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Diversity, Halo, and the 'sexual/political agenda' of Fragments of Him
by Mata Haggis on 04/17/14 12:11:00 pm   Featured 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 post looks at how games in the field of diversity are viewed as having strong cultural and political agendas based on the cultural space that they occupy rather than the intentions of the developers.

Last weekend, at the same time as PAX was corralling indie developers into a 'diversity lounge', I had the pleasure of showing Fragments of Him and representing NHTV University's IGAD programme at the Different Games conference at New York University. A few hundred people gathered there to talk about gender, sex, sexuality, representation for people of colour, queer lifestyles, and diversity in games and the gaming industry.

Different_Games

It was quite an emotional weekend for me: I've only watched 'Let's Play' videos of people playing Fragments of Him, and this was the first time that I had seen it being played live. It was a very powerful experience, watching as they paused, their shoulders dropping, the mouse perfectly still as the situation in the game revealed itself. Like I say, I've seen this in videos, but it was a very different sensation to watch in person. Some people had to stop and walk away, muttering a 'thank you, it was very good' quietly as they left. I'm sorry to the people that the game upset; I hope that you find the time to experience the rest of the story and that the resolution is some consolation to you.

Direct and indirect diversity

There were a lot of discussions on diversity, and it was great to see the range of ways in which different developers were addressing these issues in their games. Many were very direct, such as the way in which Perfect Woman combines difficulty settings with a parable about the impact of today's choices on our later situations: if you choose to be a terrorist as a twenty year old then it's going to be tough to be a professor at thirty! It was simple, explicit (in more than one sense), and delivered an easy to understand message.

01_PW-print

Next to this, the Fragments of Him prototype that I was showing at the conference felt extremely reserved - it's not a game about a gay relationship: it's a story about grieving and moving on, which also happens to feature people who were in a gay relationship. I feel that this is a strength of the current prototype, not because being overtly about a gay relationship would automatically make it weaker as a narrative, but because it shows the universality of emotions that people go through in times of crisis, regardless of their sexuality.

However, avoiding dealing directly with sexuality isn't something that would work in the larger Fragments of Him game that we are now developing after the success of the prototype: looking back at some of the significant relationship events of the lives of the characters, the incidents that their sexuality have provoked will almost inevitably be a point of attention.

I have mixed feelings about this. I have no fear of representing the normal lives of adults who are not heterosexual, but I also feel a little sad that it is unavoidable that some kind of forced sexual or political agenda is going to be read into all of this.

Diversity or reality?

Is there a diversity agenda to Fragments of Him? Not by intention. I want to treat my characters as normal people living in the modern world, and I hope that I can make all of the characters recognisable and believable. By treating non-heterosexual people as absolutely normal human beings (because what else would you want to do?), the story is conveying a message of compassion and empathy for all people, regardless of their identity (not just gay/bisexual men seen in the Fragments of Him prototype, but also other sexes, genders, sexualities, ages, races, and other people who may differ from ourselves in their bodies or lifestyles - some of which will feature in the expanded version that we are now developing). I am making no effort at all to force diversity into Fragments of Him, but a range of realistic characters will automatically contain people with a variety of attributes.

It strikes me as odd that this will likely be received as a political statement about diversity, when my intention is to tell an everyday story of love, loss, and hope. I do believe in the value of diversity in society, and naturally the things that I create are going to reflect those opinions. I would be happy if the game makes people appreciate the commonality of experiences between people with otherwise distinct lives, but the primary intention is to create an enjoyable drama (in the way that a tragedy can be enjoyable through a cathartic release of emotions).

I would welcome social improvements as the result of a game, but I have no intention of preaching my views through Fragments of Him and wouldn't be egotistical enough to expect that an indie game with a good heart is going to change the world. I hope it will comfort a few people in sad situations, help a some appreciate the lives of others, or assist in thinking a little more about the people that they love... That would be a wonderful result, but that hope is not at all unique to games: it is also what very many storytellers want, I believe, and just because Fragments of Him is a game, I don't believe that hoping for this result can be called a sexual or political 'agenda'.

