#GamesSoWhite – Are they really? Why?

ACLiberation-Aveline_CoverArtI have a crashing headache so now may not be the best time to get into this, a lot of it is also going to be repetition of old points, but still, I think it’s worth weighing in.

This hashtag, and topic, is bait – not intended to create or sustain any intelligent discussion about the issue but rather to stir people up. The writer, Tauriq Moosa, associated with the tag (and The Guardian) appears profoundly ignorant of the actual diversity in games or the reasons why it’s not even more diverse.

So let’s actually look at some of the surrounding issues about diversity in games and try to look at why things are the way they are and how they might be changed – if they even need to be.

Why are Games Predominantly White?

Jared Diamond attributes western dominance, very simply put, to ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’. In terms of games you can attribute this to ‘Demography, Technology & Money’.

First world nations are predominantly white (Japan and Korea being two notable exceptions). First world nations have the technological infrastructure, money and access to personal technology on an affordable basis to support a gaming industry.

DIR_PurnaMany European nations are also much more racially homogeneous than the United States is, even the UK – pretty cosmopolitan – is around 90% white while the USA is around 75% white and Poland – focus of recent ire – is almost entirely white with white minorities rather than ‘persons of colour’ in its population, the Romani people not necessarily being treated very well across Eastern Europe.

So, aside from the obvious exception of the first-world Pacific nations, most games are produced by western, predominantly white nations by a process of simple demography. As such they stem from the ‘white point of view’, if such a thing can even be described. Remember, ‘whiteness’ is many different cultures. Just as it would be racist and ignorant to assume ‘Africa’ to be one single culture it would be racist to assume that the life experience or culture of a Scottish Islander has any real similarities to that of a Romanian Tatar.

Diversity is more than colour.

So, we have majority white populations. They’re going to produce more programmers, artists, designers – and consumers – by simple virtue of weight of numbers. Western, white-majority nations also have greater access to the technology, both to produce things, provide infrastructure and to make the necessarily technology available. The last factor is money, which ties into technology but which is worth looking at by itself.

Money exacerbates the problem in a number of additional ways. Minority communities are often poorer, which means they have less access to education and technology even in otherwise advanced nations. While social advancement is easier for people from poor backgrounds in Europe than it is in the US (democratic socialism) it’s still not as good as it could be. This combines with the white demographic dominance to make even less opportunities for people from minority communities.

This is a problem, but it’s not one really soluble by games companies.

Sheva-Official-Render-Rear-View-sheva-alomar-20099937-570-1100Why isn’t there more Diversity?

I say ‘more’, because there actually is a lot of diversity. This is why gamers get annoyed and upset when they’re told that their hobby is racist or sexist. They can give you a huge litany of diverse race and gender representations in games, but you have to be into games to know how ignorant it is to assume and presume that they are not diverse. This is not helped by ‘white saviour’ hipster kids playing up the supposed problem to – seemingly – profit from it.

So not ‘why aren’t games diverse?’ but ‘why aren’t games more diverse?’

In the previous section I covered a huge part of that – simple demography. Minority populations are called minorities for a reason, so simply by population weighting you would expect less designers and artists. Minorities also tend to be poorer, further reducing opportunity.

This we all know, if we’re honest, and we know it’s not really something that’s the responsibility of companies to address.

There are other social and financial pressures at work as well, and paradoxically the ‘hipster saviours’ may well be making things worse, not better.

There’s a catch 22 when it comes to minority representation. If you present a minority in your game you’ll be accused of stereotyping, doing it wrong, even cultural appropriation. If you don’t present a minority in your game, you’ll be accused of racism. If you do include a minority (or female) representation everything that character says, does or has happen to it will be placed under intense scrutiny. The (tempting) way to minimise this is to go for a standard white-male protagonist, since nobody much cares what happens to them and the racism accusations probably have the least bite or traction (or at least get more evenly distributed).
Alyx_Vance_2_by_SG_KatanAAdvertising/PR consultants and ‘social justice warriors’ have a belief in common which, seemingly according to research – gamers don’t share. Both PR people and SJWs both believe that representation matters. Gamers don’t seem to care as much (according to DiGRA research) about what their character is, they’re focussed on completing the game. PR and SJW however both think it matters a great deal. If firms could accept the fact representation doesn’t matter that much to their audience we’d probably see more diversity. So long as PR think it does matter, there’ll be pressure to pander to the majority audience, which for the big, showy titles remains stubbornly white and male. SJWs only make this worse by insisting that representation matters, enforcing the idea that catering to one is excluding another. If there’s millions of dollars at stake, why would you risk turning off your majority audience? That’s not good business sense.

