Game On or Game Over: It’s not their job to make you feel included
Microsoft versus Sony, Battlefield versus Call of Duty and Forza versus Gran Turismo. These are some of the rivalries that can get people talking about console wars. “Game On or Game Over” is your place to get inside the minds of Nicholas and Andy as they seek to find the true meaning of gaming and tackle some of gaming’s most controversial subjects. Both are award winning authors – although the awards haven’t been mailed or created yet — but trust them. Would they lie to you?
Nicholas: When I think about Mario, I think about my childhood. I think about the numerous Nintendo consoles and the many Nintendo titles that I spent most of my weekends and holidays trying to finish. For me, Mario is innocent – sure it features a cheesy storyline of Mario and his friends trying to defeat Bowser and save Princess Peach/the Mushroom Kingdom, but they’ve always represented light-hearted gaming fun. Fun that I’ve enjoyed from the very beginning of when I started gaming.
It therefore took me by surprise when I found out in a Mario Kart 8 review that someone had considered it ‘racist’. When I inquired as to why, the comment was made because the reviewer didn’t appreciate the fact that every character in the game’s roster was ‘white’. It got me thinking, yes, indeed, this reviewer was correct – all the main characters in the Mario universe are white. Despite this though, I felt to suggest the game was racist was a stretch, and borderline ridiculous even. I considered it strange to apply a very serious real-world issue like racism to a game like Mario Kart 8, a comical kart-racing game made by a Japanese developer that features a mix of Italian plumbers, apes, dinosaurs, turtles and other characters. Before we get into the main topic I wanted to discuss this week, to kick things off, I wanted to ask you – what do you think of the above? Do you think Mario Kart 8 in inherently racist for having mostly/all white characters?
Andy: I’m going to try and express my thoughts on this as eloquently as I possibly can. People need to find real meaningful things to be offended about. It seems that in the age of being politically correct and trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings we have become a society that bitches and moans about every little thing. Your Mario Kart 8 is a perfect example of that. It amazes me the lengths people go to get offended by things, and that’s not just in video games it’s a much more widespread than that. I don’t know if it’s as bad in Australia as it is in the United States, but it gets tiring after a while. From games, to movies, books, television shows, how you phrase things, the list goes on and on.
In terms of video games though it’s quite absurd. Let’s take the Mario Kart example. Mario has been around for over 30 years spanning many iterations and creating millions of fans along the way. I personally don’t see Mario or the Zelda games racist. Now that I think about it though, I’m an animal lover and the way turtles are treated in Mario games is completely wrong and inhumane! As long as we’re at it I think the color red offends me, no game should ever use that color again. I mean as long as we are coming up with asinine reasons to be offended we may as well keep going right?
The last time I checked we call ourselves “gamers” because we play “video games”. As far as I know “playing a game” is supposed to be fun. It’s a chance to suspend reality and think about non real-life stuff. Call me crazy but I have never played a game, sat back and thought “Well this game sucks, there’s no African-American people in it.” People want to say Mario Kart is racist but they will go out and buy the latest copy of Grand Theft Auto and shoot prostitutes and laugh about it. Before I get on too much of a soap box here though, do you think too many people are going out of their way to be offended by things that for the most part just don’t matter?
Nicholas: I completely agree. For the longest time I’ve had the idea that we’re becoming too politically correct as a society, and as a result we’re having conversations like this – where a franchise that originally started as a plumber rescuing a princess from a giant ape is being considered as racist by some and even sexist by others (consider the ‘Damsel in Distress’ video that Anita Sarkeesian created last year). Like you’ve pointed out, there seems to be an issue of how we rank what’s ‘wrong’ with the industry when the ability to commit murderous rampages in Grand Theft Auto V is seem as fine, yet something like anal probing in South Park: The Stick of Truth had to be censored across the world. A question I’d really like to ask these people is whether they are actually ‘offended’, or if it’s just a case of making mountains out of molehills. I mean, does anyone actually play Mario Kart and think “why isn’t my culture/race represented in the roster of characters?”, or is it a non-issue someone wanted to try and blow it out as much as possible?