Storytelling and empathy in games

Games are a communication medium, and we must not be afraid of representing the world as we see it, or how we would like it to be. To me, a message of treating all others as humans worthy of respect shouldn't be considered an 'agenda', as if this were a subversive intention: respect and civility should be the default state of all people. If, with the story in our game, we can do a little to help build a society of empathy and compassion, then I'm just fine with that. If this helps games development to mature and find sources of inspiration from outside of the common sci-fi/horror/fantasy tropes, then I would be happy with that too.

I love games, everything from zombie slaying through to blowing petals in the breeze, and I hope that the full version of Fragments of Him will be a valuable addition to the growing number of games that are interested in telling stories outside of the current mainstream. Perhaps, if anything, there is a deliberate agenda in that: expanding the language of our creative field.

The heteronormative agenda of Halo

It is interesting that a game such as Halo is not commonly talked about for its agenda. In many ways it supports the dominant patriarchal paradigm of heroic masculinity. For example, the lead character Master Chief:

  • is a tall, muscular man
  • is suited permanently in full armour so no fleshy weakness is ever exposed
  • speaks with a gruff voice
  • has a face that never shows emotion (because it is never seen)
  • recovers almost instantly from injury
  • can single-handedly turn the tide of a battle
  • has a girlfriend who is a hologram so they never have to do anything as emasculating as kissing or hugging, or squishily organic as having sex
  • spends his time penetrating organic-looking alien ships

... And so on.

It would be easy to read this as adamant support for a hyper-masculine ideal, devoid of feelings and mental or physical intimacy, where the primary goal is domination of anything seen as organic, uncontrollable, insane, and other attributes that western society has historically associated with femininity. I don't for a second believe that Bungie set out with that as their agenda, but it can easily be read into Halo.

It is possible to see an agenda there, if we wish to look for it, just as it is possible to see an agenda in Fragments of Him, but I know which game is more likely to be discussed in terms of having a sexual/political agenda.

It is a sign that our industry needs to mature, that the presence of any character outside of a standard heteronormative binary system (people who do not fit a modern stereotype of youthful, aggressively heterosexual vigour) is read as an 'agenda'. Master Chief fits the system, so he is not viewed as a political statement, but a gay protagonist is outside the norms of gaming lead characters, and so the game is likely to be assumed to be intentionally making a statement.

I'm content that a diversity-aware reading fits Fragments of Him, but this is neither something that I have forced to be present or something that I would ever dream of avoiding. It is a natural result of trying to represent loving and open people both fairly and honestly.

Every game has an agenda

Perhaps I am saying this the wrong way: it's not that Fragments of Him doesn't have a sexual/political agenda: instead it is that every game has one. These agendas are usually only identified in games that feature characters that are perceived as being outside of mainstream society. Like all cultural artefacts, all games have a societal message, but in games those messages only appear to be called an 'agenda' when they do not fit into a very narrow range of cultural models.

My thanks to the organisers of Different Games for a wonderful and inspiring conference, to all the lovely people that I spoke to, and everyone who played Fragments of Him. I look forward to next year!

If you haven't played Fragments of Him yet then you might want to try it here. It takes around 15 minutes, and headphones are essential for the experience.

We look forward to sharing the progress of our game with you as we continue to build it over the next few months. Thank you for reading!

---

Follow me on Twitter: @MataHaggis
Follow the developers of Fragments of Him on Twitter: @SassyBotStudio
Follow on Facebook : SassyBotStudio
 



 

 

About Dr. Mata Haggis:

 

I’m a games & narrative designer with over ten years of experience of making both indie and AAA games, and writing for games, television, webcomics, and print. I occasionally blog about games on my own website (http://games.matazone.co.uk/) and reblog onto Gamastura here.

 

Since 2010, I have been teaching the next generation of games developers on the IGAD (International Games Architecture & Design) programme at NHTV University in Breda, The Netherlands. It’s a very highly rated course, taught entirely in English, and if you’re interested in learning more about games development then I highly recommend it: http://made.nhtv.nl/

 

When not teaching, I am the consultant games & narrative designer on Fragments of Him.

 

This blog originally posted here.

