If there was an award for GDC MVP I would without hesitation hand the 2014 honor to BioWare Montreal Gameplay Designer, Manveer Heir. While this year’s Game Developer’s Conference had plenty to talk about, from indie darling Papers, Please dominating the IGF Awards to Sony’s big VR news, it was Heir’s panel that had everyone buzzing. Titled Misogyny, Racism and Homophobia: Where Do Video Games Stand? the hour-long talk featured Heir breaking down the big ol’ representation problem our beloved industry has. Ending with a passionate plea for all in attendance to be ‘soldiers’ in this battle for diversity, Heir was met with a well deserved standing ovation.
After the talk I had the pleasure to speak with Manveer Heir about his presentation and what he thinks we can do enact change in an industry that desperately needs it.
I asked Manveer what inspired his presentation this year and why he felt it was important to discuss these issues.
“The topic is one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially the race side of things, being a racial minority; being Indian. So I was having these conversations and I realized everyone else was having the same conversations; LGBTQ people were having the conversation; you know women were having the conversation; we were having a lot of the same parts of the conversation. Someone should be presenting this at our biggest conference, and I was thinking that three-four years ago…I actually did a panel in 2010 about race, because I felt more comfortable about that topic, and we talked about how race and games affects things and what our thoughts were. What’s the follow up to that? How can I expand it? The last few years I’ve been thinking about that and talking to people. And then the Advocacy track came to GDC which was the perfect platform for it.”
This year the Game Developer’s Advocacy Track, a series of panels and talks focused on issues like representation in gaming and inclusive hiring, was bigger and more varied than ever. On one end of the spectrum were talks like Heir’s or the second year of the #1ReasonToBe and on the other were talks like ‘Fewer Tifas or More Sephiroth’s? Male Sexualization in Games’. With ongoing problems like Yetizen’s ‘exotic dancer’ controversy last year and glispa’s unfortunate decor choices this year, the Advocacy Track has become one of GDC’s most vital.
For Heir, this rise of advocacy discussions in gaming is reflective of a greater generational and cultural shift.
“Yeah, I think culturally we’re just having the conversation more. I think a couple things are probably happening: I think that people of the millenial generation are getting older. I’m one of the older millenials, I was born in ’82 so I’m 31 now right, and I’ve been in the industry almost 10 years. Now we’re in positions where we’re not juniors, we’re a little more vocal, we’re more comfortable, we’re a little more influential; I think our demographics are different than the demographics from one generation before. The demographics of the generation coming after us is even more diverse right? And so I think we’re seeing people where it was normal to grow up and be gay and be out, you didn’t have to be hidden necessarily, lots of people still were but not everybody was and it was a little more normed. And it’s going to be a little more normed. And because of that we’re just more used to talking about these things. That’s just the shifting of demographics, at least here in the West and the United States, which I think is wonderful because now we’re actually starting to hear from all these normally underrepresented voices.”
Social media, in particular Heir says, has been instrumental to this growing conversation around diversity and advocacy in video games. He shared that Twitter was a starting place for him in learning more about the trans community, one that he didn’t know much about prior.
“The advent of social media, Twitter, the rise of Tumblr, blogging, that has given people a platform where you can find people in the groups that you care about. I’ve learned tons of things about the trans community that I never knew, because if you didn’t grow up someone trans or didn’t go out and do research, but if I follow people in that community I can gain knowledge just by reading their tweets.”
I asked what he thought about gaming shifting to a more community based activity thanks to the internet. I wondered what he thought about the integration of social media functions in video games, video sharing or Xbox Live communities etc., in terms of giving disenfranchised players a voice. While he thinks they help in bringing people together, they also come with inherent risks.
“I think [gaming has] always been a community based activity. I think now what we’re seeing is that sub-communities that are regional or local are interconnecting because of the internet…I think the social media stuff is more important than say the Xbox Live or Playstation network stuff. With that stuff I always worry if this is a way to target for hate groups. Will this be a way for a group to get picked on? There’s a big problem with Google Plus using real names; some people have valid reasons for hiding their name. They could be fired or physically attacked. Or they have a pseudonym that is their entire identity.”
