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Practical advice about queer characters in games
Practical advice about queer characters in games
March 20, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

March 20, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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    8 comments
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Indie, Serious, Programming, Art, Design, Production, GDC



How can you be more inclusive in your game making, especially when it comes to LGBT issues? Samantha Allen, a games writer who often focuses on inclusivity and queer issues, hosted a panel at GDC offering thoughts and advice for game developers.

Critic, lecturer, activist and "cyborg witch" Mattie Brice says there are challenges to developing games that are diverse but not tokenistic ('We haven't had a lesbian in here, so let's drop her in there,' she jokes).

She believes a lot of developers approach her asking for some kind of list or prescription for how to "put the queers in," but imagining individuals in an essentialist way is not especially constructive. The definition of "queerness" is constantly evolving, and it's difficult to create characters whose identity comes across without making caricatures.

But one approach that helps is working in unreality, says Brice, who likes to cite the work of Ursula LeGuin and Octavia Butler for the ways the manage to fold social issues into science fiction work in ways that don't feel "lesson"-y.

"It is work, and you actually have to put in the work," says MIT researcher and eSports expert Todd Harper. "You have to want to do it, and if you don't want to do it, maybe you should go."

"Like it or not, games are culture and whether you're in QA, music or marketing, you're making culture," Harper adds. "Culture is how we understand each other. So if you understand you're making a cultural product, we understand that we're worried about what matters to other people all of our life."

"Privilege is the ability to say 'it doesn't matter,' he says. "'I don't feel like I need this?' of course you don't, if you're a cisgender, male, white heterosexual. But the rest of us kind of do. Empathy is the ability to see what matters to other people, it's the ability to see what matters to someone who isn't you."

"Empathy is a muscle, and you have to flex it over and over," he continues. "Empathy is the muscle we use to lift everybody up," he says. "If you don't care, find something else to do, where the desire to not care doesn't hurt anyone. Protip: No such space exists."

His one tip is to make something, question all of your decisions, and then try inverting them. "Instead of making a game that's like "yo, I'm going to sword you in the face" let them hug it out," Harper suggests. "Or dance it out." There is no real cost to trying something new -- something that means little to you can mean lots to someone else.

Allen, who writes at the Border House and other outlets, also has a piece of practical advice: "Don't use tokenism as an excuse for total exclusion," she advises. "I often hear 'oh we didn't include a female or queer character because we didn't want to tokenize them.'"

She recently played a game that effectively included a "heterosexuality check": it was an iOS dating sim that let her flirt with a woman friend, but didn't let her pursue a real romance with her. She was not able to advance the game or conclude any relationship arcs at all because she didn't choose to have her character flirt with any one man.

When she asked the developer about it, she found out they were afraid to actually develop a lesbian romance option because their one lesbian friend was worried about creating a 'token.'

"When people are thinking about tokenism, they're only thinking about the character within the economy of their own game,"Allen says. People who worry it might be weird or offensive to have only one minority character in their game have lost perspective on the idea that they're contributing to a community of other games and other characters, she suggests.

In the development of Depression Quest, Zoe Quinn initially left the gender of the main character's partner ambiguous at first, but then realized something personal: "I was taking a lot from my own experience with a couple of women I had loved," she says.

"So I decided, at a late stage of that game, to let that character be a woman, and to write her a little bit more personally. And as soon as I did that, the writing for all of the romance things got much better. A lot of people assume that in Depression Quest you're playing as a straight white man... if you don't explicitly state their frame of identity, people often assume straight white male. Even if you leave it blank, people fill it in in their head."

It was hard for her to her to hear from players who couldn't imagine having a woman as a love interest if they weren't a man: "They're basically saying that my identity is not relatable," she says. But it was still important to her to express her own experience. Now, she's making a satirical comedy dating sim where she's trying to present a possibility space, and where it's been an interesting challenge to make a game about love and sex without giving anyone a gender.

