Game thinking from Adam Clare

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On Diversity In Games And Technology


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.

TechCrunch ran a piece interviewing David Perry discussing how some video game make everybody white for “historical accuracy”. Here’s just the first question:

AC: A few months ago, Tauriq Moosa got some epic blowback for posting an op-ed in which he criticized a game he really loved, The Witcher 3, for its lack of ethnic diversity.

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.

Random Notes from Digifest 2012

Digifest Toronto 2012 was tons of fun and I’m continuing my attempt to blog my notes and ideas that arise while attending a conference. The last time I tried that was a few weeks at the OARN conference and I still need to go through those notes.

Please be forgiving when reading these notes as I wrote them on an iPad.


Claire from Layar presented to the conference at large then ran a small session for some George Brown students which I was fortunate enough to attend.
For some quick context, Layar is an augmented reality (AR) company that made a big splash a few years ago but more recently they have refocused. A big change for Layar was the decision to be focus on what they call interactive text.

  • Claire encourages everyone to “rethink print” and realize that print will always be around.
  • For designers at Layar, one of their big worries are users asking “Is that all there is?”
  • Claire echoes the idea that user testing is the most important thing. Be particularly aware that screen size and touch interfaces may appear large enough when building but be too small when in actual use.
  • They tested with a Dutch magazine with and without the Layar logo, it turns out the logo makes a huge difference. A page with their logo gets 8-20x more clicks than a page without it.
  • They are working with Post Media, I wonder what the uptake will be by Canadians as we tend to love things like Twitter and Facebook. Will Layar speak to Canadians in a similar way?
  • Claire acknowledges that right now most uses of Layar are similar to a fancy QR code but they want to go further than that. (I’m not a fan of QR codes for consumers). Claire wants content that bridges the digital and the physical in the spirit of the brand (or message). Think beyond the QR code.
  • Layar Creator allows people without coding skill to create their own Layar experience. Layars can be created on almost any page.
  • If there are multiple people creating on the same page (think a magazine cover) not every Layar is shown at once, the users picks which one to load. It will not work on anything dynamic.
  • They want to change retail. Picture someone buying a video game and they scan the retail version of the game with Layar and up pops online stores like Amazon displaying the price of the game there. Interestingly enough this last issue didn’t arise at the OARN conference.

Marv Wolfman and Warren Spector on Epic Mickey

  • Kids and adults played Epic Mickey, split 50/50 (also 50/50 men/women). The sequel is co-op which makes me think it’ll be like co-viewing TV for some families.
  • Mickey has evolved over the years and has changed appearances in one medium to the next. Obvious point, but he had some excellent examples.
  • When working on a licensed character, you are obliged to figure out what it is about that character that define it and why should it be brought into a video game. What aspects of the character are best represented in video games.
  • Mickey’s default pose didn’t work as he didn’t look like an action hero and his arms would disappear when the camera would be rotated (hard to distinguish arms from body on side view).
  • Mickey’s ears always face the viewer and the model need to reflect that. These concerns led to a very complex rig setup for the model to make sure Mickey looked right.
  • They decided that the core game is about choice and consequences not puzzles. The game was designed around ensuring good art direction matched to the player’s goals. Thus the paint brush can make things fuller or thiner
  • Designed around the Wii controller, now they’re taking the sequel to all platforms. Unfortunately no talk about the controller.
  • Sees the alpha stage of a game just making things work, then after alpha it’s all about making the game fun.
  • At the end of the game “If two players have the same experience then we have failed.”
  • I get the feeling Epic Mickey exists just because young people aren’t exposed to Mickey except as an icon of Disney – there’s no emotive connection like previous generations would have had.

Morihiro Harano
A strategic consultant and from the marketing agency Party.

Here’s the sort of nifty thing they do at Party:

  • They made a really cool live stream of an interactive music video.
  • Encourages designers to look into places that most people don’t in order to stand out. For example for a credit card company they decided to add a layer of customization rather than an ad campaign.
  • What they found was there was a 1.6x increase in credit card usage when people chose what design to be on their card. Harano says it’s because people own the process and have an emotional connection to it.
  • They see that in their better-performing marketing campaigns they tend to create a new “ecosystem,” or what seems to me to be a new business idea exploiting their existing business. I didn’t get a chance to ask him if they find that they pitch more business concepts than marketing concepts.
  • They use a creative director plus tech director. In other marketing firms, the copywriter works just underneath the creative director, at Party the TD supplants the copywriter. Their TD is all about prototyping first and just trying it.
  • To cap it all off they made this cool AR-esque game for kids:


Panel on diversity in video games

  • The hours of a constant crunch time put a larger strain on women in the games industry than men due to societal expectations that women do more “at home.”
  • Games are a monoculture right now, we need games to be more diverse to reflect the human experience.
  • A few times they mention that the problems in the games industry is not unique. Even the tech industry has changed to a point to there are many women tech CEOs, we need that in gaming.
  • AAA games have become stagnant and aren’t examining new mechanics so there is room there for new innovative games. This is in reference to games ignoring broken mechanics by dressing up the graphics.
  • On meritocracy in industry: the people who define merit are those on top. Usually there is another value system working underneath the meritocracy. We ought to address these value systems because we are doing a disservice to our peers by ignoring the values that need to be questioned.
  • Apparently the Saints Row series is a subversive game because we can be transgressive players. You can play as any gender you like and create a new (perceived) meritocracy.
  • A few times its been mentioned that many women play, but they lack games are made by/for women. Games coloured pink don’t count it.
  • Things like DMG send a message that is “yes, games are a thing that you can participate in” and provide a place of safe exploration of games.
  • Some people don’t realize that they have game making skills (like animation and music) because the conversation about making games is too focused on programming.
  • There’s an unadvertised female character who is awesome in Borderlands?
  • Anna: indiecade is more diverse than GDC because they made a point to engage communities not generally represented in the gaming community.
  • Alex: People need to be explicitly invited, you can’t just do a “call out”. Make them feel welcome. Diversity takes a lot of effort – you need to approach people who are different than you – it’s hard.
  • What the panelists are talking about is not a new problem, it’s a very old problem going back hundreds (thousands) of years. We need to remember our history so we can learn from how people before us dealt with encouraging change.
  • We need to celebrate and share their work if they are from marginalized communities to show others that they too can create games. What about people who don’t want to publicly be making games?
  • Does greater realism in games encourage more gender stereotypes?
  • An ongoing theme/question for the panelists is that Half of gamers are women, why don’t they openly say they’re gamers?
  • At the end of the day games are not made by corporations, they are made by people.

Other random notes:

  • People from traditional media production seem to only understand new technologies when you attach it to storytelling. This is an improvement from when I first started in “new media” when traditional media people just didn’t get anything (of course, some people obviously got it).
  • Even when it comes to marketing it comes down to a good story.
  • People like things that look real (but not too real I suspect given the uncanny valley).
  •  A few times people who work in TV or film have noticed that the volume of traditional media work has been shrinking in their line of work. This doesn’t seem to be a problem yet; however, I wonder if what happened to newspapers this past decade will happen to TV this decade.
  • ToonBoom was an exhibitor and they make professional and consumer level 2D animation software.
  • Mozilla webmaker looks really cool. Mark Surman’s presentation on it showed the cool education aspect of the tool can be. On his blog he has webmaker explained.

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