The representation of racially diverse and authentic playable characters in video games will result in more powerful experiences for players, according to game designers Mattie Brice and Toiya Kristen Finley.
Speaking at the IGDA Summit in San Francisco at a panel organized by Gavin Greene, the two developers explained that the current trend of representing racial minorities as stereotypes is not only problematic from a social justice standpoint, it also limits the kinds of experiences players can have through games.
Listing examples like the "magical minorities" who give the protagonist wisdom from their culture, the brown terrorist and the gangster, Finley said that while these representations are usually well-intentioned, they present minorities as two-dimensional characters with no clearly-defined motives or agency. They exist to service the protagonist in some way, not to share their own stories. The designers argued that rather than represent minorities as stereotypes, developers — and in turn players — can benefit from a more realistic depiction.
"A lot of people think that to represent a queer relationship in a game you just take a straight relationship and switch out the people involved..."
According to Brice, when developers create nuanced characters, it allows players to see the game world through their eyes — to understand the character's experiences, their motivations, their actions and their agency. When developers apply this same nuance to minorities, it allows players to see the game world through a whole new lens. This then opens up new experiences for players and the opportunity to tell stories that haven't been explored in many mainstream games.
"When we're going through our lives, our actions and the things we do aren't determined by the fact that we're Asian or Latino or gay — we're just living our lives, and sometimes our identity informs our thoughts," Brice told Polygon. "So instead of having black people be gangsters or poor, a better way to approach it is by asking questions like how does a minority experience violence in their life? This character never has to say, 'I was born in the hood.' Through the way they interact with others, they can show they have an awareness of danger. That's so much more believable. It's so much more realistic.
"Or we could look at queer romance. A lot of people think that to represent a queer relationship in a game you just take a straight relationship and switch out the people involved, but that doesn't work," Brice said. "For example, in high school, a queer couple may not have been able to go to prom. They may have a completely different history and set of experiences to a straight couple, and that's going to inform how they handle relationships now."
Both designers said the goal isn't to force minorities into games or to focus solely on what makes them different. This isn't about introducing a radical change. Rather, it's about ensuring that characters are three-dimensional and thoughtfully developed, giving players more believable characters.
Finley gave an example of the character Lee from Telltale's The Walking Dead series, who she notes many players referred to as "My Lee" [e.g. "My Lee did this..."] when they talked about their experience with the game. In this particular case, Lee was a character whose race and place in the world informed his thoughts and motives. This was communicated to players in subtle ways, without the need to resort to stereotypes, which would have made him cartoonish and difficult to relate to. The result was many players felt a deeper connection to the character and a better understanding of the politics and social issues that informed his agency. The Walking Dead was no longer just about surviving a zombie apocalypse.
Both Finley and Brice said the more believable characters are, the more interesting stories will be, which will open up gaming to an even broader audience as well as offer richer experiences for existing audiences.
"Having these believable characters is going to get people to say, 'That looks interesting,'" Brice said. "I can see people of all demographics enjoying believable characters."