Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Why Straight White Guys Shouldn't Always Play Games As Themselves

Robert Rath | 14 Aug 2014 16:00
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Robert Rath's Polynesian FemShep Commander Shepard in Mass Effect

But while it's important that games communicate problems and social issues, no group should be defined entirely by struggle. Developers also need to find the joy and triumph in difference. That might mean telling a love story that couldn't be told with a straight protagonist. It might mean diving into another culture, as Sleeping Dogs did. Or, like Tomb Raider, explore the perseverance women sometimes need in a threatening, male-dominated environment. (Given the maternal nature of the parent franchise, I'm curious to see what Alien: Isolation does with Ripley's daughter.)

I once even invoked a theme by accident. While building my Commander Shepard in Mass Effect, I realized that I'd never seen a Polynesian protagonist in a game - so I made my Shepard a Hawaiian woman. I never gave it much thought, and there was no reason behind the choice other than that it appealed to me as a Hawaii kid, but as the game progressed I found that Shepard's race-switch altered how I perceived the game. Though I'd picked up Mass Effect for the combat and branching story, I suddenly found the exploration sections more exciting. After all, the Polynesians crossed the Pacific navigating by the stars and colonizing uninhabited islands - what better people to strike out into space? Mass Effect was still ultimately a game about a quest, but I now internalized it as a voyage.

That is not to suggest, of course, that developers can just swap a protagonist's gender or skin tone and let the audience do the rest. Writing protagonists isn't easy in general, and even less so if you're trying to help the audience comprehend a culture different from their own.

And that's why if we want more diverse protagonists, we first need diverse developers. To tell these stories we need the people who've experienced them in their own lives and who care about telling them. After all, if I don't understand what it's like to be black in the American South, how am I supposed to help you understand it? How am I supposed to help you care about that narrative if I have little personal connection to it myself? I suspect the main reason we get so many white, straight, male protagonists is because that describes the majority of developers.

Carmen Sandiego character

The industry's lack of diversity is a substantial obstacle - one that'll take years to overcome - but it's worth it. Telling stories that represent different perspectives is always worth it. It's worth it for the young Hispanic girls who can see themselves onscreen as the brilliant thief Carmen Sandiego. Its worth it for a gay teen living in the Bible Belt who can be himself digitally, even though he has to hide everywhere else. And it's worth it for those of us who live nothing close to those lives, because it enhances our understanding and brings us closer to our fellow human beings.

We only live one life, and we spend it imprisoned in our own point of view. But art and play have the extraordinary ability to break us out of our own eyes and ears, and show us the world filtered through another life. Games can do this in a way different from any medium before it, and I think it's time we leveraged that.

It's time to stop living the same life over and over.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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