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Moving Forward On Race In Games: Manveer Heir Speaks

August 5, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[BioWare Montreal designer Manveer Heir on how we should bring new types of characters into the medium, and how "it's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games."]

While there have been some recent announcements of high profile, triple-A games that feature black protagonists -- StarHawk and Prototype 2 -- it's far more rare for games to deviate from heterosexual white males when it comes to leads. Is there a need to push the medium in new directions when it comes to characters?

Manveer Heir, senior designer at BioWare Montreal and outspoken proponent of bringing more diversity to the medium, would say yes. In this interview, he discusses why he believes that more diversity will only make games more compelling to players, and more meaningful.

"It's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games," says Heir, who considers the goal his own personal quest in the industry. "I hope that in 20 years I personally would have been able to do something on my own by then, to at least help advance things, but who knows where the world will go in the future."

You've talked about the fact that, in general, people don't want to deal with race. And so then when it comes time to put it into a product that has to make money, people are perhaps even less inclined to address that. How can this be something that is viable to undertake when you still have all these budgetary concerns?

Manveer Heir: I think there are a few things... First off, I don't think the game having a black character, that shouldn't be the selling point of the game. It needs to be an interesting game regardless of the protagonist, but that potentially when if someone plays that game, they discover the background of our protagonist has a better-defined character or something, or the race of the character actually affects the way characters talk to the player.

Things along those lines, so that when you're playing the game, you discover something new that maybe is happening in the game that you aren't used to, because you're being treated differently, or you're understanding the other side that maybe you don't belong to, depending on your background. So, I think that if you market your game as "a game for black people" or "a game for Asian people", it's going to flop the same way most of the games for women flop. I don't think that's the good way to position that.

So, for me, it's less about selling your game based on those merits, and rather having those merits be in there and be discovered by players.

Fallout 3

Like in Fallout 3, a friend of mine, he played an Asian character, and he got at some point some comments about, you know, like "Damn Chinaman" or something like that, and he's like, "Whoa, that's crazy."

MH: Really? Because, yeah, I think I have an Asian character in Fallout 3, so I'll have to check that out. I don't remember that. That's really cool. You can think of fantasy games where if you were the dark elves, you know, the Drow, were always looked upon... They were the black people of the fantasy world, right? And if you played the dark elves, you were treated like garbage by many of the townspeople. So, my only question is... why can't we do that when we're actually talking about real people?

That's the thing that people seem to do to get around the issue. This happens in Mass Effect, or Dragon Age, or whatever is you have these racial distinctions, but they're based on fantasy or aliens and stuff, so it's much easier... It's an easier pill for everyone to swallow because it's like, "Well, I'm not saying this about any person." It's so ambiguous. People are afraid to make any kind of direct statement about anything.

MH: I mean, it is an uncomfortable topic, especially in the U.S., where racial issues are always going to be a hot-button issue, from my perspective -- just on the way the country was founded, right? So I don't think there's ever going to be a solution there, but ignoring the problem doesn't necessarily solve anything. And we're not necessarily trying to solve anything with the video game; we're just trying to make commentary essentially, or make the player reflect in certain ways. So I think it'd be really, really interesting...

While I love plenty of games that use these alien and fantasy characters, I don't even think they go in saying, "I want to make this commentary on this culture." They're just like, "We have these fantasy characters", and once they've made those races or whatever they have, oftentimes, they just start making parallels to what you see in life. It becomes like, "Well, this race is like this race." You know, "This is the Asian race. Let's do it this way." I think it's actually kind of accidental. I'm not really sure. I haven't been a creator of fantasy worlds, but that seems to be the way it always happens to me.

It's more like an incidental thing that helps with conflict. You can define these different groups in the games through conflict with each other and whether they like each other or not. It's just an easy thing to do, and so it might actually not have a direct correlation to our human ethnicities.

MH: Right. And often times it will feel like an entire race is pigeonholed. They're all the aggressive, angry people. Like humanity isn't all aggressive. There are pacifists in humanity, there are racists, there's everything in between, right? But oftentimes in a video game, I think it's just the maturation of the writing and the medium that when we write a new species, or a new race, in a game, we often make it all about one thing. There's no gray area in between there, right? So, I think that's part of the problem, too.

Night of the Living Dead has a black protagonist, and the fact that he was black, it wasn't super important to the narrative of the film. But it was important to the meta-narrative that he was a black protagonist in a popular movie, and that hadn't happened so much.

