I wanted to make one article about diversity in video games to help devs to avoid clichés, I ended up gathering every argument about inclusion. What I mean by “inclusion” is as simple as not considering the white heterosexual male character as some kind of a neutral basis, and everything else is a variation or a special message. Thus, I intend to encourage you to put some diversity in your character genders or origins, because no character will ever be just neutral anymore.
Why would I bother considering it?
I won’t make an ideological or political statement. I believe anyone ignoring those principles now is deliberately antisocial, which is a very bad thing when you hope your game will spread through social networks.
I’m no specialist in inclusion either, I think many people could speak about it way better than me. I asked around me to get ideas and you should do the same if you’re interested in the question. But I think I have a good experience in character writing and always put a strong effort to get out of my comfort zone while doing it, so this post will help you a minima to not look clumsy on these topics and make video games that don’t look like they were written in the 80’s.
The historical argument “this is Middle Age, we only have blond, white manly warriors, and women wouldn’t fight amongst them” is the romantic view you inherited from the XIXe century, when tall, long-haired men became fashionable. Western middle age people were tiny and had bowl cuts. Some women would fight, for example, in Viking civilization. Try to do very good researches to justify your choices or (and) undertake making a fantasy game. And by very good, I mean out of the Internet: go to the library! There is not and will never be everything you need on the Internet.
About this, beware of ordinary racialism especially for fantasy. In France, we don’t recognize the concept of race itself since WWII because it reminds us the nationalist propaganda, and this is a big problem for everything race-related. Figure out that Tolkien was discredited by french intellectuals, for most of them were leftists, because britain matter and german folklore were recycled by early XXe nationalisms for their propaganda. We really can’t apply american communautarist concept of melting pot in Europe without rethinking it if we don’t want to mix it with european racism.
I do belive us european writers have the responsibility to draw fantasy out this old confusion. For example, in Skyrim, which is a lot about racism, the american term of “race” was translated in french by “ethnicity” in the character making menu, specifying this is more about a cultural origin than a genetic characteristic. This is a very pertinent choice for the french public, because a large part of the lore is about the distinction between race and ethnicity; a lot of dark elves define themselves as Nords, but won’t be recognized as such by Stormcloaks, the independantists, for not being tall, white humans.
“Ethnie” = ethnicity. France don’t recognize the concept of race, which is untrue scientifically speaking anyway, to a point that ethnic statistics are illegal here, because of WWII history. As it is perfectly defensible looking at the power of racist nationalisms in Europe, we realize nowadays it is a problem when you have to study the structural social problems based on racism. I’ve seen french administrations working blindly on those social problems, or trying to tinker a legal method to measure up a proportion of descendant of immigrant amongst poor people. I couldn’t judge cultural racialism of USA when I see how it works in France, but you see there is not a lot in common and litteral translation of words couldn’t be enough.
In another hand, colonial empires made our people very multicultural. There is still a lot of historical, educational work to legitimate this state of our civilization, but the facts are here, and if you consider it the right way, diversity is a very easy way to make different, easy lores for your character, as much as visuals, etc. and there is a lot of stories tell about it.
Anyway, art is meant to describe and explain, so you will never avoid society subjects, and your game will be concerned by them if there is any way to catch it and draw it in the debate. You can unironically make conscious choices making sexist, racist worlds to enter the debate frontally. But you won’t avoid the debate, ever. Unless your character is a robot. Maybe.
“This is MY game, it represents my culture and my personality.” Well more than likely, your culture is multicultural. Two, it will represent your personality either you want it or not, so think that you will be judged through it. Three, you intend to, at the very least, refund yourself selling it, right? So hope it will not only be your game.
“If GTA had a female main character, I would play it!” said my wife. Before my post about GTA, she never even got the idea to try it, because, clearly, those games don’t target women players. But women really are ordinary people, they don’t absolutely need pink dresses and poneys to enjoy a game, they just need some grip to identify to characters, just like we do.
Hollywood got it in the early XXe and began to make movies with black people to target black publics. How come we still have to realize it now? Those are huge markets that are still to be conquered with video games. There is nothing to be surprised about if white male people are the main public for video games if they are made of white male characters. This is like translating a game: a commercial must do.
Okay but how?
Let’s talk about sexism and homophobia first, then we’ll talk about racism.
Sexualize or not sexualize?
I’ll be honest: I’m one of the horniest players you can find. I would play a female character just to undress her. Games are made for fun and NPCs are actual objects to get fun. But we still must not ignore the fact that every game carry a social model, to be denounced (Oni, this cool beat them all by Bungie, inspired by Ghost in the Shell), as an example (Stardew Valley), or as a fantasy that actually couldn’t be good IRL (Window Girl?). This point is the slippiest, but oftenly the most interesting in video games, so how to marry our fantasies and our conscience? This is very simple: think out your very single brain. Gay people, women have urges too. My suggestion: sexualize male characters too. This is one of the few things Skyrim did well. Damn those barbarians are handsome.
