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BioWare's Manveer Heir On Diversity And The Fight For Inclusivity In Games

by Matt Helgeson on Jul 03, 2014 at 02:30 PM

[photo by Riccardo Cellere, all rights reserved]

At the most recent Game Developers Conference, BioWare Montreal’s Manveer Heir delivered an impassioned keynote about inclusivity and the lack of representation in games. We spoke to Heir about his opinions on diversity in games and how he would advocate for change in the industry.

[This interview originally appeared in issue 255 of Game Informer]

Your talk at GDC about representations of race, gender, and sexual orientation in games made a big impact. What feedback have you received since then?

Overwhelmingly, I’ve gotten positive feedback on the content of the talk, the delivery, the timing, the research I put into it, and things like that. When you go on Twitter, there’s this world of anonymous people who can snipe back. I’ve only received a handful, which is actually kind of surprising.

You didn’t talk about the larger culture surrounding games in your speech, but it seems like it’s hard to separate the issues of representation in games from the larger culture of games.

Absolutely not. These are all interrelated. We have a workforce problem. We have a workforce that’s predominantly white males. I think you see some of the output of that workforce as a result. I’m a firm believer that more diverse workforces would lead to more diverse game stories, characters, and interesting things you haven’t played yet that’s 
not a guy saving the world or saving a girl from -a -monster.

Data suggests games that feature white male characters tend to sell better. If you look at some of the huge franchises, that seems to be true. Do you agree with that observation?

It’s not proven. Anytime something is not proven, it becomes more risky. What we have is an industry that is used to making something. They have data points on how to make those things and how to make the big blockbuster shooter, the big masculine, testosterone-driven game. It works for the most part, in terms of sales, which is the ultimate goal of a company or business. But my argument is that, one, there are some diminishing returns there. I’d love to see more people trying interesting things.

For whatever reasons, people tend to like stories about war and violent crime. You could say, that, if you’re talking about who’s committing violent crimes, it’s men. That’s realistic in a way.

But why do we get attracted to stories of war and violent crimes? Is it because we’ve been conditioned since the day we were born to watch stories of war and violent crime? I would argue that’s what’s happening. I also think – from a video game perspective – we understand how to model violence systemically. Shooting a gun – we understand how that works. It’s a lot harder for love. How do I systemically create a relationship on-screen? Frankly, most of us can’t explain how love works in the real world, let alone how to simulate it in a game. Games don’t have to just be about war and love – those are extremes. There are violent contexts that we’re not actually pursuing. No one is making a game that effectively makes you make hard, difficult choices during a time of war. We need to find better ways of telling interesting [stories].

For you personally, as a non-white person, have you ever felt alienated by the game industry as a professional or a player?

Absolutely. More regularly than I’d like to. When you walk into a room and you’re the only non-white person in that room, you notice – even if no one is saying or doing anything racist. I grew up in an area of Maryland where I got picked on because of my race at a young age. Therefore, I am trained to think about it. At one job I had in the past, I got called the other Indian guy’s name many times by accident. When there are two Indian guys at work and we don’t look alike, and you confuse our names when we’ve both worked with you for three or four years...when the director of product development does that, you take offense. You can blow up or make a joke out of it to diffuse it and not get angry, but you feel weird. 

Then, in our games, especially games that don’t have strong characters, [why]I don’t have a choice to have someone who even resembles me? Half the time I’ll just settle for a black character, because as a brown man, I don’t see me. The U.S. thinks black and white in terms of race. Women, a lot of the time, don’t have that choice to choose a female character. So when people say, “I just want to enjoy games and not politicize games,” my point is I’m just trying to enjoy games too, but I can’t enjoy the games the way you can enjoy games, because literally the entire culture has taught me to think about these things. You can even look at the Nintendo game Tomodachi Life, that’s a great example. They don’t think they are doing anything wrong by [not having same-sex relationships], but what they’re doing is telling a group of people that they aren’t represented here.

I think the response to that is to say, “We’re in the business of making money and our job is to deliver what the largest audience wants and make the most money for our company.” Do they have a responsibility to try to push more inclusivity?

Responsibility aside, why do we think that we can’t make more money by appealing to what is a growing number of people who could be buying games but aren’t buying games? Why did Dora The Explorer blow up on TV? Part of that is due to the fact that a large group of Latinos in American saw, for the first time, a character who looked like them and gave them something to grasp onto. Then – 
surprise! – it turns out that lots of people who are not part of that race love the show.

When it comes to responsibility, I do think we have a responsibility to the culture. Not everyone is going to agree with that statement. People will say, “They’re just games; they’re just for fun.” But I think that, at the end of the day, they affect the culture and who we are as people. If we’re not trying to improve who we are as people, then what are we doing here on this Earth?

How do you bring some of your beliefs into your own work and your development philosophy?

You have conversations at work and find like-minded people. You build a sense of language of discussion that’s civil and open, and you push each other’s ideas. Then, you start challenging your preconceived notions – does it need to be that way? Am I designing this character this way because the character needs to be that way or because I just fell back on a default of what I think a character should be? Is there something easy and not that expensive that I could be doing that would broaden the scope? You can see games doing this in simple ways like character creators. If you have a character creator you can customize things like skin color and hair and choose what your character looks like.

What are some of the base-level things you would like to see happening in the industry to start changing these issues of representation?

I would like to see more diverse casts in games and in primary roles. Let’s just take the U.S. census statistics – half of our game characters should be women. And women shouldn’t just be side characters that are annoying and shrewish, they should be main characters. I’m just using that as a guideline – I’m not saying the population of African Americans in the U.S. needs to be exactly represented exactly in games. But that’s a good start, because then people would start seeing themselves. I would love to see that as a start.

Do you think these are issues that the people in the positions of decision-making in the industry care about?

I think this is stuff that a lot of developers care about. But they are meeting resistance at the top. So I don’t think we’ve convinced everyone along the way. If you have a team that has an idea for a game that has a woman protagonist and they go to the top and the executives or marketing say, “No, you can’t do that” – which is something that has happened and I’ve heard of – then, there is a major problem. It’s about convincing those people that this is good, not only for the business, but for the game and the outcome. It’s about standing up for yourself and the people around you. You have to do that with numbers.