Why games are tailor-made for diversity

One of the things that I’m looking forward to here at The Border House is trying to spot the themes and trends that develop across multiple posts. Looking at issues in isolation is great as an opportunity to really focus on one thing in depth, but I think we stand to learn a lot by backing up a little and taking in the bigger picture.

Here’s something that I’ve noticed come up a few times already. We pretty much all seem to agree that we want to see more female characters in games, more minority characters in games, and generally more “people like me” in games (for whatever value of “me” each of us has).  What we also agree on is that trying to get this diversity into games isn’t always easy. For instance, if someone wants to make a historically accurate simulation of the Battle of the Somme, then it’s mostly going to contain white men out of the need for verisimilitude. (Or so I understand; history isn’t my strongest subject.)

The lead characters from Brokeback Mountain share a hug

The lead characters from Brokeback Mountain share a hug

In the long term, I can see that it could be fine for some games to deal exclusively or predominantly with straight white males, if there are other games dealing mainly with women, homosexuals and people of colour. In the movie world, for instance, Brokeback Mountain is a movie about gay men whereas Pirates of the Caribbean (for instance) isn’t. This doesn’t mean that Pirates of the Caribbean is a bad movie, nor a homophobic one. It means that they were different movies with different themes and different characters.

One of the ways that games are different from other media like film or books is that we don’t have such an enormous corpus of work to compare with and fall back on. If I want to watch a movie about transgender people, I could go and watch Ma Vie en Rose or Boys Don’t Cry or even Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so I don’t feel frustrated at movies as a medium so much when I see yet another movie about people who aren’t like me.

Without the large back catalogue, every new game is – to some extent – representative of gaming as a whole. How, then, should a game go about including a diverse cast of characters without falling victim to tokenism? Every game has a limited number of characters and there’s no way you could fit the whole of human diversity into them, and I don’t think anyone should try to.

Compared to books or movies, games have an innate advantage when it comes to covering diversity: everyone’s experience is different in a game.

If I watch a movie, it’s going to be the same every single time I watch it. If I pause after 58 minutes, it’s going to show the same picture every time. If my friend watches the same movie and pauses at 58 minutes then that picture will be identical as well. If I play the same game as a friend, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be in the same place after 58 seconds, let alone 58 minutes.

We’re used to player characters being different. We can choose different classes, modify our appearances and set our origin stories. We can make decisions as we play the game that influence how NPCs treat us. My Grey Warden is not the same as your Grey Warden. My Lone Wanderer is not the same as your Lone Wanderer. Why then do we not have the same degree of flexibility over the NPCs we interact with?

I played Champions Online for a short while after it was released, and though I quickly lost interest, one of its features intrigued me. As well as customizing your hero’s name, appearance and powers, you also got to do exactly the same thing for the super villain who served as your arch-nemesis. And why not? What good is a super hero without a suitable villain to fight against, and how are people going to become emotionally invested in their character if they end up with a generic foe who doesn’t work with their character at all?

The same could be said about any major character in any game. If I get to create my player character to my own specifications, why should I be satisfied with a generic comrade-in-arms or a generic love interest?

The arguments against doing things this way are obvious.  It’ a lot harder to create compelling characters and a compelling plot this way. The more options there are, the more dialogue would need to be written and recorded, and so on. From the stand-point of logistics alone, I can understand why games companies wouldn’t want to do this.

At least on a small scale, though, I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be done. Let’s take Dragon Age: Origins as an example. Brinstar posted last month about some of the problems the game still has with sex and gender in spite of it being one of the more progressive games out there on this front. One of the ideas she brought up there was that of making all the potential romance characters be bisexual:

However, I was asked to think of a solution, and this is what I thought: if budgetary concerns were the factor, and they could only provide four romantic options, I would have made all of them bisexual. This option would have excluded those who play characters that are homosexual and those who play characters that are heterosexual to exactly the same degree, without completely excluding those who play characters that are bisexual.

She also raised this idea, as suggested to her in a comment:

Make one female NPC and one male NPC bisexual (as they did with Leliana and Zevran), then make the other woman and the other man flexible so that (in this case) Morrigan and Alistair can be either heterosexual or homosexual depending on the gender of your player character.

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

Morrigan from Dragon: Age Origins

What I’m proposing is that the sexuality of all four of the characters could have been flexible, and that the player could get to pick. If I want to have a romance between my female Grey Warden and Morrigan, then why can’t I? But at the same time, if I want my male Grey Warden to have an unrequited love for a straight Alistair then again, why not? Same thing if I want Leliana to be exclusively interested in women, regardless of the gender of my character.