Eventually Quinn decided to make it so the player is given a possibility space with set genders, and they're allowed to interact with them however they like -- her own approach to love doesn't have to do with gender, so she built an environment where other players could also have that experience.

"I know at that point I'm not actually making 'queer characters' in a lot of ways... it's kind of a tricky thing to apply practically, but at the end of the day you have to trust yourself and your voice, and do a lot of talking to other people," she suggests. "That's the best thing you can do: Talk to other people. Don't just have your 'one lesbian friend' that you base everything off of. Consider what your systems are saying about gender and sexuality, consider what the player is actually going to be doing, and then talk to people, and then talk to people."

Allen has a striking concern: That all the focus on customization options as a solution to inclusivity issues will limit further development of queer characters. "Folks are starting to see character customization as a panacea for inclusion," she says. "It's like, 'If we put some sliders in there, anyone can play it and feel like themselves.'"

She felt that EA's recent Full Spectrum event, where the publisher committed to focus on inclusion, was a positive step for the company but also saw a concerning divide appearing: "'For the bros, we make Battlefield, and for everyone else you can play Dragon Age!'" she laughs.

"I want to see a gay character in Battlefield 5. I want to see authored, intentional queer and women protagonists and supporting characters. So I worry that [while] a character customizer can be very powerful... I don't think we should stop there, with 'as long as we make a character customizer we never need to put queer characters in any games.'"

Christine Love's first game, Digital: A Love Story contains a gender-ambiguous protagonist that interacts romantically with a woman. She didn't emphasize the possibility of queerness, but to her, "if any queer women saw themselves in it, that was enough."

"It's okay to make experiences that possibly some people perceive one way, but possibly other people who are never represented at all will see themselves in it," she believes. Her game Analog: A Hate Story, which focused on storytelling and relationships, "does ask the player's gender, and then the character proceeds to ignore what you said about your gender," Love says. "It's only asking you so that you can [see that] gender is relevant. The player could see that 'I could have selected I'm a woman, and still have this romance.'"

The player's gender doesn't matter to some characters in her games, and matters deeply to others, depending on their backgrounds in the narrative."I did feel it was important that players get both experiences," says Love. "So I put in an achievement: If you go through a route as a man you get half the achievement, and if you go through as a woman you get the other half. And as a result, half the people who played the game did both."

"These things are there: You can draw attention to it, but I don't know if it's the biggest of deals if someone doesn't realize, just so long as it is accessible to other people," she says. "The other thing I learned here is that -- and this ties into worrying about whether you're making token characters -- Whether or not someone's queerness is important to them and what it means to them is on a very wide spectrum."

By drawing attention to the queerness of of her games she can counteract expectations of her game that may arise based on the fact that they're all about interacting with cute girls. The gender ratio of her most committed players is actually pretty even, she's learned.

"I think that shows that no matter how your game is perceived, even if people think it might just be for straight people, you can clearly have such a strong impact on people just by being inclusive."

Words like "queer" and acronyms like LGBTQ ("and all the letters we keep tacking on!") can be problematic in and of itself, since identity is a broad spectrum that a lot of people value in different ways. And androgyny is not a "blank slate" -- plenty of nonbinary people are likely to feel stung by the idea that character is determined by choosing gender.

"There's no way to capture a universal queer experience," warns Harper. But listening, talking, asking questions and focusing on empathy matters.

"If you accidentally hurt someone, that's fine, but you have to use that experience to learn and change your behavior," he says. "The listening part is especially important once you've really screwed it up, because that's the only way you learn to not do it again."

"Once that's done," adds Love, "in your own space, in your own way... you should absolutely explore what's important to you. Even if it's coming from a place of privilege it is still valid to explore those, and you should not be afraid to do it."


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Comments


Paul Furio
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Perhaps I lost it, but what is the actual practical advice? Make games where the main character's gender/preference is irrelevant, or make games that ask and then take that into account? Don't fulfill a "queer quota"?

