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Dispelling the myth of not enough diversity in games

by Daniel Vavra on 07/22/15 12:43:00 pm   Expert 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.

 

My motivation for writing this article was the latest attempts by certain groups to dictate to artists what they should create and what it should be about in order to help build a brighter future. This time the talk was about The Witcher 3, but that’s not really fundamental; we’ve already seen similar accusations and we’ll see them again. So let’s look at this whole battle between “Good” and “Evil” from a slightly wider angle.

Diversity

“Diversity is a good thing.” At the present time there seems to be a general consensus on that, although it’s a claim that’s difficult to prove, especially since it’s not entirely clear what diversity is, actually.

For me, diversity is the variety and co-existence of different cultures, the option to choose freely what I like. Maintaining diversity means maintaining a world that is diverse with the most varied cultures. At least that is what is claimed in various resolutions by organizations like UN and all sorts of conferences. Like this, for instance Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage ratified on June 20, 2007 by 78 states which said:

“ The intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and gives them a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

Cultural diversity, then, means the complete opposite to cultural uniformity. In essence multiculturalism is in direct conflict with diversity, which is somewhat paradoxical, since the two are usually promoted by the same people.

According to the above definition, the likes of The Witcher 3 constitutes a typical example of a piece of work that contributes to world cultural diversity — Polish developers created a Polish game, based on Polish traditions, which presents to the world Polish reality and culture. And judging by the game’s success, the world is eating it up.

Only along come the crusaders for social justice, ranting that the game is racist, because it’s not ethnically diverse enough, due to the fact that there are only Polish-looking people in it and the Poles have the “misfortune” to be white. That’s an issue for the activists, because an African American, for example, might not be happy about playing a white Polish hero. Who cares that this attempt is literally the antithesis of diversity? Who cares that nobody is forcing anybody to buy a game they don’t like? Who cares that anybody who has a problem with the race of the hero (which itself seems a bit racist) can buy some other similar RPG that offers a choice of race — say the new Dragon Age, Bloodborne, Pillars of Eternity, Divinity or good old Skyrim? There’s plenty to choose from. Witcher 3, with its predefined hero, is in fact an exception. And that’s exactly where diversity lies: something that differs from the rest makes the rest more diverse.

These kind of absurd requirements are the same as if the activists demanded that instead of everyone being able to listen to whatever kind of music they liked, Britney Spears would be obliged to include in every album one jazz, one death metal, one country and one symphonic track and add a booklet with the entire written score for the hard of hearing. I don’t think anyone would want all albums to look like that. Nor does any reasonable gamer want all games to look like that.

Is this the kind of pop you want? (Picture by Mark Hall-Patch)

The invisible hand of the market

“No! That’s not the same! Minorities are not like music!” I hear the incensed hordes of activists yell. But they are, because despite the allegations of crazy conspiracy theorists, there is no conspiracy of white, sexist, misogynist racists preventing the creation of works of art in which minorities, women or whoever else are represented. The reason why such games are published is, “surprisingly”, the market — supply and demand. The publishers and developers would be sabotaging themselves if they didn’t try and satisfy their customers.

What’s more, although some of the crusaders don’t seem to realize it, the videogame market is not just Euro-American. Games are made elsewhere, too, and surprisingly in places where no one is interested in the Euro-American products. That applies especially to the whole of massive Asia. In China, for example, consoles were banned up until now and Chinese free-to-play MMOs are hugely popular there. At the same time, the Chinese market alone is almost as big as the US, so the activists’ notion that the world rotates around us is well off the mark. Basically, the world doesn’t give a damn about us.

Japan, too, is living in its own world. Although it quite successfully exports games, the Japanese are not very interested in foreign products (with occasional exceptions such as The Witcher 3).

Videogames market in 2014 according to Newzoo.

http://www.newzoo.com/insights/top-100-countries-represent-99-6-81-5bn-global-games-market/

Then there are countries where there is no market, either because they are developing countries with low buying power, or because videogames are basically illegal there (on religious grounds, for example) and at most are distributed in pirated copies. This applies primarily to Africa and the Middle East. Just have look how big is the market over there. Its small. The whole African market is smaller than Italy alone!

