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What color is your hero?

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GDC provides a face-to-face environment for "the video game conversation." The incredible breadth of that conversation is one of main attractions of the conference, and it's a big reason I enjoy attending. If you hang around in the hallway between sessions, you're likely to hear a dissection of task-based multithreading in one ear and a heated debate on the merits of trophies and achievements in the other. It's dizzying, enlightening, and overwhelming all at once.

One conversation found its way to GDC '10, having already percolated in the blogosphere and elsewhere for years. Jamin Brophy-Warren broached it last year in a "Game Critics Rant" session when he called for more diversity in games (following Heather Chaplin's rant aimed at developers mired in "guy culture"). Warren revisited and expanded the topic this year by hosting a panel discussion called "What Color is Your Hero?" featuring Manveer Heir (Raven Software), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), and Mia Consalvo (MIT).

Consalvo led off with some startling data on depictions of characters in games. 150 games released in '05-'06, across platforms and genres, were studied to record the appearance of every character seen by a player. A total of 8,572 characters were coded, out of which only 10.45% were female. White characters accounted for 85% of the primary characters appearing in those games. Not a single Hispanic or Native American character played a primary role in any of the games studied. Black characters depicted were overwhelmingly athletes and gang bangers.

Consalvo also cited research on children suggesting that characters represented in media play an important role in the construction of self-image and images of others. Additional research indicates that exposures to stereotypes negatively impact how kids perceive minorities.

Manveer Heir stressed that the issue isn't about political correctness. "It's about creating new experiences for players." Depicting characters from a wide ethnic and racial spectrum adds value to the player's experience. "The white male power fantasy is played out," he observed. Game developers are always looking for something new and different for their games, but they routinely miss an opportunity staring them in the face.

Leigh Alexander noted that the industry has relied on fitness, casual, and Facebook games to attract new players, but shouldn't limit its focus there. "We are not homogenous, so why should our games be?" Consalvo added that a higher percentage of African Americans play video games than do Caucasions. Issues of race and ethnicity aside, "a lot of us are tired of spaceships, dragons, and military situations," Alexander observed.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of diversity in the industry, whose employment demographics mirror those of its on-screen characters. "We don't have enough people in the industry representing a variety of walks of life," Heir stated. "Broadly speaking, we tell our own stories. We write what we know. He stressed the need for outreach programs that encourage minority students to enter the industry. "The insularity of this industry is our single biggest problem. If, in 10 years, we're the same as we are now, we're fucked."

Consalvo argued that hiring minority developers is a good idea, but we shouldn't assume artists can't also write outside their own experience. "It's ludicrous to think men can't write about women." The arts have demonstrated otherwise for centuries. "Don't get trapped by 'write what you know.'" Heir agreed. "The people working in this industry are some of the smartest people in the world. We can do this. It's not harder to solve than other complex problems we've faced and overcome."

Alexander noted that Resident Evil 5 had a chilling effect on some developers. "People are afraid of doing it wrong and getting the backlash." Developers face a major economic incentive to avoid risk, so they stick to what works. Ironically, Alexander added, many of these source materials draw from fantasy and sci-fi genres that metaphorically targeted race and other social issues far more ambitiously than their video game descendents today. 

Brophy-Warren wondered why the industry seems willing "to leave so much money on the table." Why is there no Tyler Perry or Spike Lee capitalizing on an opportunity to reach an audience that's already there? Why, he asked, in a game like Heavy Rain - set in Philadelphia with a 50% black population - are the only two characters of color "Mad Jack" and a kindly old groundskeeper? It's a glaring and nonsensical disconnect.

Heir cited Prey as an example of a game that tried to do better, featuring a Native American hero and telling a story that reflected on his identity. "It took another step and added a 'spirit-walking' mechanic that could have simply been re-skinned from other games, but used it in a way that suited the narrative." The hero was conflicted about his heritage, and the game addressed that in ways that felt more than superficial.

Alexander recalled growing up with a half-black father and Jewish mother and experiencing "a profound sense of alienation." "Your story matters," she asserted. "It's part of you." Games miss these storytelling opportunities. "Palette swaps aren't the answer. It's not just about visuals." Mass Effect enables player choice of sex and visuals, and this is a good thing; but it's not enough. Dragon Age plays with issues of prejudice in its depiction of Elves, and this also useful. But games should also be willing to address thorny issues head-on, without couching them in 'safer' fantasy and sci-fi settings.

Brophy-Warren contends the problem is more complicated than many of us realize. He cited the cartoonist Kyle Baker, who has lamented the difficulty of drawing black characters. "The stereotype trap is huge," and it can intimidate artists who want to depict minority characters without resorting to offensive visual tropes. "Why are there no black Little Sisters in Bioshock?" he asked. Is it a visual design issue of not being able to see them clearly in dark environments?

Heir countered that the problem wasn't technical, suggesting that "they wouldn't be as cute." You need to create empathy, and you need to do it fast. Alexander wondered if mistreating minority characters might be seen as crossing a certain line. Would Bioshock be considered offensive if it made little black girls victims? Consalvo added that the image of a sympathetic white on-screen character is a structural issue that dates back to Hollywood cinematography, which was designed to light white actors' faces. 

Heir noted that the video game industry faces structural issues of its own. "Gender creates a huge asset pipeline nightmare. Switching race is much easier than building new features and animations." Resistance to incorporating more female characters can sometimes be about resource allocation. Consalvo added that indie developers face far fewer constraints in this regard than big studios, "but they're not doing any better." This, according to Consalvo, suggests the absence of diversity in games is less about resources and more about unexamined self-imposed constraints.

Alexander cautioned that the conversation about characters and storytelling in games doesn't appeal to everyone in the industry. "When we play games, we want to talk about what they mean and the experience we derive from them." But many developers are "dubious about the value of 'story'" and prefer to focus purely on game design. "We don't really have these designers' attention when we discuss diversity in games."

"We say 'try something new,' but developers say 'why should we?'" Alexander cited Dora the Explorer as an enormously successful example of a character with broad pop culture appeal. "There is a massive audience outside your field of vision," Alexander observed. "Why be insular in a medium that's interactive?"

Heir agreed. "We can't listen to focus testers or we'll keep making the same game over and over. Consumers want more of the same because they don't know any better. It's our job to give them what they don't yet know they want. Trust yourself as an artist and designer."