MH: Yeah. And I think we're starting to see some games do that or try, but yeah, I definitely agree, though. We need to just change the default a handful of times and see what happens. We're not going to really find out. I don't personally believe your game is going to sell worse if the protagonist's skin color changes, and everything else in the game was the exact same. Nothing else changed about the game. All you did was default the white guy to the black guy -- you know, that's the easiest route. Or any other race.

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Nick Rudzicz
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I almost feel it would be easier/less of a political-correctness stumbling block for game writers to start tackling the issues from a more sci-fi/alien perspective, a la District 9. But even then, that would require a level of subtlety that I don't think much game writing has really achieved just yet.

Charlie Huguenard
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Yeah, but that seems to be part of the problem. We're always trying to find the easy way around it rather than just tackling it head-on. District 9 was a clever piece of writing, and it definitely made its point known, but it was still dodging the issue.

Jamie Mann
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Is it dodging the issue, or simply presenting it in a socially-acceptable way? The use of "aliens" or non-mainstream behaviour has been used for decades to represent topics deemed too sensitive to be directly approached - Star Trek's "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" was filmed in 1969 and was a direct attack on racism.

It's not ideal, but realistically: if District 9 had shown humans in the same situation as the aliens, it would have been classed as a political/arthouse movie and would have had an audience of thousands, not millions...

Wylie Garvin
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Star Trek has successfully used this trick for decades to challenge people's opinions about race, gender, politics and so on. Its one thing I've always loved about those shows. They always had some diversity of female characters, minority characters, on the bridge of the first starship. Later series had captains and admirals who were minorities or women. But also, the format of Star Trek makes it a great vehicle for the writers to talk about contemporary issues (anything from racism to gender to terrorism) without the audience's own prejudices getting in the way, because the participants can be "aliens of the week" and when we meet them for the first time, our own real-world stereotypes don't get in the way.

If you show racist stereotypes directly using humans, a lot of people won't see it, because its all around them and they're just used to it. A good example of this is the little-known movie "White Man's Burden" with John Travolta, where some stereotypical race roles are reversed (the movie is all about a poor white factory worker who is desperate to feed his family, and loses his job because of a perceived minor slight to the rich black factory owner). The movie is full of outrageous things, but if you made all of the white characters black and vice versa, suddenly the story would seem tragic but not too remarkable at all, and thats a scary thing.

But if like Star Trek you can use proxy races/cultures/whatever, then the audience sees it like a fresh thing and you can get them thinking "wait a minute, thats a despicable way for them to treat people". Once that idea sets in, more thoughtful audience members will hopefully see that there's not much difference between the discrimination among the aliens in the show, and the real-world analogue it was based on.

Nick Rudzicz
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Granted; and it would be fascinating to see what we could come up with in a more realistic context. My only concern is that the writing would likely tend towards the blunt and overly didactic, whereas it could be more powerful to simply present a scenario without comment and leave the discussion to the audience.

Harry Fields
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Garrus, Tali were awesome "minorities" in ME2. Jacob was a bore because it also seemed like they were afraid to inject any personality into the character for fear of offending. Note that Jake was the least played and won't be back. You gotta make' them characters real, not "safe", even if it stirs a little controversy.

Alan Jack
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Tali's story was never pushed as far as it could be if you ask me. It was a very blatant metaphor for the Jewish religious background - a difficult background, a closed community, and a people left without a permanent home. It felt like they took the more obvious "Shepard becomes their hero/wins their heart/happily ever after" story when there were a lot of far more intense stories they could have gone into.

Bart Stewart
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A little bit of pushback:

"It's not about fairness, it's not video game affirmative action. It's about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games."

How? How does focusing on making more game characters non-white-male make those games better?

I'm not saying it doesn't -- I'm saying the folks who believe this should explain their reasoning for believing it.

The editorials and interviews that regularly appear on this subject always seem to make the same circular argument: "Games need more racial/sexual diversity." "Why?" "Well, because as all right-thinking people agree, more racial/sexual diversity is obviously necesssary." "Oh."

I'd like to suggest another way of looking at this: maybe what really matters is not the melanin in one's skin or one's genitalia -- maybe what counts most is the content of our character. Not what we look like, but what we think and feel and do.

