Welcome to the 2nd blog version of the Game for Thought series (GFT), this is a written recap of Howest DAE’s live stream series that tackles ethically-relevant topics in the games industry and explores the impact & implications of industry developments.
Reason enough for us, here at FLEGA, to communicate these topics and challenges as widely as possible. In this blog recap of the livestream, we’ll break down the most important talking points of the panel, but for those who prefer to watch the entire video, you can find it below.
In this Game For Thought panel, we will explore the significance of ‘identity’ within games/digital entertainment and why it deserves attention. We will examine how identity impacts work experience in an industry that has faced challenges regarding diversity, and discuss the current approaches to diversity practices within the games industry. Furthermore, we will explore how studios/organizations can promote genuine representation and how this influences the player experience.
What is the state of diversity in the industry today?
Rilla Khaled: Over the last 10 years, things have definitely improved, but there is still a long way to go. There are also apparent differences between the AAA industry, indies and everything in between, in regards to what people are willing to risk. It’s often the smaller studios that are willing to tell stories that come from communities and groups that we might call equity-seeking.
Olivier Madiba: We see more and more studies trying to keep diversity in mind, but it’s very important to have visionary people who are willing to invest in this. You’re much more likely to find them in Silicon Valley than in Africa, and when they send someone over it’s a person with no energy, asking difficult questions that are relevant to countries where the industry is already in full swing, but not for us where we are still trying to build everything from scratch.
But this isn’t just an African thing, when you talk to black developers in the US, you’ll often hear the same struggles around representation. We’re losing out on new games, stories and creative approaches by limiting ourselves in such a way.
Nille Allard: As a young student, I haven’t been around long enough to see an evolution. But I’m on board with Olivier in that allowing people to tell their own stories would be a nice step forward.
Kaidan Geurts: There has been some improvement when it comes to queer representation. A few years back you’d see no trans characters in videogames, or when you did, they were the topic of a joke. If you look at more recent examples like The Last of Us 2, a few queer characters are represented very well and even voiced by a trans actor.
How can we make sure games represent minorities correctly?
Olivier Madiba: Even in our studio with mostly Cameroon devs, we struggled to find our own authenticity because we had no reference. Our own developers only had experience with Western or Asian characters designs, and they had never attempted to sculpt an African haircut before, for example. We also wanted to design African characters with interesting backstories, but at the same time, they needed to have a universal appeal, so the game would still sell in other countries.
Because our main character is an African woman, we aimed for female representation within the team and tried to hire enough women, but it was always a minority because it was challenging to find female developers. The geek culture is still pretty fresh in Africa, and even more so among women.
One sad thing is that we still crunch a lot. We don’t have the proper training in the country so we compensate by working twice as hard to keep up, and stay late hours in the office. But for women, this poses an additional challenge as it can be unsafe for them to travel home after dark. And when they are older and want to build a family, it becomes even more of a problem.
To solve this, we’ll have to organize around the available time of our female developers, because we do see their added value. You can’t have a game about a female hero, without women weighing in on the designs and backstory.
Rilla Khaled: The problem with the under-representation of women in games starts further upstream, before the workplace, in schools. I started as the only woman in a class of 300 men, which wasn’t always easy.
But before we dig into authenticity, I want to point out that it’s a terribly loaded word. For people of a certain identity, you’ll never truly get it correct, even if you work with other people with similar backgrounds. That would suggest that there is some kind of essentialist truth on how to portray a particular identity.
It’s more accurate to say there are less and more ethical ways of working, and the more ethical way is to include people from the communities that you want to represent, and allowing them to push the major decision-making. And it’s vital that they are people who have been assigned the correct role and that you don’t force them to play too many roles at the same time. If you’re making a game about Canadian culture, for example, have indigenous artists work on the art, and indigenous writers work on the story.
iAsia Brown: I’ve seen characters being created from a stereotypical lens that almost look like caricatures. Even if you’re aligned to, an ally of or just have a passion for the people you are trying to authentically represent, you can’t create a character with an unbiased lens. If I ask anyone to describe someone of a race or ethnicity other than theirs, it will come with a built-in bias. What descriptors are you using, and who taught you them? Your normal may not be their reality.
In 2023 it’s possible to find creators from across the spectrum, but companies aren’t always doing their due diligence to search for them and pay them what they are worth. Especially if they aren’t as well-known yet.
I don’t care about anybody’s comfort zone or bubble. It’s a responsibility for everyone that’s in the room. Very often I show up the only woman in the room, I show up the only black person in the room, I show up the only queer woman in the room. But it’s my responsibility, because I’m in that room, to suggest bringing in the people no one else has mentioned yet. If you’re in the room, you’re already in the tree of trust. Bring somebody else in. If you’re in there, and you’re not saying anything, you’re gatekeeping just as well, and you’re part of the problem. If we’re not using our voices, we’re doing the entire industry a disservice.
Kaidan Geurts: Indeed, it’s important to acknowledge the bias that we have, even if that makes certain people uncomfortable. It’s important to step outside that comfort zone, so we can grow as an industry.
What is the importance of representation at its essence?
