Diversity in Games or Is CheeeseToastie a Racist, Sexist Pig?

Ha. No. I just thought I should get that out of the way first, just to make sure there’s no confusion on that matter. Anyone who has been reading my blog for any period of time should probably know that by now (I hope). In fact, I’m very much pro-equality (I didn’t do my Master’s in human rights because I thought it would be a fun way to pass the time). It’s something I strongly believe in. I realise this issue, ‘diversity in games’ has been explored countless times by many many different people, so your finger may understandably be hovering over the back button. Before you click it though, I would like to say that I do think I have my on view to add to the mix for those of you who are interested. It’s this – although I am a strong proponent of equal rights, I also believe in free speech and don’t believe that equality should or can be achieved as aggressively as some people (well meaning thought they may be) seem to believe. Of course, this is just my personal view on the matter, I’m not at all saying I’m right or that there necessarily is even a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to look this issue.

First off, I should make it clear that I think it would be amazing if there was greater diversity in games. I think few people would deny that games as a whole are dominated by white muscular straight men. Sure there are the exceptions – Tomb Raider for example, but generally most AAA titles coming out now as well as most of the classic games of the past like the Mario and Zelda franchises feature straight, white male protagonists. Those that don’t usually just give you a choice between playing a male or female character like the Mass Effect trilogy rather than ‘forcing’ the decision upon you. I’m not saying lack of diversity is not an issue. Of course I wish there was more diversity in main characters or even side characters. Think about it, I’m a double whammy, an Asian female living in one of the whitest countries around. I’ve got minority-ness coming out of my ears! Growing up, I do wish I had more characters like me to look up to, especially when I was growing up in Hong Kong. For all its insane technological advances it’s still, in many ways, very backwards as a society and trust me, being a geeky tomboy wasn’t the easiest thing in the world. A strong non-white female character would have been a huge morale boost.

However, I approach sexism or racism in games the same way I do in real life (both are things I’ve had to deal with quite a bit in my life). I’ll either discuss it if it’s someone worth talking about it with or in most cases  just ignore it and move on, because nine times out of ten there will be nothing I can say or do to change the other person’s mind. Obviously if any sort of abuse is being targeted at someone else, I’ll always step in and tell the other person to back off, but I see that as different – it’s more about protection of others than about trying to get someone to change their mind. It’s not because I don’t believe in fighting for change, but because I think trying to talk to someone who’s not willing to listen is like bashing your head against a brick wall – in the end the brick wall will probably still be standing and the only one who will be hurt is you. Also, I believe people are allowed to have their opinion, even if its heinous, unless they’re actively trying to injure or harm others whether through actions or words.

It’s a fine line to walk of course and it’s not always clear when things have gone too far, but I think with most modern games it’s pretty clear that the lack of diversity or any racial or gender steretypes employed aren’t really about trying to send a strong message. It’s usually about the money. Sure, making a game is a creative enterprise, but honestly, in this day and age if developers aren’t realistic in targeting their audiences, there won’t be any games for them to be creative about. There are few studios that are large enough to really take that chance and be really bold. For those devs that go for it anyway, good on them!

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be any discussion of course. I think informed discussion is definitely part of trying to change uninformed opinions, but I just don’t feel entitled to ask devs to make their games more inclusive. As a creative project, it’s really up to them. What do I know, as a consumer, about what their vision is? I can certainly provide feedback to help them improve their product, but in the end what they produce and all its major components are up to the creators, the people with the vision. Even if what they put out is a load of crap, my power as the gamer is to not buy the game or if I really despise that developer or their vision, boycott them entirely. People talk about developers having a duty to push for change and greater equality, but I don’t really buy into that. I don’t think they have a duty any more than film makers have a duty to make movies with specific messages. There are all sorts of movies out there, some of them contain messages of peace and equality, while others are downright offensive.

