For a variety of reasons I’ve been thinking a lot about diversity, about identity politics, and about my role as a creative person. I feel like I’m in the middle of a slow and at times painful process of coming into my own as a game designer, and I’m at a point in my life where “game designer” is about the only label I kinda’ sorta’ feel like making a part of my identity. I am big on gaming and anime, but there are a plethora of reasons why I have a hard time thinking of myself as a “gamer” or “otaku.” Some of it is that there are elements in those fandoms that don’t make them feel like the most complimentary labels to wear, but there’s also the fact that in the areas where I have respect for gamerdom and otakudom, I feel a bit inadequate, as I watch anime sporadically and with odd preferences in recent years, and my gaming habits are pretty out there. (The last video game I played really seriously was Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 2, which for those keeping score at home was originally released for PC Engine in 1995.) My creative works express who I am a lot better than my media consumption, so you can see a lot more of who I am as a person from I Want to be an Awesome Robot or even Channel A than from looking at my DVD shelf.
That in turn means that for issues like diversity, there are arenas where I have very direct control and the responsibility falls primarily on me. Although I’m finding I love when artists I hire for game art surprise me (as James Workman and Clove have done many times working on art for Fantasy Friends and Faerie Skies), whether there is, say, a brown-skinned character on the cover of one of my books is something I determine when I write up art specs for the cover illustration. That isn’t to say that people who don’t create games don’t have a voice–far from it, and I’m very grateful for those who have spoken up–but simply that these are decisions that are getting up in my face, and they’re doing so for something that defines me, so I want to get it right.
A while back I posted about my thoughts on and commitment to inclusivity on Google+, and S. John Ross replied saying that to him that was rather like someone saying they were committed to not punching people in the face: laudable but also blindingly obvious. He’s one of my gaming heroes, and I envy how easy and natural it apparently is for him, because despite growing up in a place as diverse as Silicon Valley (and growing up Unitarian Universalist and hearing social justice stuff most Sundays) I feel I have to consciously work to avoid cliches and stereotypes. My friends are pretty diverse in some ways (white guys are usually outnumbered when we get together, but then we’re in the Bay Area), and pretty homogeneous in others (almost entirely nerdy guys in their 30s), so I find it disappointing but not totally shocking when I catch myself, say, writing stories where all of the characters are white.
Diversity is Reality
Critics of media introducing diversity often talk about it being forced, making it sound as though they’re imagining Politically Correct quotas mandated by Marketing People Who Hate Fun. It’s true that diversity shouldn’t be “forced,” in that it should be the most natural thing in the world. Real life is staggeringly diverse, and it’s because of pernicious and decidedly unnatural blinders that we sometimes don’t see it. If anything is “forced,” it’s a lack of diversity, which is a lie that directly contradicts the truth of the world, and which takes great (though often unconscious) effort to maintain. All good art is informed by a spark of truth.
Diversity is a Creative Challenge
Making my works diverse is a challenge, in a good way. It forces me to step away from tired cliches and try new things. I know I’ll stumble sometimes, but that means I should try harder and learn from my mistakes. Commitment to being a creative person requires seeking new challenges and constantly trying to improve. People will talk about artistic integrity, but I think artists owe it to themselves, to their art, to the Muse, to want to take on these kinds of challenges. It’s not about diversity quotas or marketing data, it’s about an artist’s need to constantly push their comfort zone, to connect with the audience, to draw out some of the truth of the human experience. Artists who don’t push themselves inevitably stagnate.
Over the course of my life I’ve accumulated words that help me make sense of the world. “Life is meetings and partings,” for example. Some are things I made up, some are quotes from anime or songs, a few are things that came to me in dreams. The one that comes to mind here is, “I would rather try than not try.” A whole lot of the good things in my life have come from simply being willing to just sit down and try. One of the objections that sometimes gets raised to increased diversity is, “If I screw it up people are going to be pissed at me, so why bother?” The thing is, screwing up isn’t the end. It’s a test. The test is how you react to being called out, and you pass by being graceful and doing your best to learn from the experience and do better next time. That holds true even if you disagree with the criticisms being leveled. It’s surprisingly common for creators or businesses to zero in on ways to make such situations worse for themselves rather than better. When all is said and done, a creator has to be taking criticism and striving to be better on countless fronts all the time anyway.
