Designing Against the Default Human

A friend linked this post about the indie flash game Every Day the Same Dream, a conversation between Nick Montfort and Mary Flanagan about criticisms of the game with regard to gender and race, and the implications of changing the game to make it about a woman and to include people of color. It is a very interesting conversation, though I have not played EDTSD, and it got me thinking about how we handle diversity in games. What struck me is that, so often, tokenism is the only solution put forward in order to combat the overwhelming whiteness of video game casts. Often the result is a cast that looks like the college promotional materials that Dr. Flanagan mentions in the post.

Tokenism is often (but not exclusively) a result of a creator making a bunch of white characters, realizing that zie needs some diversity, and then changing a few of the characters’ races. On the one hand, realizing that an all-white cast is usually problematic and unrealistic is a good first step, but on the other, tokenism is the absolute minimum step toward being inclusive to people of color, and it does nothing to challenge the idea that white people are the default human beings. It is that second failure that I will focus on for this post, but combating our concept of what a “default person” is also has the effect of making games and stories more inclusive.

I’m sure most of our readers are familiar with the concept, but for those who aren’t: in the US, at least, the “default human being”–the image that pops up when someone says “person,” without any descriptors–is a white, TAB, cisgendered, straight, thin, young, middle-class man; this type of person is considered “normal”, and anyone who doesn’t fit all of those categories is “Other.” This is strange because people who do fit all of those categories are a teeny tiny minority of people in the world; in fact, if we were to describe “default” human by, for example, taking the average traits of everyone in the world (if that were even possible), she would look completely different. She certainly wouldn’t be white. (See this fantastic piece by Echidne of the Snakes for a more thorough explanation.)

Video games–particularly RPGs–easily fall into the trap of treating straight white men as the default person because they are full of filler characters. RPGs need throwaway characters that provide functions to player characters such as selling equipment or asking them to clear out the giant rats in their cellar. When an NPC doesn’t warrant a lot of thought behind them, many developers fall back on using the “default human”, because making a “non-default” person takes more work and thought.

But what if someone approached making a game by consciously making the decision to assume, say, Latinas as the “default” person? What if every NPC was Latina until decided otherwise? Does that sound a little weird? But how is it really any more weird than white straight men being the default person?

I’m thinking particularly of genre games that take place in an entirely invented world/universe, or games with small casts, such as EDTSD. In these situations, there’s no reason there has to be a majority of white people, or even any white people at all. Instead of having only white people, or having a parody of diversity that looks like a college brochure (which is more about making white liberals feel better than being inclusive anyway, since the major characters in the game would still be white), why couldn’t EDTSD have been about, for example, a black family? Or does simply having people of color immediately make the entire thing about race?

It’s incredibly difficult to change our thought patterns around what the “default” person is. It takes conscious effort. Writing stories or creating games can be great exercises in making that effort. To use a personal example, a couple years ago I started making an RPG text adventure while teaching myself Python. Text adventures give the creator an incredible amount of control over what the player “sees” and when, so they are great for playing with perspective. I decided early on, as an experiment, that I wanted every single NPC to be female, and for all the characters to assume that the player/player-character is female (which is a bit different from what I was writing about above, but stick with me). Since there were no graphics, it would be interesting to see whether players assigned a gender to the characters, bothered to “look at” them (by typing that command), and what they thought if/when they realized pretty much everyone is a woman. It was also fun to be able to write character types that women aren’t often allowed to be, either in games or the fantasy genre: the shady thief, the greedy merchant, the wrathful ruler.

By making the assumption that everyone was going to be a woman up-front, I was able to temporarily shift my idea of what a default human being is. It was much easier to envision women in non-typical roles simply because I had to. Even so, while I also made a conscious effort to make most of my characters women of color, I was still operating off of a “white” (and many of the other attributes mentioned above) = “default” assumption.

It takes deliberate, conscious effort to change such deep thought habits. But if a game designer decides to start with a character template that isn’t a straight white man and go from there, changing attributes as needed, she is not only challenging her own concept of what a default human being is, but challenging her players’ as well.

