Industry of Inclusion

Industry of Inclusion
Praise Diversity, Address Inequality

Jamin Brophy-Warren | 31 Aug 2010 12:35
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New Media & Society published a paper last year that showed that videogame characters are predominantly white and male with Hispanics and African-Americans in particular absence. I addressed the issue last year on a panel at the Game Developers Conference, citing Heavy Rain. Initially, I was excited because the game was set in my hometown of Philadelphia, a city with a majority minority and a long history of African-American public figures (um, Bill Cosby?). Yet the four playable characters in Heavy Rain are white and the only black characters in the plot are predictable stereotypes: Mad Dog, the junkyard criminal, and the kindly old groundskeeper in the cemetery. We need to start chart challenging developers to defend their decisions. Provocation will produce a response.

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Take advantage of the web's capacity for volume. One of the benefits that online publications have is their torrent of content. This allows incremental changes in the industry to be noted - from weapon reveals to release date changes to multiplayer map releases. The same tactic can be used when talking about race in games - rather than burying that troubling line of dialogue, publish something quick that can at least become part of the permanent record. The critiques can be small and pointed ("I know it's a fantasy world, but why aren't there any non-white Little Sisters in BioShock?") as well as comical ("How hard is it to make curly hair anyway?"). The point is that these questions get asked in a public forum.

Finally, let's make a point of praising diverse work. Think about it on a crass, commercial level. Studios, like publishers, follow their wallets. When there's more games rated 90-plus on Metacritic featuring a minority creative director or protagonist, that's when EA or Ubisoft will start to think about the wider audiences that play games and want to be represented on-screen.

They should be good games, of course, but the onus lies on writers to begin to seek out work from those who are not being depicted in games. The film industry has benefitted from the existence of Spike Lee and not just through his filmmaking. The press nurtured Lee's early films and took him seriously as a filmmaker even as his budgets for films like Do the Right Thing were miniscule. Although many film critics lambasted the content of his films as controversial, the fact that such dissent was in a public place afforded Lee the same respect as any other filmmaker.

Aside from critique, one of the many tools in our arsenal is praise: bright, effusive, and glowing praise. Critics throughout history have been credited with "finding" artists along the way and ushering them into greatness. In other mediums, it's meant pushing people like Lee or artist Kehinde Wiley or singer Tunde Adebimpe or actor Donald Glover. If we care about videogames, we need to be the change that we wish to see in the world, to paraphrase Gandhi.

Besides, critics get more credit that way.

Jamin Brophy-Warren is the co-founder of Kill Screen, a videogame arts and culture magazine, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Paris Review, and Los Angeles Times.

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