When I was asked to plan the journalism panel at this year's Game Narrative Summit at the recent Game Developers' Conference Online, I thought my colleagues and I could take the opportunity to talk about diversity -- yet we wanted to go beyond what you'd think of as a "women in games" panel.
When I met up with colleagues and fellow panelists Jenn Frank and Mattie Brice ahead of our panel, we started to joke around about all the things that we definitely did not want to say as part of our presentation. Over lunch, we tossed back and forth a bunch of satirical dialogue phrases that began with "as a woman, I...", a send-up of the skewed idea that just because women want to talk about feminism, that means their gender necessarily influences every single one of their ideas and opinions.
We might have just been laughing over burgers, but it was clear that our humor hid a real worry: That some of the people who make games might misinterpret a call for diversity and the concept of creating games for perspectives other than your own. And our jokes revealed that there probably are, in fact, at least a few worrying misconceptions out there when it comes to what people want when we ask for equality.
Our goal was to to address the viewponts of many people who feel like minorities in the game space, which includes women's issues (not to mention that as a panel of three women, we tended to focus on what we could best speak to). Our panel's now available to view for all those who have a GDC Vault pass -- and meanwhile, I've aimed to crystallize and illuminate some common misconceptions about diversity issues in games that we joked about.
Women are offended by women's bodies. Sure, games have a history of exploitative stereotypes, and a legacy of making men heroes while making women objects. Back in the 90s, characters like Tomb Raider's Lara Croft were developed based on idea about what a male creator, or at least, a majority-male audience, would think looked "cool," which meant boobs and butts. We'd like to see a wider range of people represented in games these days, but that doesn't mean any display of an adult woman's body is inherently "sexist" or wrong.
In fact, the panelists and I felt just as disillusioned by the false idea that there was some kind of "right way" to be a woman -- an aesthetic that favors "nerdy," androgynous girls in turtlenecks might have been a sort of compensation for the pneumatic flesh obsession of a prior era. But the idea that all displays of sexuality from female characters are inherently degrading is misleading and even counterproductive. It's not the physicality or sexuality of female characters that bothers women. It's only when they're reduced to that inherently or without purpose, or when there's a prescription made for the "best" way to present a woman
On our panel Mattie Brice stonefacedly joked that she sold games back to GameStop at the first sign of breasts in a game, to laughter from attendees. The problem isn't bodies.
People need to see themselves. Many people's concerns about diversity in games comes down to the frustrating, lonesome feeling of looking at a medium in which there are no representations of people like themselves, a worry people have on their own behalf as well as for their children, who need positive examples in the entertainment they enjoy.
Yet it's not necessarily true that what people most want is "someone they relate to" in entertainment. Actually, plenty of the characters most beloved in popular entertainment gain fans specifically because they aren't like us: For example, Breaking Bad is one of the most popular shows on television, but it's not because most of its viewers cook and sell methamphetamine or relate to drug dealers.
Today's players would rather have interesting and believable characters rather than tokens that look like them for their own sake.
Diversity is dead serious. Doesn't have to be. Actually, we can joke about it. And a lot of games that have had the broadest appeal don't much deal with race, gender or anything "heavy" -- look at the absurd Katamari Damacy and how hard it is for any kind of person not to love. Many players tend to fear the diversity and gender discussion in games because they think the conversation will over-reach their area of interest or undermine entertainment in favor of dour political initiatives. In fact, people often have the most fun when a game's creators have had fun and aimed thoughtfully.
Characters need to be "strong" or "positive". One of the most common questions I get asked as a feminist writer on games is to name some examples of characters that I thought were good or positive portrayals of women. Part of the problem with that approach lies in the idea that interesting and believable characters treated with respect by their creators aren't necessarily "good" or "positive." We accept a wide range of definitions of heroism for men; in fact games frequently feel comfortable placing ugly, troubled or mentally-ill guys in the role of anti-hero, but women rarely receive this kind of treatment.
Instead the conversation revolves around a relatively narrow set of qualities associated with female "heroism," where the character is obligated to be a "good role model" for women. That keeps the conversation static and continues to limit creative freedom by placing parameters about positivity about some kinds of characters and not others.
Is it about characters in the first place? One of my favorite ideas raised on the panel was the idea that even keeping the focus on the characters and people within game stories is only one idea. Jenn Frank pointed out that the "Chekhov's gun" concept is relevant to games: Even if we continue to have a high volume of games about shooting, the nature of a game -- and who it could appeal to -- can be shifted meaningfully simply by trying a different answer to the question of who's holding the gun and why.
The appeal of a game to new or broader audiences has as much, if not more to do with the tone, circumstance and environment as it does with who appears in it and what they look like.
Our panel on diversity is now available for all GDC Vault members.