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Opinion: The Predictable Protagonist

Opinion: The Predictable Protagonist

June 23, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield

[In this opinion piece originally printed in Game Developer magazine's June/July issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield points out the severe lack of racial and gender diversity in video games, and urges developers to rethink how they craft their protagonists and villains.]

Lips snarl and teeth gnash. Blood spatters across the ground as the camera pans up to show a monstrous figure eviscerating a human corpse, in front of a panoramic view of a ruined America, overrun by bestial invaders.

Suddenly, the figure’s head explodes in a shower of green goo, as the camera whip-pans over to reveal the source of this new destruction"a massive weapon is outstretched, in the capable hands of our hero; a Caucasian male with close-cropped hair and a steely gaze. The logo fades in as you yawn"we’ve just seen the character reveal of nearly every video game protagonist ever.

Back To The Bland

There’s a serious lack of variety in our game heroes. Caucasian, heterosexual, and male are pretty much given components of any new game protagonist, and any distinguishing characteristics are built from that base. Characters of other races and genders tend to be relegated to background characters or comic relief, if they’re included at all.

I’ve said it time and time again, but diversity of all types is necessary for the game industry to continue to evolve. We have advanced in many arenas, but our diversity is definitely weak, both within studios and in our game characters.

I’m not calling for video game affirmative action, per se, but too much of the same thing leads to an insular medium. And why is it that so many of our protagonists look the same? Why should the protagonist be Caucasian and not African? Or Indian? Who will it alienate?

Some games get around the protagonist issue through character creators. Fallout: New Vegas, Mass Effect, and their ilk allow players to choose their own ethnicity with sliders, but this has little effect on gameplay. And while racial issues are dealt with to some degree in these games, they are truly "racial," in that they deal with races of beings, be they elf, mutant, or space alien. It’s a step, but why is race-oriented dialog always abstracted from reality?

Who Are We Fighting For?

In the late 2000s, USC researcher Dmitri Williams looked into ethnic portrayals in games, using the bestselling titles from 2006 to 2007. They sampled 150 games, recording a half hour of gameplay from each, logging the ethnic makeup of every character they came across, for a total of 8,500. They compared this data with that of the U.S. Census.

What they found was that white characters were overrepresented by seven percent, and Asians were overrepresented by 26 percent, while black characters were underrepresented by 13 percent, Hispanics by 78 percent, Native Americans by 90 percent, and biracial characters by 42 percent. And that’s just speaking of the U.S -- when the test was implemented, Caucasians represented 75 percent of the population.

Consider then, how overrepresented they may be in the many other markets in which games are played. And remember that this is across all characters in games. Speaking strictly of protagonists, this becomes even more pronounced.

Williams found, further, that while the in-game representations didn’t match the U.S. population, it did match the ethnic makeup of the IGDA. So, it seems, we make characters that look like us, not like our players: A late 2010 Nielson Group study showed that in a sample of Americans aged 18 to 49, African Americans on average spend more time playing console games than any other ethnic group.

The Safest Path

White people are the "safest" group to include in entertainment media. You can make them heroes, you can vilify them, and nobody will bat an eye. Make your protagonist black, and you’re likely to get some backlash about the portrayal, no matter how hard you try. That’s nothing compared to the can of worms you open if you make a nonwhite character a main villain. The backlash may not be severe, but I think developers are still wary of it.

Any kind of imagined backlash shouldn’t discourage you. I think there are a lot of rewards to be gained through different ethnic depictions. Would more Indians play your game if you had an Indian protagonist? Maybe not.

Would your writers and designers get more opportunity to explore different narrative territory? Absolutely, and that’s not only freeing, it’s the kind of thing that allows simple innovations. Though some may be wary of tackling an ethnicity that’s not our own, the best writers can bring any character to life, regardless of gender, orientation, or origin.

The traditional game industry is very risk-averse. But as we’ve seen time and time again, many of the companies with the highest profit margins these days are smaller studios taking bigger risks.

White Washing

Games aren’t the only guilty party. The recent Avatar: The Last Airbender live action movie scrubbed the cast a pasty white. Likewise, the frankly blasphemous proposed Akira remake is bringing out an all-white cast for its vision of "Neo New York." But the world of film has done much more to advance racial understanding than it has to hinder. Spike Lee, Pedro Almodovar, and others have done great work to bring other viewpoints into the public sphere through entertainment. With our interactive medium, couldn’t we do better?

In my recently cancelled game, I attempted to create four main characters of different races, genders, and backgrounds. They were quite different from my life experience as a Caucasian male. I am certainly not among the best writers or designers in the industry. So, couldn’t you and your team do better? Shouldn’t you?

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