Admittedly, I might have some characters who are gay in my next game, but that's just because some portion of the population is gay. I highly doubt it will affect the gameplay in any way whatsoever, any more than that I'll have characters who are white, asian, straight, female, old, healthy, or handicapped. They're just people in a world populated by diverse people.

Alfa Etizado
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At some points it can sound like a bunch of guidelines of what to do and what not to do, if you break the rules you're bad, this and that are problematic etc.

So I guess the actual practical advice is that instead of following guidelines perhaps it's better to make an effort to be empathetic and talk to people because people have tons of different things to say. I guess, maybe?

Simone Tanzi
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Well, I wouldn't say "it doesn't matter" because it does... I would say "It doesn't require a solution".
I know ... it sounds horrible.....
But I have the impression that most of the people who chase after inclusiveness do it wrong and for the wrong reasons, social acceptance.
They want to be accepted as progressive, tolerant....
They are not...
And I am afraid there is no manual for "how to be a better person"
The issue of tokenism I think is real and is a weird one.
Basically, if you are worrying about Tokenism you are probably right.... because you are not thinking about characters as characters but as a box full of features.
You make something absolutely artificial and put the feature "this character is homosexual" because you feel you have to be atrificially inclusive.
But that's not the way a character work. A good character at least.
You need the sensibility to create characters that are alive... that have personality, and at that point ... if a character is not a white male heterosexual is not because someone asked you to make him something else ... the character asked you. You felt as an author that the character made sense that way.
The real problem is that probably, many times, an author comes up with an idea like that and someone above him scratches that because is risky. Sometimes an author comes up with something like that but censure himself because he is afraid to see his work destroyed and his work judged.
So many people just go the easy way ... White male....
The fact that every time someone tries to do something culturally challenging an army of white religious parents ask to burn at the stake everyone that suggest that LGTBQ are decent people doesn't help either.

I do agree on the fact that videogames are culture. But I think this kind of cultural change will probably happen in the culture before it happens in videogames. Mainly because videogames, especially mainstream ones, are still more business than culture.
I will still praise the few brave ones that make a stand and do something in the right direction in our world.
But in the end ... time are changing already, and they are changing fast. Never as fast as we wish but intolerance as a value is getting weaker and weaker at every second.
Everybody will have to adapt soon. Being Homophobic soon will not be an option.

Steve Peters
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Some interesting points. It definitely is a narrow tightrope to balance on when trying to include characters belonging to various minorities. Including them just for the sake of it relegates them to extras and background scenery, and pointing them out, without fleshing them out turns them into hollow tropes. So a protagonist's sexuality may be backstory that's simply assumed, or only mentioned once, and never delved into; it may be "card board cut out character depth" that is constantly mentioned, but never made important; or it plays a major role in the narrative.

Interesting thing about backstory/assumed gender/sexual identity; we tend to write "Strait/white/cis/male" as the standard template game character, and no one makes a talking point about it because there is little that needs to be said. Once the general population accepts, say, "non white people (or POC if acronyms are your thing)" as just "people" in popular culture, it's then considered main stream, and thus becomes another "standard template". For example, there are plenty of shows/movies that feature black or female leads, without focusing the script on their racial/gender identity. Homosexuality is sure to follow, and others are certainly not far behind.

The only way Battlefield 5 will have a female/black/LGBT (I hate using acronyms to describe people) character, is to expand the accepted variety of "standard template" characters.

Now, how do we expand the accepted variety of character identities with a smooth transition? IDFK. The current way is to produce small low budget works that target specific demographics individually, and elegantly, then bombard everybody with crudely written, soap boxy, ham-fisted content, until everyone who doesn't want to accept finally does, and we include them as we should.

Another question is, does art mimic life, or does life mimic art? I'd say that it's a bit of a push and pull, and almost a chicken vs egg type question (though that has a definitive answer).