About Alex

Alex posts some of her sewing projects and cosplays on her Tumblr; you can also find her babbling about sewing and games and Parks and Recreation on Twitter.
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27 Responses to Designing Against the Default Human

  1. Great post Alex! (though you really should try EDSTD right now, since it’s in Flash and only lasts about ten minutes)

    I’ll let other commenters handle the bigger questions on here, because the Border House staff and regular commenters are more knowledgeable about such fixes than I. I’d like to give a little bit of background on the guy who made this game.

    If you look at the bottom of the conversation between Nick and Mary, the creator (his name’s Paolo) mounted a somewhat weak defense. Basically he said that 1) he made the game in the matter of a few days, so “he didn’t have time” to consider the gender complexity of Mary’s critique and that 2) he’s interested solely in class issues here, so he didn’t want to “distract” the player by making the “boss” character a female or having the wife doing something other than cooking breakfast. Of course, I agree with you that these are decidedly *weak* defenses.

    I’ve actually encountered this kind of thing before, in a bit of writing where I defaulted pronouns to “she” and “her.” My editor told me that this would “distract the reader from my point.” We got in a bit of a tussle before settling on the elimination of gendered pronouns altogether. In writing, this is easy. You just change your diction to eliminate the need for gender. With games it’s a lot more difficult.

    I like your workaround, confronting societal defaults directly by defaulting to something like Latina females. One way, though, if you’ve got an editor (or in the case of a game, producer) that simply won’t let you spend their money on directly confronting stereotypes, would be to simply let the player input their race, gender, sex, and everything else at the beginning of the game and tailor the NPC generation to their specs. That would work if what you’re going for, as in the case of many RPGs, is immersion. Though, if you were trying to make an argument about something, I think your original suggestion is the stronger one.

    Now, back to Paolo, who made this game (here’s his website to check out his oeuvre: http://www.molleindustria.org/ ). As he says in his comment, he’s interested primarily in class. He, along with Ian Bogost, is an originator of the “anti-advergame” genre of newsgames, basically games that make an argument for how a particular corporation or corporate system is broken. His McDonald’s Video Game is an absolute must-play, if you have the time, and he’s got another one called Tuboflex about the replaceability of unskilled workers in a capitalist system. In many of his games, he’s got an NPC generation system in place that creates a mix of genders and races.

    Now, the strange thing about all of this is that he actually *has* proven that he cares about gender, sex, and sexuality. One of his games, Queer Power, is a kind of rock-paper-scissors “fighting game” where the player must change orientation and gender constantly in order to score points. It’s not a complex critique, but it does do some work toward loosening a player’s rigid sexual values. There’s another one, called Orgasm Simulator, where the player controls a woman who has to fake an orgasm to help a male NPC climax. This does two things: it critiques traditional male sexual selfishness, and it shows male players what it’s like to have to be a female who hides her lack of actual pleasure. It’s not as subtle, honest, or heartbreaking as the same kind of sequence in a Toni Morrison novel… but you can see what he’s going for.

    Now, let’s pose a different question. If a game designer does show a commitment to various kinds of social (including gender, sex, and sexuality) critique in his or her work, does he or she have to show this commitment in every individual work? I’d say no, but that’s my opinion.

    On the other hand, should he or she avoid subtle and careless stereotyping even when the goal of a particular game isn’t gender/sex/sexuality/race critique? And the answer to that, I agree with you, is “YES”!

    • Ah, I should mention: if anyone goes to Paolo’s website to check out those games I mentioned, the Orgasm Simulator game is *potentially triggering*.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, I would agree that it’s not necessary for one person to challenge all aspects of the kyriarchy in every work. That would probably be close to impossible. Just to be totally clear, this wasn’t meant as a criticism of EDTSD (which I still haven’t played! Will fix that after this comment…), that was just what sparked my thoughts on the issue of diversifying games. This is more of a suggestion on what a game designer could do if he or she were interested in tackling the issue.

