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.)
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.
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.