This all prompts me to delve into the real topic I wanted to discuss this week, and it’s one that I’m sure will divide our readers. Above we’ve briefly talked about Mario Kart 8 having predominately ‘white’ characters, and in the past we’ve seen a plethora of articles and discussions about the lack of women as the main protagonists in games. What I’d like to get your thoughts on this week, is whether or not the games industry needs to promote diversity in its products. Too often we see people complain about the number of ‘athletic white males’ as the main character in a game or as the feature on the cover art. Do you personally think it’s up to developers and publishers to change this? Do you think we have an issue now where games aren’t inclusive of different races, or that we need to see an increase in the number of playable/lead female characters?
Andy: Before I answer that, let me preface it by saying that before you (or our readers) jump to conclusions based on one sentence, read my full reply before tarring and feathering me. Video games absolutely do not need to promote diversity. Each and every game is a vision of either one person or a group of people, it’s their interpretation of what they want it to be. It’s not up to me, or you, or any other gamer to demand they change their vision into something that won’t offend people and will make everyone feel included. This is especially true in games that aren’t even based in the real world, such as the Mario universe. It’s much like people demanding an author include or change something in a book because someone felt left out or offended. It’s not our place to demand change to someone else’s work. If you like it and it’s something you enjoy then purchase it. If it’s not, then don’t get it and speak with your wallet.
With that said, I fully support games that think outside the mainstream box that dominates most games. I’m all for diversity in main characters and secondary characters – IF it makes sense. Lara Croft is a fantastic female lead character and I never thought to myself “Man, this game would be so much better if the main character was a dude.” Same with Assassin’s Creed Liberation and the main character being female, it worked well and made sense. Mass Effect is another good example of diversity where you can be a male Shepherd or female Shepherd and your love interests can be whatever you want them to be. There is nothing inherently “wrong” about any of those choices. That’s how it should be, simply putting something in a game just to say you have it doesn’t do anyone any good.
Personally, I don’t think there’s anything that needs to be changed. Games are a form of entertainment, no-one forces us to buy them and we have the ability to pick and choose which ones we support. I have faith in the developers of these games that if the situation is right, and the story calls for it, that they will include the right mix of characters to make it an enjoyable title. I go back to my original statement, people need to stop looking for things to be offended about and just enjoy what’s there. To truly get change in this, or most other, industries, you speak with what matters most – your wallet. Game developers make games to make money, if the money stops then they will reassess what they are doing. What do you think though, should developers be comfortable enough to stay true to their visions or should they acquiesce with the vocal minority and change things to better be all inclusive?
Nicholas: It probably won’t surprise you that I completely agree with everything you’ve written above. The first point you’ve made about a game being someone/a team’s vision is a really good point and one that a friend of mine was actually mentioning when I brought up this topic with him recently. We’ve spoken about gamer entitlement in the past and I think it’s relevant to bring it up again here. There’s something inherently arrogant and entitled about a group of people telling artists what they should be making. No-one tells a painter what he should paint, no-one tells a musician what he should sing, and similarly, no-one should be telling a developer what they need to put in their games, when they should be making the game they want/have planned. That’s not to say that having diversity in a game as far as its characters isn’t a good thing, but to suggest that it needs to be done, no, that doesn’t sit well with me at all.
The entire notion of speaking with your wallet (funny how that is something we mention a lot isn’t it?) is important and also comes into play here. I was having a chat with Mark Ankucic about a fortnight ago and he mentioned a line that we’ve heard being made online a few times, “if women want a game with more female protagonists then they should make them”. I think this is a really important comment to reflect on. Often we accuse the industry of being sexist because of the amount of ‘white male’ protagonists. I wanted to propose a bombshell here – are developers being sexist, or are they only catering to what the market wants? Let me explain. There’s no denying that publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft are in the business of making profit. Given this, like any business, they’re going to want to make a game that is guaranteed to sell as many units as possible. Now it’s not a stretch to suggest that these companies know what sells and what the market demands. We like to criticize that Call of Duty hasn’t innovated in a while, but despite this it still sells like hotcakes. Activision know what gamers want, so it delivers. Is it wrong to suggest that these developers and publishers know that having that alpha male protagonist works, so they develop their games featuring them? It’s of course not to suggest that a female role wouldn’t work, like you said Lara Croft is a great example with Tomb Raider, but if a developer knows that having a dude-bro main character works, can you blame them for using him? I know this might sound rude and forgive me, but publishers aren’t interested in making every group happy/feel included, they’re after money, so that’s what they’ll try to do. If enough gamers find this to be a problem and stop buying their games then like any for-profit organization, they’ll make changes to address it. That’s not happening right now though, so they have no real incentive to change.
