"It’s more common to see a blue hedgehog than a person of color as a protagonist": Inside the whitewashed world of video games

Arthur Chu talks to #INeedDiverseGames' creator about why we need to see ourselves reflected in the games we play

By Arthur Chu
December 23, 2014 5:00AM (UTC)
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In this video game image released by Activision/Treyarch, a scene is shown from "Call of Duty," is shown. (AP Photo/Activision/Treyarch) (AP)

It’s easy for those of us who don’t spend our lives constantly exposed to Twitter to deride “hashtag activism” as slacktivism, but there’s no denying that some hashtags have had tremendous power as a unifying cultural force, whether that impact be positive—as was the case with the #YesAllWomen conversation in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings—or negative, as with the ongoing harassment and abuse linked to the #GamerGate “movement.”

I’ve been watching the frustrated, frightened reactions of ordinary gamers to the sheer volume of toxic energy pouring out of the #GamerGate tag, and watching the various attempts at pulling together some kind of response. There’ve been attempts at direct opposition, like #StopGamerGate2014 and #GamersAgainstGamergate. There’ve been attempts at blowing off steam through mockery, like #TweetLikeAGamergater and my own #TweetLikeNotYourShield and #GamerGateIsWorseThan.

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But the most inspiring hashtag has been the counter-“movement” of #INeedDiverseGames, which has simply its own movement firmly standing for progress, inclusivity and diversity within gaming, in opposition to the reactionary message of #GamerGate without directly engaging it.

I sat down (through a Google Hangout) with the creator of the #INeedDiverseGames Twitter hashtag and associated Tumblr community.

So for the benefit of those just waking up to the #INeedDiverseGames phenomenon, can you tell us who you are and how you got into this gaming nonsense? As much as you feel safe telling us, anyway.

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[laughs] I’ve already put my full name out there, I don’t care about that. My name’s Tanya DePass. Lifelong Chicago resident. Have been gaming since "D&D" first edition. Actually work at a private university in Chicago. In my day job I’m an international student advisor.

And what motivated you to start the #INeedDiverseGames tag? As I understand it it was just on a sudden impulse, no plan behind it?

So the tag came about because I was literally angry about video games at 6 in the morning a couple of months ago. You know, I’d seen another article about Ubisoft and their “too-hard-to-animate” women. And then a dev for "Dragon Age" had given what I really thought was a shitty answer to an anonymous question on his Tumblr, about if a certain NPC elf is intended to be read as a person of color. The person was like, “It’s important to me, this is something I would like verified.”

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Instead of just not answering it, he gave what I felt was a shitty non-answer: “I’m not answering, it’s all wank.” Which—by answering that way he created wank.

Basically the sort of standard game developer defensiveness? Resenting that the issue even exists?

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Exactly. It’s like you can’t just answer a simple question. And it’s true, if you look at the game they’re coded as PoC, by the way they’re treated in the game. But they don’t read as PoC, they’re designed as white people. It’s an issue.

Well, you’ve been playing games longer than I have—how far back has this kind of thing been an issue for you? Was there a watershed moment where you realized representation was a problem?

Well … my watershed moment came with D&D first edition, which was my entry into gaming. But also, you know, I still went into arcades when I was in high school, and when "Street Fighter II" came out it came with this anti-woman, anti-girl culture, this “What are you doing here?” culture.

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And generally characters that all looked very little like me—the women all being scantily clad decorations. I talked about this with the SpawnOnMe podcast  -- closest thing to my representation in "Street Fighter"? Balrog. This character who’s nothing but brutality and violence.

As I got older, as I gamed more … it’s more common to see a blue hedgehog than a person of color as a protagonist in a game. And it wears on you. When you’re younger, you may or may not be aware of these things. But, you know, when a Pokémon protagonist is easier to find than a female human protagonist, it’s a little worrisome. There’s just a lot of little microaggressions.

I remember when the first "Tomb Raider" came out. It’s great that Lara Croft is still out there. But when you have things like "Remember Me" where the studio had to fight to get it made, because the protagonist is mixed-race, because she’s a woman—they had to struggle with the idea that that would sell.

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The fact that you go to E3 or you see E3 on the news, and hardly anyone in the audience looks like me. And the games they’re talking about—it’s exciting to see Aisha Tyler there, talking about games and representing a company, but where are the games with people who look like me?

So the motivation for starting this tag existed long before #GamerGate.

I’d forgotten they were still a thing! That they were around!

