Following our article about Echo Bazaar from last week, I was lucky enough to have a chance to speak with Alexis Kennedy, their primary writer about their approach to diversity within the game, and what they’ve learned from it.
I’ll keep the introduction short, because I think that Alexis has some great points which deserve to stand on their own.
How important is it to you to ensure that you represent diversity in your game? Is it something you’ve consciously worked on or is it just something that happened?
Alexis Kennedy: It was something that we had in mind from the beginning, but it grew. So, from day one, we had to decide how we wanted to treat sex. I made the call that whether the player was gay or straight or male or female or something entirely exotic by C19 terms was going to be a largely implicit choice. Otherwise we just had to ignore same-sex relationships, or we had to get into the complications of simulating the whole rainbow. And I liked the idea of people just saying, you know what? my gender isn’t relevant, let’s move on. (In fact the Rubbery Men, one of the best-loved parts of the setting, came out of a throwaway gag about the gender-neutral choice.)
Similarly, we had to think about attitudes to the Empire and I think what we can reasonably call the Fu Manchu question. We picked a slightly more controversial approach that I’ll talk about in a bit. But we did a lot of thinking about that up front.
And, we used silhouettes as player avatars. This was a nice in-period detail and it saved on art, which was critical when our art dept was 20% of a freelance journo’s time. But it was also a very transparent way of saying, your character’s skin colour? Not our business.
On the other hand, we were slower than I’d like to represent minorities in-game. My co-founder was busy churning out art desperately, and we suddenly realised we had an awful lot of white faces. We did an honest blog post about that, discussed the issue and got straight to representing more minorities. We’ve made other mistakes, and when someone points them out, if we think it’s a fair call we apologise and fix. We make a big deal of being transparent about that, and I think we have to assume we will get stuff wrong from time to time.
Do you think that the gaming industry in general should pay more attention to diversity rather than just catering to the core demographic of young, straight, white males?
AK: I mean, yes, certainly. I don’t really know what I can add to this. It’s a damn shame and it’s a big missed opportunity in terms of audience.
Read on for more!
It seems that the earlier stories in Echo Bazaar are a little more generic than the later ones, and that it’s later on that you really shine in terms of both creativity and diversity. Do you think that this is the case, and if so, what would you put it down to? Would you plan to revisit the earlier stories and rewrite them at any point, or is writing new content your top priority?
AK: Yes. Echo Bazaar was in large part a funding and research exercise for our next, bigger project… which is tied into some NDA stuff so I can’t talk about… but we’ve learnt a tremendous amount about how to make narrative work in this engine. We still do. We really learn month on month. At the beginning, too, all the content was me, writing in the gaps between building the game and trying to run the business and answer support calls. Now we have a team of (mostly part-time) writers and biweekly whole-day writers’ meetings. It’s a completely different way of working.
We are going back and fleshing out earlier content right now: things like the Absconding Devil and the Starving Poet are now multi-part branching-ending stories, and we’re upgrading our old friend the Artist and the Model too. But we do like the content at the start to be a little simpler because a lot of our players aren’t really gamers and are a bit overwhelmed at the start. And we have to keep expanding content higher up for existing players, so our resources are split.
Victorian society was definitely both racist and sexist. How do you balance trying to represent Victorian society and its tropes with trying to cater to a more enlightened 21st century audience?
AK: One judgement call at a time, is how.
One way we could have approached this is to homogenise C19 culture into something irreproachably inclusive. This is what a lot of steampunk communities do (I don’t think we’re steampunk really but that’s a different argument…) and it’s a perfectly respectable approach. But you lose a lot of the feel of Victoriana. I love the Victorian century because it’s corrupt as well as brilliant. The bigotry was a huge part of the corruption. You can’t be an Empire without systematically dehumanising your subjects. So we didn’t go that route (and we take flak for not doing so).
Another way we could have gone is hardcore verisimilitude. Right, you’re a woman, half the game is locked out for you, you’re gay, welcome to Scandalsville! One problem with this is, as we keep saying round here, there weren’t many Asians in Dickens but there weren’t many sorrow-spiders either. We’re not historically accurate. Another problem is, god, how depressing and insensitive would that be. So we didn’t go that route (and we take some flak for not doing that either).
And we’ve got at least three points to navigate around: the historical reality; the fantasy world we’ve built; and the historical reality as we and the players perceive it, which is a different thing again. If we put an Asian MP in the game, it looks like benign historical revisionism, but actually the first Indian MP was elected in 1892. The whole Imperial British attitude to the peoples in subject territories is too complex to translate easily into contemporary prejudices. And we’ve done some background reading, but none of us is a Victorian scholar. Reconciling these is constant juggling.
So our starting position is, we gently indicate this is a racist and especially a sexist society, but we don’t hammer that home, we don’t use racist epithets for flavour, and we quietly inject counter-examples. Like the Acclaimed Beauty is a man, or the Implacable Detective, our Holmes analogue, happens to be an elderly black woman. And then we just assume that player characters are exceptional individuals who can duck prejudice, and we don’t lock off content based on race or gender.