What I find strange is how offended some gamers seem to get by the content of some games. I’m not saying I don’t understand the discomfort. When I started Far Cry 3, before it clicked for me that it was intended to be subversive, I found parts of it very difficult to sit through. I’m glad I stuck it out as it wasn’t at all the game I had initially been expecting. The point is that I could have stopped playing. If it offended me so much, I could have made that choice. I could have stopped and gone online, given it a bad review and whatever else I felt was necessary. However, although I have no problem pointing out if I feel a game is overtly discriminatory in a way that’s damaging and hurtful, I don’t feel like I have the right to demand that developers put in more female or non-white or gay/bisexual/transgender characters for the sake of it or in the name of diversity. I just don’t think that would be helpful.

Personally, I don’t really have a problem with any of the Dead or Alive or Grand Theft Auto games that intentionally objectify women. It clearly appeals to some people. There’s a market for it and it doesn’t actively attempt to hurt or exploit anyone, so why not? The truth is that sex does sell. A lot of people want that kind of content in a game. If the content isn’t exploitative or illegal, even if it’s objectionable, I think it should be perfectly fine that games like that exist alongside more thoughtful games like BioShock Infinite. That’s what being in a free market is about! Maybe in the future there’ll be more games that objectify men in the same way and I won’t have a problem with that either. Jiggle away! Or… whatever the equivalent is for guys. I don’t think games like this will ever really disappear and I don’t think that ‘s a problem. In a free-thinking society, there’ll be people with all kinds of desires and opinions and as a result, all kinds of content to cater to them. As times change and opinions change, what’s considered mainstream will naturally shift. I think that approaching the issue aggressively or judgmentally (however well meaning and pro-equality) will only push those on the cusp into the arms of those busty beauties and create contention without solving anything.

What if they do start adding in more female, non-white, non-straight characters? It’s great to have role models, but that doesn’t mean that those of us in the minority will necessarily flock to those game or that we’ll get anymore enjoyment out of the game. In fact, I’ve always played male characters, even when there’s the option of playing a female character. Just because I’m a woman, it doesn’t mean I want to play a woman in games. I don’t play games so that I can play characters that are exactly like myself. I’m looking forward to the day when none of this matters, when developers can focus on creating interesting characters and not worry about what race or gender or sexual orientation or religion they are. In the meantime, I feel that as a gamer, I can enjoy whatever games they throw at me, as long as they’re fun and interesting.

As I said,  I think things will change over time as each year sees shifts in the gaming demographic and in the industry itself. Diversity is great, but not by hampering creative processes. Most of the well known devs are white and male, so I can understand why they might think they have trouble relating to other perspectives, at least at the moment, but there’s greater diversity in the workplace year by year and I have no doubt that we’ll see that reflected in the games that are made. I think that by making too much noise about it constantly or focusing on the issue only adds more fuel to the fire and will end up drowning out any well meaning messages or justified opinions. That’s why this is the only time I plan to write about this subject. I just had things I needed to say. I’d rather just keep gaming quietly, buy the products I like, ignore the ones that don’t appeal to me and eagerly look forward to the day where race or gender or sexual orientation and so on won’t even be a major factor in decision making. For now, that’s all I have to say on the matter. 

15 responses to “Diversity in Games or Is CheeeseToastie a Racist, Sexist Pig?

  1. You make really great points in your article. We have the same thing in common, being both women and Asian, and having to deal with how we’re perceived in society. Luckily, I haven’t experienced any overt racism but I have dealt with ignorance more than anything else.

    Either way, it would be great if we had non-white role models to look up to but when it comes to media (video games, film, TV, etc.) sometimes it’s not possible to see a person of color in a major role. I believe it’s like what you said, a good number of the lead developers are white and not minorities. It’s not like they are actively trying to be exclusive, but it’s a matter of what they relate to.

    The focus should always be on creating a great game, story, and characters. If we can relate to these characters and experiences, it shouldn’t matter whether the lead character is black, white, yellow, red, or whatever. I do hope there will be a day when none of this matters.