During his presentation Heir discussed studies that suggest that games starring women sell less copies, but also pointed out that those games are also given significantly less money in marketing and development. He calls this the ‘sales fallacy'; this catch-22 in the industry that gets thrown around every time there’s talk of diversifying games. The idea is that games with diverse protagonists, whether they be women or queer or minority ethnicities, simply won’t sell well and therefore do not get made. But if the game’s don’t ever made how can anyone honestly say they, as a whole, don’t sell?
“We’ve got to start acknowledging that these are underrepresented groups, and that we don’t really know if the sales are good or bad, and just be willing to try. I think to go like “oh women in games don’t sell well…” but we don’t even see budgets; it’s kind of a terrible argument. We as developers, and people in marketing, and people in the business side of things need to come together to understand the problem and work together to solve it”
As far as who will do it; who will be the first ones to take that risk and give it a try, Manveer thinks it’s just a matter of time for the AAA’s while the indie scene is already doing it and doing it right.
“Frankly someone is going to do it. Someone’s going to do it and do it well. This is how genre works too. Someone made a tower defense game and it went really well and now a bunch of us can make this stuff right? Look at Flappy Bird! We are an industry of copy-cats and I think the best way to affect change is for someone to step forward and just do it. As far as a publisher or a company to do it we’re going to find a group that has the right mindset internally and the right influence and then a perfect combination will happen. I think one or two or three people with big influence in the industry will unlock it on that level while indies are doing it from the bottom up approach. There’s so much wonderful representation in indie games. So many are doing unique interesting things and I love it to death. Frankly I think the indie games will influence the AAA. Gone Home will influence AAA. I know it influences me as a designer on a day to day basis.”
During the presentation Manveer brought up two games that stood out to him in terms of how they not only included minority characters but also married identity to game mechanics. This combination of game mechanics and narrative was evident in indie hit Papers, Please; a game where players act as a border patrol agent. The multi-award winning title left Manveer ‘hating’ himself because of the decisions he was forced to make while playing it. But even by creating this sense of self-loathing, the use of mechanics as narrative is what made Papers, Please truly remarkable.
“I think that mechanics on their own with no context don’t give you a good idea for what’s going on in the game. If you have a love simulator and it’s just clicking things but you don’t know what you’re saying or doing and you don’t have a context, if a number going up and down is your relationship, well that doesn’t give me a story besides the one that I make in my head. But if I give a tiny bit of a thread to it, if I give narrative context; say you just got out of a bad relationship and you’re searching or found the woman that you love and you need to find her again, something along those lines; if the game mechanics reinforce all of that it becomes a lot more powerful. The system is telling you a message and the narrative is telling you a message and those messages are the same. They reinforce each other but you’re also engaging in the system so you’re more deeply understanding what’s going on rather than just watching it happen and internalizing how it all connects.”
The other game he discussed during his talk was Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation, a AAA title that explores race, gender, and social status through both narrative and mechanics. Main character Aveline de Grandpre is a mixed race character of French and African ancestry. In Liberation players can take on the guise of a high society lady or a working slave to blend in with her surroundings and accomplish her mission. By doing this developer Ubisoft not only explores race, gender, and status in narrative terms (featuring a mixed race Black woman as a main character) but also through mechanics (making her race and gender important aspects of how she, and therefore the player, interacts with the world).
There are, of course, other games that feature female, queer, or minority characters where their identities have little effect on the mechanics…where characters might be viewed as pallet swaps. I asked Manveer if it’s important, or even necessary, in moving the conversation around representation forward, for more games to utilize mechanics in this way.
“Yes and no. I think the representation part, the pure narrative part, is very very important in this movement forward. But I think the mechanics are the unique part that video games have that nobody else has; the unique way we can say things that nobody else can. We can do a better job across the board, but we have one way to do this job differently and better. Like is it really useful if I tell the same stories that you can already get from TV and film and books? I’m not sure it is.”
At this point there was a very loud motorized crashing noise that passed nearby. After sharing a laugh Heir continued.
