Publishers may cite business concerns for populating their games with a preponderance of straight white males, but a diversified portfolio of characters might just provide greater returns. In a talk at the Game Developers Conference Game Narrative Summit today, Microsoft narrative designer Tom Abernathy made the argument that games with varied representations of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation are just good business.
Abernathy opened by acknowledging his personal history with the topic. He talked about his young daughter's vocal preference for games, books, or movies that starred women in prominent roles, and her distaste for any title that forced or to play as a boy, or worse, a Kinect game that misidentified her as male. When Abernathy went to look for games for girls that let them play as girls, he was frustrated with the experience and took to Twitter to rant about it, sentiments that were then reported on by a number of feminist blogs.
Abernathy said he found out two things as a result. First, Twitter is a tremendous megaphone. Second, there are a lot of people out there who agreed with him and wanted more diverse characters in games. And while the culture at large is becoming more accepting of diversity--Abernathy noted that the US has a black president, and same-sex marriage has been approved in various states by a majority of voters--he doesn't think the industry has kept pace.
While Abernathy's GDC session description promised hard numbers to justify greater diversity as a business proposition, the relevance of those numbers is actually contingent on an assumption. That assumption is that gamers at large are not all that different from his daughter; they like to play games that feature characters like themselves. So rather than deal with the sales potential of diverse games directly, he offered demographic research that countered assumptions about just who is buying and playing games.
Abernathy pointed to Entertainment Software Association statistics and PopCap research, noting that adult women now make up 30 percent of the gaming audience in the US. Meanwhile, the male under-18 demographic that people so often identify as the core only makes up 18 percent of the audience.
"Women are not a small special market on the fringe of the core," Abernathy said. "Women are the new core."
Abernathy also pointed to a study which said 56 percent of the US urban population plays games, compared to 47 percent of the rural population. Abernathy said with more rural areas of the country tending to be less diverse, the numbers would seem to shift the gamer audience even further away from the idea of an average gamer being a straight white male.
"Our industry, our art, and our business stand to gain in every sense simply by holding a mirror up to our audience and reflecting their diversity in what we produce," Abernathy said.