Why isn't that the "diversity" that those calling for it focus on?

Yes, of course race and sex contribute to what we think and feel and do. But no one is going to assert that they *dictate* our character, are they? If not, then to focus on those externals is to confuse what really has value with what's easy to see and count.

Here's an example of what I see as the problem:

"I hope that down the road we start promoting our talent more so that someone's coming up to a school, and they can say, 'Look, oh, this person has the same kind of interesting ideas that I do. I'd really like to follow that person's path' the same way you do with directors in a film."

No. That is exactly backwards. Real progress toward artistic diversity would instead say, "Wow, this person thinks in ways that never occurred to me before -- they see the world completely differently than I do or the people I know do. That's great! That variation, that fullness of expression of the human experience, is exactly what we need to encourage in order to achieve greatness in our art and maximize our reach to consumers."

Religious belief, political idealogy, empathy toward other persons (or lack thereof), curiosity about the world (or lack thereof), directness or circularity of thought, introspectiveness, perceptiveness -- why isn't the goal to increase diversity in these kinds of expressions of character? Why focus on race/sex when those don't dictate an individual person's character?

Success in diversity will come, not when books and movies and TV shows and games routinely have non-white-male protagonists, but when they routinely feature characters who are liberal and conservative, believers and athiests and doubters, thoughtful and feeling, impulsive and cautious, all of whom are portrayed without Sorkin-like editorializing, any/all of whom can be presented as heroes and villains, or both, or neither.

BioWare's characters often succeed in being interesting. When they do, it is the straight presentation of their distinctive, three-dimensional character -- and not their race or sex -- that is the real reason why.

Brandon Sheffield
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thanks for a well-reasoned reply!

I would pose that the reason more diversity is good is because we really aren't all the same, as much as that's nice to say sometimes. people are treated differently and act differently toward each other based on all sorts of factors, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation being some obvious ones, but also height, religion, weight, et cetera. Exploring these differences and reactions and interactions is a very rich territory for narrative, just to start out. And for another thing, I've long said that niche-oriented large-scale games are one of the big things that's missing from the industry. In other media you have all manner of discussions and viewpoints and representations, and in games we can be very whitewashed, and I don't mean that in an ethnicity-oriented way per se, more of a blandness way. taking any sort of stand about anything is more interesting than trying to appease what is "normal" which is an increasingly bizarre moving target.

You say that the idea of people looking up to someone and trying to follow in their footsteps is backward. while I'd love to believe that people are going to see new ideas and get inspired, that's a big step. I think baby steps are necessary to get to a wider diversity of ideas, because people don't look at wildly different ideas and then think, "I will do my wildly different idea!" they think, "oh, I could do that too!" it's human nature for most people to follow an interesting idea rather than lead. So that statement was about getting the right thought leaders in the right places so that the persons who naturally will follow at first - but then diverge with their own new ideas - will have something interesting to point to or target, rather than the kind of thing we've all seen before. if that makes sense!

I think we're absolutely saying that depth of character is the most important thing. This is important too, but the main point of this discussion is meant to be - write more interesting characters, and don't be afraid to go outside your comfort zone and try something different.

Bart Stewart
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Brandon, I start conversations like these with the assumption that we're all trying in good faith to make life better as we see it, and that we usually just differ on the mechanics. The mechanics do matter -- to be effective, remedies need to address actual problems, not just what's easiest to perceive -- but the productive approach begins by giving the other person the benefit of the doubt that their intentions are honorable.

If it didn't come through in my initial comments, I'm actually a strong proponent of diversity in work environments. But I do define "diversity" as diverse ways of seeing the world rather than physical features. I'm convinced by experience that the odds of making something great are maximized by having people on the team who don't all have the same beliefs and thinking styles... and quotas for certain approved characteristics ("female, check, Asian, check -- hey, this one's a twofer!") do nothing to help achieve that goal. (I know neither you nor Manveer Heir advocated quotas, but that's often what focusing on externalities like ethnicity and sex devolve into simply as a way to measure progress.)

I believe embracing differing internal characteristics is even more crucial when the work product is not merely some widget but is an artistic product, such as the dialogue and actions of characters (in a computer game or otherwise). When only the people who think like us are the good guys and no punishment for heterodoxy is too horrible, that's an unnecessarily lost opportunity to say something true and useful about the human experience.

