You ever listen to someone talk at a live event and feel like you're a part of something greater, that there's a real movement underway? That's what it felt like to sit in on a presentation from BioWare Montreal's Manveer Heir at GDC earlier today. The talk - titled Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where do video games stand? - was made to a packed audience that leapt to its collective feet for a standing ovation once Heir had finished. As the pinnacle of the advocacy track at GDC this year, Heir challenged the longstanding status quo in the industry, which has led to far too many designers relying on lazy tropes and stereotypes when creating their games.
Heir implored those in the audience (largely developers, which he called the army) to first recognize and understand that there is a problem in the industry and second, to have the courage to spread the message and push back when they witness problematic issues in development. Not only that, but they should have back up so that they're not the only one at a company to stand up for something. Ultimately, if enough game developers are willing to create games that actually address societal prejudices, it will effect change in the industry Heir said.
"If we want to start making games that tackle race, gender and sexual orientation and everything else in positive ways instead of falling into stereotypical, problematic ways then we have to step our collective games up. This, to me, is one of the biggest areas of growth in this industry. It's where I see so much promise. But I'll be honest - I think we're going to make a lot of missteps along the way but I don't think that means the path is wrong. It just means we need to watch where we're going and try harder," he said.
"For me, these stereotypes are contributing to the creative stagnation in our industry. But I also believe we need to reject stereotypes as a social responsibility to mankind"
Heir is looking at the problem through the lens of Western game development because it's the industry he knows. His statements shouldn't be interpreted as applying to Asian markets or other territories. Additionally, he stressed that his talk isn't about "playing the blame game." Just because a certain game might have a stereotypical character in it doesn't mean that the developer is racist, misogynistic or homophobic. Heir's goal isn't to point fingers; it's to get the industry talking about what it can do better.
The fact is that the industry is currently dealing with a severe representation problem. Most games, including most of the highly rated and top selling games, feature white male protagonists. There is a serious lack of women, minorities and LGBTQ characters in games, and when the industry does offer a character in a lead role that isn't the strong, powerful white male, it usually resorts to a stereotype or archetypal character, like a scantily clad woman, an effeminate gay man, a black criminal, etc.
While video games aren't the only medium to do this, Heir noted that all content creators have a social responsibility because the media does have an effect on people. He pointed to several studies that show that black children will pick out the white doll as the "good one" when given a choice, or how slim, sexualized images of women have affected little girls. Stereotypes can definitely influence the way we treat others in society.
And including a character just for the sake of including a person in a game who isn't a white male isn't doing anyone any favors if it's not done in a respectful way. Heir pointed to how trans people are represented in Grand Theft Auto, where the designers clearly emphasized a character's male features despite that the character doesn't identify with being a male. This opens up the character to ridicule and only serves to reinforce bad stereotypes. And while there are some positive examples, like Lee Everett in Telltale's The Walking Dead, for every Everett there are countless others that fall into the stereotype trap, like Gears of War's Cole Train or Franklin Clinton from GTA V, to name a couple.
Not only is it detrimental to society potentially to perpetuate these stereotypes in games, but it's hurting the games business as well, Heir said. He noted that the industry ought to give its audience more credit. "I find it very cynical to think that our audience is not smart enough to be able to accept and handle and embrace a gay protagonist or more exclusive women protagonists in games that aren't glorified sex objects and actually have personalities beyond supporting the men in the game. There are plenty of examples of this being accepted in other media," Heir remarked.
"Why should we reject stereotypes? Not only is it lazy, but it's fairly boring. We play so many games that use the same stereotypes. I get fed up with the same old story and characters in every game. I know there are others like me, I talk to them all the time. For me, these stereotypes are contributing to the creative stagnation in our industry. But I also believe we need to reject stereotypes as a social responsibility to mankind," he continued.
"I want us as an industry to stop being so scared... let's find a way to challenge the majority and the minority perception of how we deal with race, gender, sexual orientation and all other sources of social injustices we have in our world"
There are many defenders of the persistent stereotypes in games unfortunately. Some say that it's all about "realism," and that making women subservient to men in a fantasy RPG, for example, is true to how it was in medieval times. Heir quickly shot a hole in that argument. Not only does it assume that fantasy must be like medieval Europe, but the bottom line is it's fantasy, and all games are fantasy in a sense. Game creators can make the world whatever they want. But designers often go to the "cognitive default" and take the shortcut because that's what they are used to. And the fact is that throughout history there have been strong powerful women who broke out of the mold like Joan of Arc, for example. Heir pointed to the popular HBO show Game of Thrones and how it's at least a small step in the right direction as it does include several strong female characters that clearly break the mold. Game designers should strive for something like that because women, minorities, and LGBTQ people deserve to participate in these fantasy constructs every bit as much as their white male neighbors.
"We should not default to the [stereotypical] position and we shouldn't use realism as an excuse... because most of our games aren't anywhere near realistic. The premise of the games we make is so fantastical that to call it realistic is beyond laughable... If we want to make meaningful games, if we want to avoid turning away a significant portion of our potential audience, if we want to be a successful medium that is grown-up and not stuck in adolescence, then we need to stop falling back on the realism excuse and use realism responsibly and not as a default," Heir stressed.
Another argument regarding stereotypes in games is that titles with minorities, women or LGBTQ characters as lead protagonists won't sell as well. There's no evidence to support that notion, however. The fact is that some developers and suits have been too scared to test the waters and there hasn't been enough content featuring diverse characters, or when there has been the publishers have been reluctant to give it the backing and marketing push it deserves. The industry isn't even giving these games a fair chance at success. Heir put the onus on the developers in the room, saying that they have to push back against this.
"I want us as an industry to stop being so scared... Let's create a game that changes the core experience for the player... let's find a way to challenge the majority and the minority perception of how we deal with race, gender, sexual orientation and all other sources of social injustices we have in our world. Let's not be scared to ruffle feathers and let's be open and honest about our intentions. Let's push and engage in a new discourse as a result of these dynamics. And let's do all of this because what we are currently doing is absolutely not working," Heir said as his voice got louder and louder.
"But this problem isn't solved with words, it's solved with action. It's solved not only with intent but convictions and a little bit of courage. It's solved by fighting, by challenging your team to do something a little deeper and making something that's important to you. It's solved by you here in this room. And that is our ability to change and impact the world. This is the way to push the art form. This is our way to challenge ourselves and others. Wherever we stand today as an industry, I am confident that we will stand somewhere far better tomorrow as long as you right here are willing to be an agent of change. I sincerely hope you are ready for that challenge because I sure as hell am!"