And then we make judgment call after judgement call. There’s a doctor at Court who thinks feminism’s curable, is that too obvious a satire? There’s a gag about ladies fainting, is that period flavour or overt sexism? Schlomo is a charlatan because that was Freud’s middle name, but does it look anti-semitic? The Gracious Widow is implied Chinese and she’s a crime boss, is that a criminal who happens not to be white or does it come across as stereotyping? And what we have to bear in mind all the time is that we see all the content in the game – about 350,000 words of it – but a player who’s only seen one facet may see something that looks pretty biased.
I have seen several people concerned with the existence of the “Connected: The Orient” quality who think it is racist and othering to East Asian people. What’s your take on this?
AK: We’re trying to comment on the colonial attitudes of the time. It’s tricky to walk the tightrope between replication, commentary and cheap PC shots at a complicated time, especially in fifty-word coffee-break chunks. ‘Oriental’ is an archaic and suspect word now. This is (qv Edward Said) precisely because it reflects over-generalised nineteenth-century views of the ‘East’. We chose the term because we felt it conveyed the flavour of attitudes of the time, without being hate speech like a lot of other period flavour terms.
In most cases, ‘Oriental’ in Fallen London means Chinese, because that was by far the most visible community of Far Eastern origins, in both Victorian history and Victorian fiction. In some cases, however, it means Japanese, Tibetan or even Indian (and, potentially, from east of the Unterzee in the Neath). As you point out, the term had a very general use. Fallen Londoners may not make the distinction. We expect that players, as educated twenty-first-century global villagers, will. It’s up to players whether their characters do.
Back to that ‘mostly we mean Chinese’. Limehouse – the Victorian Chinatown – was located in the East End (our ‘Spite’). This was the case historically, but even more the case in terms of the popular and literary imagination: there were perhaps a couple of hundred Chinese immigrants there in the 1880s, but the reputation and cultural impact of their presence was disproportionate. Using late Victorian Gothic and popular literature as a source material without referencing Limehouse would be an impossible omission, but referencing it is like handling treasure contaminated with toxic waste. The source material is dripping with poisonous stereotypes, and we have put effort into working round them. You’ll notice there is practically no opium in Fallen London – we have prisoner’s honey instead. This is partly a deliberate effort to keep some of the louche feel of opium consumption while we sidestep some of the loathsome Victorian tropes about Chinese-run opium dens.
What would you say has been the most important thing that you’ve learned making Echo Bazaar? How can we expect to see this carried forward into future content in Echo Bazaar and any other games you make in the future?
AK: Personally, and this is going to make me sound incredibly naive, but it’s this: minorities exist as individuals who are playing your game right now. I live in South London, it’s a very diverse society, we wrote the game with an eye on being inclusive but, you know, my personal background is pretty white-bread and there is something viscerally different about someone mailing you and saying …I am an Asian girl, and I’m rather glad that there aren’t any Fu-Manchu types or I have been playing Echo Bazaar for a couple of months now using a screenreader (I am totally blind) or I’ve also enjoyed being allowed my own sexuality within in the game. I deal with a lot of pain and prejudice from people in real life… So anyone who’s used to suffering from prejudice is laughing at privilege-guy, and I deserve that, but for all my similarly white-bread peers the lesson is that you’re not writing for ten different audiences, you’re writing for ten million different individuals.
So that’s the personal lesson. The company lesson is that addressing diversity issues isn’t a burden or a duty, it’s a fantastic opportunity to make our content novel and unexpected. We’ll keep doing that.
Finally, is there anything else you think that the readers of The Borderhouse ought to know?
AK: Yes. This stuff is hard to get consistently right. Game developers can be lazy or ignorant or cynical, but it’s shockingly easy to make innocent mistakes. We had a dream card in the game that says ‘You see your ghost-white face in the mirror among glossy green foliage…’ and it made it through the sub-editing pipeline into the game and then a player said, “hang on, my what? I’m not white, as it happens”. But Yasmeen, who wrote that storylet, isn’t white either. It wasn’t bigotry, it was an assumption she made because ghost-white worked well as a contrast to the other colours in that storylet. We changed it and we thanked the guy, but there are probably another dozen land-mines like that no-one’s commented on that.
So if you think a developer’s got something wrong, engage politely. They just might say, Good God, I don’t know what we were thinking, we’ll do better next time. And that’s the optimal result for everyone.
What do you think? Do you agree with the approach that Alexis and the other people at Failbetter Games have taken? Personally, I find it fascinating to look at these issues from the developer’s side, as I think that the different perspective is something that can teach me a lot. Regardless of your views, I hope you’ll all join with me in thanking Alexis for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail. Thank you, Alexis!