Don’t forget the asexual caution!
Not everybody are like you and me playing to worst immoral jav porn games of the Internet when everything sleeps at last. Same for your game: to justify your sexualized character, make at least as many unsexualized characters, from all gender, without necessarily making them the good or the bad guys. Nobody would be able to suspect you with sexism, and you will spend your precious future R34 content is safe.
Don’t forget to make different types of body!
Again, try different kind of bodies on your characters, because everything is aesthetic in its own way. That’s where I would be reserved about Skyrim’s choices: all women are skinny, every man is bulked. Where is the fat? You can’t survive this cold country without a warm belly. And please, how can she handle that enormous claymore with those model arms? Not even speaking about pregnancy.
Chainmail bikinis are for women AND men as much as plain plate armors, as much as FAT and MUSCLES, tiny titties, scars or even hair.
Will ever Blizzard make poor artistic choices? I do think they are making a nice work on character design for Overwatch. And I’ve never seen so many R34 about anything else in my life. Hit me, Zarya!
Please don’t be that Hollywood consensual not-too-much-feminist that makes one movie about one model, perfectly shaven and skinny, and where finally the true hero is a man at the end. I believe, and hope, people aren’t so little demanding. Be audacious, look at the success of those games openly showing alternative social models such as Stardew Valley or Undertale. This is a proof that this is rewarding.
This is exactly the same with sexual orientations. Don’t do like Mass Effect, where every woman is bisexual, when there is very few gay or bisexual male characters — obviously, the diversity was a caution to feed male fantasies. It CAN be a caution, but you must not SEE it.
Last but not least, be cautious about what is being called rape culture, which makes the molesting a full part of the seduction process. Really, that doesn’t work that way. And no, that doesn’t mean representing or even fantasizing about rape, that mean presenting it as a normal relationship between characters, who acts like everything was normal. Remember the rape scene of the Dangerous Liaisons. This is what is terrifying about this: Valmont makes his victim believe everything is normal, and she ends up believing it. Laclos clearly denounce rape culture.
The diversity caution: it’s a trap!
Since 80’s, all school directors, police commissioners, prophets, are black — sometimes, even black women. This shows the very good intentions of the writers, but still, the main character is always white.
This isn’t enough. Obviously these writers were still not considering black persons as alter egos, since they couldn’t identify with a black character. If we push it a bit farther, they kind of gave weapons to people believing that non-white people are better considered that white people because of this fictive hierarchy — because yeah, black people are still, most of the time, hierarchically speaking, inferior to white people in western societies.
The caution is that the hero’s friend is the black guy, or the girl, that will serve or sacrifice himself, that will fall in love with him — because that’s how friends demonstrate their value in fictions: through devotion for the hero. Well, this isn’t 80’s anymore obviously, you really can’t do that. Your will be tagged as racist or sexist. Better make an all white male bald team at all than this, because you will fall in the darkest place of the social debate: the well-thinkers den.
The One, his girlfriend, and his friend.
Does it imply discussing about social topics?
Black people are normal people, just like female people. Don’t ignore the social topics, but don’t necessarily include them in your stories — every story about them shouldn’t be about racism and sexism. Don’t overshow your intentions — if female characters don’t have to speak about men or makeup when they are together, they don’t have to talk about feminism either, because this is cliché too.
If you want to discuss about those topics though, please do. This could make a very strong story to tell. But be very conscious about the position you’re writing from. For example, I am currently writing a book where sexism takes a huge part. I deliberately made a story with almost only male characters about male characters (just a normal story then HAHA jk), because this wouldn’t be honest to speak for oppressed people if I didn’t experienced it myself. It’s like, stealing the words.
You can even imagine a gameplay based on specific minority characteristics. In Far Cry 2, the main character had to swallow pills regularly to be able to fight. What about a diabetic, or asthmatic main character, for example? or just, a very old main character? Heroïsm is never about being stronger than other characters, it’s about being stronger than oneself. That’s why Batman is so cool and Superman is boring. Did I ever tell you that an old, fatigued Batman kicked Superman’s ass once? Good times.
Frank Miller, Dark Knight Returns, 1986. Damn, that hits the spot!
Let’s imagine random inclusive possible features
- When the player can build his own character, do you need to make the player chose the character’s sex? Absolutely not! Just put both male and female features, the player will chose for himself. This will make your work easier, and everyone happy. Fable got more inclusive from I to II and III, diversifying characters everytime, but still no genderfluid or non-white main character. You can even do better than Lionhead, which is already very forward thinking for a blockbuster video game.
- On the contrary, make a hero that isn’t white-male-straight and you can’t do anything about it. You will be surprised about how it won’t change the audience, it will only enlarge it! Think about GTA San Andreas. Still the best GTA yet.
- A story where “monorities” are the majority. More women than men, more asian or afro or whatev than white people. I’m still waiting to see this. Strangely, it seems harder to write, don’t you agree?
Can you think about other ideas to make your game more inclusive?