Manveer Heir claims link between race portrayal in games and the predominantly white development workforce

Lead dev questions industryâ??s stance on ethnicity

A lead designer has called for the game industry to put an end to practices of ethnic misrepresentation and distortion.

Raven Software’s Manveer Heir said that the industry’s failure to approach ethnic diversity is holding back the sector – damaging the business through missed market opportunities, and holding back the craft due to an increasing homogeneity in lead character design.

"Lack of diversity, specifically race but also gender and sexuality, is across the board with in-game characters," he said in an interview with Develop.

“How often do we play as the white space marine? Over and over again. And by doing that we are just telling the same story over and over again. But if we want to start telling new stories we need to start having a diversification of characters that includes their ethnicity, to create more compelling, deeper characters instead of this everyman archetype."

Heir stresses it is in the industry’s vital interests to promote racial diversity, and not solely for reasons of equality.

"It’s not about being fair. It’s about bringing something new to the art," he said.

"There is a perceived notion that there might be a negative economic impact. There’s an idea that – to take a character almost at random – if Nathan Drake were black or Asian the game would not have sold as well because he is no longer the ‘everyman’.

“I take issue with the idea that’s it’s a known fact that an ethnic lead would impede sales. We are talking about growing our audience."

Heir – who joined US studio Raven five years ago – went on to claim that the lack of ethnic diversity in games is in part responsible for why the development workforce is dominated by whites.

“There are a large number of hispanic and black children playing games, percentage-wise more so than white children,” he said, “but these guys aren’t getting into the industry because they are not seeing themselves in the games. People are, in fact, going away from games as they grow up. In order to keep them, we need to expand our outlook. We can bring along more people if we at least try."

The lead designer said he wasn’t sensitive to racial stereotypes, but took issue with the sustained use of typecasting blacks in video games.

"One of my favorite games is Gears of War. Cole Train is a great character,” he said.

“I take no issue with the fact that he is a stereotype and he is over the top. I take issue with the fact that every time I play a game, the black guy is an athlete meat-head, and never gets to wear a tie. Stereotypes are fine some of the time, but not all of the time."

Heir went on to call for developers and publishers to roll the dice more with their lead characters.

"I’m sure many people in the game industry are starting work on new IP. If we can ask people to think about it, then they are more apt to say ‘hey let’s try this’. You just need one game to succeed. The first developer or publisher to do this will enjoy a lot of success. There is a risk, but this isn’t an innovation of game mechanic, it’s not about a new genre, it’s about creating more well-formed characters."

Go here to read the full interview with Manveer Heir

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