THE BLOG

It's Time to Diversify Video Games

01/15/2014 03:46 pm ET | Updated Mar 17, 2014

There's a big, complicated problem that I, as an artist-type, have been trying to address: media tends to reflect the views of its creators and for most of the 20th century, the gatekeepers of large-scale media production were - for a lot of nasty reasons - generally a homogenous group of straight, white men who promoted a similarly homogenous worldview. It's hard to throw a rock without hitting a movie, book, or TV show about an empowered white, straight man doing empowering things and more often than not "getting the girl," who was a tertiary character standing over to the side probably occupying a damsel-in-distress role and wringing her hands.

Female protagonists were reserved for romances, comedies, romantic comedies, or musicals set in the Alps. Non-white protagonists didn't begin to appear until the 70s and even then were few and far between. As a result, it took almost seventy years after the birth of the moving picture for two people of different races to kiss onscreen and twenty years after that for a kiss between two people of the same gender.

It becomes sort of a cultural self-fulfilling prophecy: children absorb proscribed roles and rules from the media fed to them, assume they reflect some form of objective, immutable reality, then grow up to parrot the same ideas, inflicting them upon a new generation. So ingrained are these arbitrary ideas that both the book and film versions of The Wizard of Oz have been banned in various contexts for, among other things, depicting women in "strong leadership roles" and a 2013(!!!) Cheerios ad about a mixed-race family left General Mills the target of serious racist backlash. That's how deep this goes. Cheerios and the Wizard of freaking Oz. That's how committed people can be to racial and sexual hegemony. If this isn't common knowledge, it should be.

Video games, in their early days, were frankly too crude and low-tech to have much in the way of representational images that could be assigned a gender. Early hits like Pong, Breakout, and Pac-Man were generally targeted at families or patrons of bars willing to pump quarters into an arcade machine.

After a bit of a "crash" in the late 80's, marketers and advertisers helped usher in a new era of video games, declaring that the intended audience for a game must be discernible from space. Because fields relating to computers and software were, at the time, mostly occupied by men, everything ended up a bit gender-skewed. If there was a game about cars, it needed to have hot babes in it because cars are for boys and boys love babes. Even Nintendo, the friendly milquetoast giant of video games, named their flagship handheld device the GameBoy and has spent the last 25 years recycling the formula of nonthreatening-but-cool Mario/Link saves attractive, blonde Peach/Zelda. And it went without saying that characters should be caucasian - or at least caucasian-esque if they happened to be elves or mushroom people. It would be disingenuous to pretend that the racial politics of Japan, where a large portion of the world's video games are produced, are the same as the racial politics of America but it's become clear that companies, regardless of nationality, would rather have their mascots be anthropomorphized animals than non-white humans. It's one of those self-fulfilling prophecies that can only be stopped by the creators of the media in question.

So, at the risk of self-aggrandizing, I've been trying to "be the change [I] want to see in the world." I'm using my medium of choice, video games, to break the cycle of homogeneity. I want to prove that having a protagonist who is a person of color, or female, or queer, or any combination thereof, is not a dangerous business gamble, that it's not a niche within a niche. To that end, I've combined my two loves of social equality and pulpy adventure stories into Dead Century. I'll let the funding page speak for itself but I think readers here would be most interested in the fact that the player's characters each have three distinct options for visual appearance, each of a different gender and ethnic background. The choice is cosmetic, but I hope it will carry important meaning.

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