Critical Intel Column Diversity

We’ve talked a lot lately about diversifying our protagonists. Whether it’s Ubisoft’s faux pas on including only white men as playable characters in Assassin’s Creed Unity, the general lack of diverse protagonists in games, or even Marvel and DC’s seeming reluctance to head up a movie with a non-white or female superhero, it seems we’re reaching critical mass on the topic. And that’s good, because it’s worth discussing. Young girls should be able to see themselves as heroes onscreen. Black men should be able to play a game where they’re something other than a gangster or a sports star. And gay players have a right to have their existence acknowledged in digital worlds.

But diversity isn’t just about the color of someone’s skin or what language they grew up speaking at home. It’s about a diversity of ideas and experiences, the unique cultural achievements and the challenges people face in our society – and that’s often overlooked. It’s crucial that games connect with minority players, but diverse protagonists are also powerful because they can foster understanding in those who aren’t the same color, creed or sexuality as the character. Games have the unique ability to let us step into another person’s shoes and – in a small sense – identify with problems we’ve never had to face. But we lose that opportunity when we play the same straight white guy over and over again.

I’ve written before that playing as a minority character is in itself a revolutionary act. Taking control of a character frees them from the constraints of their programming and gives them a role in their own destiny, making them an active participant rather than an NPC who’s acted upon. But more than that, we also role-play when we control a well-defined character, with our own wants and even values commingling with the PC. I never ran riot over Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance, because it didn’t seem like Niko would do that. What this means is that playing a minority character not only lets us tell their story, but that we subconsciously play from the character’s perspective.

Niko Bellic character in Grand Theft Auto IV

This combination can make us reconsider fundamental issues about race, class, gender and even sexuality. Take The Walking Dead, for example. While the game isn’t specifically about race, the fact that you play as a black character in the South tints almost every interaction in the game.

I distinctly remember the first time in The Walking Dead that I asked myself, “Does this guy hate me because I’m black?” It’s a question that came up every time I had an argument, met a new person, or even – and this was the scariest thing – when I disagreed with those I trusted as friends. The tension made me hesitant about what I said. At times I acted calmer than I felt because I didn’t want to bee seen as an “angry black guy.” Other times – like when I emerged from a house that wasn’t my own with a girl who wasn’t my daughter – it made me lie. About halfway through Episode 2 it occurred to me that there are people in my life that have to confront this subtext all the time.

Lee Everett in The Walking Dead Game

This is no revelation to anyone who’s African-American, or gay, or a woman, or part of a minority religion or has skin color that’s different from mine. And it shouldn’t have been a revelation for me either, since I’ve seen this depicted in movies, books and had it descried to me by friends. But playing that dynamic – directing the conversations myself – drove the point home better than any other media has. Were The Walking Dead a novel (or hey, even a comic) I might have read the same conversation and felt sorry it happened to a character. Games, on the other hand, simulate direct experience – I felt it happening to me, and it drove the point home.

The Walking Dead isn’t the only game to pick up this tool. There are several independent games that aim specifically to give the player a sense of a life they don’t live. Cart Life helps you identify with the economically disadvantaged, and in one portion reveals the challenges new immigrants face when they arrive to a different country. Dys4ia, more than anything else, helped me grasp how it feels to be a trans person. Depression Quest does the same for mental illness and The Path communicates often frightening navigation from girlhood to womanhood.

Understand, I’m not saying games starring minority groups should be created to educate straight white men, only that minority protagonists can benefit different people for different reasons. These experiences speak to players that come from that background, but they can also invite those who don’t share that experience to see from another perspective and reevaluate their assumptions – and that’s, in short, what art is supposed to do.

Art can involve creating beautiful things or provoking an emotional reaction, but it also serves a social purpose. Frequently, this involves art’s ability to let us see distant places or differing perspectives, revealing social ills that may lie far from the audience’s experience. Slave narratives like 12 Years a Slave and the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin played an instrumental role in the abolitionist movement. Dickens novels – drawing on the author’s own childhood – exposed the severe economic injustices of the time, from child labor to debtor’s prisons. In the last century, film took the leading role in socially-conscious storytelling, from A Raisin in the Sun (originally a groundbreaking stage play) to Do The Right Thing to Milk.

12 Years a Slave Movie

But all these mediums were passive. The audience observed the story rather than experiencing and shaping it. They were missing the element of choice, the one thing that truly puts us in a character’s skin and lets us understand problems and situations otherwise unfathomable to us.

Take Endgame: Syria for instance, a newsgame that puts you in charge of the Syrian rebellion. Before playing it, I couldn’t understand why the rebels were continually partnering with foreign jihadists. It seemed like a terrible idea from all angles because – as a westerner – I was focused more on the long-term strategic outcomes rather than the situation on the ground. The game elucidated this decision within three minutes by presenting the question: Would you like to use foreign fighters and risk instability, or abstain and have your lightly armed units crushed by the regime’s military? That’s a tough choice to make, and after multiple playthroughs I felt – and more importantly understood – how both options were a poison pill. Using jihadists killed more civilians, lost me international support and escalated the war. Not using them meant watching my troops get slaughtered, losing local support and risking defeat.

That’s a choice I never would have faced outside a game. It used play as a learning tool – and play has always been a learning tool – to elucidate a complex political situation.

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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