We could go further. Is there any particular reason why Alistair absolutely needs to be a man? Is there any reason why Wynn need to be white? To my mind, no and no. Why not let us customize our companions to our hearts’  contents to match our customized player characters?

Now, I’m explicitly not trying to suggest that this is something that BioWare should have done. There are a lot of good reasons not to do something like this, and if you did want to do it then I suspect you’d have to make that decision very early on in development and make a lot of design decisions in that light. That wasn’t the game that BioWare chose to make, and I don’t have a problem with that.

What I am trying to suggest though is that there’s no inherent reason why a game like that couldn’t be made, and that if it were then it could have a potentially dazzling scope for diversity.

About rho

Scientist, woman, lesbian, transsexual, gamer, geek, feminist, liberal, rationalist, and various other labels. Gamer since the days of the ZX81. Feminist since the time I realised that the label was not synonymous with transphobe. I keep a sporadically-updated personal blog about whatever's on my mind at the time.
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23 Responses to Why games are tailor-made for diversity

  1. Laurentius says:

    Very interesting entry, i think it would be great to play game with such wide customization options, as it would really bring more diversity, and more diversity leads to inclusivness. On the other hand i have the feeling that such games would bore me very quick if they were made in fashion as we see nowdays, where developers offers us more options and choices but without making it more significant.

  2. Simon B. says:

    Nice following of Brinstar’s post about Dragon Age: Origins sexual orientation.

    The theory looks pretty nice and interesting on the paper, but in terms of game design and narrative it would be harder to implement, don’t you think? For instance, let’s take your exemple about Alistair gender and/or native origin. It might be very difficult to keep the same story line if Alistair would have been designed as a dalish elf… According to the story designed by Bioware, if you changed some characters basis, you just change the entire meaning of the scenario. But anyway, your idea is not to be directly adapt in D.A.O. as you said.

    To create such a game where you might adapt and change the entire parameters of your companion and customize their origin (gender, native place, etc.) will be hard to make in the Role-playing game field. I think it has been done for some kind of different video games such as the Sims series. Simulation game seems to be the better place to implement such concept of “companion customization”, but in RPG and games including any fixed storylines, it would be really harder to do…

    • rho says:

      Well, you have to remember that there’s already flexibility in storyline in some games, based on player character customisation. To stick with Dragon Age, there are story options that are available to (say) a female human noble that aren’t available to a male elven mage.

      If it’s possible to keep a coherent storyline and add in options even so, surely it’s possible to do so with more than one character being customised? As I said, the decision would have to be made very early in the development process, but I do think it’s possible.

      • Simon B. says:

        Flexibility in games storyline is not new, I agree with you, but the point is all about how far can a storyline be flexible (still in video game)?

        If we stick on Dragon Age for argument’s sake, some story options are, indeed, available to the player according to her/his avatar’s gender and orgins (city elf, human noble, dwarf commoner, etc.). The scenario will be a bit different for each different avatar she/he can play, that’s absolutely right. But these changes are on one side of the scenario (the player’s side). Companion will interact with her/him according to this first (and only) customization. It could have been possible to reverse the process by giving a fixed avatar to the player and custom-made companions, however mixing both recipes would have been very hard to do in terms of storyline. Just think about combination…

        To stick again with Dragon Age environment, let’s imagine we might customize the origin of Alistair, the first companion we can get. He is supposed to be a member of the royal family (consequently, an human noble origin). If we have the possibility to turn him into, let’s say… a dalish elf. What would be his storyline? Same question for the others origins (and gender) we might change. For each companion we will have in the game, we will need to build an exciting and balanced storyline to fit with the main scenario of the game. If we had to draw a tree diagram of the different interactions it would be a huge work.

        I’m not saying it’s impossible to create such a game (i believe it would be stupid and, most of all, wrong). Some characters parameters could remain the same on many points (such as personality, mood, etc.), but even if we try to implement this principle at the beginning of the develoment process, it will be still hard to achieve. Diversity is the real world, in video game we are in a build system and even if we can create complex system the medium is still restrictive because of its nature. I’m still thinking about the fact that solo RPG is perhaps not the best category of game to involved such approach. (I hope my english was clear enough to express my ideas).

  3. Dar says:

    Good point. You’re not wrong when you say it’s possible. In Fallout 3, James was Black, White or Asian depending on what color you made the Wanderer. It’s not too much to take that little bit of code used on one character and apply it across the board.