This brings me onto my next big point in this entire discussion – token characters. Sticking with the example of Mario Kart 8, what would the reviewer like to have seen to make them change their mind? One ‘black’ character? Two perhaps? Half? All? Whenever I see someone complain about a particular race(s) not being represented, I always wonder what the acceptable ratio needs to be. Excuse me if I sound offensive here once again, but if we’re going to discuss that most characters in gaming tend to be white males, do we need to see a radical shift in the race and gender of main characters for the next 30 years to balance things out? One issue I often have when it comes to critics playing the race card is it tends to be a white vs. black argument – and this actually bothers me. It’s ignorant to assume that everyone in the world can be classified as either ‘white’ or ‘black’ based on their skin tone (and this is the reason I refer to both colours in quotation marks). Let’s really delve into this further. Do games need to have an even mix of both ‘white’ and ‘black’ characters? What about the representation of Asian, European or Hispanic cultures for example? Is it not just as ignorant to only have ‘white’ characters as it is to suggest that someone with darker skin represents a whole collection of countries? Is it not ignorant to suggest that a ‘white’ male represents Australians, Americans, Macedonians, Greeks, Russians, etc.? Does it count as promoting diversity if we include a mix of races merely for the sake of including them, when they fail to fit or work with the story/setting? Would not having a ‘black’ or female character as the main protagonist just for the sake of having one not seem as inappropriate and offensive as including them for the sake of simply doing so?
Andy: Exactly, including a gay black man as the protagonist of the next Ryse Son of Rome game in an effort to be all inclusive doesn’t make any sense. Having token characters that represent any segment of our culture does more harm than good. It’s much like 1980 horror movies here in the US. The blonde girl with the red shirt would always be the first one dead, after she runs barefoot through the forest and trips. So the diversity of having cute blonde girls in horror movies was certainly beneficial right? But, let’s go a step further shall we? I have blue eyes, the amount of protagonists that do not have blue eyes offends me. I’m going to start a petition and a blog about the degree of social injustice of not including people with blue eyes in every game! Or, on the flip side how about the outrage that only certain segments of the world are ever the “bad guys”. Shoot Nazis = “This is awesome!”, but substitute Americans in place of the Nazis and think of the shit storm that would occur. It’s basically the same argument just framed differently, but no-one complains about it that way.
Diversity just to say you have diversity doesn’t do anyone any good. Conversely, having a blanket policy that prohibits something is archaic. Just look at the kerfuffle Nintendo found themselves in a few weeks ago when they said same-sex relationships would be prohibited. It’s one thing not to include something in a story because it doesn’t make sense, but to flat out ban something from ever being in a game doesn’t make sense. It also comes across as hypocritical saying it’s OK to shoot people in the face and destroy towns but you can’t have same-sex relationships because of the children. We have to remember these poor impressionable children. It’s such skewed logic, but logic that is shared by several developers over the fears of public backlash.
Times are changing though, slowly for sure inch by inch. It will be a slow incremental shift but one I think is on its way and for the most part already here. Gamers can already romance characters of the same sex in games like Mass Effect and Dragons Age. The tabooness of things is slowly being peeled back by a couple developers over time. Like you said though, developers, for the most part, make games that will sell and make them money. Gamers cry out for innovation and change but continue to buy games that do the same thing year after year. I’m not saying every game should have a gay or lesbian character, but when it truly fits into the story and makes sense is there really any harm in including it? I read a discussion on a game forum about this very topic that we are discussing. It started with the original poster saying that there needs to be more female lead characters. While most agreed and some were trolls, one person said the same about gay/lesbian characters. The original poster then said no, they don’t need to be included because they didn’t believe in that lifestyle. I think this is a main theme for people, they want what they want so it fits into their ideal world, but they don’t care (or don’t want) things that don’t fit into their views. So that brings it back full circle, they are arguing against the very thing they are arguing for. If they truly want across the board inclusivity it has to be just that. You can’t cherry-pick what you want and what you don’t want.