      But thank you for the background info! Very interesting.

      Perhaps I am expecting too much of… people? Flash games? … but even if he wanted to focus on class, why does that mean leaving out people of color? That implies that simply having POC characters is “distracting”, when it shouldn’t be. (Which, I guess this is what I mean by expecting too much, but just because it shouldn’t be that way doesn’t mean it isn’t.)

      • Oh, yeah, I meant to be totally clear with my anecdote about my editor that the excuse that including people of color or women in a game about class, shooting things, or flying through space is a distraction is… a bad excuse! :)

        • Alex says:

          All right, having played it now (and yeah, it’s fantastic!), I can see why it might be difficult to make this sort of thing work for this game.

        • The only possible defense I would mount for it, which I’m not really inclined to do in earnest (I don’t think it’s really defensible), is that he was basically going for the same kind of ambiance as the recent film Revolutionary Road: he’s critiquing this white, middle-class myth of the 1950s family unit and the husband working his big job on the city while the wife stays at home in the suburbs. The problem with this defense is that the game doesn’t take place in the 1950s… the context is completely different now, and most women work, and most offices aren’t filled with nothing but white men.

        • Alex says:

          True, good point!

        • oliemoon says:

          The other argument that I could see from a racial point of view is that having all of the workers be the same race visually reinforces the sense of monotony that the game is trying to critique (I think?). It’s only a worthwhile argument though, I’d say, if the choice to make the characters specifically white was deliberate (given that the same sense of monotony could have been achieved using a homogeneous group of any color).

          For myself, encountering games with all white dude characters usually results in me rolling my eyes at the lack of originality and generally passing them over because they bore me. In that sense, EDTSD achieved one of its goals I suppose, in that I thoroughly rejected the dull reality that was presented (though I don’t think we were supposed to do that for gender/race reasons). :-P

    • Bakka says:

      I find the comments about not “distracting” your audience, made by your (Simon’s) editor and Paolo very interesting. The question, I think, is “not distracting to whom?” because it seems that many of us who are not TAB white cis men find the presence of only TAB white cis men very distracting.

      That worlds of all TAB white cis men are distracting is the point of this post, and the one it links to, and Olliemoon’s comment says this, I think. I certainly find it distracting. I spend my time asking “where is everyone?” rather than attending to the game, or the game’s message.

      So, as an explanation, I think that “not wanting to distract your audience” is very unsatisfying. Especially because it seems to recapitulate the default TAB white cis man, by assuming he is the audience. Rather than acting as an excuse for relying on the default, it just reinstills the default at a meta-level.

    • Doug S. says:

      Oddly enough, the protagonist in Every Day The Same Dream strikes me as Japanese. (The boss looks white, though.)

  2. wererogue says:

    Interesting thoughts.

    I’d be tempted, if I ever work on an RPG, to make an NPC generator – have it spit out a bunch of basic characteristics, and build (or have the character designer build) the NPC up from that base.

    There’s no reason characters can’t be diverse, but as you say, it’s hard to overcome our “defaults.” Pseudorandom number generators don’t have that problem :V

    • Alex says:

      That’s another good solution! Especially in an RPG where you will have a LOT of NPCs; in a smaller game it might be harder to get a good mix because even pseudorandom can have weird coincidences (for example, how old versions of iTunes would occasionally play the same artist three times in a row despite being on shuffle, or something). Ah, technology =)

      • Thefremen says:

        This reminds me of the Star Trek MMO, I was in the closed beta and for whatever reason they were using an older dark skinned trill gentleman as filler for npc models they hadn’t made yet. It was weird to see this same guy all over the place with different names.

    • I did this to an extent in a game with a lot of NPCs… throwing random characteristics at them to start with not only (I hope) helped create a more diverse cast but it also gave me ideas to make it easier and more fun to do little bits of backstory for each.

      Default gets boring for everybody!