    • Being in the minority is not the easiest position to be in growing up, especially during a time when people were even less tolerant than they are now (haha I’m making myself sound really old) and I think Asian women in particular, do have certain stereotypes attached to us. I’m glad you haven’t had to face any overt racism, but yeah there does still seem to be a lot of ignorance out there still.
      Exactly, I would have loved to have non-white female role models to look up to when I was younger and there just weren’t enough of them portrayed in the media, at least not in stereotypical way, but it’s important for creators to have the freedom to write, produce, etc… the way they want to.
      Hopefully in the future creators and gamers alike will just look at the game for what it is, rather than what the characters look like or what their sexual preference is, because seriously, I don’t see why that stuff matters either!

  2. Really great post CheeeseToastie. My views are similar to your own, but at the same time, not so much. You stipulate at the end how you do not have the intention of arguing about how objectifying women is a bad thing, but sometimes I might actually believe that to be the case. Okay, so let me be clear – if there is a woman in a game wearing not much my eyes are most definitely going to be drawn to all the bits and pieces that are visible – I’m a guy, what can I say, and I agree with your ideology that sex sells. However, when women are objectified to such an extent, many of the other factors the likes of intellect and opinions go flying out the window and women characters are simply relegated to these super sexy, but at the same time, empty shells. Take Gears of War Judgement for instance. The only female character in the entire game has an incredibly small part and is reduced to saying one liners every so often.
    You said in your post how you often play as blokes. I’m on the other end of the scale – I will play as women if given the opportunity. Why is that? I mean, why do you play as guys and why do I play as women? I honestly don’t really have an answer. Might be that a woman running around kicking ass and taking names is quite possibly the single most awesome thing in the entire universe. Might be because in a game I can check a woman out and not have her spin around and slap me across the face. Might be because women are often quite fun characters to fight alongside during a battle. Maybe it’s because all blokes in games are more muscular than Vin Diesel and I for one will never look so huge and so find this kind of sexist. I cannot postulate a response.
    Moving on, in regards to your topic on diversity and how most protagonists are white males, I completely agree with you. A great example of this would be the recent title Remember Me. According to the web, Dontnod entertainment, the creators of this game had difficulty attempting to find a distributor who would put their name onto a game that solely focused around a female protagonist. Unlike other gaming girls, Nilin, was incredibly well rounded; she had doubts; she felt sympathetic, empathetic and emotional towards those who were hurt; she regretted some of her actions; she thought about things intelligently and after each level reminisced on all that had happened, and to have her opinion on the action was really interesting. Basically, she was an incredibly likale character because she was so realistic not only as a character but as a human being and a woman. True, she was beautiful and had a nice body, but unlike a majority of female characters who often have breasts like cannons on a pirates vessel sticking out from their chest, Nilin was actually quite flat chested – she was not relegated to a sex object but as a truly realistic individual. True, she kicked ass and could handle herself, but at the end of the day she was not the stereotypical dragon slayer. Gamespot said in their review that the game focused too much on her character and prevented the other characters (many of whom were men) from being focused upon, which was quite something. This is a game where the men take a back seat and a woman drives the plot forward, which is what I found so incredibly enjoyable about the title. Yet, the game I don’t believe has as of yet received the rewards that it ought to for being what it is, and has instead being ostracised on occasion, which just goes to show the discrimination towards how one sided the entire gaming world is.
    Of course, like you say CheeeseToastie, the goal of the development of any title should be to entertain, and I agree with you, however, should we sacrifice our entertainment for belittling members of a certain gender by articulating to society that women are simply here to look good in a tight little outfit. It’s because of ideas like these that women are constantly objectified in the first place, and with the games industry promoting such an ideology, is there any chance that women will ever get out from under the oppressive thumb of chauvinistic, misogynistic white males?
    Again CheeeseToastie, a very interesting and thought provoking response to a really interesting topic of discussion.
    Also, that ‘jiggle away’ reference to blokes – whoa! I didn’t realise this blog was R rated! I mean, damn! I don’t know whether to be shocked out of my mind or just really intrigued by such a comment! It was borderline pornographic! Just saying ma’am!