Here's an example that's been on my mind lately. [Torchwood SPOILER alert!] I just watched the recent episode of Torchwood: Miracle Day -- written by Buffy/Firefly alumna Jane Espenson -- where the "Monroe" character played by Mare Winningham talks trash about the people who've been killed but can't die.

This character's viewpoint could have been used to deepen and enrich the story, to intensify the difficulty of the problem for the protagonists by pointing out unpleasant but valid realities. Instead, the writer first paints the character as a monster with no redeeming qualities. Then Espenson deliberately associates the Monroe character with the real-world Tea Party, has the character make an anything-but-casual reference to "segregating" the mortally wounded, and for good measure -- just in case we didn't Get It -- has the character ask to go to Fox News.

And then, just to really drive home the point of what fate is deserved by anyone whose thinking disagrees with the writer's, Espenson silences that horrible Monroe woman and her distasteful beliefs by crushing her inside the twisted metal of a car, condemning her (for virtually zero plot value) to unspeakable and potentially never-ending torment. Regardless of whether one agrees with the writer's political opinion, how can the caricaturing and subsequent destruction of people who don't share the writer's beliefs make a story better?

This is the kind of thing I have in mind when I suggest that good art embraces different beliefs, not idealogical similarity (or externalities). A writer who was sincerely interested in telling a good story would find a way to give a character different beliefs than his or her own -- not merely different ethnicity or sex -- and would strive to empathize with that character, to make that character too real to ignore despite seeing the world in a very different way than the writer or even the audience.

To me, that approach is the most effective path to writing interesting characters. That's a different mechanic than focusing on externalities like ethnicity or sex, but again, it's just a different way of trying to achieve the goal of deeply plausible characters that we all agree matters most.

Brandon Sheffield
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Bart - I understood the nature of your reply, I think!

I do agree that more complex approaches are necessary, but I also think that racial issues are interesting to discuss in games and other media - they produce conversations like this, for example! there's just so much interesting stuff to mine, and preconceived notions of race, identity, and gender are interesting to play off of, as well. It may sound cheap or trite, but working from or against certain conceptions is a reliable place from which to begin a discussion or introduce a new idea, and these more obvious issues of diversity can be useful there.

I do think that diversity of opinion is the most interesting sort of diversity. But I also think people are inherently tied to some degree to how they were raised, and this can involve peoples' perceptions of them based on their gender, skin color, and more. Being treated differently, or treating others differently, necessarily informs your upbringing and thus your thoughts and ideas. So I don't really think the two are so amazingly different. While you couldn't say "all white people think this way," you could make certain assumptions about a group, and then confirm or deny them as they relate to other characters. It's all about how you do it, but I think it's a very interesting and underutilized device.

Michael Joseph
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Bart Stewart said: "How? How does focusing on making more game characters non-white-male make those games better?

I'm not saying it doesn't -- I'm saying the folks who believe this should explain their reasoning for believing it."


Actually I think he did explain his reasoning. Its the response to the first question on page 4 of the interview. He basically said moving away from the stereotypical video game protagonists we see over and over and over again might actually make games more interesting.

I would personally go even further and say there's a social responsibility factor but I know a lot of people feel that money is all that matters and to do anything otherwise makes you some sort of activist. But to hell with those people.

I think a lot of people in the video game industry fancy themselves as forward thinking progressive types but I think that is not exemplified by their work. That's sad.

Dave Endresak
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Bart has summarized some of the points I made in my reply elsewhere (not in this full article, but rather the shortened notice about it on Gamasutra). I will reiterate one critical point I made in my other reply: companies (or individuals) who wish to truly embrace diversity must hire those of us who are scholars in this particular area of study. There are plenty of us, but we are not from the fields that are typically described in job postings (i.e., programmers, artists, and/or designers). Of course, that is the entire point. The lack of having scholars from fields such as women and gender studies (which focuses on diversity issues, including media content analysis) causes companies (and individuals) to continue to perpetuate the same stereotypes while proclaiming that they are embracing diversity. No, they are not, but they think they are, and they often convince others, including the general public, that they are (because, after all, most people are not trained in these fields).

Regarding Brandon's nicely worded response to Bart's original post, I will offer the reply that actually, we are all the same, yet we are all different. This is, in fact, one lyric of Hatsune Miku's song, "Ai Kotoba" (Love Words) produced by Deco*27. This lyric sums up what diversity is all about: recognizing that we are all the same even though we have many individual differences. By the way, this does not only mean humans, either, but rather all forms of existence. All elements of existence, including human beings and all other elements large and small, are interconnected and interdependent, and thus are the same even though they have infinite individual variances between them.

