Much of life is about overcoming barriers. Every organism, from lowly one-celled animals to human beings, exists by interacting with its environment. This interaction includes moving from one place to another, creating a space for the self, lifting a load, or learning how to use a tool. Our ability to interact with the environment is, to a great degree, determined by our characteristics and abilities, such as height, strength, and intelligence, but also by the degree of resistance and its corollary, the support the environment provides in reaching our goals.
– Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments, by Edward Steinfeld and Jordana L. Maisel
(My emphasis)

Really, that’s not vague at all, is it? To clarify, what this post is about is the consequences of homogeneity in design choices and the homogeneity in design teams. It’s also a bit about imperialism, feminism and other various and sundries, but don’t worry. You won’t be nearly as confused by the end of this as I was.

I’ve been reading a lot lately (oh no!), partly because of covid-19 and the lack of time I have to spend commuting and being an adult and brushing my hair and such, and partly because honestly the situation in the world terrifies me, so I have to do research to feel like I have some control. Åsa pattern: Åsa is scared. Åsa does a whole ton of research. Åsa is still scared, but well informed on a totally irrelevant subject. It’s like a safety blanket.

A lot of my reading material circles back to ethics and social justice not only in the designs we make but as a result of who we are and how our cultural background informs our choices in that design.

I think it’s important, or rather I have come to think it’s important to understand how our backgrounds, bodies and other distinctive traits that we can’t really change but are still judged by, informs our choices.

Haraway (1988) postulated the notion of situated knowledges, questioning the idea of the researcher as an obsever capable of extracting objective truths about the world. She maintains that inherent to research is partiality – as opposed to universality or objectivity; researchers are only able to read the world through the position they occupy in it, be it in terms of gender, race, class, ethnicity or education.
– Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things, from the chapter Designer/ Shapeshifter: A Decolonizing Redirection for Speculative and Critical Design by Pedro J.S. Vieira de Oliveira and Luiza Prado de O. Martins

So too I believe that design is biased and subjective to those who have the power to design on a wider scale. And because the world is structured the way it is and because of the nature of who gets to be a designer with influence and decide what is designed, I also believe that game design is strongly biased towards “modernity, capitalism, patriarchy and whiteness”1. These are the assumed norms. We – all of us – use men as the starting point. Men are assumed to be the neutral mode of existence in the world, and the basis on which we build the future. But this bias has a cost, and it’s not the people who the world is designed for that have to pay it.

The literature list of this post is varied and wide, and to be honest, I think a lot of it is relevant to a lot of different areas of study, but here goes:

  • Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things edited by Tom Fisher and Lorraine Gamman, Bloomsbury
  • Universal Design: Creating Inclusive Environments by Edward Steinfeld and Jordana L. Maisel, Wiley
  • Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix it by Mike Monteiro, Mule Design
  • The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, 1st Edition, by Jesse Schell, CRC Press
  • Design for the Real World, 2nd Edition, by Victor Papanek, Academy Chicago Press

I have this book that I’ve not read for this particular blog post called Epistemic Injustice. What reading that particular book taught me was always asking the question “who has access to this knowledge?”. For this post, though, the more important question is not “who has access to this knowledge”, even if that is a relevant concern, but “where does this design come from?” as in who made it, and “Who is it made for?”.

Looking at games and some of the issues surrounding game content, it’s fairly easy to say that the dominant trend in mainstream triple-A games are games designed by white men and for white men. The books we read about game design are mostly written by white men, at least the lauded ones. As an example, I’m going to quote Jesse Schell from the first edition of The Art of Game Design. It was published in 2008 and the book has undergone revision since then, but keep in mind, it’s no more than 12 years ago that this was an accepted way of thinking about female players2.

Raph Koster in his book A Theory of Fun, suggests that the core of playing and winning games is mastering abstract formal systems, which is something generally enjoyed more by boys and men than it is by girls and women. If this is the case (and it does seem to be true), then games at their core is a more male than female activity.
– The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, Jesse Schell, CRC Press

This entire chapter, entitled “The Medium is the Misogynist” infuriates me, because it not only implies that women are not interested in games, it also plays on the same stereotypical view of women that’s been around for thousands of years. Women are irrational, emotional and illogical, whereas men are rational, logical and can keep their emotions in check. This is part of the problem. This is where we come from – a place where designers can have a “feeling” about how something is, based on their gender, sexuality and cultural background.

