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In-Depth: We Make Characters That Look Like Us?

In-Depth: We Make Characters That Look Like Us?

February 26, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

February 26, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC

Racial diversity, both within the industry and inside games themselves, is an issue not very often addressed. At DICE, a panel that spanned disciplines and experiences tackled the issue, moderated by Kill Screen Magazine's Jamin Brophy-Warren.

He was joined by by Manveer Heir, lead designer at Raven, Dmitri Williams, professor at USC, and Navid Khonsari, founder of iNK Stories and former director of production for Rockstar Games.

Diversity Study

By way of introduction to the topic, Dmitri Williams discussed his research into how people look in games versus how the players look in reality. The motivation was to learn about stereotypes. "Stereotypes are a natural, logical, and intelligent process," he said. "It's taking a small group of data and spreading it over a wider group. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's a dangerous thing."

For the project, Williams and his researchers took all the bestselling games from 2006-2007, new at the time of the study. They allowed for weighting in terms of what people played more often, so Madden counts more than Beyblade for DS.

There was a sample of 150 games, at least 15 per platform. They recorded a half hour of gameplay from each game, and did a simple count of the characters in the game, finding 8,500 human characters. They then compared this with the U.S. census.

What they found was that white characters were overrepresented by 7%, Asians by 26%, while black characters were underrepresented by 13%, Hispanics by 78%, Native Americans by 90%, and biracial characters by 42%.

So if this doesn't represent the U.S. population, what does it match? In the end, it seemed to match the IGDA survey of game developers in the industry, almost to the exact percentages. You make games that look like you, Williams concluded.

The Panel

So how do you get people to write about what they're not? When Navid Khonsari was at Rockstar, they agreed that "You can't have an Englishman and a Scot writing a story about what happens in LA," so they did a lot of research into the culture by actually spending time there, with the types of people upon which they were basing the game.

"You need to embrace a story that's not just going to be based on a white male," he said, "and if you're going to go out there and talk about other ethnicities, you need to reach out to those communities and get input."

"In Prey, you have the Spirit Walking mechanic," added Manveer Heir. The developers skinned it with Native American themes. "We have to find mechanics in our games that can support the kinds of characters we're creating, so their backgrounds actually matter. Where do they come from? It could be racial, gender, or being homosexual."

Why is it that we don't make more adventurous characters? There's a "giant shortage of female characters in games," said Williams, noting that there is an 85/15 split in terms of male to female characters in games, whereas in the real world it's about even. "How do you get people who make games about themselves to be different? Until you get those people into the industry, they're not going to make games about themselves."

"We can move past it," postulated Heir, "we just have to start thinking about it. We don't even bother throwing out new ideas for characters. We're not thinking about what the rest of the market potentially wants. We have to encourage everyone to start thinking about it, and in the long term plans, we have to encourage more minorities to get into this industry."

But why bother from the business side? "Part of it is there are potentially untapped markets," said Heir. "You could certainly grow - there are a lot of black kids and Hispanic kids playing these games, and we're probably losing them as they get older."

"It's really important to remember that there's an industry beyond these borders," said Khonsari. "There's a potential for a lot of markets that could start consuming these games. We should recognize that there is money there, and we can't appeal to people by putting them as victims in these games."

Khonsari posed that developers should hire people of color to write for non-white characters, but Heir disagreed. Heir figured that if you have a good writer, they should be able to write any character. If you ask the business folks to not only take a risk on a potentially racially divisive character, and then ask for more money to hire someone new, that's not going to fly.

Personal Thoughts

Obviously the issue is a large one, and there will be a separate GDC talk on the same issue, but in the audience myself, I couldn't help but have some opinions. Not discussed were character creators, in which a player could potentially be any race. I spoke with Heir after the conference, and he said they only go so far - sure you can be any race, but if the content doesn't address it, it's not very powerful.

Still, we agreed that perhaps having a character be a certain race and not have that called out may be more progressive than focusing on it directly.

My own thoughts led to a more potent reason why we don't have more racially diverse characters in games. If the majority of our developers are White and Asian, White people especially are trained to feel racially bland, and as though they cannot discuss racial issues without offending someone.

Thus, attempting to write a character that's not of your race opens you up to some potential harsh criticism, and people would simply rather not take the risk, because the risk versus reward potential is very high there.

I would submit that writers should be able write characters of other races, and be confident in their work. We are much more comfortable dealing with racial issues when there's a layer of fantasy, as is done in Mass Effect or Dragon Age.

In my personal opinion, we should see more games like Fallout 3, in which many races are represented, but the race of the character is far outweighed by how they interact with you. We don't need to deal with all of society's problems in games, but having demographics represented even just visually seems worthwhile.

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