BioWare developer Manveer Heir held a passionate talk about stereotypes in videogames, for a group of developers at GDC.
Heir backed up his ideas with research throughout the presentation. To begin, he cited a 2009 study, The Virual Census Representing Gender, Race and Age in Videogames, which analysed the primary and secondary characters of a large set of games and found that the elderly, children, black, hispanic and female characters were all uder-represented compared to the social makeup of the United States at the time. Heir also looked at the top 25 metacritic games of 2013. While half let players play as a woman, or an ethnic minority character, none facilitated both.
I always play as a female character if the game gives me the option. In fact, if a game does not allow me to play as a female character for no discernible reason, I will not buy it. This is not some sort of holier-than-thou quest; it's just my preference. I really want game developers to move beyond the generically handsome early-thirties shaven-head five o'clock shadow American. It's boring, it's lazy, it's pandering to the lowest common denominator.
This is one of the reasons why the Saints Row games have always appealed to me. Want to be a short, fat Asian woman wearing construction jeans and a fishnet halter top? Go head. Want to play as a cross-dressing thin giant with huge pink Bambi eyes and flaming red hair? No problem. Games that allow its players this kind of freedom are relatively rare, and that's a shame.
Heir's speech got a lot right, however. It was an important and powerful moment this year because, ultimately, it wasn't about storming barricades or attacking individuals. It was a message from one developer to a room of developers, asking everyone to go away and raise the issue with colleagues in their respective organisations. It was a well-reasoned, well-researched and impactful, and took pains to avoid falling into some familiar traps. It wasn't a drum-banging speech for those already in complete agreement. It didn't, as these things sometimes do, reflect more on the author than the issue. The anger behind Heir's words made it an energising listen, but the speech didn't accuse or condescend, and didn't draw battle lines. That's exactly where the debate needs to go. Nothing changes if everyone digs trenches.
Hopefully they take something away from this.