Thursday, September 24, 2015

Diversity in Gaming, or not being the yardstick of the universe.

Bradley, by Timm Henson
Man, that is just not an exciting title. But I'm currently writing a mentoring guide about diversity in games, and so that's where my mind is at. The pic to the right was drawn by the amazing Timm Henson, and it's one of the Agents available for play in our free downloadable Chill character pack. His name is Bradley.

So, diversity means a lot of things. Basically it means "have a bit of everything involved, more or less equally spread around." That's harder than it sounds like when you're used to everything looking one way and you start changing it up. It can be difficult to think outside the box, and so most games and game companies historically haven't worried about it. There are some stand-out exceptions, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't so long ago we were having talks about passive cheesecake and chainmail bikinis being a righteous standard for portrayals of women in games (and in some places on the internet, people still do).

Thomas Simpson, by Timm Henson
For a few years now, I've had a game company of my own (and as a woman, that's a big step forward for diversity, lemme tell you). I share it with my husband, and we both write and work on everything. I still get overlooked a lot when people talk about "Matthew McFarland's company" and people tend to assume I do admin work (or worse, secretarial/accounting work), aka a support role to his creative genius. I think he is a creative genius, don't get me wrong, but it's actually closer to the other way round at least half the time. I'm good at production, bad at business oversight; faster at editing than writing; better at art dev stuff, but not as good as having a real graphic designer/art person (thank you, Thomas, for your awesomeness). Point is, I'm an equal member of the company and the games. And I'm a woman. So that's still a bit of a struggle in perceptions at times.

Maria, by Timm Henson
For all that, though, I've got it easy. I'm a white woman married to a game industry veteran who has a day job. I'm in grad school, and while that eats a lot of time, it's a really privileged position where I have the opportunity to take risks and do creative stuff. We're not rich, but our bills get paid (I love you, Matt). I have been a single-income, family-supporting single mom working from contract to contract and freelance gig to freelance gig, making decisions about what bill isn't going to get paid this month. I have hustled so hard for money that I couldn't even think about doing something that wasn't going to result in getting paid ASAP, no matter how many creative impulses I might have had.

And even with all that, I wasn't "of color." I came from an impoverished background, but my teenage years were solidly middle class. I was the first of my family to graduate from college, but my parents both went. I am a US citizen. I am autistic, but all my limbs work. I have anxiety, but I can manage it and it's nothing more debilitating or unpredictable than that. I do not register to the outside world as having a disability, which has its own challenges and benefits. No one wants to deport me. No one sees me as a threat to national security because of my background or skin color.

It could be a lot harder, and I work to remember that every day. I am not the yardstick of the universe.

Rory, by Jenna Fowler
It can be easy to forget that whole yardstick thing, though. We gravitate to people like ourselves; it's where we as humans feel at home and understood. Diversity flies in the fact of that instinct, though; it pushes us to include people who have life experiences nothing like our own, to leave our comfort zones and instead make room for someone else's comfort. It demands that we, of our own volition, make room for other people and tell them, straight out, that they are welcome here, even if we feel like we would have liked that as well and didn't get it back in the day (whenever that was). It demands effort on a number of fronts, from trying to recruit people who have different voices and experiences to work on products, to thinking about presentations within games even down to examples and pronouns, to working to make the game accessible to those who are dealing with physical and mental challenges so they can play as well, to deliberately marketing to different demographics than the default (18-36 yr old hetero cis white men), to including art that represents people from different walks of life, different skin colors, different challenges, and yet are still capable, still actors -- people who you want on your side.

By making the effort to have a voice and enable others to have voices as well, to reach out and help people share in the gains that you've made, you actively make the world a better place, even if just by working in a small corner of it. By passing the microphone around, we create a full-bodied chorus. This is one of the missions Matt and I have with our company. We do not always get it right (no one ever always gets it right), but we make an effort and we learn from our mistakes, and I think that's the best anyone can ever do. If we all do at least that much, we can change the world we live in.