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It's worth fighting for a diverse, inclusive future of video games, panel says

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Effecting change within one workplace, let alone across an entire industry, is hard. But it starts with one person.

That was the message given by the three speakers on the "Culture War & Video Games: Art During Wartime" panel at Games for Change yesterday. The panelists discussed their personal desires for increased diversity in games and development studios; the difficulties of achieving those goals in the face of resistance from GamerGate; and finally, why those goals are worth achieving.

BioWare's games are celebrated for their strong writing, memorable characters and, in particular, the various romance options available between those characters. But it wasn't always that way, according to lead writer David Gaider (above right), who has worked at the studio since 2000's Baldur's Gate 2: Shadows of Amn.

Gaider said that conversations about, for example, same-sex romance options "didn't occur at BioWare for quite some time." Initially, there was a lot of eye rolling about "opening the can of worms," especially because, as Gaider put it, "there's absolutely fallout after every single thing that we do." Gaider added that it's tough to advocate for these kinds of things because you can feel like you're out on a limb, wondering, "Am I the guy with the issue?"

"It's important for someone to lead that charge," said Kate Welch (above left), a freelance designer who previously spent nearly four years at ArenaNet working on Guild Wars 2. She noted that as a fantasy game, Guild Wars 2 has "quite a few boobs, if that's what you're looking for." But she also said that the game is "amazing about inclusivity," and that all developers have a responsibility to their players to have frequent conversations about diversity.

Welch told the audience that too many times, in too many game studios, developers simply choose the path of least resistance: "Let's just make it a straight white guy, so we don't have to deal with that fallout." So it's up to everyone to educate their fellow team members, said Welch, to make them understand why diversity is important — whether you're on an indie team or at a major studio.

Panel moderator Matt Boch of Harmonix (above center), who most recently worked as the creative director on Fantasia: Music Evolved, pointed out that while indie studios enjoy creative ownership over their projects, they're at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the fallout from being inclusive. His fellow panelists agreed. Gaider, whose studio is a subsidiary of Electronic Arts, said that large companies like EA can provide a "buffer" between developers and the public. Welch noted that human resources and public relations departments can "be at your back if you're targeted."

Whether you're indie or AAA, times are changing quickly, the panelists explained. Gaider said that over the course of his 15-year career at BioWare, he's noticed a major uptick in the amount of conversations about diversity in the studio's games. At this point, said Gaider, "The teams are probably less diverse than the games; I don't know that that's changing." He did note that BioWare, and EA as a whole, is trying to improve diversity within the company, but it's a challenge across the game industry.

Games are growing more diverse over time, and Welch attributed that change to modern game criticism like Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series of videos. Gaider agreed, calling feedback like that "something we should keep in mind," while noting, "We are in no danger of boobs going extinct in games."

Sarkeesian, said Gaider, is simply arguing against developers making games "unthinkingly," and he supports that idea.

"Maybe we should think about what our games say to women, to a broader audience — what someone who isn't part of a traditional demographic is going to think of our game," said Gaider. "What does our game encourage male players to think about women?"

That's the kind of question that raises the ire of the movement that calls itself GamerGate, and the panelists vented their frustrations with the continuing abuse they've seen online. "I think it feels interminable at the moment, this particular wave," said Welch. "The fact that we're still talking about GamerGate is amazing." At the same time, Welch expressed a steadfast belief in GamerGate falling on "the wrong side of history," a footnote in the hopefully inexorable march toward greater diversity and inclusivity.

Why? Because ultimately, wider representation in games matters to the people who play them, the panelists explained.

When ArenaNet added a disabled young woman to Guild Wars 2 — a character who rides around on an "awesome robot golem," said Welch — the studio garnered praise from players with disabilities, who identified with the game's positive representation of such a person. Gaider said he's received emails from gay Dragon Age players who told him that the same-sex relationships in those games gave them the courage to come out to their parents.

The best way to stamp out GamerGate's anti-progressive attitudes, according to Welch, is simply to keep advocating for diversity in games. Gaider characterized as ridiculous GamerGate's contention that, as he put it, "Including diversity in a game makes it 'about diversity.'" Over time, he continued, diversity will "simply be absorbed into the gaming culture" to become the status quo.

The movement for diversity is a struggle, a battle like "one of those ships in the Arctic that's cutting through the ice," said Welch. "Eventually that ice is going to break, because that's what that ship does."