  3. Im glad someone else said it before me. I’m fully behind games bring diversity to themselves and not relying on default white people for no reason. The thing is EDTSD is not doing it for no reason, when you walk through that office it creates a curious effect. Seeing all those white homogenious drones working away really hammers in the point of this pointless existence. I think it’s a very powerful inditement that wouldn’t work if there was such a diversity. Then the differences wouldn’t come from what you do, but firstmost the scenery. I’m not sure how the game would be different or if it would still pack that aethetic punch if everyone looked the same, but was black. But then again art deco isn’t usually associated with other races or groups other that white middle class, so that could throw off the aethetic style used.

    I agree, but I think EDTSD is just the wrong game to use as an example, because such sameness is neccessary.

    • oliemoon says:

      But then again art deco isn’t usually associated with other races or groups other that white middle class, so that could throw off the aethetic style used.

      I think that would depend on the player, and how familiar s/he was with art deco in general. I suspect for a lot of people, the significance of the art deco style and its historical usage will be lost on them and EDTSD’s art style is just something that looks quirky or cool.

  4. Mantheos says:

    Mass Effect 2 comes out today! Woo hoo! Yeah! The only good geth is a dead geth. :D

  5. Brinstar says:

    It would be nice if I didn’t have to keep playing default characters who are so difficult to identify with, e.g. white, male, straight dudes, in games where I interact in worlds that are, for the most part, composed of white people, with a POC thrown in as an afterthought. There are extremely few mainstream AAA games where POC compose the vast majority of a game world, and are represented in many diverse roles. Guild Wars Nightfall and Guild Wars Factions are two of the few…. And even then there are massive cultural appropriation issues there (the game was developed by developers who are mostly white and male, and the two games appropriate from different cultures in northern Africa and the Middle East for Nightfall, and from Asia in Factions), but still… everyone in the world is POC. EVERYONE. If an NPC is white in Guild Wars Nightfall or Guild Wars Factions, it is unusual and weird, or it’s a player-created character.

  6. Madcow says:

    You raise some really good issues in this post. I do think it’s worth considering, though, that there may be times when a racially homogenous cast makes sense in the context of a game world. You used RPGs as an example, and although there’s a lot of genre exploration in the RPG market today, I’d guess that a majority of those games are still based on Tolkien’s “middle earth” kind of european fantasy, which has always been represented as predominantly white (when not grey or scaly)

    This might seem like an artificial comparison but in Persona 3, where the entire cast is japanese kids, people don’t even bother mentioning race. In the context of that setting it’s entirely believable. In a case like this, a multi-racial or token cast would seem kinda awkward.

    I agree with your post though; in game settings that are modern fantasies (like fallout 3 or mass effect) it’s disappointing that most characters are adhering to, or decidedly differing from, the white male standard.

    I would LOVE to see a game featuring a latina cast. I’d love a fantasy game based in mid-eastern mythology. I don’t need diversity as long as the characters make sense in context. Still, I really want to see more thinking happening on the part of game designers.

    • Thefremen says:

      Your post made me think of a potentially awesome thing: God of War with Aztec mythology instead of Greek. In the sequels you’d kill off the Spanish single handedly.

      • Madcow says:

        Yes, love it!

        Ideas like that make me wonder why all our fantasy is west european or japanese. There so many good stories out there.

        And!!! the heart-rip fatality could finally make a video game comeback <3

  7. Tualarec says:

    Brinstar :
    If an NPC is white in Guild Wars Nightfall or Guild Wars Factions, it is unusual and weird, or it’s a player-created character.

    Very true. In most cases, if there’s a white NPC he’s probably a merchant or sailor from Tyria (for those who don’t play GW, that’s the “european fantasy-based” continent in the game). And even in Tyria there’s a respectable amount of POC, like the inhabitants of Kryta, for example.
    I think that helps a lot with immersion. For example, in character creation, I felt like I had to respect the racial setting, so all my Factions characters have obvious Asian traits and all my Nightfall characters have obvious African traits. In that context, I would have felt strange or misplaced playing a white character, although I’m white, so I guess they did a good job in the setting immersion department.

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