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The Next Revolution: Diversity in Videogame Development
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The Next Revolution: Diversity in Videogame Development

On the border of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, I examine the lack of diversity in the game development world.

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When talking about the next generation, people tend to talk in terms of technology. You know, how many TeraFLOPS this has; how many GigaHertz that has; what type of processor is it—Dual, Quad, or Apple core; how powerful the graphics chip and what resolution the display is—HD, 3D, or VD. Every dawn of a new market generation, tech-head gameplayers keep looking for some kind of technological revolution. In the shift from the 6th to 7th generation, the tech argument took on a slightly different twist as seen by Nintendo’s efforts with the Revolution called Wii. But there’s one Revolution yet to take place that nobody’s talking about. True Next-Gen will have nothing to do with tech power or even interface. It will be in WHO makes the games.

In the entire 40 years of the videogame industry, the creators of the games were nearly always either White or Asian men. And let’s define those labels more accurately. Asian = Japanese. And White = White Americans, White Canadians, White British, White Australians, White Germans, White French, White Russians. There’s a reason why this came to be. In 1972, videogaming as a business was formed when Nolan Bushnell created Atari and the coin-operated video arcades and Ralph Baer created the first videogame console with the Magnavox Odyssey. These were 2 White men living in the United States 8 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (White Jewish in the case of Baer). This history-changing piece of legislation led to the dismantling of legal segregation and disenfranchisement against Blacks, women, and other persecuted groups. But as a result of that disenfranchisement, neither women, Blacks nor any other marginalized groups had the capital or connections to enter the institutions that allowed Bushnell and Baer to shape the foundations of this new technological world. Women by and large were expected to marry husbands, have babies, and become financially dependent housewives. Blacks, still suffering from the catastrophic damage of American chattel slavery and the vengeance that came from the destruction of that system, were mostly relegated to modest low wage jobs and forced to live in inferior conditions throughout the society. There was no chance for it to be any other way with the social and political reality in the U.S. at that time.

“So how did Japanese men get to be a part of this new world? Weren’t they marginalized too?” The word is ‘Atari’, a playing-phrase from the Chinese game Go—a game discovered by “The West” through Japan. Go was Bushnell’s favorite game and early on in Atari’s existence he established a Japanese branch of the company. In the early 1970s just over 25 years after the devastation caused to Japan in World War II, the Japanese were enjoying extraordinary economic recovery. This happened thanks to no longer having to focus on a military (U.S. provided protection), being enriched from supplying materials to the United Nations during the Korean War, and economic policies that turned them into an exporter nation while simultaneously protecting home industries by restricting foreign ones. Videogames amazed the Japanese and instantly companies sprung up or shifted their existing businesses to make inroads on this new uncharted territory within their homeland. A United States-born industry with a Japanese name made a world-changing odyssey as it crossed the Pacific (Atari rocked Japan’s world).

By the end of the 1970s, Japan’s experimentation with this videogame thing led to 1978’s Space Invaders, 1980’s Pac-Man, and 1981’s Donkey Kong. These games and many others started creating a co-existence of “East” and “West” in American arcades. And players were devouring the fruits of these inter-cultural labors as they fed quarter after quarter into those coin-ops and dollar after dollar towards those consoles. But inspirational Atari began losing its magic as money-minded executives pushed Bushnell out of his own company and endless competitors made land grabs on this New World of entertainment. The American videogame industry collapsed in 1983 and “The West”—the White developers were looking towards the home computer (forged by Apple, another Atari-inspired company) for the salvation of the business. “The East”—the Japanese developers were poised to finish the cultural exchange in “The West” (“the Whites”) through one determined company named Nintendo. Nintendo’s Family Computer was renamed as an Entertainment System entertaining the children of those families as it introduced Japanese aesthetics and values (what IS a Tanooki anyhow?). When the NES got through, the Whites began to leave the home computers to work on these platforms created by the Japanese. “East” and “West” had a new co-existence in this revived industry but this time the JapanEAST was in command.

By the end of 20th Century, Western kids (“White kids”) were playing their Pokémon, watching Dragonball Z, and preparing to create online publications called Kotaku (no different than the Japanese kids being influenced in the 1950s by America’s Disney). But some Whites weren’t done with the idea of home computers being the hot spot for videogaming. Whites having European roots drew even further from these roots as they glorified Old Europe seen in the Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy plays with Viking Teutonic warriors slaying dragons with runic magic-fused broadswords aided by endless elves, orcs, and ogres. If it wasn’t this, then it was the glorification of the European-American descendants in various military war simulations past, present, future, or fictional. For the first example see The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, World at Warcraft, Diablo, Might and Magic, and Gauntlet. For the second example see Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Battlefield 1942, Halo, Command & Conquer, and Wolfenstein 3D. Sometimes these archetypes are combined in a sci-fi overlay as seen in anything from Star Wars but what was coming from the Whites of the PC world was distinct from what the Japanese of the console world were producing.