Michael Joseph
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Even though I may not agree in total with everyone's ideas on the subject, I think it's great that people like yourself and Mr Stewart and everyone else will even comment on the issue. There's a lot of people in the industry that wouldn't touch this topic with a 10 foot pole. My thanks to Manveer Heir for voicing his opinion as well and Mr Sheffield for conducting an interview on this subject.

The one thing we haven't seen is any refutation on the core issue and that's encouraging.

Robert Ferris
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Hmmm.. Well, let me refute the core point, then. Or rather, dispute the fact that there is a core point here.

Everyone seems to be in agreement that having diverse characters in games will expand the number of stories that can be told. Everyone also seems to be in agreement that no one has ever actually been prevented from adding such characters to games. So where does that leave us?

The claim seems to be that since the game industry is dominated by white heterosexual males (I haven't actually seen any studies on this, but I'm willing to accept it as a truth) that the majority of characters are white heterosexual males. Does this boil down to bigotry, ignorance, or perhaps, as was mentioned, simply being uncomfortable with writing characters who aren't like the writer?

First, I submit that bigotry is not the answer. If it were, there would be plenty of minority characters depicted, as sterotypes and probably also the enemy. Bigots are very insecure and not only have to try to denigrate those they fear, but also let other people know what they think.

Second, ignorance. I also submit that this is not the answer. Marketing has a big budget in this day and age. Demographics are studied up one side and down three others. If there were a way to increase sales simply by including diverse characters in a game, game companies would have jumped on it. Everybody's money is green (in the US anyway.)

Third, uncomfortable. Maybe, but I think what this really boils down to is an old adage true since before Mark Twain... Write what you know. Shakespear had all of Europe, Mark Twain had the Mississippi, Clive Cussler had the oceans. The writer's in the industry today, for the most part, don't have that kind of exposure. They know where they grew up, went to college and then they start in the industry. I would imagine the majority don't have other occupations or life experiences to draw from and, in some cases, the stories are so fantastic that there may be no other real world anchor in the game other than the main character (Silent Hill.) To make them as real possible... write what you know.

If you make a game with a diverse cast of characters and suddenly you find that you are tapping into a new market, almost everyone will rush to follow. That's the way of things.

Women have been represented as main characters for a while now (sometimes even not from the point of view of a 14 year old boy.) Lara Croft, Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield, Silent Hill has had female leads, American Mcgee's Alice, Hana from Fear Effect (and she was gay BTW,) Samus, etc. They are becoming more common and prominent as the years go on. The same will happen with other characters who break the white, heterosexual male mold.

Saying that others should do it accomplishes nothing. Do it yourself and others will follow. If they do, it's proof that race isn't an issue, simply untried. If you don't tap a new market, it proves that race doesn't matter. If you make a good game with a good story, people will play, whether the main character be white, black, blue, green or otherwise. And if you tap a new market and people don't follow, you've proven that they are bigots and there's nothing you can do at that point. You can't change the mind of a bigot. Just keep making your games and the next generation that grows up playing them will have a different take (though I seriously doubt this last case is very probable.)

Anna Tito
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@Dave I agree in part, I tend to feel a bit ify about the term scholars as it brings forward ideas about academics and I am not sure academics are the right way to go. If by Scholars you mean people who think, with a breadth of learning and desire to learn more about a range of topics and experience life then I whole heartedly agree.

From my discussions with some of the developers from some of my favorite companies they are beginning to do this, which in think is awesome!

Dave Endresak
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BY scholars, I do indeed mean academics, but let me be very clear about that term, as well. Academics from various fields in the humanities need to be employed by companies in the gaming industry just as academics from fields such as art, computer science, and game design are. Consider the work of noted and well-respected academics such as Dr. Henry Jenkins and Dr. James Paul Gee, just to name two (rare) examples. The industry must include those of use whose degrees and scholarly study lie in these areas just as they include people with degrees in art, comp sci, and game design. Unfortunately, this is not what has happened, aside from very rare random exceptions due to mostly luck rather than any type of job posting critieria.

By the way, I'd like to add two points for everyone to recall.

