There were several impassioned calls from GDC to diversify the gaming world. As many in the industry know, the problem isn’t just with the depiction of characters in video games. Lack of diversity is a systemic problem in the gaming community, and there were e panels created to address the gender imbalance in the gaming workforce.
A favorite from last year, the #1ReasonToBe GDC panel is a stand-out among the advocacy track panels (You can watch the 2013 panel here). Like the “How to Subversively Queer Your Work” panel, the panelists (all AMAZING women) offered multiple options for how to solve the problem of diversity (lack of) in the gaming world. A major theme of the #1ReasonToBe panel was fitting in and being human. Lauren Scott (UC Santa Cruz game design student) Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai (creator of Dominique Pamplemousse) offered personal stories that speak loudly when contrasted.
“At five years years old, I knew a black girl could be a character in games.”
Lauren Scott is one of those strange creatures who has never felt left out, “I’ve always felt like I was a part of gaming, because the people who raised me always made sure I felt welcome in play.” Her father reinforced this line of thinking by making Scott the main character in a Java game which led Scott’s realization that “At five years years old, I knew a black girl could be a character in games.” With a little sister as a constant Player 2, Scott though that video games were made specifically for black women until she started school.
Kiai’s experience in gaming was a 180 degree turn around from Scott’s story. Despite the fact that they (Kiai prefers the gender-neutral “they” as a pronoun and will receive that courtesy for the remainder of this article) created a game at 16 years old, they still felt like, “Games were never meant for people like me. They were always someone else’s story. I couldn’t make games about myself because I didn’t even know who I was. I never saw myself represented anywhere.”
“Making games is easy. Belonging is hard.”
My heart breaks every time I read that statement, which is repeated throughout Kiai’s speech (You can read Kiai’s full speech here). Her response to this exclusion was to make games. Games that embodied their experience with being excluded, games that embodied their experience with fighting for an identity, and games that are just weird. We have seen the rise of this type of game – starting with Anna Anthropy‘s Dys4ia and more recently with Mattie Brice’s Mainichi.
Making games as a response to homophobia and all the -isms (sexism, racism etc.) was also Colleen Macklin‘s suggestion, albeit on a much larger scale. Macklin, a game designer instructor at the New School at Parsons, takes a step back from sharing personal experiences and discusses ways that Game Devs can change the industry en masse.
“We’re designers! We’re talking about system issues. Instead of saying how hard it is to create diversity, let’s create prototypes of a welcoming and diversified field. Let’s playtest them”
Lack of gender diversity seems to be an inherent problem in STEM fields, and when you think about it, those fields could also be the most useful in helping to solve the problem. Macklin’s point here is brilliant. Most Game Developers spend their time on creating new worlds, characters, and prototypes.
What if they put their collective minds together to prototype a field of welcoming and diversity? While a welcoming and diversified field will look different to every individual, with people working together there’s at least the possibility of creating something that’s better (though far from perfect). While I’m not usually on board for gamification – the gamification of diversity and the video game industry may be exactly what we need to implement change on a systemic level.
Whether Macklin’s suggestion is viable or not, it’s clear that the disparate efforts people in the industry have had some impact already – for instance the #1ReasonToBe panel got upgraded to a larger room this year. Joking aside it’s often hard to measure the slowly changing environment of the games industry. While it’s still a rough place out there for many, Leigh Alexander commented that it’s definitely a different place from where she first started.
“At least now I can admit my humanity to a packed room full of game developers, and nobody is going to tell me to pipe down or get back in the kitchen anymore. Try it, I fucking dare you! We are not alone here.”
I can’t imagine how validating it would be to issue that statement to a crowd of people I knew wouldn’t attempt to troll me. You couldn’t pay me enough money to say that on the internet. The fact that Leigh Alexander was able to make that statement, and that she offered it to a room full of allies truly shows how much the industry is changing, and how supportive many innovators, developers, and gaming enthusiasts can be.
Kiai closed out the panel with this statement:
There are so many of you here, right now — artists, critics, academics — who stand for the things I stand for. It’s like I was waiting for you all this time, and now you’ve arrived. Now we’ve arrived.
Belonging is hard. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.
Amen to that, and a round of applause to all the people (panelists and otherwise) that continue to make belonging an easier task. May panels like this one day cease to exist (for lack of need).