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Privilege

Written By mista sense on Wednesday, August 4, 2010 | 9:39 AM

When people who've long demanded diversity in the characters and narratives they enjoy in video games get down to discuss the issue, it always comes down to a lingering why they can't concretely answer -- why does male and white-dominated homogeny in video game protagonists persist, when so much of the audience that wants to be personified in interactive entertainment can't relate?

Even though creativity and self-expression are needed to elevate games beyond predictable "commercial product" industry, the fact remains it's a high risk, hit-driven business, where the answer to why is usually "because it sells." But doesn't the demand for diversity indicate at least some untapped market opportunity, enough to justify the risk?

What if it did? It would mean no more excuses, no more economic reasons not to do things differently. No more data with which to dismiss uncomfortable conversations on why developers won't or can't treat race and gender in games. No more marketing spreadsheets to justify taking the path of least resistance. Wouldn't it be much easier for the army of the status quo to ignore any evidence that would challenge them to do anything new?

Would it even be easier to interpret existing data in whatever fashion's needed to keep things comfortably the same?

That's apparently what happens at Activision, according to what I've been told by numerous current and former employees of the publisher's studios. I covered what these insiders had to say in an article today in Gamasutra, and their claims that the company's decisions on what goes in its games -- including the race or gender of its heroes -- are based disproportionately on focus tests that, the sources tell me, it often skews to support its "preconceived notions."

The timing of my article is unfortunate with recent revelations that CEO Bobby Kotick preferred to spend over a million dollars in legal fees to "destroy" one of his employees who accused another of sexual harassment, rather than settle with her for much less. But accusing an entire corporation of inherent bias goes a bit further than I'm aiming, here; I want to be clear on that.

I've also heard from plenty who say that it's not just Activision where this occurs, and despite the focus on a few exemplary anecdotes in my story, this is likely true. Still, the facts on how market-driven methodology -- which happens to various extents at every publisher -- make it nearly impossible to address new markets or pioneer new and representative game characters are very hard to ignore.

That there is an underlying climate of ignorance and bias wafting in the game industry, populated in significant majority on all levels by white males (to where a female or ethnic developer is still, in 2010, trotted out as worthy of special note) is just the darker undercurrent to this story. People can only create what they know. People are hostile to those unlike them. The game industry's culture and practices bear the deeply-ingrained stains of its long-term homogeny -- and as long as people have "well, we're making money," to hide behind, why would anyone want to change?

To those of you who look at internal process information like this and say, "it's just business," bear in mind that the line between business and bias is not as simply or as tidily parsed as you would like. Perhaps it is a CEO's job to relegate the entire conversation about a medium's creative and cultural future to "this is what sells."

But you're their audience. You're the consumer. You don't have to feel guilty because you buy and enjoy blockbusters like Gears of War or Call of Duty, but the party-line bottom-line talk should not be your mantle to assume. Don't tolerate "it's just a business", because as those who spoke to me for my article insisted, there exist infinite reams of data that can be applied to prove whatever point the status quo wants to prove, to justify the production of whatever it's easiest for the status quo to produce.

The issue goes beyond gender equity or even general "character diversity"; few would wish for "more female characters" just out of the arbitrary desire for political-correctness. When I asked you about it on Twitter, many of you said you don't care what race or gender your characters are as long as they're interesting.

Instead, it illuminates a larger issue about an environment of progressive creation, about developer happiness, about being a healthy, widely-relevant industry that attracts a broad range of interesting people on the production side and on the audience side. And if you need evidence we've got a long way to go, just read some of the comments on the article at Gamasutra.

This issue upsets people. It brings out their ugly side. Nobody wants to face it.

There is no business "formula" for a sure-fire blockbuster video game. Publishers have tried to prove to their investors they've discovered one, and ended up shot full of holes. Why do we continue sacrificing innovation to this straw man?

As one dev told me on Twitter: "People get really upset when they have their privilege challenged." Which means we should do it. And 'on principle' is a perfectly valid reason. 'It's a business' is not an excuse.

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