    • Thanks a lot! I’m glad you enjoyed reading it!
      I may have been a bit unclear on my views on objectifying women. I think we actually agree that it can, in many cases, be a bad thing. It can be harmless if women are simply made to look attractive to appeal to a certain audience. I mean, there are a lot of pretty boys in games too and it’s just an unavoidable fact that people often put a lot of weight on appearance. I can’t say I agree with this viewpoint, but it is the way it is and I don’t think it’s really hurting anyone. However, I’d agree with you that sometimes this can be taken way too far and women are objectified to the point where they’re just sex symbols and things like intellect or any kind of personality to be honest, just go out the window. I think in cases like that it is a bad thing for society as a whole and I personally don’t like it.
      My point is really just that I think creative freedom is also a really important right and on a practical level, if we try to tell developers to do this and that, we simply won’t be getting the best games they can make out of them. In fact, I think the point of free speech and a capitalist society is that people are allowed to express their opinions, even if they’re unpalatable, unless they are actually injuring people in a significant and direct way and if consumers don’t like it, they don’t have to buy it and they can even criticise it if they want. Many games devs are white males who have grown up in this less than accepting environment, so they probably find it difficult to write realistic female, non-white, non-straight characters without resorting to stereotypes. I think in most cases sexism is really more a result of ignorance than any really deliberate attempt to promote any kind of sexist ideology. It doesn’t make it better, but it does make it more understandable. In the end games developers and publishers are just businesses. Discrimination is an important issue, but so is free speech and I don’t think most games have gotten to the point of genuinely targeting women or specific races or ideologies to the point where they should be controlled or censored.
      I completely agree with you that the games industry as a whole has been guilty of promoting and prolonging sexism, but I disagree that there won’t be any chance of this turning around or that women won’t able to get out from under their oppression unless we actively try get rid of it. It’s just that I’ve faced both sexism and racism in the real world many times and I realised that making a lot of noise about it or constantly pointing it out only adds fuel to the fire, but it doesn’t really solve anything. Sexist, racist or otherwise narrow-minded people aren’t going to suddenly change their minds simply because you made a good point. Maybe one person here or there might listen, but on the whole, if you try to force people to agree with you, you’ll usually end up with the opposite happening, especially over issues as sensitive as this. Discrimination isn’t a logical thing that can easily be explained it away. Some people might try to justify it, but even if you completely break down their argument, they’ll usually still stick to their guns, because well, that’s what they’ve believed their whole lives.
      I think that in most western countries, it is the case that things are becoming ever more equal, despite all the people who don’t want this to happen. There are more and more women in industries across the board – including in games, medicine, law and so on. In some cases like law and medicine, women now outnumber men. It’s true that a lot of the top paying positions are still held white men. However, the fact that the workplace is naturally becoming more diverse as public attitudes shift and new anti-discrimination laws are being put in place means that more women and minorities are going to keep filtering in. There are now more women at the top than ever before and it’s constantly increasing. SInce women are just as capable as men, by working hard and achieving results, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to exclude them and people are becoming more open-minded the more they’re exposed to greater diversity. And as more women become involved in making games that means that more perspectives will be included.
      We’re already seeing changes in the industry, for instance, with the new title ‘Remember Me’, which looks awesome by the way! At the E3 press conferences, I’m noticing more and more non-white characters. Sure, there are still difficulties in the industry, but I do think things are naturally shifting and demanding that devs change their plot or characters to be more inclusive is not going to change anything and would anyway, infringe on their creative freedom. We wouldn’t ask Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino to include certain characters or to write about something in particular and I don’t think we should be able to do with games either.
      Of course, that’s just how I feel about it!
      I have no idea why I play male characters all the time either. We must discuss this further sometime. I’m rather intrigued now. 🙂 Haha I’m glad I shocked you with my ‘jiggle away’ comment! I have to warn you, there may be many more such comments in the future! Keep the children away! 😀

  3. I was really hoping you had finally cracked and had turned into a raging racist, sexist, pig. Instead I had to make due with

    “I’m looking forward to the day when none of this matters, when developers can focus on creating interesting characters and not worry about what race or gender or sexual orientation or religion they are.”