Like, I really didn’t think about them until my friend Karnythia called me and was like, “That tag you started, it’s trending, you need to get BlockBot or BlockTogether.”

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And for a while I did kind of respond, “This isn’t about you,” “Nobody’s thinking about you,” “I’m not worried about GamerGate, I didn’t realize it was even a thing.” And then I realized I would spend all day doing that if I did.

Not that the opposition from #GamerGate stopped it from gaining momentum.

It gained so much momentum I created the Tumblr. And then its own Twitter handle, because I didn’t want to flood my followers on Twitter with it.

I figured, if it’s becoming a thing, then give it its own home, and then multiple people can be involved, because it’s not something I could do by myself. There’s four of us running the Tumblr, but we all have day jobs and we’re in different time zones.

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It’s been really global. I mean a lot of people, like BerserkX33 on Twitter, you know, he’s in Brazil. A lot of people who were really hammering on the hashtag were people who were not really anywhere in the U.S. It’s become a really good thing. Doing the podcast and doing other things has exposed it to other folks.

Even though it’s not really trending right now, or it isn’t trending as much as it was in those first few days, there’s still a lot of good coming out of it. I think a better sense of community has come about, because there’s so many people that send us stuff, or submit links, or go, “Hey! I saw this thing and I thought of you guys, do you mind posting it?” I’ve definitely seen the better side of Twitter and Tumblr and social media come out for this, and that’s what keeps me going.

What do you see as the state of diversity in games today? Is #INeedDiverseGames taking the industry to task for how resistant to change it is, or are you just encouraging a change that’s already happening? Is there anyone you’d highlight as being a leader in bringing diversity to gaming?

There’s plenty of good games out there, that’s why we made the Tumblr and we keep reaching out to people.

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Definitely Minority Media, they have been amazing and supportive—they make good games. "Papo & Yo," "Spirits of Spring," which right now is an iOS-only game, I sat there and played it on my phone for three hours.

Paizo, and the work they’re doing with RPGs. Quinn Murphy just released a game that’s based on hip-hop, ‘80s hip-hop.

It’s great that we have games like "Remember Me," that Lara Croft is still going as a franchise. Things like "Gone Home" are doing well and have won great awards, and we’ve made great strides, in terms of the games we can get. These are great games that I never thought would exist, even, like five years ago. But I think we can do better.

Let’s kill off the idea that a black protagonist or female protagonist won’t sell. Because that’s simply not true. If that’s the case then for Lara Croft, the first game would’ve been it. It shouldn’t be a shock to see a person of color in advertising for a game. That’s why I was so excited about the new Blizzard IP because they actually used a black dude in the advertising.

You know, there’s real diversity in the real world, and I think the first step is realizing that gamers are not the same status quo, that there are people who need to see themselves represented, that it matters.

There are a lot of great indie titles that are filling the void, but we can do better. It shouldn’t be like, oh, indie’s already diverse. AAA developers should consider the people they’re expecting to buy these games at $60-$70 a pop or $150 for the collector’s edition. Why should I keep giving EA and Bioware my money if I can’t have the experience of being represented?

Is there any concrete step you could see EA or Bioware taking to change that?

I actually don’t know if you've been on Twitter much today, but EA actually posted a Diversity Initiative Manager position. And a person reached out to us to post it on the I Need Diverse Games blog, so that’s actually really impressive, and I’m probably going to apply for it.

Wow.

I like jumped up and ran around and flailed, cause like, this is so weird, this is my dream job, and it just like showed up in my inbox.

You’ve got my vote for the position.

Let us cross all the fingers.

Seriously, whoever does fill the position, even posting a job like that is a step in the right direction.

What about the opposition? I know you said #INeedDiverseGames was never meant to be about opposition to #GamerGate but it’s no secret they’ve decided to be opposed to you. Has it affected you at all?

A lot of the stuff I’ve seen that is negative, is what other people have retweeted or something. I mean there’s a few tweets that have slipped by the mute filters and the block filters. But at a certain point I just can’t let it bother me, because I have limited energy to give to this and I’m not gonna let them suck that away.

Really the only negative response has been people who feel like, you know, it’s some zero sum game and you’re trying to take away our toys. And right now that’s mostly been GamerGate-related people treating it like it’s some great conspiracy to shut them down when I wasn’t even thinking about them.

Where do you think that kind of reaction comes from?

I think it comes down to the same fear of loss of privilege. Because, oh my gosh, those evil SJWs will get someone of color into all the games! What will that do to the next "Call of Duty"?

