Thursday, 30 July 2009

The White Man

I try to read a bunch of interesting game blogs, because they can provide some interesting food for thought. One blog I read regularly is GamePolitics, which today ran a piece about some research about depictions of race and gender in games which came to the conclusion that the vast majority of games depict white male characters. Setting aside the games in which the player avatar is an anthropomorphosised animal, the disembodied hand of a whimsical deity, or a vehicle of some kind, this is something which generally rings true, and it's hardly new information that games have a tendency towards racial and gender bias. Game designers, myself included, generally follow stereotypes of their own - typically the nerdy kids who were bullied in school, and who never quite grew up into Proper Grown-Ups who have a Real Job. Games can be pretty infantile, sometimes to the point of being downright offensive, and I think it's because more often than not (and I'm aware I'm generalising here) they're made by white males who never quite grew out of their awkward teenager period, and consequently only know how to make games for awkward white teenage boys.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the protagonist in Lemon Scented Games' current work-in-progress. In my mind, the protagonist is a white male - perhaps because I am one myself, and my "default setting" when called-upon to imagine a human character is to imagine something a bit like myself. But the game is in such early stages, the protagonist could be altered to be anyone. Perhaps I could be a bit more open-minded, and make my character black, or latino, or asian, or a woman or someone with a disability? Perhaps it could be a white guy, but be gay, or a lesbian?

I considered this idea, but right now I'm not sure I can run with it. A lot of the character's attributes and personality is up for grabs right now, but there are a few things I need in order to tell the story I want to tell:

1 - They work in a paint factory
2 - They have a family
3 - They are a recognisable archetype: not someone who the player would aspire to become, particularly, but the kind of person that the player can easily identify aspects of in themselves, or in someone they know.

It's surprising how limiting those things can be from a storytelling perspective, in choosing a character. As an indie developer, the games have to be very much focussed around one or two core ideas because there just isn't the time to add more (not to mention that adding stuff which is extraneous to the central core idea or mechanic just strikes me as plain bad design). If I made the protagonist a black, or hispanic, or asian factory worker, I'd be worried about how that would look in the context of people who earn a living working in factories, and I don't want to tell a story about how racial discrimination affects the kind of jobs people can get. I've worked in factories, so it's something I know about. If I made a game about someone of a different ethnicity working in a factory, I'd be worried that I'd be perceived as making some kind of statement I didn't intend to make.

If I make the protagonist gay, I'd feel like I had to explain how they came to have a family, and that seems extraneous to the story I want to tell as well. I guess the protagonist could be a woman, but frankly I've tried writing female characters before, and I'm appalling at it - and, although I'd hope that some people who would play this game are women who are breadwinners for their family, who would identify with a female protagonist (assuming I could get some help to make the writing convincing), I can't help but wonder whether the male players would wonder why their avatar is an ordinary woman rather than the leather-clad gun-toting vixens they're used to.

So, although this game won't be among those that is progressive in terms of depictions of the protagonist, I think a white male is the "default setting" blank canvas I need to tell this story. I feel like anything else would be tokenism, or would require extra storytelling which would detract from what I really want to say. While I was writing this post, I was thinking about Jason Rohrer's excellent game Passage, and wondering whether he ever considered making the couple in it multiracial, or gay. I suspect not - although if he did consider it, I can only presume he decided against it because it was extraneous to his story of the interplay between life, death, companionship and happiness. Perhaps it's the case that in some games, the choice of a white male protagonist is just lazy or pandering to an audience, but perhaps in other cases it's an attempt (flawed though it may be) to have a "default setting" to tell a story which doesn't need to concern itself with overtones about race or gender or sexuality.

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