    Which I think is exactly how it should be. I feel the exact same way about gamers themselves. I hope someday it will be all about how we play the games we love, not who we are.

    • Thanks! 😀 Although I’m sorry to disappoint you by not turning out to be a raging racist, sexist pig! 🙂 I guess it’s not too late for me yet though… But seriously, it would be great to see people not care about the superficial aspects of a character and really just play the game for what it is. We have some ways to go, but I have hope that things will only continue to get better. 🙂

  4. Excellent! Character design, overall, is something I think that falls by the wayside, period, because there seems to be a decent number of people who just don’t care one way or the other — the whole “if I want a story, I’d read a book” crowd who will gladly skip through cutscenes if given the chance. As long as the character is somewhat visually appealing, they’re fine with that, and customization options pretty much lets them make their own (which *is* fun, I’ll spend a good hour with a game tweaking my avatar before I even venture outside that menu).

    Game developers could put in options to let you have the type of character you identify most with rather than just sticking you with the stock hero, but that would mean additional cost — different motion capture and animation for males and females, different voiceovers, slightly different cutscenes for romantic elements of the story depending on your sexual orientation.

    But until enough people stop saying story doesn’t matter, they’re not going to go that extra mile and spend that extra money and time. I’m sort of surprised by now that there hasn’t been a way to create a more realistic avatar than a Mii or an Xbox Live Avatar and just import it into games, like creating your own virtual actor or actress and having them play roles — the ‘lead’ in Tomb Raider and then import them into Resident Evil. That way people could have it in terms of appearance just the way they want it, even if they want to play a fairly accurate representation of their real selves. I don’t get how in a racing game you can tweak every last little insignificant detail on a car you’re probably only going to use a few times before something better becomes available, but you can’t mess with the lead human characters you’ll spend fifty hours staring at.

    I personally hold it against a game that has a generic, vanilla sort of lead, because an interesting character draws me that much farther into the experience, even if its something I personally don’t ‘represent’ — I play as female characters often if given the option, especially in a third-person game, because I’d simply much rather stare at Lara Croft’s back for twenty hours than Indiana Jones. Gameplay does matter and I’ll admit that a fun game is a fun game, but that extra level of detail does make a big difference.

    But vanilla is safe, too, I guess, you have to respect someone’s desire not to have to ‘role-play’ as something that might go against their personal beliefs, which brings up customization and that whole debate if people care enough that they put it in. If you don’t want LGBT elements in your story, don’t pick that option at the beginning, etc. Even options to tweak the content like language and gore — which exists — would ge great for people who get annoyed by overused cursing in a game (which would be me, that’s an art and I don’t mind it used sparingly, and most game writers don’t get that and just use an M rating as an excuse to make thirteen-year-olds snicker.)

    Unfortunately we have a culture that treats games as disposable throwaways or race through this installment so we can get started on next year’s sequel, so there’s not enough time to really put that extra level of detail. It’s more important that the texture of that brick wall that you run past just once without looking is as realistic as they can get it or the AI of the fish in the stream you stomp through and don’t even look down at is ‘perfect’ — they waste a lot of time on superficiality instead of bigger elements that could really make a difference.

    • Thanks! I totally agree that character design often doesn’t seem to be a priority for a lot of people and that seems to come from a feeling that ‘the story doesn’t matter’, which is a view I find hard to understand. Yes, gameplay is important, but games have so much more potential than just being mindless entertainment. I also agree that things are not going to change until more people start caring about stories and characters. As I mentioned above, I do think we should leave as much of the creative freedom as possible up to the creators, but I do think the more people express an interest in those kinds of elements in a game, the more likely it is that developers will start introducing greater diversity and just generally creating more interesting characters.
      I’m definitely drawn to interesting characters above most things and having generic main characters is definitely something that turns me off about a game. As you said, ‘interesting’ to me doesn’t necessarily mean feeling like the character is representative of who I am. Like you, I tend to play as the opposite sex most of the time anyway!
      I do agree that greater customization options is definitely something that would improve games generally (especially having language and gore options) and is less likely to piss people off. However, I do think that to really start promoting equality there also need to be more games where you don’t have any choice but to play a woman or a gay man or so on, consequences be damned. That’s why I think ‘Remember Me’ is such a great step forward. There are just some stories that have to be told in a certain way – for instance, I don’t think the Witcher series would have worked as well if customization options weren’t so limited and if Geralt could be and look like whatever you wanted him (or her) to. Given that, I think it’s important if we want to get to the point where things like gender, race or sexual orientation don’t matter to have kickass main characters who are different from the current norm.
      Ultimately though, I definitely think that devs and gamers alike need to put more emphasis on the bigger elements of a game, like you said, rather than superficial elements that don’t really improve it in any significant way.