I think this whole reasoning needs a bit of a clarification and a qualifier, I know, so bear with me while I untangle this line3 of thinking by trying to provide some relevant thoughts and examples.

You know how every year at E34 Feminist Frequency does a breakdown of the games presented based on gender? And how this also extends to people on stage? You know how every year, men are the overwhelming majority, both as protagonists in the games and as presenters on stage?

You know how it’s sometimes even hard to tell the protagonists apart because they all seem to have been using the same mold? White, gruff, upper 30’s, stubbly men who are the heroes of their own stories, despite often murdering half a continent to reach their aims.

I tie all of that back to my statement about who’s making these games and the imperialistic background they come from. At the same time, I’m also very much aware of the influence of Western history and imperialism, not just on us who make these games, but on our entire culture.

We all grow up smack dab in the middle of our colonial heritage, thinking, assuming that the Western civilisation is superior, that our worldview is the most refined, the most advanced, the most human, and not caring much for the opinion of the rest 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 can be known is known from the same point of view.
– Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things, from the chapter Designer/ Shapeshifter: A Decolonizing Redirection for Speculative and Critical Design by Pedro J.S. Vieira de Oliveira and Luiza Prado de O. Martins

One thing that I want to clarify is that I’m not trying to paint game designers in a bad light. I’m not trying to blame anyone for anything. What I’m trying to establish is that imperialism and colonialism has us all in its historical grip and because we’re brought up inside it it also establishes certain biases within us. Biases such as the superiority of white men, for instance, and the white man’s burden, are a constant background noise that influences us whether we want them to or not, and in particular if we’re unaware of their existence and influence in the first place.

I think the concept of the white man’s burden is especially interesting in relation to game design and who we pick to be our heroes and how they are allowed to act in the games.

The white man’s burden is a poem by Rudyard Kipling, encouraging the civilised Western world to educate and conform “less civilised” cultures to the one deemed most advanced, namely the Western one. It is imperialism disguised as altruism with a side of blind arrogance and the belief that “our version” of society is best. We’re the good guys and despite the fact that it is hard and thankless, we’ll still make you a clone of us, by golly.

Imperialism saw itself as the protagonist in these stories. Other cultures would be subjugated for their own good and as history in these cases have a tendency to let us know once we have the courage to properly scrutinise, the ends justified the means.

With that, the background of my reasoning is hopefully established if not necessarily clear. Let’s move on to game design.

Because we want to feel good about ourselves we never question that we are on the good side in games. I can count the games that turn the tables on the hero on the fingers of one hand, at leas the ones I know about.

Because we want to feel good about ourselves when playing, we adopt the same mindset so prevalent in imperialism. The ends justify the means.

And because we want to be the hero, our prescribed solution is the “best”, meaning we unconsciously adopt the white man’s burden line of thinking. Literally. Because the player character is quite often a white man.

I think we as game developers to some extent are stuck in our own cultural background and that we need to shake things up with different points of view and more diversity to move the entire discipline forward. Only then do I believe that we can start being really creative again.

That said – with the exception of the obviously misogynistic or racist or trans- and homophobic moments included here and there 5 in mainstream games, I don’t think games are bad. I think we do need to start questioning design choices though, or at least try to understand why we make them and where they’re coming from.

I also believe that we at some point have to start dealing with our past and the consequences that our past has had on the gaming culture and industry.

Games are growing, becoming more than they have been and we need to be ready for it, understand it and most importantly, understand ourselves.

Above all, I think we need to deal with the fact that we as game developers come from a very similar background and that it does affect the way we think about design.

  1. Tricky Design: The Ethics of Things, from the chapter Designer/ Shapeshifter: A Decolonizing Redirection for Speculative and Critical Design by Pedro J.S. Vieira de Oliveira and Luiza Prado de O. Martins
  2. To be honest, the latest edition, I think it’s the 3rd, still uses the same dichotomous thinking to divide men and women into stereotypical ways that they “prefer to play”. In my opinion this is harmful and it leads to massive elitism among designers and players. Schell may have written a good book about game design, but I wish he’d taken his own advice when writing about what men and women “want”, and I quote “If you can mentally become any type of player, you can greatly expand the audience for your games, because your designs will be able to include people that other designers have ignored”. Don’t write about players as male and female gamers. Write about them as players, period.
  3. Before I proof read the blog post, this paragraph included a “lime of thinking”. I would not mind a fruit like that.
  4. Except this year – thanks covid-19
  5. Not all games!