The second talk of the day was a lot more interesting to me, because it touched on subjects that I myself find very interesting and that I feel that I still have things to learn about. Tom Abernathy is from Microsoft Studios and his talk was about diversity in games based on the fact that we have a diverse audience.

Tom Abernathy – Diversity Means Dollars

Abernathy starts out by pointing out that this is a Game Narrative skewed session. Diversity in game characters. It was important to talk about the issues the Academics talked about (leigh Alexander etc) from a commercial perspective.

People use profitability as an excuse NOT to be diverse, but Tom doesn’t agree and points out that diversity is a good thing and profitable.

The top ten (sort of)

What’s wrong with this picture? Most of them are male and most of them are muscly. Tom asks “do you see a group of people looking like these images in the room? No because we are more diverse”.

Our audience is more diverse than the characters in games, and this is a problem if we don’t address this. We didn’t have hard numbers a while ago. The world reflected in the games looked very similar. The world is changing and evolving and games have not done a very good job of keeping up.

There are three good reasons:
1. Moral – it’s the right thing to do. Everybody has the same right to see characters who look like them. It doesn’t occur to the white male that they’ve always had dudes to identify with. In a business context the moral argument is the least convincing.
2. Creative – It opens up possibilities for complexity, depth and selling more games. There are abundant examples of this. Tom uses Homeland, Game of Thrones and Luthor as well as Deception to point out that there are strong women. Skyfall is also used as an example – homosexual villain who interacts with Bond. He’s okay with bicurious. Multiracial Moneypenney, M, is female (Dench). Cretive and box office success of these examples is not a coincidence. Diversity sells.
3. Business – there is hard data to support that when you add more gender and ethnic diversity to games they sell more.

Some criticism: I don’t care if the player character doesn’t look like me. Okay, good for you, but it’s about choice. More choice will bring more players. Established characters are an exception because they are essential of the game play. But in cases where it’s not necessary, why not diversify?

People always use business impact as an excuse not to diversify. It might offend the “core audience”. This assumes that the core audience is male and white. That assumption suffices to prevent the marketing people that is has changed. Which it has. But you have to dig a little.

Tom will make an assumption – People like seeing characters who look like them in their entertainment and people will play those kinds of games.

Tom brings up Remember Me as an example. Main player character was a female and got a no-go because she WAS female. Business people are scared and don’t want to have to defend the choice to their bosses.

Assumed fact that women/ girls will play stuff about boys, but boys won’t play stuff about girls. Not a fact, an assumption. Tom talks about a game that got cancelled – there is no science to prove that this is a fact and sometimes people in control use faulty or incomplete evidence to support an incorrect assumption, because that is the way they want it to be.

There has been very little effort in finding out if the above statement is true. There is no research.

Data is however starting to occur that supports Tom’s thesis. When kids playing games see player characters that look like them they become more receptive to the game.

Tom goes on to talk about the current situation in America. The world is changing. He goes on to talk about demographics. He also points out that diversity in gamer culture is a fact, not a speculation.

Console gamers are losing market share to mobile games, and fast. Women are not a fringe market, women are the new core gamer segment. Our market is changing faster than we are.

These figures, and research made within Microsoft regarding target audiences, corroborate that the games that the industry makes is not the games that the audience want to play. The problem is that even those of us that are dedicated to diversity can lose our nerve and fold in the face of business interests.

Why does this matter?
He brings up his own daughter as an example, that she wouldn’t play characters that weren’t women, and that this was a problem. He discovered after tweeting about it that there is a whole community that cares about these things. And he also points out that most girls also want someone to identify with and that they have as much right to have it as white males. We’re game players, not just teachers. Options are our key to fully unlock the experience. We have the power to do this. And we will not only enrich the games but we will also see an increase in sales. And we do the right thing.

My comments

Having run into the dilemma myself, with the lack of diversity among player characters and NPCs, I very much sympathise with Abernathy’s statement, and I appreciate the data that he has acquired and put together.

However, I believe that the industry itself needs a wake up call. Individual developers can only do so much to change things – which I myself have experienced – and unfortunately the money is still in the hands of the publishers. And since we as developers get paid to do a job to spec, the power is placed firmly on the publishers’ side. This does not mean that Abernathy’s work is for nothing, but I think that a grass roots movement will take time to have an effect.