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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.