Nille Allard: I think it’s important for future generations. As a white person, I’ve never had a problem seeing myself represented in games or movies. But it’s rarer to see queer or even female characters represented as something other than the stereotypical archetypes. And it’s something that can have a very limiting impact, while it really shouldn’t.
Rilla Khaled: Representation is everything. I grew up surrounded by white media, and it felt like I didn’t exist. We don’t see ourselves. This is the main reason why we should be talking about these topics. We deserve to exist in the media that we consume. Even from a marketing or financial perspective, media that feels like home, still has so much untapped potential. I want to fix this for my kids. The media needs to reflect all of us.
iAsia Brown: If you didn’t see someone similar to yourself do a great thing, you may think you’re not capable of doing great things. You need someone to pave the way. Women didn’t think they could be pilots until they saw other female pilots. Men didn’t think they could be cheerleaders until they saw other male cheerleaders. Women didn’t think they could be in politics until they saw female politicians. You have to know that it’s possible in order to make it a reality for yourself.
Kaidan Geurts: I agree, you can’t be what you can’t see. And I think the majority of people would profit from breaking stereotypes. I hope better representation can create more empathy. You don’t have to share the identity of someone to feel the same struggles.
Olivier Madiba: I didn’t realize until I grew up that I was underrepresented because I wasn’t confronted with Western media yet. But now I realize the importance of the impact we have on future generations. People may not remember us as persons in 2000 years, even if we’re millionaires, but we have still played a part in the chain of inspiration that will have an impact on our media many years from now.
Nille Allard: At DAE, I didn’t feel part of a minority, because we had a bubble of queer friends that we engaged with and the split of female/male-presenting students was almost 50/50 in our field. But at my first internship, there were only 2 women in a group of 12.
On one of my first days, someone complained about having to model a gender-neutral character. And because I’m mostly fem-presenting, due to my long hair, they felt way too comfortable talking to me about this, not realising they were complaining about a nonbinary character I would have related to. Because I was “just” an intern and he was a full-time employee, I didn’t have the guts to say anything about it.
iAsia Brown: I would like to give some kind advice: remove the word “just” from your vocabulary. When you use “just”, you minimize. You shrink. You get smaller. And when you get smaller, you stay silent. A haircut does not define you, nor does a student/employee status. It can be enough to say “that’s inappropriate” and you let THEM self-reflect.
Rilla Khaled: There are many power-structures working against you in that moment. But as you get older, it will become easier to tell people they are out of line. If you’d have said “I’m gender-queer” you could signal that they messed up in a non-confrontational way, and they’d have to sit with that and work out what to say next.
What are some examples of media that do representation right?
iAsia Brown: Tell Me Why by DON’T NOD was the first AAA title to feature a transgender person as a main character and use a trans person as the voice actor. It’s about two identical twins, but one of them is transgender and the focus isn’t on their gender, but on the decisions they make and how they have to go forward, not knowing what the other choice would have lead to.
Rilla Khaled: The game I want to tell you about is one that grew out of a workshops series called “skins” that is organised by the Initiative for Indigenous Futures. It’s called He Ao Hou: A New World, and it was entirely indigenous-lead. We even had the cultural representatives and elders around who had conversations with the Hawaiian devs and artists. It’s a game about a Hawaiian space traveler, colonising space, but we also didn’t want to rethread traumatizing topics because Hawaii was also colonised.
Kaidan Geurts: I did a case study on an indiegame called Hardcoded, which is an adult dating game about trans people and androids in a dystopian cyberpunk setting. My case study was about the representation of trans people and their sexuality in videogames and I realized not a lot of games do both. In Hardcoded, there are a lot of trans characters, but they don’t make a big deal out of it, the stories weren’t about their trans-identity, but who they were outside those definitions. It was normalized, which was really refreshing to me.
Olivier Madiba: In Metal Gear Solid 3 “the Boss” is the first time I saw such a powerful woman. She wasn’t just a man in a dress. She demanded respect and felt like a true hero. It was the first female role in a game that really made an impact on me, and I decided then and there to make a game that does it right as well. Aurion, the game we worked on, has female heroes as the lead characters and is meant to inspire Africans to build a better world.
Nille Allard: A Tv-show I watched recently was Our Flag Means Death, with Vico Ortiz playing Jim, who is canonically a nonbinary character, played by a nonbinary actor*. It was really nice to have this kind of representation.
*editor’s note: The Umbrella Academy also handles this well with Elliot Page who transitioned in between seasons and they wove this into the show’s narrative in a respectful way.
Rilla Khaled: It’s good that we no longer feel the need to make media for the majority of the population. When such characters feel normal in the world they are in, that’s when we know we’re on the right path.
About Game For Thought
Game For Thought (GFT) is a livestream series launched by Howest – Digital Arts and Entertainment (DAE) in collaboration with local medialab Quindo and sponsored by Vlaams Audiovisueel Fonds (VAF), it tackles ethically-relevant topics in the games industry and explores the impact & implications of industry developments. Each broadcast, Allie Weis, ethics coordinator at Howest DAE, invites a selection of industry experts to discuss the topic at hand.