One: Female characters have been very popular and prominent in games since the 1980s, at the very least. Examples include Alice from the first Phantasy Star (the very first cartridge game to feature save capability due to battery backup), Ms. Pacman, and the various female characters in Ys I&II (although you play the male hero Adol Christian, there are many strong heroines who assist Adol in various ways during the game storylines, including the twin goddesses). I think it's also worth noting the entire genre of bishoujo gaming from Japan, and that many players will only play heroine characters in electronic games or in pencil-and-paper games.

Two: There are over 2 billion people living in India and China alone, and far more than that if we include other countries such as Korea and Japan. The idea that the electronic gaming industry is dominated by Caucasian males is quite inaccurate and always has been. Likewise, many of the artists who do character design work in Japan and elsewhere are female, including work on adults-only titles with explicit sex and/or violence. Games are simply an expansion of other forms of popular art and entertainment, and you can see this by comparing works from various media formats in different cultures. One of the major forms of bias that occurs, even in academic research (let alone mass media journalism), is a common, perhaps unintended, view that one's own social experiences can be generalized to other cultures and societies. It is only in the past decade or two that academics have tried to shed more light on this type of bias and act to avoid it in studies, or at least stress that it exists when interpreting data and offering conclusions.

Wylie Garvin
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Off-topic nitpick.

Phantasy Star was not the first released cartridge game to feature battery-backed save states, The Legend of Zelda was. Phantasy Star was first released in Japan in December 1987. Zelda with battery-backed RAM was released to the US market in August 1987.

Iain Howe
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Firstly, it doesn't matter that the 'Industry' is heavily dominated by white male heterosexuals, because a finite number of those team members have any direct say in story or character design. If you want to look at the white heterosexual anglo-saxon male predominance then you should be looking at the conceptual art and design departments where these decisions are made.

Secondly, it is wise to remember that we are telling epic mythal stories here and not tales of every day folk. Placing everymen (and women) into epic circumstances makes them epic characters too, eventually, unless you want to descend to the level of deus-ex-machina that characterises tales like the Flashman series or the Roger Wilco games. In many cases we are basing our stories on ancient tale templates such as the Hero's Journey or suchlike. Templates that predate and helped shape Western Culture.

This is a mistake that Hollywood has made repeatedly. Does making Robin Hood a woman REALLY change the character unless in addition to that change you also change the story until it's no longer the tale of Robin Hood?

If we simply change the colour of the skin and the accent of the voice of the character without changing the story to match we're really not changing anything, are we?

Fourthly, there is the way that games today handle diversity. Take a look at the treatment of homosexual characters in Bioware's Dragon Age series. They've handled it in the same way EA handled homosexuality in The Sims - by pretending the problem simply doesn't exist. Not that homosexuality itself doesn't exist, simply that it's not even the slightest problem. There is absolutely no stigma attached to pursuing a same-sex relationship in Dragon Age, essentially dating Zevran or Anders as a Man is absolutely the same as dating them is for a Woman. That might represent homosexuality in some Elysium we've not yet encountered, but is it REALLY a proper metaphor for homosexual relationships in the world of our audience?

Fifthly comes the question of whether we even want to go there in games that are supposed to be aspirational? The contemporary strategy of handling race and sexuality is to create worlds and characters where an Asian Female Homosexual has all the experiences and opportunities that a White Male Heterosexual has. The opposite of that is to create a story where an Asian Female Homosexual encounters all the prejudices and obstacles that she would in our society, or in the societies where we set our games.

Do we really want to play games like that? Do we want to make them?

It puts developers into the position of constantly walking a tightrope between trivialising the challenges such a character would face or else accentuating and perpetuating them. And how does it stack up with the gameplay methodology we use in storyline based games? Given the fact that many of our games involve the slaughtering of tens of thousands of sapients as their core mechanic we already have an enormous moral and ethical elephant in the virtual drawing room.

Anna Tito
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Sigh! And this is why I love BioWare :)

Ok now on to a more serious response :) Diversity is an interesting topic and one I am fairly passionate about, especially GLBTQ representation, but also intercultural. I'd like to tell a little story first then get to the punch line so stick with me :)

I love to travel! Last year I took a semester break from my studies to do so. 3 months of the trip were spent traveling South America, I went to Chille, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Collumbia. The other day a friend of mine berrated me for not going to Brazil & Argentina, I was already over there I should have at least visited those countries then I could have said I had been there. I had to patiently explain that is not why or how I travel. I like to spend time in a country get to know the people the way they think how they see the world. It is the people and their stories that make travel interesting and vibrant, the things you see add colour to the pictures not substance.