Video game market in Africa and Middle East.

The videogame market most of the activists have in mind, though, is the Western or, if you like, the Euro-American one, in which it applies that what we produce here, we also play. Logically, most of the games are made about us, for us. And since more than 90% of the population of Europe (and more than 70% of the USA) consists of Caucasians, the developers are also most likely gonna be Caucasians and will naturally create that which is closest to them and their customers and which they respond to best, i.e. heroes who are similar to them and familiar environments. I don’t think there’s anything bad or weird about that; it would be weird if it were otherwise.

Ethinical diversity in a world according to Washington Post.

A lie in a good cause is still a lie and leads to nothing good

Before we continue, let’s bust one basic myth: that games developed in the West only have white men as the main protagonists. I don’t know whether it’s mere ignorance or a deliberate lie, but nothing could be further from the truth.

According to GameRankings, out of the 100 highest ranking games of 2014, only 17 have an exclusively male hero, nine exclusively a female heroine and half of the games offer the player the choice of gender and usually also the skin color of the hero. The remainder consists of games in which no people appear at all (cartoon and logical games), sport, racing and strategy games and the like. Anyone who claims they are discriminated against because they can’t play a character that fits them is lying. It simply isn’t true statistically. And yet that is what the majority of activists are claiming.

There are some inaccuracies in this list, but you can hardly dispute the trend.

Why don’t Western developers try to adapt more to a different audience, like Asia or Africa? Well, we figured in Africa there isn’t much of a potential audience and in Asia Western developers have tried it (ask Microsoft, for example) and found out it doesn’t work. The Japanese, surprisingly, have no interest at all in an American-made “pseudo-Japanese” game with a Japanese hero. What has interested them, though, again surprisingly, is a Polish game, made in Poland, with a Polish hero (Witcher 3 unexpectedly made the top five highest selling games in Japan). Surprised?

It works very well the other way round, though, and the allegedly racist whites apparently haven’t the slightest problem with playing games that come from somewhere else, whose heroes aren’t at all like them. Unfortunately, “from somewhere else” so far means primarily Japan, Korea and Asia, because there aren’t many interesting games made elsewhere in the world. That, of course, is no reason to think Western players would behave differently if they did.

How to do the right thing?

So what’s to stop games being created with different heroes and environments than Euro-American or Asian? That certainly won’t be helped by quotas for developers of mandatory numbers of characters “of the correct race”. How many characters and what kind would The Witcher have to have for them to be sufficiently diverse according to the activist yardstick? And who says the resulting multicultural hodgepodge would be to anyone’s taste?

What I like about The Witcher is its very “Polishness”, and I’m certainly not the only one. The very fact that the “diverse” Dragon Age Inquisition, set in an indefinite fantasy world, sold less copies in Japan in one year than The Witcher did in two weeks proves my point.

It’s equally absurd to demand that a European stick elements of foreign cultures he doesn’t understand into his games. As a Czech, most foreign games and movies set in my own country seem to me at best ridiculous, because foreigners can’t even manage to capture properly the look of this country (Call of Duty, Metal Gear Solid 4, Forza 5 etc.), never mind our mentality and culture. The idea that I would create, for example, a game set in Kenya that the Kenyans would go for is totally inconceivable. Instead, I’d rather create a game about my country and its culture, because that’s what I love, and moreover no one else has yet done it. So far, there has been no similar game based on Czech history, and judging from the reactions up to now, it seems the world is interested in such a game. I dare say even the Kenyans would like it better than some unintentional parody of their country produced by foreigners. Diversity!

The Kenyans will just have to make their own game, just like the Poles and we Czechs. Sure it will take some time before that happens, because we in Europe have a head start. But one day it will happen and I look forward to that moment, because I’m interested in authentic works and narratives about foreign cultures, not multicultural, socially engineered hodgepodges created according to quotas.

Article was originaly published in Level Magazine 253.


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