I'm not an 'SJW,' I'm an anthropologist: Making the case for diversity in games


Promoted from our community blogs!

[The discussion regarding diversity in games doesn’t seem to be slowing down or becoming any less heated, but the discussion of its impact is still important all the same. In today’s promoted blog, bacon1eggs touches on why the matter of diversity is important as a gamer and an anthropologist. – Pixie The Fairy]

Let’s clear the air first. I detest the term “SJW.” The fact the gaming community has reduced the concept of fighting for social justice to a pejorative is, in a word, pathetic.

I can understand that no one likes a keyboard warrior, however, framing the conversation in the pursuit of justice can make the endeavor sound holier-than-thou. What we are really talking about here is advocacy and, hopefully, advocacy is something that we can agree is an important process in our society.

Bear with me as I put my scholar hat on for a moment.

*Scholar hat activated*

Caricature by Honoré Daumier, 1849

Caricature by Honoré Daumier, 1849

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker perhaps best known for writing Democracy in America, was rather impressed by the American spirit of advocacy.

“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded (Tocqueville 1840, 599).”

Advocating for your beliefs is a fundamental aspect of American democracy, but what Tocqueville doesn’t address here is the cultural hegemony of ideas present in any heterogeneous society. The words that are most heeded are those that come from groups of power.

Anthropologists often find themselves researching underprivileged or underrepresented communities, and advocating for these communities becomes a part of our job. As for myself, I’ve chosen the entire medium of video games to be my research domain. As a result, I find myself encountering all sorts of social and cultural issues being brought up on a daily basis. But right now, certain groups are reacting to these issues in two ways: casual dismissal or life-threatening hostility.

I think we can all agree that the individuals sending death threats to the likes of Anita Sarkeesian and other outspoken critics are, quite simply, asshats. It is unlikely that any amount of dialogue will get through to those folks, so let’s talk about the rest of us — and yes, I do mean us — because I’ve fallen into the trap of casual dismissal plenty of times.

It’s easy to do, to think these are not real problems.

“They’re just video games.”

“This is just manufactured outrage.”

“Don’t take things so seriously.”

These are just some of the common refrains I see, yet to not take games seriously is doing them a disservice.

Gaming has evolved from its humble arcade beginnings and now plays host to one of the biggest media industries on the planet. AAA game budgets routinely rival or surpass the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. Video games are more than entertainment though: they’re works of art, cultural artifacts, experimental technology, educational tools and increasingly a platform for innovative storytelling and social commentary.

It is this final area that gains the most from a push towards more diversity. When people advocate for stronger female characters and greater cultural diversity in games, it is not about following some superficial SJW/PC agenda, but rather recognizing that new viewpoints allow for new stories. These new stories can have a significant impact.

People have been examining how mass media can influence the attitudes and beliefs of society for decades, and young people are especially affected. Just look at the waystelevision can affect self-esteem. This interview with Developmental Psychologist Rebecca Bigler is very detailed inexploring the ways children come to understand race.

“When we did our study, we asked kids why there aren’t any black or girl presidents and one-third of the kids said ‘They’re not smart enough to be. They’re not strong enough to be. They have bad leadership skills. They must be bad at it!’ That makes sense to them, because no one has explained otherwise to them, and they are trying to figure it out.”

Dr. Bigler notes that watching a few diverse television shows isn’t going to suddenly make you not prejudiced,but it helps.And what really helps is havingparents who sit down and reinforce that — parents who show appreciation for diversity.

This is what I try to do when I advocate for greater diversity in games. I’m showing my appreciation for developers and publishers who take that risk to recognize other audiences. I want to reinforce that these design decisions are good. They help.

There’s still this big marketing fear that if a piece of media (be it a movie, a television show, or a video game) doesn’t have a white male lead, it won’t succeed. But recent studies are showing thatAfrican American and Latino youth play games more than their white counterparts, and with women now accounting forover half of all gamers, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep ignoring these markets in terms of character and story representation.

More of this please

More of this, please.

It is all of these yet-to-be-told stories, the ones that go beyond generic scruffy white guy #25 and generic sexy warrior girl #100, that will allow us to expand our understanding of the human experience. That might sound like sentimental hyperbole to some, but it’s true! Our willingness to create and, more importantly, to experience new stories is further recognition that these stories are worth telling. It sends a message to young people of color, to women, to LGBT youth, that they are no longer isolated.

I see a lot of individuals say that games should focus on gameplay and mechanics over story and characters because that’s what makes the medium unique. It is a fair argument, but the interactive nature of games is also what makes their storytelling ability so powerful.

A recent study at Penn State has shown thatpeople are starting to extract more meaning out of their video games.It is often creative storytelling that inspires new, innovative mechanics. Imagine the gameplay possibilities if we could undertake the harrowing journey of the refugees currently pouring out of Syria and the Middle East. Or if we could take the role of a black teenager growing up in Detroit or Chicago. Of a gay woman in Russia. A war orphan in Africa. Having that does’t mean Mario, Call of Duty and Final Fantasy are going to be replaced.

In fact, these types of games are already being made, often called “serious games”. They’re usually created and released under a broader digital media art or education framework. There is a recognition that these aren’t the type of experiences likely to attract the typical video game buying audience. After all, one of the main reasons people play games is to escape the harsh realities of the world, not to be reminded of them, but that is exactly why we need to advocate for the big games to be more inclusive in the type of characters and stories they tell. Escapism is far more effective when an audience has a link into that world. There is a way to create compelling, diverse, and realistic human characters and still sell a fun, engaging video game.

Top (Rat Queens) Bottom (Lumberjanes)

Top (Rat Queens) Bottom (Lumberjanes)

I would argue that the video game industry could take a few cues from the creative renaissance that the comic book and graphic novel industry has been experiencing these past few years. Titles likeLumberjanesandRat Queensare proving that realistic female characters can exist and lead their own stories while still including all the fantasy and supernatural elements that genre fans crave.

Ms. Marvelis showing the world that a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager can be a hero and just as socially awkward and geeky as the rest of us. America Chavez is the kickass gay Latina from another dimension affiliated with theYoung AvengersandA-Force. AndThe Harlem Hellfighterstells the fictionalized (but still very real) story of the all black 369th Infantry during World War I. These are the kinds of stories and characters we need in video games. They simultaneously let us escape into fantastical action-packed worlds, but their diverse characters and varied storytelling have something more meaningful to say about the plurality of human experience.

For minority groups, being able to see and hear yourself reflected in media beyond stereotypical depictions is a truly powerful experience. Latino characters are few and far between in games, but when they do show up, my heart swells. I have the same reaction every time: “They see me. I exist to them.”

The moment I stop having that reaction is the moment I no longer have to advocate for greater diversity. It’s the moment my story is recognized as everyone’s story. As a human story that anyone can experience and relate to. I’m not just a niche market. I’m just someone who likes to play games and the more stories you give me, the more adventures I can go on.

Let me be black. Let me be white. Let me be a Latina. Let me be a woman or man. Queer or straight. Fat or skinny. Let me be Muslim or Christian or Atheist. Let me be Mayan, Egyptian, Zulu, Peruvian, Vietnamese, Aboriginal, Cherokee, Filipino, or Indian. Let me be from Mars or Saturn. Let me be a space marine, a thief, a doctor, a soldier, an alien, an illegal alien, a mage, a monster, a zombie, a teenager, a father, a mother, an elf or a robot.

The power of games is we can be anyone, including ourselves, so let’s have more of that.