Mass Effect developer makes emotional plea to eliminate social injustice in games

An hour-long speech delivered by Manveer Heir, a veteran of the Mass Effect series, laid out in stark relief the social injustices present in modern games and proposed ways to work against them.

In what can only be described as a call to arms, he challenged the crowd of industry professionals present at the packed hall at San Francisco’s Moscone Center to push back, to stand up and help change the way minority groups are represented in games.

"Wherever we may stand today as an industry," he shouted into the lectern at the 2014 Game Developers Conference, "I am confident that we will stand somewhere far better tomorrow as long as you, right here, are willing to be an agent of change.

"I sincerely hope that you are ready for that challenge, because I sure as hell am!"

His speech, delivered at the conclusion of the third day of GDC, was greeted with a standing ovation and applause that lasted more than two full minutes.

"I sincerely hope that you are ready for that challenge, because I sure as hell am!"

Heir, a gameplay designer at BioWare Montreal, began his speech with a set of caveats, not the least of which that his speech didn’t pertain to just one type of social injustice. Instead, he said his speech focused on "misogyny, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia and other types of social injustice," an impromptu change in the agenda that was likewise met with applause.

Western games, Heir said, have serious issues with the way minority groups are represented. He cited the lack of minority, women and LGBTQ characters in protagonist roles and went on to discuss the dangerous side effects that stereotypes have on the gaming public, especially children.

"These negative stereotypes effect the identity of individuals in these groups," Heir said. "They affect the way people think and treat others in the real world, and [they] perpetuate the social injustices that occur in these different groups."

Heir’s argument went on to debunk studies which claim that games with female protagonists are doomed to have poor sales. He said that he believes such studies, including one which Polygon’s Ben Kuchera published during his time writing for the now defunct Penny Arcade Report, rely on "cherry-picked, inconclusive data."

"When a game starring a woman comes out," Heir said, "the marketing and the development spends are simply less, which can overall impact the quality of the game and [its] success, which skews the numbers in the negative."

(Ed. note: Kuchera's piece, archived here, also pointed out the connections between less marketing for game starring women and sales.)

Game developers, he continued, will oftentimes say that the reason for misogyny, sexism and other social injustices found in games comes from their games being grounded in realism. Heir rejected that argument outright.

"We need to stop giving into the realism excuse," he said, "especially when most of our games are fantasy games … and not historically accurate, and [instead] question whether realism even makes any sense for our game. If it does, then we need to make sure that the realism isn’t boiled down into such a simplistic model that it creates more problems.

"We should use the ability of our medium to show players the issues firsthand, or give them a unique understanding of the issues and complexities by crafting game mechanics along with narrative components that result in dynamics of play that create meaning for the player in ways that other media isn’t capable of."

Heir used Assassin’s Creed: Liberation as an example of a game that exposed players to new and challenging ideas about race and culture, and said that he was personally affected by the indie Papers, Please.

"I have no idea what it must be like to work at border control or at an airport," Heir said, "and I can’t imagine it’s fun. Papers, Please made me, for the first time, understand why I often feel racially profiled and targeted, and how the systems and the rules those agents are under contribute to that, instead of it merely being a moral failing on an individual agent.

"The game actually made me see things from a different perspective. It made me turn on the people just because of their ethnicity. It showed me how the systems in play and the rules that are created reinforce these beliefs even though you don’t have those beliefs to begin with.

"Papers, Please made me think about how I hated myself for how I played."

"Papers, Please made me hate myself a little bit after it was finished. It made me think about how I hated myself for how I played."

But games don’t have to punish the player to be effective in tipping the scales of social justice in games. Heir posited a game where a soldier comes out as gay to his unit, and as he works to build their trust and acceptance, the unit cohesion and fighting prowess of the unit grows stronger over time.

In the final moments of the speech, Heir repeatedly referred to the audience as an "army," and sent them away with four steps to help bring about change. First understand there is a problem, then help to spread awareness of that problem to other developers. Next, Heir asked those assembled to keep pushing, and to create structures of support for themselves "inside of your company and outside." Finally, he said, the audience needed to start taking action to make better games.

"I want to see this in indie games and AAA games and mobile games. In board games, pen-and-paper games and every other type of game you can imagine. I want us, as an industry, to stop being so scared.

"If we make them I am confident that the audience will come and accept them."

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