Ben Mathis
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Finally found the quote this reminded me of. "In response to the complaint of white writers about writing about people of color: ďDamned if you do. Damned if you donít,Ē I want to say: absolutely.

Itís absolutely true. Youíre damned either way. If you donít do it, youíre a racist. Yes, you are. Race and racism exist in this society, and if you ignore them, youíre expressing a racial privilege that you donít, morally, have any right to. Thatís a subtle form of racism.

If you do do it and get it ďwrongĒ, youíll get reamed, and rightfully so. Itís presumptuous of you to think that you have the right to represent a culture you donít belong to if you canít be bothered to properly examine and accurately portray that culture.

Further, if you do it and get it ďrightĒ, or rather, donít get it wrong, youíll still get reamed by members of that culture youíve represented who rightfully resent a white writerís success representing their culture. After all, every American ethnic minority has its writers: good and bad. The good writers are mostly ignored. Inevitably, some white writer will come along and do a bang-up job portraying that culture and will getóin one book, in one section of a bookómore attention than the poc writer got over the course of three or five or ten books.

Youíre a white writer trying to do the right thing, but no matter what you do, itís wrong. And thatís so unfair to you, isnít it?

Welcome to a tiny taste of what itís like to be a person of color."

Steve Peters
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I would agree with everything, except (unless I'm reading it incorrectly) that not including a minority makes one bigoted. This would imply that every work of art, every piece of fiction is bigoted, because they don't include all minorities. Write a military drama? Well, unless one includes the sexual harassment towards women, homophobia and racism within the ranks, the devestation that it causes to human life in foreign countries, the psychological effect on soldiers, and the potential destruction of said soldiers life and family on home turf, one is being bigoted and insensitive.
If one does write military fiction, and simply ignores all of the above, just to make a macho, shoot 'em up, then it's absolutely socially irresponsible, because the topic of military conflict is one that can not be addressed, without addressing it's issues. It's up to the author/writer to decide what issue needs tackling. Cultural awareness within entertainment media is something that must be tackled as a community.

Steve Peters
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It's curious. As a straight/white/cis male, when I first heard the term "cisgendered" I didn't like being pointed out as such, and it makes me wonder how others feel when being relegated to a specific "type" of person.

As for places where said problems do not exist, this brings to mind an early NES game by Square Soft (or just Square, back in the day), called Tom Sawyer. The game's depiction of a black character was just awful, and that's because their culture wasn't all that aware of America's history of racism and slavery. But, because they've become more knowledgeable about such topics, there exists no excuse to play ignorant. This also falls under "accidentally hurting someone". I wouldn't say it's fine, but rather that it should be forgiven until they've been made aware of what they've done was wrong, and why.

Luke Meeken
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I'm a straight/white/cis/male, and don't feel at all "demonized" or attacked by articles bringing up legitimate concerns like these. I suppose most folks living in a position of extreme privilege have especially thin skin as a result, and are especially prone to feeling 'attacked' when that privilege is questioned.

Conversely, I know that my position of privilege can make me myopic in many respects, and I appreciate it when people point out those potential areas of short-sightedness or bias. This helps me expand my perceptions and the scope of my empathy, and helps prevent me from unintentionally hurting or marginalizing people. Those are good things.

"I'd also like to point out that games are meant to be played, not to make political standpoints." Erm. In a world where gay people REALLY exist, and REALLY engage in romantic relationships, I would say the game that conspicuously omits that reality is making more of a political statement than one that chooses to reflect it. The assumption that a game that parrots the pop-cultural status quo w/r/t to gender or sex representation is somehow being 'apolitical' is precisely the sort of short-sightedness stemming from privilege that socially engaged articles like the rightfully critique.

Games (like all cultural artifacts) are constantly making political statements, whether we want them to or not. A thoughtful developer would take this into account and exert some intentionality over the political statements encapsulated/expressed by their game, rather than thoughtlessly parroting established ideas and concepts that might in fact be deeply problematic.


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