 


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Comments


Michael Joseph
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"it's not that Fragments of Him doesn't have a sexual/political agenda: instead it is that every game has one. These agendas are usually only identified in games that feature characters that are perceived as being outside of mainstream society."
--

and the effect of applying the "agenda" label to certain games is that it can undermine critical discussions of the work so that the truly important conversations about the appropriateness (and appropriateness of the dissemination) of the subversive beliefs and infectious views of the author(s) can take place instead.

And that means energy has to be spent defending against illegitimate attacks because they cannot be allowed to go unanswered.

Mata Haggis
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You last point is a difficult one. Should trolls or anti-diversity campaigners be answered or not? On one side there's the 'don't feed the trolls' idea which believes that engaging with them legitimises their views, on the other side is the problem that bullying and intimidation of should never be accepted.

Even then, it gets more complicated because, even though I am 'only' a university lecturer and SassyBot are a small indie games company, releasing a nice game does put us in a position of privilege: our voices will be louder than those of others. If we appear to talk over the heads of anyone (including bullies) then we could indeed become bullies ourselves!

The one thing that I can be sure of is that we will attempt to maintain dignity, respect, and honesty at all times before and after development, but particularly aggressive people will no doubt test that resolve, and it is also possible that we may unintentionally get some things wrong. Part of the modern diversity movement is an acceptance that mistakes will sometimes be made, for example a person might use the wrong pronoun to describe another person. Taking responsibility for those mistakes, apologising and trying to improve afterwards is part of trying to be mature in dealing with a complex world.

I'm not sure if there is such a thing as an illegitimate attack - even trolls think that what they are doing is okay by their own ethical standards. It's too easy to dismiss everyone we disagree with, but equally it's very easy to get personally insulted and hurt while trying to be respectful. Balancing these is going to make the next year very interesting!

Luke Groeninger
profile image
"It would be easy to read this as adamant support for a hyper-masculine ideal, devoid of feelings and mental or physical intimacy, where the primary goal is domination of anything seen as organic, uncontrollable, insane, and other attributes that western society has historically associated with femininity. I don't for a second believe that Bungie set out with that as their agenda, but it can easily be read into Halo."

Interestingly, I actually read him as nearly explicitly agender for most (all) of the series - he eschews many of the hyper-masculine tropes present not only in media but also in the military. Almost all the masculine traits you ascribe to him were forced onto him without his consent (he was conscripted), and he consequently hides them behind the armor. His relationship with "the girl" supports this perspective because while she does flirt with him, he does not reciprocate it - it would be better argued that their relationship is platonic in nature, not romantic.

But that's just my opinion. I personally have felt more connection with the Halo series in part because, unlike Call of Duty or many other shooters, the character is actually free of the masculine traits that are prevalent in the genre.

Mata Haggis
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The name 'Master Chief' is pretty explicitly masculine. You're right though - many of the qualities that define a normal man are absent from him because taken to a nearly unrecognisable extreme, which was somewhat my point. It was slightly in jest, but I hope it served to get the point across.

You're right, the Call of Duty series, and many other titles, would do just as well for this example... Which was partly my point :)

Dane MacMahon
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Mocking the well-intentioned and logical-once-explained diversity lounge concept right off the bat really turned me off your article, FYI.

There's nothing I dislike more than condescension and belittling when discussing topics of acceptance.

Christian Nutt
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Overreacting much? It's hardly a blistering indictment of the concept - more pointing out that while there's one event that treats diversity as a band-aid that needs applying, there was another event not too distant that celebrated it as its main theme.

Dane MacMahon
profile image
They have made grand gestures for a long time now to apologize and appease those who found their words offensive. What do they get in return? Continued condescension, mocking and dismissal as "not good enough." It's hypocritical, which is sadly common on these topics in internet discussion. "I hate you for hating" and the like.

Rubs me the wrong way. Whatever merit this article might have had was ruined for me when he started out that way.

Just being honest.

Christian Nutt
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Well, while I'm not going to get into a debate about whether Penny Arcade (the organization) has either atoned or provided adequate redress on a practical level, I don't see how an incredibly mild HALF A SENTENCE such as the above warrants the complete dismissal of this blog post. Sorry.