I feel the same about diversity, a person's background ethnically, culturally, chronologically and sexually all create a unique experience of the world. Gaming has been dominated by a very specific ethnic, cultural, age and sexual paradigm, the desire to push this and create more confronting, meaningful and engaging games should be applauded. When change in representation starts sometimes it has to be forced, people are not known for there willingness to leave their comfort zones. Things tend to settle down after a while and it becomes more about interesting and complex characters and stories than forcing a particular view point. BioWare is doing an awesome job at starting down this road and definitely should be applauded for that. There is still more to be done but it is a start :)

Cordero W
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Most game developers are the Caucasian origin, at least here in America. The Japanese characters are essentially Japanese, but their art style doesn't show this distinction, so they end up being recognized as white to the rest of the world. The only exceptions is games like Yakuza or Jade Empire, but Jade was made by Bioware. In the end, making a white characters seems to be more of a stable than a conscious thing.

I'm black, and I often fall into this trap. But I do take efforts to make my characters different skin colors, tones, and sometimes cultures. Why? Cause I want to challenge the social stigma and see whether skin color will really make a difference. Would a black Drake have made Uncharted sell just as many copies of its game as a white Drake? We don't know, but it's an interesting venue. But I make different cultural characters cause I grew up in the south: we have Hispanics, Blacks, Chinese, you name it, all down here, so I relate to them and have grown up enough to put them in my games without thinking much about it. It was only after seeing the article of dominantly white male main characters in video game history when I became surprised about it.

Still, it doesn't really bother me that much. I just hope that I get far enough in the game industry that I make characters and games that people would love and not have to really think that the character they were playing all along was actually black.

Brandon S
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@Cordero W

Its Not completely accidental that we read anime characters as white…, I’ve heard people argue and say it just are perception and the legacy of western racism.. there partial truth to that statement . I am African American and it is true that in Western Culture “White is the Default human form”in Mainstream media and Hollywood (The Avatar Controversy comes to mind to assume it perfectly okay to have white main character in setting and media that where based on specific Asian culture and mythology simply because it's a cartoon due to corporate fear that audiences can't relate to Asian characters on screen) .So if we have a stylistically simple form for a character such as a "generic smiley face" will assign it a white Caucasian American social identity even though the smiley face doesn't look like a European descendant.

The situation with Manga and anime is a bit more complicated than that .

. Japanese culture and modern animation borrows heavily from western media sources historically to form their own animation styles , stuff we are subconsciously familiar with to a degree.Stuff like Disney and Fleischer animation like betty boop huge eyes and doll like characters… but they’ve made their own industry on top of it . Thus that part of why we read them as white characters. But a Stylized character still “Borrows from some sort of physical reality” so you can create a stylized trippy haired Asian woman with an impossible big bust and the face would remind you of a woman (abit pretty one from South-East Asia).

The thing is though

:: Japanese Popular-Culture creates fetishes of aspect European Culture and White American Culture to create Japanese Fantasy media (Catholic Churches Gun toting Nuns)

. Also with a kind of envy/self-hate complexity that some of my Japanese friends have made me aware all to World War II when Japan tried to Modernize to catch up with European powers . So that Modernization lead to a belief that the Japanese are somehow less “Asian” Than the other culture they share heritage and common ancestry with and that they identify more with (European Northern Country than they do with Korea )

I’ve Never really seen the Japanese media fetish-ize something from a non-European culture outside of the “1960s Afro” from African American culture (But nothing From countless other culture in the world , Middle Eastern, India Bollywood , Other Asian cultures , South America Mexico,) . If you ever played a generic Japanese RPG there plenty of European Castles .. Catholic churches and overly pretty pretty man in very pretty European setting.. Never seen a Final fantasy game set in Persia , or Latin America inspired setting or fantasy world. There either Generic European Fantasy worlds or Scfi-fantasy generic future Rarely are they even Set in traditional Japanese Mythology.

But anyway Anime and Manga feature Bubblegum pop-Pseudo Fantasy/Scfi European setting along with inspired cliched from various stereotypes pf European countries . We take all of all this and mix in whatever substrate of Japanese cultural media and "Bam" you have most anime . Remind me of the Full Metal Alchemist Universe really .