  4. DSimon says:

    I welcome this idea of flexibility, but would find it kind of troublesome and suspension-breaking to have to spend time in a character creator every time a new companion is introduced. Maybe an alternative would be to have the attributes of secondary characters selected randomly?

    • rho says:

      This is a good point. I certainly wouldn’t want to reach a critical point in a storyline and then have to take a break for half an hour to customise my new companion that was introduced.

      (I’m reminded of the bit near the start of Pokemon Red/Blue where Professor Oak needs to ask you waht his grandson’s name is.)

      Maybe this could be something that you set up at the beginning? Or maybe it would be something that you influenced through gameplay. For instance, you might interact with a character when you were both children and then when you came back to meet the character when you were grown up, their attributes might be set by what you did as children. Or you might be given a choice of which stranger you want to talk to, and whichever one you choose will become your companion and fill a given role in the story.

  5. 8mph Anisible says:

    And thus you touch one of my hopeful dreams in gaming. Probably, ever since I first played an RPG that allowed me to at least rename the main character. I think customizing, the how and what and if and how much, would vary on an almost case-by-case basis for each game based on matters like the game’s context, narrative or mechanics as example.

    Quite certain it can even work in most games with a fixed storyline—afterall, it’s not like such-and-such character has to be as is. Yet customization for supporting characters could be streamlined in some form or another in some instances. Say, if I obtain a new character or unit in my party I can change their name or gender or age or skintone or starting gear or class or clothing colour as long as it’s not causing chaos with what the designers already had planned or toss them a fully new workload. The character’s backstory and whatever else however can likely remain the same.

    So I guess it’d be selective customization in a sense?

    I’m sure that if they decide to, designers could make it a matter of the player’s prerogative to customize, use the default or pick from a handful of already tailor-made ‘types to choose from.

    -Ani8

    • Alex says:

      “The character’s backstory and whatever else however can likely remain the same.”

      Right… it depends a lot on the world the game is in. On one hand, the player should be able to be a hero (or whatever) no matter their gender or skin color or identity. On the other, a person’s identity affects how they interact with the world and how others interact with them. So I suppose it would depend on which makes sense for the game; in something like Mass Effect, which takes place in a future where human racism is (supposedly) over with, it wouldn’t matter as much what the races of the characters were. But in a game in a modern setting, it would have to, in order to be meaningful.

      I guess this is what I’m trying to get at.

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        Understood even without the link, but it does give an awesome example. And makes me think that D.A.O. deserves whatever praises it gets.

        -Ani8

  6. At a certain point, though, you’d end up in a situation where you’d be buying a game-building kit rather than a game.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing. People enjoy playing with modding tools and designing their own versions of games – and being able to share those customised games with others. Still, it’s a DIFFERENT thing from just playing a game.

    Particularly, as a developer, it’s the difference between me making a work of art that I want to share with the player, and me mixing up some paint and handing it to the player to do what they want with.

    • koipond says:

      The two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. What can be done is you have a storyline that you’ve set up as the developer and let the end user run through without any editing and have an option to change the skins/genders/sexuality of whatever characters I wanted.

      Cake meet eating. Eating, meet cake.

      • 8mph Ansible says:

        *flails* I like cake! I like eating cake!

        *yes, had to get that out there*

        -Ani8

      • DSimon says:

        The cake is the truth!

      • NWN did let you edit the original campaign as well as make your own campaigns, but I’m not aware of anyone who bothered spending much time tweaking the original campaign since they could have more fun writing their own adventures from scratch. :)

        I’m sure there probably WERE patches to tweak character sexuality and so on in the main campaign, they just didn’t get as much attention in the fan community.

        However, iirc, most of the development time went towards making the game editing and creation tools – it’s really complicated making these robust enough for your average user to be able to play with them effectively. The actual original campaign ended up being more of an afterthought, and eventually was promoted as a demo of what the game-building tools could do rather than as a worthy game in itself.

    • rho says:

      Well, there’s a full spectrum, obviously. On one end you have a movie, which has no interactive elements at all, and on the other end you have a C compiler which is extremely interactive but contains no artistry. The question is, where do you want to fall on the spectrum?

      There’s rooms for games of all types, of course, and I’m definitely not trying to be a prescriptivist and say “all games must be like this!” What I’m saying is that I think there’s room for games with the extent of customisation I’m describing.

      I also think that you’re under-estimating the level of artistry and story-telling that could go into a game which was very open-ended in terms of character customisation. There’s still a lot of scope in how you set the world up, how you ensure the flow of narrative inevitability anyway, and so on.

