Beamdog Creative Director Divid Gaider, previously of Bioware, has spoken at the Sweden Game Conference on the challenges and rewards of ensuring that your game has diverse characters, offering plenty of arguments for the inclusion of a wide spectrum of gender, ethnicity and sexuality, but also cautioning that it's a difficult and often thankless task.
Diversity is the key theme of this year's conference, and Gaider's opening speech was a broad offering of personal experience from someone who has been considering the impact of representation since his time on Baldur's Gate 2, 17 years ago. In that game, six of the 16 companion NPC characters were female, but just three were non-Caucasian. (Plus one Drow.) At the time, diverse representation not a particularly driving issue in development, but even then, Bioware was pushing it forward. Originally, says Gaider, only one of those characters, a thief called Yoshimo, was non-white.
"At the time it seemed like and arbitrary decision, an odd thing to do," he explained. "I don't remember who explained it to me, but when I asked why the answer was 'because we have 16 companions, and only one isn't white. That's weird. I thought they must be wrong about that - they must have missed someone. But they hadn't. We'd gone with the default because that what's you do when you don't think about it. It has to be part of the discussion. The intervention has to be deliberate."
Gaider went on to work on Neverwinter Nights, then Knights of the Old Republic, which was the next time he was aware of the diversity issue being raised.
"I, a gay man, had no idea a gay character could be included in a video game without a massive public backlash. But Bioware did it, even though we felt we had to hide it"
"We wanted to include a lesbian team member, not because of any sense of social justice, but because we wanted to, because it added variety. I say we, but I, a gay man, had no idea a gay character could be included in a video game without a massive public backlash. But Bioware did it, even though we felt we had to hide it: her true nature was kept to a subtext. She had strong feelings for a female character in her past, but not love, and certainly not sex. But she was a lesbian, and it was fine.
"The first time I remember it not being fine was when I was working on Dragon Age. That came out not long after Mass Effect, and like that game it had same sex romances. It was the first indication that not everyone was ok with what we were doing. That only intensified a few years later when Dragon Age II came out. All four of the romances in that game were bisexual, open to anyone. In addition, two of those characters make passes at the player without being prompted."
This, says Gaider, created a lot of backlash, but also resulted in reaching some new audiences in unexpected ways.
"Suddenly whatever flaws the game itself had paled in comparison to the idea that we were shoving the gay down players' throats, or not paying enough attention to our 'real' audience. That line of commentary continued all the way through to Dragon Age Inquisition. In that game we had eight available romances, including bisexual and relationships. Like Mass Effect, we had some relationships which were only available to same sex player characters. Note that I say player characters, not players. From the telemetry we have, it's very unlikely that only gay players played these storylines. Either it wasn't just gay players engaging in those relationships, or we have a lot more gay players than we realised.
"I think it's safe to say that Bioware is on a small list of AAA developers from whom the effort has been consistent and ongoing. DUring my time there, however, it was not always the easiest of routes."
"As a developer, you can get caught in the middle of a battle you may not have wanted to get involved in"
Going on to list some of the criticism which these efforts can attract, Gaider pointed out that any attempt at inclusivity can open 'Pandora's Box', with almost as many complaints from the people you are trying to include as any other.
"All it takes is for someone out there to decide that you've done what you've done for the wrong reasons, and suddenly you're on the radar for both those who support and oppose social justice. As a developer, you can get caught in the middle of a battle you may not have wanted to get involved in."
Bioware, Gaider accepts, is considerably better equipped to deal with the difficulties which arise from attempting to be inclusive than many others. Not only is it an intrinsic part of the company culture, the EA studio simply has the resources to deal with the fallout, which can't be said of many smaller outfits. Some companies, he believes, are probably better off staying out of it altogether.
"It's worse for a small developer that's not going to be able to weather things like review bombing. It's actually way safer for a game develop to do nothing at all. You might get singled out for criticism, particularly if you do something egregious, like suggest women are too hard to animate...
"The moment you do try to address the issues of inclusivity, you'll feel like you're stepping into a minefield. Including minority characters isn't enough, often it's about how you include them. Do they fall into negative tropes or stereotypes, or do they have any negative qualities which could be conceived as such? Was someone from that group consulted, were they written by someone from that group? Even when you think you've done your due diligence, there will still be somebody who will accuse you of mis-stepping, this is guaranteed. There is no point where you'll be told, 'this is good', without somebody telling you otherwise
"You may receive some positive media attention for your efforts, but you should know that the reactions will be mixed at best. This is just how it is. And it will feel like you can never do enough"
"You may receive some positive media attention for your efforts, but you should know that the reactions will be mixed at best. This is just how it is. And it will feel like you can never do enough. Include a gay character, great! What about trans characters, asexuals, demisexuals? Black characters? Awesome? What about Asians or native Americans? And they absolutely do deserve to exist somewhere in games, but the problem is that you, with one game, cannot represent the entire breadth of humanity, cannot be everything to everyone."
Whilst Gaider was keen to point out that inclusivity is difficult, he was by no means suggesting that it is worthless. Instead, the writer was only acknowledging some of the problems it throws up. Those problems are real and complex, but worth addressing, he says.
"It may seem like I don't think much of inclusivity, but that's not true. It's not my intention to discourage anybody, but merely to indicate that, if you're going to approach this topic, you need to do it with a realistic attitude. Making your games more inclusive, particularly if your game has any visibility, or characters of any depth, is not simple. It's complicated and fraught with frustration. For many developers, that's more than enough to make them avoid the discussion altogether, and often I can't say I can blame them. Most of us did not get into this industry to argue with fans online."
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Gaider after his talk for a deeper examination of the issues at hand, including the very positive impacts of inclusivity, which will be published soon.