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The subtle and not-so-subtle ways diversity is stifled in game dev

The subtle and not-so-subtle ways diversity is stifled in game dev

March 1, 2017 | By Alissa McAloon

March 1, 2017 | By Alissa McAloon
More: Console/PC

"A lot of [developers] like to use the excuse that 'Oh, we wouldn't know how to light this person if we didn't make them lighter skinned.' But that just means that they should have done a little more work. It's not impossible."

- Breakup Squad developer Catt Small said in a Waypoint story on racial representation in video games.

In a recent story for Waypoint, Yussef Cole And Tanya DePass shared both their own insight and interviewed a diverse cast of game developers and industry voices to look at representation in game design as a whole and to shed light on many of the technical and societal barriers that still interfere with diversity. 

One example likened a 3D model commonly used to test shaders and lighting effects, the bald head of a white male, to an outdated relic from the earlier days of film production, called Shirley Cards, that used an image of a white woman as a reference for standardized color correction. The authors note this is an example of why it is necessary for game developers to "recognize that their tools have been shaped by cultural notions of what is deemed normal and desirable" and to establish new and accurately diverse standards.

"When 3D artists test their new skin shaders, they often use a 3D head scan of a white guy named Lee Perry-Smith,” explains game designer and NYU Game Center Professor Robert Yang. “What does it mean if we're all judging the quality of our skin shader solutions by seeing who can make the best rendered white guy?”

Another example given compares the dark complexion of a Redguard character in Skyrim to a fair skinned Nord character in different environments. The lighting differences are reflected on the Nord’s model through obvious shadow and texture. Meanwhile, that same definition is absent from the Redguard character’s features.

Technology isn’t to blame for poor lighting effects notes another interviewee, Gaming Looks Good host Shareef Jackson. “If companies wanted to get it right, they prioritize it," he said. "Unless they have people on the team willing to call them out on it as well, it won't change."

This is only a very small summary of the rich history and developer insight gathered by Cole and DePass. The full story over on Waypoint is well worth a read and contains an important look at how racial issues are reflected in games from the point of view of developers well versed in the topic. 

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