my world and on this world people never thought that skin color was any more important than eye or hair color, but I still filled it with color because people of all races are beautiful and I wanted everyone to be able to pick up my game and see someone who looks like them.

The point is, female characters should not exist to be the people that male characters can't be, and colored characters should exist to be a certain color. If you avoid that. If you write *people* instead of gender and color, you will do fine. And if you can do that, you shouldn't feel the need to include only one such woman, or one such colored person. Afterall, if they are just as important and just as much individual people as the white male characters, there's no reason there shouldn't be as many (or even more) of them!

James McNulty
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In stephen King's Shawshank Redemption, the character Red is an Irishman, but in the film, he was played by Morgan Freeman, because why not. I think the key way for white men like myself to write and create an interesting diverse cast of characters is to first focus on writing interesting characters and then simply change the identities that our characters hold


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