The lights are on
Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Game Informer (#214)
The topic of race can be an explosive one, and like in other media forms, who we are is not always reflected in what we see in the games we play. Our favorite hobby has a well-documented history of under-representing racial minorities in its characters. One study of the top 150 video games conducted in 2009 by Dmitri Williams, a social psychologist and assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, revealed an over-sampling of white male characters and an under-representation of minority populations such as Latinos in games.
This isn’t just a problem on your TV screen; the absence of diversity can be a problem behind the scenes at your favorite developer as well. IGDA’s Game Developer Demographics Report in 2005 noted that of the almost 6,500 developers surveyed, the white and Asian demographics were overrepresented. A lack of diversity isn’t just a philosophical argument, but a situation that could affect what you play. Developers have a hard enough time creating compelling, successful content, so how do they untangle the intersecting lines of social justice, consumer desires, and developer responsibility and still come out with a game that’s a fun, inviting experience for everyone? We talked to some developers about racial diversity in video games and why this is an important topic for all gamers.
“If it ain’t fun, nothing else really matters,” says Morgan Gray, development director at 2K Marin. Gray’s comment is in regards to whether developers have a responsibility to make characters in games more racially diverse, but his answer is the same one developers everywhere evoke in any situation. If creating great games is the main duty of any developer, why does race come into the equation?
Video games’ status as an interactive medium gives it the capacity to tell a unique truth to its audience. Part of that truth is strained when all the player sees are straight, white, male protagonists, just as it does with bad AI or poor graphics. A lack of racial diversity in characters also limits the palette of stories for the player by restricting the kinds of experiences protagonists of different backgrounds can bring to the table – whether that’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
Building an avatar in games like Mass Effect is a natural tool to allow the player to create whatever diversity they want, including the chance to see themselves reflected in the game they are playing. Although this isn’t an option for every game, and it would be obnoxious and conspicuous to force minority characters everywhere just for the sake of it, it’s a step in the right direction even if there is still much work to be done to bring new stories and backgrounds to light.
Email the author Matthew Kato, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.