Race in Games

Seeing as how I’ve worked in Ye Olde Games Industry for a while (as an indie before the scene existed and since as a AAA developer), I’ve been wanting to post more about the state of the industry rather than just reviewing a small selection of games. There are a great many debates to enter into, however, so I didn’t really know where to start but I slowly noticed a pattern as I read the introduction to Game Developer magazine every month. Brandon Sheffield, the editor-in-chief, would chime in on the current hot debate with somewhat predictable wisdom and I would vehemently disagree. As a dedicated contrarian and counter culture advocate I felt the need to vent.

In an article titled The Predictable Protagonist: Embracing Diversity in Interactive Entertainment, Sheffield tackles the problem of many player characters in video games being white heterosexual males. Whether this is a real problem or not is certainly part of the debate but let’s first focus on what the stated issue is.

“[The games industry] diversity is definitely weak, both within studios and in our game characters.”

The first half of this problem is that game studios (presumably US based, more on that later) are overrepresented by white males. Sheffield goes on to say that he doesn’t mean to call for affirmative action but then quickly drops the particular point and doesn’t address it again. So we are left with the premise that not enough minority students are getting art and engineering degrees and joining the industry.

As a whole this is a tough problem to fix and the onus certainly isn’t on the game developers. With the rise of gaming specialized degrees literally everywhere and the saturation of gaming enabled devices in everyday life, I suspect this issue will start to work itself out. But this is a change that will take time.

I am less concerned with the current snapshot of society than with actual opportunity. What I mean by this is, as long as minorities are able to secure jobs in the games industry and are not unfairly discriminated against, their actual representation in the industry is less important. As an example, consider that in 1997 blacks represented 79% of NBA rosters (several other sources claim 70%-80% over the last decade). Is there a societal problem that other races are underrepresented according to their Census statistics? I would say no, that the interest and participation of the various races in various professions is somewhat irrelevant. What is key is that diversity is not discouraged. My studio of 200+ is fairly internationally and racially diverse despite being dominated by white males. This is a demographic that I have seen changing over the years at my workplace alone which I consider a good thing.

So we are now left with the main thrust of Sheffield’s forward, where he focuses on the problem of game characters being too white.

“USC researcher Dmitri Williams looked into ethnic portrayals in games, using the bestselling titles from 2006-2007. They sampled 150 games, recording a half hour of gameplay from each, logging the ethnic makeup of every character they came across, for a total of 8,500. They compared this data with that of the U.S. Census.

What they found was that white characters were overrepresented by 7%, and Asians were overrepresented by 26%, while black characters were underrepresented by 13%, Hispanics by 78%, Native Americans by 90%, and biracial characters by 42%.”

Before getting into the numbers of a scientific study I like to examine the methodology. The fact that the games sampled were not US-only games but they were compared to US Census statistics is immediate cause for concern. This is comparing apples to oranges and has no material meaning.

Disregarding the sloppy comparison and looking to the numbers, white people are only overrepresented by 7%?!? That is not bad, especially considering that popular countries not named the United States that develop and purchase games include Canada and assorted European nations. The numbers are vague but suggest that these countries have a larger white population than we do.

There are other minor quibbles. Native Americans only make up 1% of the United States population so any mismatches in percentage will be pronounced- if that means 1 in 200 games have a Native American instead of 1 in 100, is that really a big deal? Wouldn’t the fact that there were only 150 games tested skew this specific result? And I don’t even want to ask how the researchers attempted to identify biracial characters in games but, needless to say, it is a little bit more difficult when participants aren’t explicitly asked what ethnicities they belong to (unfair advantage: Census).

It appears the USC researcher’s conclusion, that "the in-game representations didn’t match the U.S. population [but] did match the ethnic makeup of the IGDA”, was more of a curiosity rather than a meaningful observation. Still, after picking apart Williams’ study, I tend to agree with Sheffield’s take-away.

“So, it seems, we make characters that look like us, not like our players.”

Ignoring the inconsistencies in methodology and the absence of any true statistics of game player ethnicities, I wouldn’t be surprised if this statement was at least partially true. Korean movies are probably dominated by Korean actors but it is difficult to determine if this is a function of the movie watchers or the movie creators. However, when dealing with a dominant US market that exports to much of the world, this will be a difficult imbalance to avoid.

But the question truly raised by this analysis is whether or not this is wrong. Are game developers required to tell multicultural Family Circus style stories? Are game developers irresponsible or racist if they don’t? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. To Brandon Sheffield’s credit, he stops short of making these accusations. But he does end with an unfortunate analogy.

“Spike Lee, Pedro Almodovar, and others have done great work to bring other viewpoints into the public sphere through entertainment. With our interactive medium, couldn’t we do better?”

Whether one agrees with the endorsement of ‘great’ or not, it is true that these filmmakers have been successful in their craft without overreliance on white males. But is this something they should be lauded for? Aren’t black and Spanish directors making movies about black and Spanish people the same thing as white males making video games about white males? Isn’t this the behavior previously admonished?

To come full circle, I believe the demographics of video game creators and video game content are already changing. If a snapshot of both categories today are mostly white and Asian overrepresented, I don’t see that as a problem. Shouldn’t art be a reflection of the artist? Isn’t music that panders to an audience relegated to ‘pop’ status? I’m not asserting that I only want to read about white people doing white things. Diversity is great. But do we need a call to arms for not mapping to the latest Census data properly? I think that’s criticism for criticism’s sake.