Dane MacMahon
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It's not even about PA, I haven't read their site in years and have no interest in PAX. It's about the tone of articles. As a writer I really dislike condescending tones in articles about acceptance, which happens a lot. Maybe I'm ironically too sensitive about it, I don't know, but I was giving honest feedback that it turned me off the article from the start. I want the author to know that in my opinion when writing about acceptance he should try to avoid mocking others.

Just my opinion, and shared in that context.

Mata Haggis
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Perhaps the choice of the word 'corralling' appeared too critical, but it does have the meaning of protection as well as segregation, which reflects my mixed feelings on the 'diversity lounge' concept.

On the one hand it's good to have a space that highlights diversity issues, on the other hand it creates an 'us... And the queers in the room over there' mentality. The lack of exposure on the conference's website didn't help the lounge feel integrated into the whole... But then again it is worth trying... But then again, it did create a sense of exclusion in other ways: putting people in a room to the side does send a message of separation, which some attendees responded to with uncertainty about whether they were supposed to go in there if they were a straight, white, able-bodied, cismale, without mental health issues (which of course they are, because diversity is about everyone)... But then again the quiter space does allow for conversations that the main floor would not.

There's a good article on this ambiguity here:

http://tmi.kotaku.com/was-pax-easts-diversity-lounge-a-success-i-
asked-peopl-1564499083

Perhaps the sentence should have been:

"at the same time as PAX was corralling indie developers into a 'diversity lounge', for better or for worse,... "

That would have emphasised further the ambiguity of feelings.

The Diversity Lounge does show willing on the part of PAX, but messages it sends are very mixed. Personally I do feel that it sends a message of isolation for diversity issues, which would be better served by getting diverse groups represented in a more integrated way at the show. With better advertising, not keeping the doors shut to the room for a day (which again is a mixed pro and con situation), and actual integration of diversity welcoming messages elsewhere, the lounge idea could work... But it's not there yet.

I hope that you can see beyond one word of mild criticism of an ambiguous event and enjoyed the rest of the article.

On a larger topic, it doesn't send a very welcoming message to other writers on diversity issues that one word of mild criticism appears to be enough to discount a whole viewpoint, when many people face daily challenges and physical dangers far greater than a single word of mild critique. I believe that many people in these groups have every right to be bloody furious about how we are sometimes treated, and as such are occasionally going to say things that might be unpalatable. Accepting the rights and legitimacy of others to be angry and to have respondingly strong wording is part of understanding the challenges that are faced by people in non-mainstream lifestyles. The issue of 'tone policing' (the term for what you have done here, in a mild way) is a very complex one that isn't suitable for a comments thread, but perhaps I'll write about that elsewhere.

Thank you for your feedback on my writing. It's always interesting to hear!

Dane MacMahon
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Good counterarguments.

My take on the "diversity lounge" thing after reading the actual PAX statements on the matter was that it was a place to discuss diversity, not a place to house diversity. I was rather miffed the press generally portrayed the goal of the concept differently from the intention, which I viewed as a way to obtain clicks. I'm sure that depends on the point of view you have going in, however.

In any case as a generally very progressive person I find myself put off by a lot of the current press writings about diversity because of tone, so I was trying to make a point about that to you. So many articles on this site and many others present diversity issues in the tone of "listen you backwoods redneck idiot, this is how you should think," which I don't think is either professional or (more importantly) effective. Similarly in a world where people are learning how to embrace and deal with new concepts of what's "okay" and "not okay" we often are way too quick to judge and convict, rather than explain and have patience.

In any case I am NOT saying your line was that bad, I am just talking in a general sense. I guess I am attempting to explain that I am kind of "on the lookout" for condescension and judgment in articles of this nature, so when I read the line about PAX I kind of rolled my eyes and took the article less seriously than I would have otherwise. And I thought you should know that.

Chris Bell
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Hey Matta,

Glad to see progress continues with Fragments of Him, and that player reactions are strong. Anxious to play a new version if there's ever a chance!

Best
Chris

Mata Haggis
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Hey Chris,

Thank you for your encouragement! We'll do our very best :)

Cheers,
Mata


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