At DICE last month, a panel tackled the problem of diversity in the games industry, both in the product that the industry creates, and in the ethnic, gender and orientation make-up of the people who build the games.
No-one is going to argue against the fact that, in the United States, straight white males make up a disproportionate number of game industry professionals. The fact that almost all games feature a white male as the main protagonist deepens the perception of a business that's behind the times.
Develop spoke to Manveer Heir, lead designer for Raven Software, and one of the DICE panelists. He said that the industry is the way it is for historical reasons. Game makers in North America have tended to come from affluent, suburban backgrounds with high numbers of college graduates. They are often gifted in the sciences. Historically, this means white and male although, of course, we are dealing with very broad generalizations here, and the numbers of minorities and women taking a scientific career path is growing every year.
Game makers tend to write what they know. They are afraid to tackle characters which might seem culturally inauthentic. And they can rely on marketers, waiting down the chain, to steer them away from minority characters that might make the game difficult to position. In short, there's not much on the bone for game-makers to take risks on properly rounded female or minority characters.
"It's not a conspiracy," says Heir. "You make what you know. Many male writers find it difficult to write female characters. The same potentially goes for writing a black character if you are white."
He adds, "Lack of diversity, specifically race but also gender and sexuality, is across the board with in-game characters. 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 argues that we've reached the point where it's in the game industry's vital interests to address this situation, not for reasons of social 'fairness' but for reasons of economic survival. "It's not about being fair. It's about bringing something new to the art," he says.
"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'. But I think we have to push that and try new things.
"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. There are a large number of hispanic and black children playing games, percentage-wise more so than white children, 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."
Heir says the game industry has a great issue of tackling race, but a less than great record of doing so in straightforward terms.
"As artists, we talk abut race all the time. We address the issue through narratives in which aliens or ghouls or other outsiders are portrayed with sympathy. But whenever we want to deal with it as people, we always deal with it in abstract, fantasy worlds."
He says stereotypical characters are fine, but that a complete reliance on cliche is just lazy "One of my favorite games is Gears of War. Cole Train is a great character. 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."
So, what should game developers be doing to address this situation? "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."