People Appreciate Inclusivity
In video games that let you make your own avatar, people want to be able to make it look like themselves. I want to be able to give my video game self glasses, and it’s the most natural thing in the world for a brown-skinned person to want a brown-skinned character (as Nintendo learned the hard way from Animal Crossing: New Leaf, where getting a brown-skinned character requires an inordinate amount of effort at tanning). Characters like Speedy Gonzales from Looney Tunes and Blanka from Street Fighter have followings in Mexico and Brazil partly because they’re rare characters that represent those countries, even if they do so in problematic ways. (Reminder that liking problematic stuff is fine, provided you can recognize why someone might find it problematic and, you know, be an adult about it.) We can certainly do better than Warner Brothers circa 1953, or even Capcom from 1991, but it shows just how much people appreciate seeing some of themselves on the screen, even if it’s in the guise of a green-skinned electric mutant from the Amazon.
I am a white guy, but although I don’t like to talk about it all that much, there are a few important ways in which I don’t at all identify with the typical white male protagonist, or the portrait of an average man that society presents. As a result there are a bunch of things in mainstream culture that I find alienating. One more benign example is that I’m alcohol intolerant. My body doesn’t process alcohol properly, so I have a legitimate medical need to not drink. Add to that the fact that very few people in my life actually do drink, and the entire cultural institution of drinking alcohol (which is massive) is largely outside of my experience. I’ve never been to a proper bar, bought someone a drink, or gotten drunk in a way that was remotely pleasant. When Serenity Rose (protagonist of the comic of the same name) mentioned that she doesn’t drink (with the footnote “Some people are actually capable of becoming enraged about this. I know! Wild, huh?”), I felt a little less alone in the world. That’s a minor example (I can easily go for months without having to seriously think about alcohol), especially compared to potentially pervasive stuff like race or sexuality, but the feeling is important, and I think well worth the effort to give to other people. I want to make things that make people happy, and I won’t pass up such a good means of doing so.
Diversity Sells Anyway
The past few years have seen a lot of kerfuffles over geeks dealing badly with women and minorities coming into “their” spaces. One of the things that’s exacerbated this is that it’s pretty clear that companies are starting to figure out that if done right, works that appeal to “unconventional” audiences can still do very well. Superhero comics have traditionally been about as male-dominated of a genre as you can get, but Marvel has been successful with Ms. Marvel and other titles that wreak havoc on traditional notions of how superhero comics address race and gender and such, and is seriously considering a Black Widow movie. When someone complained that Bioware was “wasting” resources on material for gay relationships, one of the devs schooled him, saying that they have data on what people actually play, and they know exactly what they’re doing. In the RPG world the likes of Wizards of the Coast and Paizo have shown a major commitment to diversity in artwork and such, and while there have been a few people complaining, two of the biggest publishers in the industry have been content to ignore them and push to do more and better.
I have to imagine that that must be the scariest thing of all to the people who feel threatened by diversity, since once capitalism latches onto something as profitable, it will roll over human lives, much less fans’ tastes, to get it. If seeing female protagonists bothers you for some reason, the future is looking like it’s going to bother you a lot more. If you’re a creator, injecting some sincere diversity into your works is looking to not only be socially and creatively fulfilling, but a good way to not throw money into the garbage for no reason. The kind of people who will genuinely pass on a product they’d have otherwise bought because it features characters of neglected demographics are turning out to be well worth firing as customers, since they’re both few in number and make things less pleasant for everyone else.
One of the major themes in conversations about these kinds of topics is sincerity, in the sense that critics of diversity can’t seem to comprehend the idea that someone might be trying to make their creations more inclusive for sincere reasons. I’m sure there are people who do such things for cynical reasons (though cynicism seems to more often serve the status quo), but there are plenty of sincere reasons to be more inclusive, for yourself and for your audience, before money ever even comes into the picture. All I can really say for certain is this: I’m going to try.