Believe it or not, diversity has become a bit of a dirty word in some sections of the gaming community.
To many of us, it’ll seem obvious that involving people from a wide range of backgrounds in our games – as players, characters and game designers – is an inherently positive thing. A more inclusive games industry means more people bringing their ideas and enthusiasm to the table.
But not everyone shares this view. To some, all those different people and all of their different experiences are a threat, one that’s somehow going to crowd their weird and unusual perspectives into gaming and corrupt it ‘for the rest of us’.
For those unaware of this staggering peculiar perspective, video gaming has recently found itself besieged by a small minority of players angry that developers, journalists and other gamers are keen to make the community something that everyone feels comfortable taking part in. This group has bound loosely together under the name of #gamergate, and rails against anything it sees as an attack on the fundamental tenets of play. If it’s not white, heterosexual and male, it’s probably also corrupt, dangerous and a threat to decent values. It’s also, according to them, ‘about ethics in games journalism,’ a term so bland and insubstantial that usually, gamergaters themselves can’t seem to work out what it actually means.
This powerful aversion to such basic ideas as meaningful representation for women and minorities in games has had serious real-world consequences. Game developer Zoe Quinn became the target of vitriolic online abuse, including rape and death threats, after a disgruntled former partner fabricated claims that she’d slept with a journalist to influence game reviews. Feminist critic Anita Sarkeesian, who produced a video series highlighting sexism in games, was forced to cancel a university speech after an anonymous threat to conduct “the deadliest school shooting in American history.” Others have had their personal information leaked onto the internet, while recently a gamergate supporter Photoshopped an image of one of the group’s critics to resemble a suicide bomber – a hoax that duped a number of media outlets in the aftermath of the Islamic State attack on Paris.
But while these abusive tactics have been horrific for their victims, people are increasingly seeing these events as a watershed. Gamergate has become the tipping point at which all the people who want games to be for everyone start to stand up and speak out. And it turns out, that’s most of us.
The games industry has been changing for a long time. Part of this is simply down to the gaming demographic. In an age when, of the 130,000 people attending San Diego Comic Con, the gender split is 49% female, 49% male and 2% non binary, it makes financial sense to represent a diverse audience.
When four out of five American households have a games console and 155 million of them play regularly, it’s a good idea to include people of colour as playable characters, or think about changing up their physical appearance to reflect players more accurately.
And while much of the media focus in the aftermath of the #gamergate saga has been on electronic games, tabletop gaming is also in the process of becoming more inclusive and representative of its audience. Recently I was on a panel with people who talked about how writing diverse people into roleplaying games has been going on for years, and has become a natural, and useful element of game design. Like most developers, writers and critics, they saw this less as a radical political statement than as simply part of making an interesting game that appealed to more players.
Gamers are a big audience, they argued. We like different things and we play in different ways. There’s room for everyone, and in fact, the growing diversity of games showcases their growing importance as cultural artefacts. We’d be horrified if we went to the cinema and there was only one type of film on, so why should we want our games to be the same? Recognising that games and technology are growing up to be inclusive, enjoyable places where we can share our experiences is an essential part of the industry’s development process.
WE CAN MAKE GAMING A BETTER PLACE FOR EVERYONE. EVEN GAMERGATERS.
Game creators have been working for a long time to make gaming more inclusive. For many, it’s a fundamental part of the design experience. For myself and my colleagues running conventions and working on our own gaming projects, incorporating inclusivity is an integral part of what we do. Working towards gender parity on convention panels, drawing on a wider breadth of people when we invite speakers, thinking about representation when we design our in-game avatars and settings.
Last summer I went to the fantastic LudoLunch game designers’ picnic in Oxford, run by Nia Wearn and Simon Roth. Nia talked to us about making games on the grass of Christ Church Meadows with her baby in her arms, and kids made theme tunes for the games other people created during the event. It was fantastic fun and a real antidote to some of the negativity that’s recently engulfed gaming culture. My brief talk was delayed because everyone was going for ice cream. I was rather envious. Afterwards, we headed to a pub and taught each other the board games we’d brought with us.
This is what #gamergate doesn’t realise. We’re not extremists. We’re the players of games, and we’re also their makers. We’re the people who organise the events that thousands of people attend to make new friends and share new experiences. We’re the ones thinking about how to make everyone feel comfortable when they make and play games. As such it’s our responsibility to make sure that everyone gets a swing at the bat. If we do this, we can make gaming a better place for everyone.