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[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.
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.