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Make Good Games for Social Change

Let’s start with this.  Read that first (feel free to ignore the comments section), and then come back here.

Where to even begin?

Like anyone else, people of color, transgender people, and the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum of sexual orientation deserve to see themselves fairly and properly represented in the media they take in, including games – and they’re not.

The people discussed in the linked post, however, are not the people to address that issue.

To get this out of the way: their anger at being told they couldn’t say they were only going to employ queer, non-white, non-cisgendered people to make their project is misplaced.  It’s every bit as illegal and wrong to say that as it is to say “whites only” or “no gays”.  You’re perfectly allowed to privately organize a group of people matching whatever criteria you like and then form a company, but you cannot make gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation discrimination a criteria for employment.1  It’s not “you can’t involve the people you want,” it’s “you can’t say ‘we are going to pay as yet unspecified people to do work but will discriminate in protected categories to determine how we do so.”  But let’s set aside that they don’t understand the importance of that particular order of operations when deciding to engage in business – and make no mistake, what they’re proposing is a business, even if the ultimate product is released for free.

No, what’s really the problem here is that the people involved clearly don’t know the first goddamn thing about game design.  They have no plan.  That breakdown of costs (which varies wildly and seems to be pulled out of thin air) isn’t a plan to build a game – it’s a plan to itemize expenditures.  Those expenditures don’t have any relation to the design of the game, because there is no game design.

Your project is not valid or valuable or deserving of financial support simply because it addresses an inequality of representation.  That is a noble and worthy goal, but in and of itself it is meaningless without a good design, without a plan.  Worse than meaningless, because your completely aimless project then appears AT BEST as a black hole into which well-meaning supporters’ money will disappear, and at worst as a deliberate scam.

Forget your good intentions.  Come back when you have a detailed design document and a working proof of concept.

Come back when it’s FUN.  Then we’ll talk money.

See, this is a point that gets missed, and I really, really want to focus on it, because I think games are actually a terrific vehicle for changing social attitudes.  Video games are one of if not the largest media form today in terms of the money they bring in, and they are consumed by a wide strata of the public from young to old.  As such, games have an amazing potential to mainstream the acceptance of members of society who are underrepresented and unfairly discriminated against.  The Call of Dudebro frat boys bonding over shooting each other might not be the target here, but RPG and adventure games have a huge audience and are a perfect opportunity to introduce strong, well-portrayed characters of every ethnicity, gender, and orientation.  Their appearance in games isn’t a solution to decades or centuries of oppression, but if they appear more and more commonly as normal, accepted cast members in these games, that acceptance starts to pass on to the players.  It’s not an overnight thing, but it’s a start.

They’ve got to be GOOD games, though!

Those characters have to be well-written.  The player has to care about them, and the character has to be more than just “I am here to represent category X” – they especially have to be more than a stereotype.  I don’t think there are many black people clamoring for more “thug drug dealers” or Sambo caricatures on TV – they want well-written characters and accurate portrayals.  Increased representation doesn’t help anyone if the only representation you get is a negative stereotype.2

They also have to be fun!  Exhibit A: Bible Adventures.  Typical of the limited selection of “Christian” video games, it was a steaming pile of shit.  Nobody came around and accepted Jesus Christ as their lord and savior after encountering Bible Adventures.  Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks lost their faith as a result of that game.  The point being that a bad game drives people away – intentions, social message, positive portrayals of the characters…none of that matters if nobody is willing to play it because it’s crap.

Now, you can make the argument that the point of a project like this is not to change minds and broaden acceptance of an underrepresented group or groups, and instead is aimed solely AT an audience consisting of just those groups (or the already accepting) – that the point is to give those gamers a game where they can identify with the characters, never mind whether anyone else gives a shit.  This is, do not misunderstand me, a completely fair goal.  One more than worthy of being pursued on its own merits – not every piece of media needs to be an agent of change; sometimes all you want is something that is welcoming and safe.

Guess what?

IT STILL HAS TO BE FUN.

I summon EXHIBIT A again.  Bible Fucking Adventures.  You know what happened when some poor Christian kid unwrapped his or her presents on Christmas morning and discovered they’d gotten Bible Adventures?

That kid cried.  Because Bible Adventures was a shitty game.  Nobody wants to play shitty games.  I’m a socialist, atheist, secular humanist.  I do not want to play a game that purports to represent people like me just because it purports to represent people like me – not if it’s a shitty game.  No nerdy black kid is going to devote hours to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Big Space Adventure if that game is no fun.3  And though I have no personal experience to base it on, I’d imagine I’d be pretty sad as a non-cisgendered person if I’d given money to the people behind the Arkh Project and in return they’d made a crappy game and expected me to like it just because it featured non-cis characters.

Games are in a unique position to build social change – gamers really do develop an emotional response to them, and that connection and identification can be used to broaden horizons and break down social prejudice.  But doing so takes more than simply making games about the subjects involved, those games have to be good.  They must be well-written and fun to play.  The former because it is on the strength of the writing that players come to identify and feel empathy for the characters, and the latter because if it’s not fun, nobody will play the damn thing.  It will just be another Bible Adventures, destined to be forgotten until somebody writes a humorous internet article about how shit it is.

1: Strictly speaking, the degree to which you can get away with is going to vary by location, but for the purpose of this we’re going to generalize.

2: I realize my privilege in saying this, so let me clarify: I am not suggesting, “hey, settle for nothing unless it’s excellent!”  I’m suggesting, “demand better,” and don’t trust white, straight, cis folks in power to be on the ball.  Demand better from yourself and others like you – whether you are cis or trans, a person of color or not, gay or straight – demand better and produce better.  Everybody’s got their own levels of what’s acceptable and it’s not up to me to tell anybody what they should be, but what I am saying is if your level isn’t being met, don’t ever think you should just take what you can get.

3. This game does not exist, but HOLY SHIT IT SHOULD SOMEBODY GET ON THIS.  I would play the shit out of that game…IF IT WERE GOOD.

UPDATE: Removed a couple of slightly inflammatory “fucks” in there that weren’t really necessary and were positioned such that the target may have not been clear.  Mea culpa.

UPDATE TWO: This post on Rock, Paper, Shotgun addresses some similar issues, discussing a fan-made visual novel game about people with disabilities.  From the review, it’s clear the creators were trying to treat the subject with respect (as best they knew how), but may have ultimately failed not because of a lack of respect, but because they mired an already slow, inactive style of game in a combination of bad writing and limited options.

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