This is a post that I’ve been thinking about for a while, and it is possible that I’ve already touched on the subject previously.
I speak a lot about equality and diversity, and how games sometimes let us down when it comes to narrative, and representation.
In this post I’ll be talking about how all of these aspects play into game design and how we – if we are intending to be truly inclusive and diverse – have to consider all aspects of design.
It’s not just about ethnicity, sexuality, and gender.
Let’s say we want to create a game with good representation. We start by choosing a premise for the game, a theme.
Even at this early stage, we’re going to have to consider the game we want to make. Most games are based on conflict and more precisely violent conflict. Shooters, action games, role-playing games, strategy games – most have elements of violent conflict in them. Not because they have to, but because violent conflict is easy.
If you look at many acclaimed board games (intersectional game design is not limited to digital games), they’re based on an imperial or colonial mindset. This is a discussion that’s been part of game analysis for some time now, but we’re still not looking at it within digital games, and we should. Many strategy games on the digital side of things are similarly focused on building an empire or colonizing areas.
While you might think that’s not a big deal, I dare you to say that to any of the Native Americans or First Nations that suffered and died due to colonialism.
What I’m saying, however, is not “don’t do it” but rather to understand what the impact would be. In short – understand the topic before choosing a premise. Turn it around perhaps? Create a game that doesn’t only entertain but also teaches.
Reading about ethics in design often brings up the fact that we have an unhealthy focus on Western European white men as the starting point for everything. They are after all the “owners” of “correct” knowledge.
These practices situate the Western European (male) body as the sole narrator of history; all others are relegated to a state of ‘uncivilization’, which validates their serfdom, assimilation and obliteration.
— Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things by Tom Fisher, Lorraine Gamman
Brenda Romero has created a row of board games, that use this tactic to create a message. The project is even called “the mechanics is the message”. The most well known of these games is train. The intent is to cram as many yellow pieces into a train car as possible and transport them across the board. I don’t think I need to tell you that it is a metaphor for the Holocaust. The yellow pieces represent the Jews that were murdered during the nazi regime.
From Romero’s account of players, this was a disturbing as it sounds. I’m not suggesting that all games become metaphors for genocides, but colonization mechanics support, or perhaps do not condemn the same kind of genocide. Millions of Native Americans and First Nations both in North and South America died due to the greed of the colonizing nations.
In the same vein – why are so many games based on violent conflict? The easy answer is of course that violent confrontation comes with clear states. I’m in combat, I’m not in combat. I’m healthy, I’m damaged, I’m dead. But interesting games can be about more than violence. The more complicated answer I believe has to do with toxic masculinity. Men aren’t supposed to understand emotions or even acknowledge that they exist. If men are the people creating games, is it so strange that emotions have very little place in them?
Not every game has to teach us something, but not every game should be created by rote either.
If all we do is repeat mechanics and repeat cultural expectations or whatever we want to call them, we ignore so many experiences that are not founded in a Western white cis man’s view of the world.
Among the unfoldings of the colonial matrix of power lies the idea that human knowledges are homogeneous, globally transferable and, most importantly, universal truths; that all that can be known is known from the same point of view
— Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things by Tom Fisher, Lorraine Gamman
If we as designers truly want to create intersectional games – or perhaps fairer games based on consideration and empathy – we have to understand that our own privileged position is not representative for the whole world.
Considering that we’re having a hard time allowing even white women to be heroes, it’s hardly a leap to think that our ability to represent groups that are even less visible in the world of white cis het from a western cultural context is not that great.
Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.
Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez
So what should we do, as designers? How do we change the world? We start by learning. We start by understanding why the world looks the way it does. We make mistakes. We apologize, we try to not repeat them. We hire cultural consultants to do sensitivity readings of what we create. But that’s not all. Intersectional game design has to consist of an intersection of what game development is. It has to cover everything.
- Education – game development educations, and STEM educations need to be diversified. We also need to use game design books written by a wide selection of people, not just white men. We need to hire teachers that are not just white men. We need academia that consists of not just white men.
- Recruitment – We need to diversify who we hire and to which roles. We need to make sure we have a wide variety of people entering development. Not just white men.
- Retention – It’s not enough to hire a wide variety of people. We have to keep them as well. And to be honest, that’s going to take work. The industry as it is right now, is not friendly to Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, women, trans and queer people. We have a tendency to tokenize women, Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans, women and queer people. Why am I repeating these words? Because we also have a tendency to hide women, Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and queer people behind handy and compressing labels that put white men against just one word, one category, one label. Which means that there’s this belief that white men are still a majority. But white men are NOT a majority, it’s just what power wants us to believe.
- Experience – When people from a Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and queer backgrounds come into these contexts, their experiences must be taken seriously and they must be heard. We have a knowledge bias that steer us to believe that white men are the True Guardians of Knowledge (or rather, most white men have), but that’s not true and it’s something we have to counter. Experiences are important. Don’t dismiss them.
- Promotions – We have to make sure that we also promote Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and queer people, men and women. We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing, promoting men on potential and the rest on performance. Women, Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and queer people also have potential. Don’t do what was done to me. Replace a woman without any complaints, with a very good performance record, with a white man. That’s just rude. Promote people who deserve it, not people who look like they should be in power.
- Leadership – Speaking of promotions, there also have to be women, Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and queer people in power. You can’t have an all white men leadership and pretend that the company is equitable or diverse.
- Content – As you can see, the stuff we put in the games is just a tiny bit of what intersectional game design really means. However, content is very important, because it shows us who the game represents and how they are represented. How tired are you of gruff white men in the lead? I know I’m pretty exhausted by it. Content helps inform the culture around games, representation is super important. We can’t represent just white men, we have to represent Black, Asian, Latino, Indigenous, mixed race, non-binary, trans and queer people as well, both women and men.
- Game Mechanics – Conflict resolution through violence is not the only way to create interesting game mechanics.
- Game Communities – The communities around games have long been dominated by white men. We have to change that. We have to make room for other experiences. Mentor people.
- Gaming Culture – The current state of gaming culture, most of it is a toxic as hell mess. Why? Because of racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and yes white men. You created this mess. You need to help clean it up.
There’s a shit ton of work to do. We have so much work ahead. Things are getting better, but things are not getting better soon enough. The way the world is currently is exhausting. We should change it for the better.
This is not the last post I write about this.