      • I write branching-path stories, which are all about what choices you the player make in terms of your own characterisation, which characters you choose to interact with, how they are shaped by your interactions, etc. It’s a lot of work, and since it spends a lot of time and resources on events that many players may not see at all, it’s often considered wasteful by the ‘main’ industry.

        That’s a highly complex story, and it deals entirely with predefined characters who are shaped only by the events that progress. Make any one of those characters changeable, and the complexity multiplies. Make ALL of those characters changeable and you have a combinatorial explosion.

        If one of your companions is a half-elven girl in a world where elves dominate humans, her entire plotline might be about her family, how she’s tried to pass as human or elven at different times in her life, how people have reacted once they found out the truth, etc. Alter that character to be dwarven, and either you have to throw out her entire plotline or you have to alter the entire world to accommodate this change while keeping the original storyline intact. And, of course, if there are multiple characters you want to change, changing the world would no longer be an option.

        If the characters are shallow, it’s much easier. You can get characters spouting generic dialog about how they want X and feel betrayed by Y, with these details being up to the player’s choices… but it would feel generic. At least until we get to the point where we can have actual AI to write believable character responses to events!

        If the changes are solely cosmetic and no dialog alters, then it’s not a problem, as long as the player can overlook the occasional male becoming pregnant. :)

      • DSimon says:

        Who says C compilers have no artistry? I, for one, am plunged into a uplifting sense of ephemeral joy whenever I can get my code to finally compile after a long session grappling with incomprehensible error messages cited to lines in completely different files from the actual place where I forgot a semicolon.

        Indeed, GCC’s tendency towards verbosity when problems occur but reliance upon mere silence to indicate a successful compilation ought to be interpreted as a deeply introspective statement on the very nature of beauty; that it lies not in the presence of beautiful things but in the absence of that which offends the senses. :-)

  7. wererogue says:

    “we want to see … generally more “people like me” in games (for whatever value of “me” each of us has).”

    I actually want to see more “people who aren’t ‘like’ me” in games; but I’m a white male game developer, and as such:
    – There are a billion games with white males, and I’m bored of it.
    – I would like to see more people enjoying games.

    Regarding the suggestions to changing the sexualities in Dragon Age: I really don’t like either of those suggestions. They’re actually both the same, and just mean “everybody will sleep with me.” It removes any actual specific sexuality from all of the characters, and would perpetuate the “I am the player character, and nobody will refuse me” model that is everywhere in games. I’d much prefer that they added a couple of extra characters to round out the sexualities or leave it as it is.

  8. KellyK says:

    I think this is an interesting idea, and I think it has some very cool implications.

    Using DragonAge the way everyone else has, for purposes of discussion, I think you could easily have some customization without making it overly complex for the developer. Just as you have 5 or 6 origins to pick from, and your character’s gender influences their options, limited customization could be selected for a single antagonist, based on that origin. Even if you can pick from 2 “villain origins” and choose the villain’s gender, that adds a lot of replay value. Hmm, what happens if it was a jilted lover instead of a rival noble who murdered my family…and does it matter if the villain is a man or a woman?

    Heck, customizing appearance could be done without changing the storyline at all. DA doesn’t appear to have race issues among humans, so Alistair could be black or Morrigan could have Asian features without any additional story writing. (I get the impression that Orlesians and um, Fereldenese(?) are predominantly white, while the Chasind are predominantly black, but it wouldn’t have to be that way–and since I haven’t seen skin color mentioned in plot, customizability there wouldn’t make more work for the story writer.)

    Sexuality is tougher, since it affects the plot, but it could still be selectable or randomized for a few characters. Heck, it might be interesting to have the sexualities of the four main companions randomized each time you start a new character. Again, more possibilities, whether they’re player-selected or random, add to the replayability of the game.

  9. KellyK says:

    One additional thing, since my comment was getting long–I tend to be a fan of limited customization that affects the story. One of the things I’m really enjoying about DragonAge is the fact that it *matters* that my character is a woman, but it’s also not a focal point of every interaction. I *like* that it affects how some characters react to me. I enjoy confusing Sten by explaining that women who fight don’t want to be men, they want to be women who fight. I think DA strikes a nice balance–it doesn’t pretend it’s set in a gender-neutral world, but it limits the effects of a character’s gender/sex and doesn’t make every interaction about that.

    Yes, it’s more work to write multiple interactions for male and female characters, especially when they involve voiceovers, but DragonAge manages it pretty well.

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