With the latest generation of gaming we can reasonably expect the PS4 and Xbox One will be around for at least 8 years. Do you think over that time frame we will see games make a subtle shift to where they are all inclusive, or do you think it will continue to be the status quo with mostly strong white males as protagonists?
Nicholas: The case with Tomodachi Life is a good example. It seems ridiculous that Nintendo would make a game like this and then choose to not have same-sex relationships. A perfect example would be to have a game with a customizable character (think Mass Effect or Saints Row) and not allow you to have a selection of races to choose from or pick between male/female. I know we’ve spoken about not simply including something for the sake of including it, but when you’re going to the effort of making a life simulator or having the option to make a character, is it that much of a hassle to include that extra option or two? Surely it won’t matter to the storyline if you’re allowing players to make their own character, right?
To go back and answer your question though, I don’t think we’re going to see a radical shift anytime soon. That said, if the amount of noise we see online actually translates into some action, then sure, I don’t doubt that we’ll see more female or ‘non-white’ characters. Like I said though, this change needs to come from the consumer first and not the developer – a developer will only do what works, so if the community wants to see real change then they need to show it by doing more than just another Facebook post or Tumblr entry. I guess an answer I’d like to know is, if a lack of diversity has been such an issue for so long, why hasn’t anything been done (properly) about it so far? If there’s something I don’t like about a company or industry then I’ll boycott it. If the lack of diversity is as big a concern for so many, why do they continue to support the industry that fails to show real change? I know that asking a whole group of gamers to essentially stop gaming might be a stretch, but shouldn’t drastic measures call for dealing with what seems to be an important issue?
All this said though, if I may, I’d like to play devil’s advocate and switch things around. In having this conversation with a friend last week, I mentioned that developers are only choosing white males as protagonists because it sells. The response I received back though is that white male protagonists only sell because these developers and publishers (and the entertainment industry as a whole) decide what is marketable and what isn’t. It was suggested that the industry needs to take charge and tell us (the consumers) what we should want and what we should demand. What are your thoughts to this? Are developers only supplying what the market demands, or do the developers control what the market demands? If there’s a cycle, who should be the side to ultimately break this trend?
Andy: I think the only group that can decide what is marketable and what isn’t is the end user. There have been games and movies that had big budgets and heaps of advertising, but the end sales were miserable. That’s because the consumer, like we’ve said before, spoke with their money and didn’t go see the movie or buy the game. I think it’s up to the consumer, of any product really, to tell the creator’s what they want to see. You do raise an interesting point though. If diversity in gaming has been such a big issue for so long… why hasn’t anyone done anything meaningful to correct it? I think most developers get it, they are storytellers and maybe, just maybe a non-white, non- male protagonist doesn’t fit their stories.
I will say this though, I disagree with you one hundred percent in that I honestly think that this newest generation of gaming we will see a gay main character. When it happens it will absolutely divide the gaming community. There will be people that will completely boycott it and they will cite their reasons, but there will also be people that embrace it. Whomever develops it will be taking a big risk because of the anticipated backlash but I think there will be equal parts praise across the gaming community as well. It’s a risk/reward type of thing but one I think the majority of the community would support on one condition. That the execution of it, and reason behind it, makes sense. Some games are just there for fun and to screw around with friends, such as Mario, and there are other games that really drive home real-world societal issues that make players think about morality, choices and consequences. Those games where when you finish them you feel like you’ve been kicked in the gut, those are the games that leave lasting impressions on me. I legitimately think there will be a title that crosses that threshold and takes storytelling in games to the next level.
