When you think about people who work in the tech industry or in video games you probably think of someone who is white and male (like me). The demographic research backs this up. This lack of diversity is a problem because when an industry or any community is made up of a homogenous identity everyone suffers. We need diversity in communities for a whole myriad of reasons.
The current state of diversity in both games and tech reflects poorly on creators. Indeed, quite a few articles over the past month have looked into this sad state.
The #GamesSoWhite hashtag and the opposition to it are the clearest examples in my recent memory, but there’s been a lot of buzz about the “diversity push” in TV this past year and other examples of backlash to whitewashed casting in historical settings like Exodus: Gods and Kings. There was even some buzz about attempts to add ethnic diversity to the Hobbit trilogy with the denizens of Lake-town.
As a scholar of medieval history, where do you fall on this kind of debate?
DP: First of all, in terms of history I’d like to say the vast majority of the medieval world as we think of it was all kinds of people with various shades of brown skin moving back and forth across borders. Yes, there were people in remote little areas who might have never encountered anyone who looked any different than themselves, but overall there was a lot of movement and a lot of contact and a lot of exchange of ideas, crossing transcultural, trans-religious, trans-ethnic zones.
There are a lot of people with different ideas about races, throughout the history of the Middle Ages, that talk about things like skin color — not in the same terms we do now, but thinking about the different ways we look and what that might mean. And so there’s entirely different ways of constructing “race” as well.
If all you care about is historical accuracy, it is certainly possible in any historical period to find a remote spot where everyone there looks completely homogeneous. But that is not, I would say, what medieval history looked like, in which people directly encountered and were highly aware of different parts of the world and what was going on.
To be clear, history in Europe involved all shades of people. Obviously today there is a whole mixture of people too from all backgrounds and from different experiences. However, even today people working in the tech industry tend to ignore this.
The Atlantic ran a business article titled When Discrimination Is Baked Into Algorithms, and in it they identify problematic approaches to computer automation design.
It’s troubling enough when Flickr’s auto-tagging of online photos label pictures of black men as “animal” or “ape,” or when researchers determine that Google search results for black-sounding names are more likely to be accompanied by ads about criminal activity than search results for white-sounding names. But what about when big data is used to determine a person’s credit score, ability to get hired, or even the length of a prison sentence?
Racism may not be as obvious as it once was, but it’s there regardless. We need to be conscious of this – or we may turn entire groups of people off of engaging in new technology or games. This the fault of the designers not recognizing their biases and not empathizing with their audience.
Juliet Khan has theorized three main reasons girls unlearn how to love video games. I won’t go into all of the rationale here, but it is a worth a full read. Here’s the three reasons summed up:
The first force is disqualification: It takes into account the fact that girls almost certainly have played video games, but then carefully categorizes the games they’re most likely to play as illegitimate.
[T]he second force that teaches girls video games aren’t for them: the social hierarchy of the gaming community, and the narrow, deforming spaces it offers to the women who do persevere.
This is the third force: marketing. “There aren’t really any games that seem positive to me,” my sister explains. “They’re all about violence and nudity. I don’t like how the female body is made out. It makes me really uncomfortable. All of the commercials are for guys.”
Seemingly inspired by Kahn’s piece an anonymous author wrote video games have a diversity problem that runs deeper than race or gender for the Guardian. It connects the dots between all these problems (and more) raised here into why it’s a problem all gamers should care about.
Sure, the industry is a tough place for everyone – it’s constantly changing. But if you already fit in, you’re going to have more ways to chase your passion through the hazards. I’ve seen women throw in the towel after a couple of years in the industry because they just don’t see a path forward that appeals to them. Others stay but find their creative fulfilment elsewhere. Studios wonder why they don’t get a more diverse range of applicants but the lack of project variety cannot be overlooked as a barrier to entry. If you’re a creative person and don’t feel passionate about the sorts of experiences a medium is producing, it’s tough to find the strength and inspiration to carry on.
Reasons to support diversity shouldn’t hinge on getting more games and more money. The only reasons you should need is that you are human and everyone else is a human. Respect each other.
I’ll leave this post on a bit of a positive note. Over in Sweden they are looking into ways to bring the Bechdel test to video games. Dataspelsbranchen is looking into it and Kill Screen covered it well.
Those social justice warriors known as the Swedes are at it again! Last year, four Swedish cinemas started indicating whether the films they screened passed the exceedingly low bar set by Bechdel Test for female representation. Now Dataspelsbranchen, Sweden’s videogames industry organization, is considering putting a label on future games produced in the country denoting whether or not they promote gender equality. Good on Dataspelsbranchen.