Japanese gaming mostly dealt with glorification of Old Japan with samurais, ninjas, and mystical beasts (like Ōkami and Samurai Shodown); Japanese interpretations of “Western” life past or present (The Legend of Zelda, Final Fight); or a bizarre trip into Imaginationland with focus on Hello Kitty-like kawaii aspects, perky spiky-haired protagonists, or general abstract zaniness (Super Monkey Ball, Dragon Quest X, WarioWare: Twisted). And of course aspects of all 3 of these types were combined together in games as diverse as Ganbare Goemon, Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball, and Super Mario Bros. These 2 cultural sources are reflected on the retail shelves of PC and console games and in the online marketplaces. If it ain’t some quirky chibi-cute manga/anime-styled character on the cover, it’s some gritty military face grimacing at me while flashing his time period-appropriate uniform. If it ain’t some wacky out-there Japanese madness on the cover, it’s some Dungeons & Dragons hero with sword in hand and orcs at his side. How many orcs and spiky-haired chibi protagonists do we need?!

How can we expect it to be any different? People create what they know. They draw from their own histories, their own cultural experiences, and the imagination shaped by those histories and experiences. What about Black/African experiences? Latino experiences? Samoan experiences? Multiethnic experiences? Female experiences? Dare I say it? What about the experiences of the collective known as the LGBT? Thanks to the foundations of the videogame business being based on White and Japanese men, nearly all other groups are virtually invisible in representation in most games. If women are included, they’re usually portrayed from the inner male sexual fantasies of the developers. They are rarely women designed from the woman’s point of view. If Blacks, Hispanics, and other ethnic minorities in the U.S. are included, it’s either in select token roles as assistant, sidekick, or incidental helper. Rarely ever the hero or lead protagonist. They seem to function as a special spice for flavor or mere background enhancement. About the only time you see different ethnicities prominently displayed is on sports simulations like football games, basketball games, boxing games, mixed martial arts games and such—only because it’s a reflection of the real life rosters.

“OK OK but why does this even matter? I don’t play games checking for how many women, Blacks, Hispanics, and whoever else are in every game. I play games for fun.” These things matter because it reinforces the international belief that the White male is the norm, the regular, the default while everybody else is secondary, auxiliary, and other. It affects the psyches of those who are NOT White males when they don’t see themselves represented. As if they don’t matter to the national conscience. Thanks to the Japanese influence in videogaming, East Asian males get a breather from the thought that they are Invisible Men (see Ralph Ellison). But it gets old when you can’t see your heritage celebrated in the medium you enjoy…and support with your money. It’s the same argument that can be said about all forms of media. TV, movies, commercials, even toys. Think about how Black girls in the past had no dolls that resembled them only being able to pick from White dolls with blonde hair. Now think to the present when there’s so much choice that every ethnic group not only gets to have a representation of themselves but can now feel free to pick from other ethnic groups. There’s a reason why Dora the Explorer toys are popular. That same reason is why Grand Theft Auto and games in that mold are popular despite the different ethnic groups being portrayed as criminals. At the very least they actually see themselves being represented. It’s not that the White males are portrayed, it’s that the White males are virtually the ONLY ones portrayed, it’s that the White males are believed to be the only ones who SHOULD be portrayed. The others only get included at the “mainstream’s” luxury. That’s the problem.

But what’s the solution to this problem? White developers being dunked into a bath of multiculturalism and always being conscious of the left-out groups in all games they produce? Japanese developers being visited by NOW, NAACP, La Raza, GLAAD and every other advocacy group to teach diversity to a fairly monolithic nation? We’ve seen occasional tries like Resident Evil 5 and Mirror’s Edge but I think the true antidote is simply this: We need more women, Blacks, Latinos, Samoans, Arabs, Multiethnics, and Gays starting up their OWN companies to create the games that speak of their experiences, their heritages, their cultures. There’re simply not enough of these groups IN Silicon Valley to sway the argument and that’s why we keep seeing the products that we see. One company comes to mind named Nerjyzed Entertainment, developers of the XBox 360/PC game BCFX—Black College Football Experience. The founders of Nerjyzed Entertainment graduated from Historically Black Colleges & Universities and wanted to bring the non-represented experience of Black college football to the videogame screen much like the movie Drumline brought that same experience to the movie screen. There’s a growing Latino game development/publishing market all throughout Central and South America in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile represented by companies like Slang, Evoga, Sabarasa, QB9, XtFt Games, Immersion, and ACE Team. Women past and present have made great contributions to the videogame world like Epyx co-founder Anne Westfall; Dona Bailey, co-creator of 1980’s Centipede; Sierra On-Line co-founder Roberta Williams; Sir-Tech’s Brenda Braithwaite for her work on the Wizardry series; Corrine Yu, lead engine programmer at Microsoft Game Studios; Kim Swift, co-creator of Portal; Amy Henning, director of the Uncharted series; and Jade Raymond, producer of the Assassin’s Creed series.

While everybody’s mesmerized about new technologies, I’m mesmerized about new audiences. Nintendo only got a taste of what’s possible by serving untapped markets in terms of age and gender. Videogaming WILL become as big an industry as movies if it embraces other points of view and promotes them. The ugly days of monotonous racist and sexist slurs over XBox Live would come to an end once insular people get exposed to worlds they never knew. Just like “The East” made impact on the “The West” and vice versa, cultural exchange would exponentially change the lives of the people who play. That’s REAL Next-Gen. A Revolution just bursting to be unleashed. But is the videogame industry smart enough harvest these fruits so ripe for the picking?

About the Author: John Lucas