      • The important thing, too, is to remember that these decisions are made by groups of people. A game’s publisher doesn’t give a damn about any sort of artistic pretext, they just want it to sell at least well enough to recoup the costs.

        And they’re going to rely heavily on marketing data, judging their in-development Game X against how well Game A, B, and C did, along with all the relevant factors, which includes how well people responded to the lead character, etc.

        You can probably count the number of designers one one hand who can state, this is who our lead protagonist is and not have to sit through meeting after meeting with marketing people who are looking at how they’re going to have to try to sell it. Everyone else has to ask for permission from the overseers along the way, and they’re going to be resistant against anything that breaks the mold.

        And a big part of that is because the development process is so expensive, and it never gets streamlined because there’s always new tools and tech to master.

        Remember Me is a very good point, because every review I’ve seen of it did make mention of the protagonist being something of a breath of fresh air . . . unfortunately, the game didn’t seem like it fared well in terms of actual gameplay, and will be judged negatively by that — and that’s what the marketing people are going to look at. They’re not going to blame the design of the protagonist for the poor reviews, but if the game had been better designed, it would’ve helped the cause a lot more.

        I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of cartoonist Scott McCloud and the books he’s written on comic book ‘theory’, but he makes a really excellent point in his Understanding Comics about why people seem so responsive to cartoony imagery — because there’s a certain abstract with cartoon-style characters that allow people to more readily identify with them in a purely visual form, but the more and more layers of detail that are applied, the less people are able to adapt and see things that they can subconsciously identify with.

        There’s a sort of mental elasticity in viewing a cartoon character that doesn’t exist with a hyper-realistic model, where elements like race and gender are amplified — you’re less able to look at that character and see what you have in common with them, but instead you’re noticing how they’re different from you. And this might really explain why Nintendo, for instance, has always stuck with that overall style. Even characters like Samus and Link which may be more realistically proportioned than say, Mario, still have that sort of elasticity to them. And those age well — take the character model of Master Chief from the original Halo and compare that to Halo 4. It’s difficult to go back to play and enjoy the original without it feeling ‘ugly’ — even though at the time it was released, it was top-of-the-line.

        Look at the popularity of the manga style where there might be a lot of attention to detail to the backgrounds, objects, even the figures themselves, but the faces are intentionally done with unrealistic, exaggerated features. Many times the only way to denote race in that style of art is by skin color, rather than distinctive facial features — and what that does, subconsciously, is lets a viewer / reader more readily adapt to what they’re seeing.

        This counters to videogames’ endless quest for as much detail as technology will allow. How is a game judged as ‘impressive’? It’s not the character design overall but the fact that each hair on the character’s head is individually rendered and moves in real time in response to moisture, air current — a complete waste of time and energy to put that much work into something superficial when there’s so many other elements that start with the concept artist picking up a pencil and putting it to paper and have nothing to do with GPUs.

        What I find fascinating is at one point it was Akira Toriyama designing characters that ended up being reduced into 8-bit sprites and losing a lot of the detail, and now we have the ability to have characters look exactly how he puts them on paper and literally come to life as a 3D model. I think that’s part of the process, instead of photorealism, make an artist’s vision come to life. Anyone can pick up a camera and take photos of the world around them, but not everyone can envision an entire world and visually represent that in a unique way.

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