Fixing the ‘Problem’

I’m not convinced there is a problem here. People who really know about games can point to countless examples of representation and the audience doesn’t much seem to care. I’d like to get some hard data on the racial breakdown of video-game buyers (USA stats would probably be the most useful) so if anyone has a link to any that would help. We do have stats on gender which is placed at 50/50, suggesting there’s no real problem there at all.

tumblr_me98p9Ost01rm9fh5o1_500Let’s assume there is a problem, or at least that we want to socially invest in minority communities because regardless of anything else we want to help people out – simply because it’s the right thing to do.

The only way to really make a difference here is to deal with the problem root and branch. Fund coding classes or after-school game design courses in public schools. Create scholarships. Continue the democratisation of gaming via the indie scenes. We don’t need blue-haired white hipsters banging on about diversity, we need to support the diverse creators that are out there.

We also need to change the way we go about things. Praise games and companies that are inclusive, rather than attacking the games and companies that we think are not. People will only dig in and resist to protect their creative freedom – as they should – and gamers will only react angrily to people ignorantly calling them racist. American diversity campaigners also need to learn a little more about European history and geography, before they open their mouths and fling insults.

Let’s also not forget that diversity doesn’t make a game good.

At the end of it all everyone needs to retain their free expression. Box-ticking on diversity quotas doesn’t make a better game. Allowing the artist to pursue their vision is much more likely to. If we are to do anything we need to create situations in which more diverse artists have the opportunity to express themselves, and we need to be a lot less judgemental of people creating games outside their own culture.

The future’s already here, it’s just unevenly distributed – to quote Gibson.

On a personal note there are many mythologies and subjects I would like to delve into, such as Indian mythology or alternative history around America’s history of slavery, but even I find myself self-censoring because I know the kinds of negative reactions I would get – despite the fact these settings would increase diversity.

I’m sure there’s others like me.

Mature conversation welcome in the comments!

Pax.

Appendix:

I did some back-of-an-envelope figures on the racial demography of the top selling (UK) games of 2014 as reported in Metro UK.

From the top selling (UK) games of 2014
35% race wasn’t applicable – either due to being sports/team games, non-human protaganists or unknown protaganists (cars).
65% had human/humanoid protagonists where race was applicable.

Of that 65%
50.77%% had white protaganists.
18.46% had PoC protaganists.
32.31% had customisable/choice of protaganists including PoC

As previously mentioned, the UK is around 90% white, so as far as representation of population goes this isn’t so bad,at all (though Japanese people may be highly overrepresented!).

What we do seem to be seeing is a continuing trend towards customisable protagonists which includes just about anyone.

I should note that in assigning this I stuck to single-player campaigns. Many games have online multiplayer with racially customisable characters but that isn’t reflected here.

2 responses to “#GamesSoWhite – Are they really? Why?

  1. Ironically, I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks for more “diversity” is the barrage of accusations of cultural appropriation when creators try to reach outside their boxes for inspiration. It’s like people don’t understand that culture grows, spreads, evolves and perpetuates itself by means of appropriation. The Ramayana doesn’t parallel the Illiad because of some monomyth; it’s because the Indians probably heard it from traders going between Asia Minor and India. The Romans stole the Greek Pantheon. The Old Testament reflects the evolution of Hebrew theology after contact with the Persian and Babylonian cultures. The list goes on.

  2. I for one wouldn’t mind certain genres of game, such as fantasy or historical games, venturing beyond the Eurocentric norm. I agree with you that this Eurocentrism is in large part a product of the game industry’s demographics, but having a longstanding interest in non-European cultures and history (especially Egypt, Nubia, and other African civilizations), I’d love to see more games catering to that interest. Which is a major reason I’ve been looking into an indie game designer career.

    As for social justice wannabes throwing a shitfit over a game with non-European characters, I wouldn’t worry too much about them. They will never be happy no matter what you do, and many of them just want to complain for the sake of it.

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