I think the white macho male protagonist is a safe bet for developers because that’s what their comfortable with. We’ve seen developers take risks in the past I think it’s just a matter of time before we see more non-traditional protagonists and as a result open avenues of storytelling that have for a large part been under-represented. That leads me into my next question for you though. So far we’ve talked about developers adding more diversity but we, for the most part, have ignored an equally important aspect of that equation. Putting the vocal minority aside for a minute, do you think the larger part of the gaming community is actually ready for a non-traditional protagonist. Do you think that’s something gamers would embrace on top of the storylines that those types of characters would warrant?
Nicholas: It’s very convenient that you mention “putting aside the vocal minority” because I think it’s an important point that we need to address. This entire article we’ve been treating this outcry for greater diversity in gaming as something that’s hot on everyone’s mind, but I honestly don’t think it is. Like with every ‘big’ issue that we see online, whether it be relating to gaming, politics or what have you, we’re only seeing that vocal group of individuals who are bothered to say something about it. Just because we see a lot of chatter on Twitter or Facebook though it doesn’t mean we’re seeing the views of the community at large. I think we often forget that we surround ourselves with like-minded people (for example: gamers surrounding themselves with gamers or cosplayers surrounding themselves with cosplayers), so while we think that 10+ comments from different people means that everyone is saying something, it doesn’t mean that everyone from all other circles are thinking it too.
What I’m trying to get at is, and as I think you’ve alluded to in your question, while you and I might be seeing those around us calling for greater diversity, outside the online community (Twitter or forums for example) I don’t think people are giving it any thought. That’s not to say there aren’t people who think, “you know what, I wouldn’t mind if I could play as a female”, but I think it’s nothing more than an after-thought and one they don’t bother to mull over much further. I have a number of friends who are gamers but who don’t actively participate in online discussions or who have other ‘gamer friends’, and they never discuss the issue of sexism in games or the problem of diversity. To answer your question, I don’t doubt gamers would be willing to embrace diversity in their characters, I just don’t think for the greater part that gamers would care. Excluding the ignorant idiots you come across online, I think people just buy a game because they hear it’s fun or because they think it looks good, rather than because the character is male/female or what their race is.
To end this week’s discussion I wanted to play the role of devil’s advocate one last time. Some people might be reading this article thinking to themselves, “of course these two aren’t going to see why diversity is so important, they are just two white men, they don’t understand.” The reason for this push in diversity, for some, is so that they feel they can be included. It might be arguable that because you and I are white males, and that because we often play as white males, that this notion of not feeling included never crosses our mind. What do you think about that? Is this simply a problem we cannot relate to?
Andy: I think that’s a very fair statement to be honest. There are some things that I simply cannot relate to no matter how hard I try to put myself in someone’s shoes. Sure, I can get an idea, but to truly live in the moment and understand I’ll admit I can’t do that. I can understand that since gaming is more mainstream now, more and more people are involved in the consumption of games and therefore want to bring with them, their experiences and culture. I’m OK with that to be honest, if for no other reason than if developers do decide to bring more diversity to characters and stories then by default I will get to experience those things first hand as well. At the end of the day isn’t that why we play games? To have fun and experience things that I otherwise wouldn’t get to do?
Let’s be frank about it though. We have talked before about game developers running out of ideas, recycling things that have worked in the past and making countless remakes of past games. If gamers want to be true to their word, having more diverse stories with a wider array of protagonists, these are logical avenues that could lead to some captivating stories and memorable moments. If the gaming community truly wants games to continue to evolve and innovate we have to have to be willing to embrace new ideas. This includes being willing to support developers as they forge new IPs with more non-traditional characters. At the end of the day gamers will play games that are fun and entertaining regardless of the color of the characters skin, religion, or sexual preference. I don’t recall seeing any stories that someone was offended that the main character in Telltale’s Walking Dead was African American. I think it’s only a matter of time before we see more and more of this. If done right, and done for the correct reasons that benefit the game or story I’m all for it. I only hope the majority of gamers embrace it when it happens. Yes, there will be detractors and people who are offended, there always are in moments life this. The end result will be worth it and there’s no telling the storyline or characters that will come out of it. That’s why we play games right, to be surprised and challenged. Sometimes the challenges isn’t based on skill, once and awhile that challenges is making us think. Here’s to hoping it comes soon rather than later.