So… PAX is ruffling feathers with their “diversity” panel. Seems like comments around the web range from outraged to offended to offensive to dismissive. Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I made a comment on diversity in literature over at tor.com (#7) that pretty much covers what I think about diversity and how I’m fond of MLK’s dream, and ran into a person (comment #8) who espouses a position that I find… baffling. I suppose that their position is where Affirmative Action comes from, though, and I’ve always thought that to be deeply flawed.
It seems that a lot of it comes down to what I think of as tribalism. You know, the human reflex to want to associate with those who are like you, or who are perceived as like you, and shun those that are not. That “other” guy isn’t part of the tribe, so he isn’t to be trusted. It filters into everything, from politics to gaming. World of Warcraft is one easy example to point to, with their strict divide between factions, even to the point of enforcing it on otherwise genial Pandaran characters. It’s an easy thing to leverage in game design (and psychology); whip up some fury against the Other, and the emotional argument can stay ahead of logic and evidence.
For the Horde! Go, go, Alliance! …or whatever. (And ultimate victory goes to the cabal pulling the strings or jockeying for money or power, never the people doing the fighting.)
The whole core of “diversity” as a concept enhances the subconscious categorization of tribes, since everyone gets tagged and filed away in neat little categories. It fosters continued contention as factions jockey for position and prominence. It has always seemed to me to be Sisyphian, or perhaps Schroedingerish, where the “cure” perpetuates and even creates the problem.
When it comes to games, though, there’s an extra wrinkle. Some people play games and imagine themselves in the game, and want their game avatars to represent them. They want to connect with the characters on a personal identity level. This isn’t how I play games or read books, but it’s an understandable approach.
In fiction, this is less of an issue since books aren’t assumed to have a high level of interactability. Games, though, bank on giving players some level of autonomy, so it makes sense that players would also want their identity to be a part of that. I don’t care about it as a player, but it’s something game designers should keep in mind because some players do care.
For a point of reference, two of my favorite books in my teens were The Blue Sword and Sabriel, despite being neither a necromancer nor a kelar-gifted horseback warrior. I loved the heroines of those stories for what they did, and their gender and other “diversity” flags didn’t matter. (In fact, to this day, it sticks out to me that there’s a bit in Sabriel where the lead character thinks a bit about her period. It just seemed shoehorned in to show she missed her mother and to bracket her age… and that she’s a she.) Rather, they were fascinating characters with interesting choices in intriguing scenarios, and I learned about life seeing them grow, even though I didn’t really identify myself with either of them. I didn’t need to. To quote Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.“
In games, we are given the ability to make choices. I think this is crucial to the whole point of making a game in the first place. It seems to me that choices are the best vector to really look at diversity. I do love a Final Fantasy and its plucky band of teenagers and token minority characters out to save the world via weird leveling up schemes and oddball weapons, but it’s trite storytelling sometimes.
So… it’s not something that really bugs me, this push for diversity, except that I think it embraces the wrong priority. I think that a greater diversity of motivations, choices, conundrums and consequences are the far more important direction for creators to address. With luck, as the medium matures, this will happen naturally… though given the PAX kerfluffle and that quota-based mindset evinced in the tor.com article, I’m not sure that it will happen significantly quickly or profoundly.