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Erasing your audience isn't 'fun': The false choice between diversity and enjoyment

Recent statements from big names in the AAA games space make something very clear: games are about "fun" and not commentary or diversity. One of these things is seen as valuable and the other isn't. This false opposition to socially relevant content, as if you had to pick one or the other, hurts gamers and gaming culture.

Rob Pardo of Blizzard Entertainment gave a recent talk at the MIT Media Lab emphasizing that Blizzard seeks to offer "epic entertainment experiences" and that rather than focusing on narrative, they center on fun and gameplay. He asserts that Blizzard sees the reputation of their brand as extremely important, and views the respect the brand has accrued as a currency.

Nintendo had released its first, highly troubling statement about same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life earlier that same day. As Pardo delivered his talk and continually hammered home Blizzard's emphasis on "gameplay," he specifically mentioned Blizzard in opposition to "narrative-focused" developers such as Bioware and Naughty Dog.

Yet Bioware is one of the few triple-A developers that is even attempting (if imperfectly) to include LGBTQ content in their games. Meanwhile, Blizzard has quite recently struggled with representations of gender in their upcoming MOBA title Heroes of the Storm.

Blizzard's Dustin Browder, much like Nintendo in its statement regarding Tomodachi Life, positions "gameplay" and "fun" in direct opposition to producing socially-conscious content.

When pressed on the sexualization of women characters in MOBA games, Browder argued "We're not sending a message. Nobody should look to our game for that." The message just below the surface here is: why can't we just have fun? Why do we have to be responsible for being respectful?

After his talk, I asked Pardo to talk about how Blizzard's values — "epic entertainment experiences," emphasizing the Blizzard brand, focus on gameplay and de-emphasizing narrative — and the company's perception of their audience might impact how they portray socially progressive content.

His answer was disappointing. "I wouldn't say that's really a value for us. It's not something that we're against either, but it's just not something that's ... something we're trying to actively do."

His subsequent list of justifications, reasons and examples became increasingly problematic. Pardo argued that Blizzard works primarily in sci-fi and fantasy because they're "kids at heart," reinforcing the idea that games — specifically Blizzard games — are not a place for "real world issues" to be discussed:

"We're not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that," he said. His example of a place where Blizzard struggles is portrayal of women.

Pardo reinforced the idea that games — specifically Blizzard games — are not a place for "real world issues" to be discussed

Pardo notes that "because most of our developers are guys who grew up reading comics books," Blizzard games often present women characters as a sexualized comic book ideal that "is offensive to, I think, some women."

This is in line with similar statements Browder made regarding Heroes of the Storm. Yet in discussing this workplace gender imbalance, he notes "It's not because we don't want more women developers, it's just what the industry is," but then follows this up by arguing that when it comes to hiring women game designers, "I just don't get the applications."

I'll leave the deconstruction of that particular argument to those who've done so more elegantly; I'd recommend Elizabeth Sampat's freely-available 2014 GDC talk "Women Don't Want to Work in Games (And Other Myths)" as a piece that breaks down the problems with that line of thought quite effectively.

This is a wider issue

Rob Pardo is a representative of a large company and is articulating beliefs and practices that are pervasive throughout AAA game dev right now, so I don’t want to put all the responsibility for these answers on his shoulders. But that doesn't make the core of what he said any less worrisome.

Blizzard, through Pardo, expressed really problematic notions of what's "valuable" — and what isn't — when it comes to game development.

There's a good chance you've read Nintendo's aforementioned public statements about Tomodachi Life and the possibility for same-gender pairings in that game. Much has been said both about its original, seriously problematic statement and about its followup not-quite-apology.

But what do you do when what they say all but outright says "we don't value you?" How do you maintain hope when the industry says "we don't think you're worthwhile?"

What these companies and individuals said reveals what they value, and that’s the truly infuriating thing about both Pardo’s statements at MIT and Nintendo's responses abouts its own controversy. A lack of representation gets on my nerves, but that's a fixable thing. Patches, sequels, DLC ... diversity in video game characters is mechanically resolvable.

But what do you do when what they say all but outright says "we don't value you?" How do you maintain hope when the industry says "we don't think you're worthwhile?"

When Nintendo describes Tomodachi Life as "a playful alternate world rather than a real-life simulation," a world that is "whimsical and quirky," the company is giving us a peek at what it values.

And I don't think that valuing fun, or whimsy, or quirky humor is bad. I love those things! But Nintendo is problematically are setting the thing that I am — queer — against those things. They are saying a world without my existence is both simpler and preferable.

Tomodachi Life is a quirky alternate whimsical world where people like me literally do not exist. The game's tag line is "Your friends. Your drama. Your life." Well, some of it anyway.

Games, like any other cultural product, are constructed. Devs give us a bounded, constructed universe that they built. They control its parameters, its shape, and its scope. A lack of representation isn’t an oversight, it’s a conscious design decision.

Nintendo’s eventual response — after a tidal wave of Internet disapproval -— says that Nintendo has "longtime company values of fun and entertainment for everyone," but also that they value "a sense of community" and "a spirit of fun and joy." They state that if they make another Tomodachi Life game they'll try to build a more inclusive design "from the ground up" and mention that a post-ship patch can't easily add this content, so it must be removed.

I'm still shaking my head at the implicit polarizing of "fun" and "social commentary." The whole thing rings like a PR salvage operation, trying to squeeze goodwill out of those of us who felt excluded while continuing to wave the party line banner of "fun über alles." Both Nintendo and Pardo rhetorically position "fun" and "entertainment" and "gameplay" as inherently opposed to "socially responsible/progressive."

"It's very much disheartening to hear a company say they ‘value fun’ as an excuse for excluding gay relationships," Gaymer X president Toni Rocca said. For Rocca, using the primacy of fun as a logic for cutting diverse content is basically a cop out.

"That's just valuing straight relationships, or at best saying that fun is exclusive to them," she explained.

Meanwhile, the mere presence of prominent and respectfully portrayed women characters, characters of color, and queer characters is viewed as inherently political and thus anti-fun. It’s another subtle, vicious knife in the side of us marginalized people who play games that says: you’re second class. You’re less valuable. If you show up, somehow you’re removing the fun for everyone else.

This construction where it's impossible to have "fun" and "inclusion" side-by-side by reflecting diversity in your games is a total illusion, a mirage thrown up to distract us from the simple fact that they just don't want to make that effort.

Nintendo prizes a "family-friendly" image more than acknowledging the lives of its diverse consumer base. Blizzard values "epic entertainment" more than expanding the diversity of characters and themes in its games. These expectations come from a very particular understanding of who the audience is that ignores the full range of gamers who play their games.

Has supporting Bioware's inclusive efforts destroyed them, or EA? Have Riot’s efforts to curb hate speech in League of Legends sent players fleeing from it in droves? Has either of these somehow made their games less fun? Has being socially responsible somehow "destroyed" the many indie games that engage it? The answer, obviously, is "no."

Lack of representation is just a side effect; the real problem is that marginalized players are just not seen as worthwhile or valuable, and until we start holding industry feet to the fire for these sorts of nonsense statements — as happened to Nintendo — that erasure is going to continue.

It’s wrong to claim that your game can’t be fun, or epic, or enjoyable if you also think about inclusive design or representation of your full audience. It’s time to stop accepting that false dichotomy as a get out of jail free card.

Todd Harper is a researcher at the MIT Game Lab, studying both eSports and queer/gender representation in games. He has presented work at the Game Developers Conference, as well as numerous academic venues, and is a highly prolific user of Twitter.