It’s over the top. I’m hoping it fades out because it’s taking up too much of everyone’s time and energy. And I think it’s also become dangerous. There’s people I know who want to speak up but they’re just like, “I’m a woman, I can’t talk about it. What if I do something later on and I try to get into the industry and they harass me?” What do you do? Do you lock up your tweets, do you just not talk about it?

Do you see this continuing to be a problem for much longer?

I think it’s burning itself out, hopefully. Because at some point they’re just getting so ridiculous but also malicious, that people are just looking at them going, “What’s wrong with you?”

Because going after the guy who made the cancer game for his kid? How low can you get? And comparing their fauxpression to Ferguson. That was just so over-the-top it was like I can’t even look at this anymore.

Would you say that #GamerGate is just another instance of the ongoing harassment that women in the gaming industry have been subjected to, or is it something new?

I’m sure women have been made to feel uncomfortable in the industry. I’ve been in the position of being the only woman in the room when I was doing more tech-type stuff. And I’m one of only two black people in my office. I hope it’s getting better because there’s a lot more visible women in the industry.

But that being said, their behavior is making it worse, because it’s keeping people from speaking up who would normally voice their opinion—it’s preemptively silencing people. Because at some point when you see the lengths they’ve gone to go after other people, I think it’s a justified fear of speaking up. What if you’re someone who’s just starting a career, what if you’re someone who has a lot to lose if you get harassed?

It’s making our existing problem much, much worse. But on the other hand I think it’s also causing a lot of awareness of how people are treated, and those who are willing to fight the good fight are saying, “OK, this is ridiculous, this is enough, it needs to quit.”

Speaking of Ferguson—what would you say to people, including some people in #GamerGate, who’d ask why all of these video game issues even matter at a time when we’re facing life-and-death problems in our society that lead to tragedies like the one in Ferguson?

Ooh, that’s a tough question. I mean, let me ponder that for a second.

I think for someone who really probably doesn’t care about games it seems trivial to keep talking about games and other things when this is going on. Even for me for a while, I was just like, OK, I can’t cope with anything other than dealing with what’s going on.

But seeing yourself in the media in a better light makes a big difference.

When all you see is—the only representation you see in the news is someone getting shot or someone getting arrested …

I think this all ties into self-image. Do I see myself in a positive light? Do others see me in a positive light?

I mean, look at the poor kid who was shot and killed, and he was only 12. And they’re saying the  cops thought he was 20. How do you mistake a 12-year-old for a 20-year-old? There’s too much empirical data to show that representation doesn’t matter to people.

Look at the old study with the dolls that someone re-created recently with a black child preferring the white doll because she believes black is ugly even at such a young age, and she is black.

It’s kind of hard to answer because on the one hand it is kind of trivial to focus on video games right now, but the other side of it is—if I want to escape from the real world, I don’t want to escape to a world where no one looks like me, because that tells me that I don’t matter. Because even in a pixel world, I don’t get to exist.

So what role do you see #INeedDiverseGames in fixing that? If I might be so bold, how is #INeedDiverseGames going to make the world a better place?

Ideally the big accomplishment would be—it sounds really arrogant if I say it out loud, but whatever—it would be if I Need Diverse Games was that turning point for people voicing what they need. One of the folks who interviewed us, they actually said it was essential for the future of gaming and that just kind of floored me.

But if the industry doesn’t start giving more options and if they don’t start doing diversity—and doing it right, and not just for the sake of it—it’s gonna stagnate. ‘Cause at some point you’re gonna get bored.

I haven’t played "Call of Duty" since the second game because it’s the same thing over and over. Because at some point I can only save the world with the same scruffy white dude so many times. I’d like to be the Space Marine who gets her girl vs. the scruffy white dude who saves the alien chick and gets her as a prize. Granted, I could do that with Shepard, but you know what I mean. I’d like that to be the standard, rather than “Oh my God, Shepard can romance a dude, the world will end.”

You know, gaming was one of the ways I could use my imagination. First with RPGs, then with SNES and the Genesis and going on. I’ve still got my PS2, I’ve still got my Dreamcast. Gaming is not just a hobby for me, it’s a passion. As I’ve gotten older, and hopefully wiser, seeing myself reflected—seeing my friends reflected—seeing that representation has become even more important.

Because time and resources are precious. And if I’m gonna keep giving game companies my money, I would like them to know I exist.

You can find the #INeedDiverseGames community on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Tumblr


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