Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Diversity, won't you? Thank you. - Call to Advocate for Diversity in Games & Game Journalism

Importance of Having Diversity in Games, Game Companies, and Game Journalism

Unfortunately the video game industry and video game journalism can look fairly homogeneous. While the market has improved and we do see more and more diversity in both games  and those who report on them, there is still a great deal to be done. Through simple ignorance or malice, video games too often come across as a medium solely for straight white cis males ages 15-35. The market is clogged with games that seem to only cater to this specific group. 

Protagonists are virile young white men fulfilling power fantasies. Women are often sexualized eye candy in games also for the benefit of straight men. The female characters that do exist tend to be present for the male protagonist to conquer romantically or physically. People of color tend to follow stereotypes, if they appear at all. Black characters in video games are cops or soldiers. Asians are engineers and scientists. Native Americans are shown with mystical connections to nature, and Latinos are portrayed as passionate and emotional. Gay characters are very scarce in video games. Transgender characters are virtually non-existent.

Much of video game journalism reinforces this homogeneity too through overwhelmingly straight cis white male authors who seem to write exclusively for a similar audience. Even sites that make an honest try to reach broader audiences are limited by the lack of diversity among their writers. 

As a straight cis man, I will never be able to reproduce the experience or perspective of my female or gay or transgender colleagues. While I can sympathize with fellow people from a different ethnic or religious background, I cannot speak for them. Even if I support the message, I cannot replicate or replace a voice that is not mine. Publications that claim to support diversity cannot rightly do so while leaving people voiceless through the construction of their staff.

The "boy's club" mentality thrives among in-game communities too. While active on game forums and working with in-game groups, I have seen calls for more focus on a diverse audience met with derision and hostility. Women in game guilds are often treated like privileged guests rather than full-fledged members. I've seen online game groups constantly define racial, gender, and orientation minorities by their differences rather than anything related to the game that brought players together. I have friends whose guildmates refer to them as "that black guy" or "the gay guild leader." Some players online will even seek to force minorities out of what they feel is an owned straight white cis male space through continual verbal harassment.

I contribute to a blog called Pixelkin.org, which is focused on bringing families together through gaming. The idea that games are a straight white cis male space is a barrier to families gaming together too. It's hard to ask a parent to play a game where they might be alienated simply for their gender, age, orientation, or ethnicity. Likewise it's difficult to bring kids into a gaming world where parents know they might be targeted and harassed for the same reasons. 

Games, however, are a cultural reality now. They help shape and define our culture and will continue to do so.

Children need the help of parents to address diversity issues and make sense of an improving but still intolerant and prejudiced society. We must give children the tools to take ownership of their world to make it a better place. Parents can use games to show kids the ways spaces can become exclusionary to the detriment of everyone. Kids need the guidance to learn the importance of helping others feel like a game is everyone's space - not just a space people are invited to by straight white boys.

Learning to question the art we love is a life skill we all need.

The anonymity of online communities can free bigots of social filtration to reveal just how ugly and violent exclusionary sentiments are at their core. While encountering Internet trolling can be a harrowing experience, it is a window to how ugly the world can be beneath the surface. The presence of an adult when a kid encounters this behavior or considers engaging in it, is invaluable. It's a chance to stop societal pressure to bully or be bullied, and provide that love and support we all need sometimes. 

Recently, an editing position at a game journalism site with a predominantly white cis male staff was filled by yet another white cis man, despite more diverse alternatives. I do not know what went into the decisions that led to this choice, and I have no wish to single out to disparage the man they did choose. Nevertheless, this decision was disappointing to those hoping for a change. What was even more alarming, however, was the hostility people encountered after voicing their disappointment over the decision. The backlash was so aggressive that one writer stated that she would not cover video games at all anymore. In other words, the backlash from those seeking to preserve homogeneity in games successfully created even more homogeneity.

The lesson from this episode and others like it, however, should be that diversity in games and game journalism is too important for anyone to stand up alone for it. The impact of diversity (or lack thereof) in the video game medium on our culture is too crucial to leave as the job of a few isolated brave pioneers. It is the responsibility of all of us who believe in it. If we only quietly support these pioneers, we leave them to bear the brunt of resulting abuse alone. The people trying to stifle diversity are many and vocal. I believe those who favor diversity are also many and should make their voices known.

If you feel this is an important issue to address, speak out. Let your opinions be known on the web or just to your friends and family. If you happen to be on Twitter, please use the tag #GamEQuality to mark any statements or links to your articles in support. Game companies and journal publishers need to see this matters to many of us. It's about games, equality, and quality, because diversity just makes games better. 
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