No Time To Play

More about diversity and representation

by on Feb.21, 2016, under Off-topic, Opinion

I wrote about representation in games before. It’s a complex problem that will take many small steps to solve, all of them partial and faulty. But we need to take those steps already, and that’s why I was happy to see one of my favorite bloggers tackle the problem again. In his article You Are the Hero, David Chart explains why representation is hard, and why you can’t always satisfy everyone.

And you know, Mr. Chart makes a couple of good points there. Like the fact that just having a “brown” character isn’t enough. Roma Gypsies may not feel represented by a Pakistani for example. But! I’ll argue that even having Roma characters isn’t specific enough — there are multiple sub-groups to consider, and going too specific may well have the opposite effect. Moreover, all too often the issue is that people from marginalized groups find nobody at all to identify with in a story: all the remotely important characters are rich straight white men. (Who solve all their problems through violence — that’s another good point Mr. Chart makes. It’s horribly unrealistic: most people hate violence, and for good reason, since in the real world it just begets more violence, and solves absolutely nothing.)

That said, I’m not at all convinced it’s so hard to write stories that appeal to a large number of social categories. I’ve read AND written books that feature rich and poor, old and young, women, people of color, sexual minorities and disabled people at the same time, with sufficient prominence, and it never once felt forced. It’s a lot easier than you think. Minorities… simply exist and are among us. You don’t need any special reason to feature them.

On second thought, the idea that it’s too hard to have a truly diverse cast might stem from seeing minorities as stereotypes. Writers think they’re supposed to have the Great White Men front and center, and then the Token Woman, Token Gay, Token Black… If you do it that way, of course you’ll end up with more “tokens” than is reasonable. But here’s the trick: people aren’t cardboard cutouts! Why can’t you have your hacker NPC just so happen to be a brown transgender woman in a wheelchair? Such people exist too, you know. Bam! Instant representation for many different audiences. Just don’t do it to tick checkboxes on a list. Do it because diversity is natural. And no, you don’t have to feature every single marginalized group in this world in every single story; that would be absurd. But it’s a lot easier to feature multiple such groups at once than Mr. Chart makes it sound. It doesn’t have to be all Gay Games, Chick Games and so on.

But there’s a nastier issue as well. At some point, Mr. Chart argues that we also need games that don’t offend the sensibilities of conservative Christians, so they don’t feel excluded. Wait. You mean… like the vast majority of stories out there? Most games, books and movies by far feature a straight white man in his mid-30s saving the day, getting the girl and patting the poor little savages on their ugly heads. They’re not the ones who need even more representation. And do I have to leave out gay characters to appease a bunch of bigots? Why? Why do I have to respect hatred and tacitly endorse oppression? (Are we making the victims responsible again?) Let the privileged tell their own stories like they always have. Nobody’s burning books here. (Seriously, don’t!) But that’s just it, isn’t it? We’re talking people who consider themselves “silenced” simply because diverse stories ALSO exist AT ALL. Somehow. The mind boggles.

Sorry… just no. Nope, nope, nope.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Kantuck Nadie Nata-akon

    Another excellent post, Felix: You said two things I wanted to touch on.

    #1 Minorities… simply exist and are among us. You don’t need any special reason to feature them.

    Many, many moons ago – er years – I was told by someone I respect, strangely enough a teacher. Gee…I wonder why? :). She said that when you write you should never put in what wasn’t necessary. But the most critical thing was “Never add erotica, if the story doesn’t need it.” There is too much ‘shock’ and not enough ‘substance’ in many writing — especially amateur works.

    But then also remember the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. Why put a gun it in a story if it isn’t required?

    #2: And do I have to leave out gay characters to appease a bunch of bigots? Why? Why do I have to respect hatred and tacitly endorse oppression?

    Now this is one major sticking point with me. You know full well I do not give a damn if someone is offended by my lesbian/pansexual female characters. But I also follow #1 above. In my story Spiritwalk, the Anikawi characters are pansexuals for reasons known to me. It’s not because I want a couple of female characters for shock, it’s because of a dark and ugly reason. That is the ‘gun’ of that story.

    But also if some Christian fundamentalist (or any belief that thinks women are subservient to men) finds offense to my characters then let them cast the first stone. For they are no better than I. I will only submit to judgment by the Great Maker.

    • Felix
      Felix

      Why put a gun it in a story if it isn’t required?

      Perhaps because it can help define a character and their milieu. Or perhaps because it just makes sense for it to be there. Are you going to set the action in a house and not describe the living room couch because it’s not important? How do you even know it’s not until you have it? That gun you added for characterization can become key to how the story ends (it literally happened to me).

      It’s the same with minorities. No wait, it’s worse, because if you don’t mention a character is old, fat, disabled or whatever, in the minds of too many readers — or casting directors — they’ll default to middle-class white men with perfect bodies and faces. And that just adds to the problem, in addition to missing out on storytelling opportunities.

  • Kantuck Nadie Nata-akon

    Well, I must admit, you taught me yet another aspect that I didn’t think of, dideyohvsgi. I was watching Dr. Who (Tennent) a few days ago and the way they performed the camera work surprised me but also I could see what they was doing. They did a slow showing of an item early in the show and of course it was a major thing /toward the ending/. So I take it, that was a Chekhov’s gun aspect to the story.

    So what I understand of your saying is, there could be a gun in a room, it’s not a true Chekhov’s gun, but mearly a description of a room. “It was a bright cheerful room, a rich man’s library with dusty tomes, a set of crossed guns over the fireplace crackling and popping. It’s orange light contrasting softly with the forest green wallpaper.”

    While if the gun was a true Chekhov you would do it more like ” “It was a bright cheerful room, a rich man’s library with dusty tomes, over the fireplace, an 1832 .22 Winchester, along with it’s more modern counterpart. A fireplace crackling and popping. It’s orange light contrasting softly with the forest green wallpaper.”

    I’m seeing that is the ‘slow view’ they did in Dr. Who. The gun is precisely described especially since the other is so lightly. Am I seeing that right?

    • Felix
      Felix

      Of course, it may well be intentional. But it could also simply mean the author is writing what they know. The same way I write lavish descriptions of cities, and a certain friend of ours writes about boats. It’s these little things that make a story setting feel real, and not just a sketchy stage set. And if a detail you add can do double duty, then it’s all for the best.

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