For Example

"Bayonetta is a Stylized British librarian made by a Japanese Developer . So it a Japanese creation based on a European fantasy . But the way she is designed ,the physical features of her face lack of elliptical folds of East Asian woman in conjunction with the heavily stylized rendering … so we don’t read her instantly “Asian” .

And I am not arguing for "Realism " Saying you could taken the same stylized crazy character and had the Asian face , we would read her visually more Asian a crazy fantasy Asian woman opposed to a crazy fantasy British white woman that is stylized.

So there …Probably a pretty good reason why we “read Otaku anime manga characters as “White “But Strangely Japanese”

If you combine a couple of fact

something without a stylistic identity is assigned a white default in our culture

the tendency of Japanese culture to that create fetishes everything European

the lack of design referencing of an actual real East-Asian face in the creation of the said style .. we end up reading them as "white". or "Doll like inhuman "

Though even in japan there was a Racist popular Manga based on the theme of why Korea was inferior to japan, That Controversially drew the Japanese characters as Generic Doll like anime characters that we are familiar with and read as "White" and explicitly stylized South Koreans as "Clearly" Asian with tiny eyes" so doubt it just "American stereotypes of japan that makes us read them as white. It a whole other hornet nest with this situation

Michael Eilers
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I like a lot of this discussion, and it is well-reasoned and calm. However, there is an elephant in the room that could use some air: how does this discussion fare when you read it through the lens of the fact that most game protagonists are mass murderers to an Atilla-The-Hun degree? Like it or not, most of our popular games are about killing mass numbers of dehumanized opponents. I don't think that trend will change - virtual violence has been the core of the industry for 35+ years - but it does make discussions about the genitalia or melanin of my main character a little ironic, in my opinion. Do I really want that person to better reflect my own self? Do I have to wear my own skin in a game, or can I use the built-in escapism we love games for to experience something different, without guilt? As Cordero says above, this is the strength of games.

Rebecca Phoa
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Perhaps because armed conflict is easier to translate to a video game in order to delineate the good guys from the bad? It's much easier to shoot at people with bullets than ideas.

Ken Nakai
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It may not be popular but honestly, I'm tired of race being any sort of an issue. In a way, it does start with hiring or maybe it just starts with making sure opportunities exist. But, ultimately, the best thing, just like Manveer touched on, is to include diversity but not because you're trying to. Whether it's because of the setting of the game or because adding diversity to a game creates a more heterogeneous game environment including an environment that provides opportunities for conflict or stories.

I like to look at something like Penny Arcade Expo where you have people of all races, creeds, sizes, etc. just gaming and being civilized about it. There is no qualification or focus on anything but the game.

In a way, we talk about Sci Fi and Fantasy being a way to abstract the issues or at least create a metaphor that's less recognizable and thus easier to swallow. But, if you look at, especially Sci-Fi and as someone mentioned Star Trek specifically. The whole point and the reason a lot of people like the universe is that it gives us an environment where races (and in this case species) coexist with (generally if you ignore cases like Klingons and Romulans which end up being plot points) less conflict. We want to see that optimistic view where money isn't everything, people don't die from something stupid like cancer (though crystal entities are a problem), and a black man can be the captain of a starship or the head of Starfleet (though it was unfortunate that he had to be a traitor in the case of the films).

I guess what I'm trying to say is: the last thing we need here is a sort of affirmative action approach to introducing diversity into game design. It shouldn't be something that everyone feels obligated to in order to meet some "quota" to look like you're being progressive. Instead, it should be something people don't even think about...something where when you populate a world or level, you're broadening your palette to enhance the environment and the game--and maybe add a little conflict too...just to make the game more interesting.

Jeffrey Touchstone
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gotta say that I agree with Manveer on all points here. I come from a film background, and I love watching films of all kinds. The depth of philosophical, cultural and stylistic diversity that exists in film is wonderful. It broadens the mind. I personally enjoy watching foreign films, because I get exposed to ideas and cultures that I would not have been exposed to otherwise. And that exposure encourages me to travel and study up on different parts of the world.

I would love it if games could have the same range of diverse topics that other mediums enjoy. I think we'd all be better off. We can't get by on GI Joe power fantasies forever.