“I want you to transcribe all of that. Vrrrrrroom. [Laughs] Sorry. As I was saying…is it better for me to represent things in a video game than to watch it on an HBO show? It’s still important for us to do those things well, but then we’re just doing it on the same level. Guess what: let’s do the next level of things just as well and show meaning through our dynamics and our mechanics which is really, to me, what only video games do.”
Our discussion turned to empathy. During his panel Manveer hypothesized a Call of Duty style game in which players control a gay squad leader. Upon coming out players would find their subordinates responding to them differently, or perhaps even disobeying the players’ orders. In this possible game world players would come to understand the fears and consequences, and perhaps even the benefits, that coming out of the closet presents. (Sounds not too far off from Mitch’s exploration of coming out as a game mechanic in The Queer Mechanic)
Actual titles like Papers, Please and Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation, or Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia, do exactly this by utilizing the inherent connection between avatar and player. This connection serves to evoke certain emotions in the latter. For Heir this is what gives video games a foot up on other mediums when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“Again it’s mechanics. You have agency in that world in some manner. In a game like Dys4ia where your agency is limited to how you move in a scene, you know, that agency is super important because you feel complicit in the world. You feel more connected to this character than if I watched the same kind of story on TV or in a film or something like that. I think that really matters.”
The player/character dynamic is one that many in the industry are exploring. During another GDC presentation on moving away from the 3-act narrative structure in gaming Tom Abernathy and Richard Rouse III shared a study that found that when asked most gamers could not recall the plots of their favorite games. What they could recall, in detail, were their favorite characters. I asked Manveer his thoughts on the power of character over plot in video games, and what that meant for representation.
“I think in general in writing and in all media, we identify better with characters than stories. Characters are what matter and the games that do really well, especially the story driven ones, are very character focused. You can create the greatest fantasy world with all the lore and history, and we’ve seen games that do that, but what does it mean if I don’t have a character to connect to? We connect to humans or things that are human-like often, right, we see things reflect ourselves and think about how we work in the world and we understand that better. I think the player character relationship is really important and that’s why we need to represent our characters better. They’re the avenues to open up all the other things we want to talk about in our games. There’s a whole swath of things in the whole world that we can talk about in our games and we hold ourselves back when we don’t consider all the different zillions type of people, the infinite types of people, that exist.”
Going back to the sales fallacy, there’s this idea in the video game industry that games featuring non-white heterosexual cisgender able-bodied men won’t sell because players won’t relate to them. This, of course, assumes that the vast majority of gamers are all white heterosexual men. But what about the reverse? Can a minority gamer relate to all of these guys?
Of course. As a gay mixed race Filipino man I’ve never had an issue relating to Nathan Drake or James Bond any more than I’ve had an issue relating to Lara Croft or Chun-Li. However on the rare occasion I’ve found Filipino or gay characters in media I’ve without question gravitated towards them.
I asked Manveer if, as an Indian man, he’s ever felt incapable of relating to a gaming protagonist because they didn’t look like him.
“I definitely find myself noticing it, right? Like this doesn’t represent me at all! I think you get used to it because it’s the way the world has been for so long that you don’t know any better. But then you think about it more and you ask, ‘why is it that way’? What really makes me start noticing it is when I can create my own character; I instantly make myself a brown character or a black character. And I’m like, I would never make that guy [the standard white game hero] at all. I would make something that closely represents me or a version of me or a character that I really love. I’ve never seen Indian men in games that aren’t either terrorists or just evil guys in turbans. I think that all kinda forms that notion. You can relate to [white male game heroes] certainly, but I think you are always going to seek out something that’s closer to you.”
But what about when developers do try to include more diverse characters. Often times they find themselves relying on stereotypes (see Mitch’s piece on Grand Theft Auto V, for instance) or they just avoid the issue altogether to avoid ‘getting it wrong’ and potentially offending someone. From the perspective of a developer it can certainly seem daunting. Gamers are very critical of what they consume, and to some devs it might not be worth it to even make an attempt at diversity.
I asked Manveer what he would say to these developers, and he put forth a challenge to innovate beyond just the technical side of things.
“We can make procedural worlds. We can make the crazy shaders and engines and these tools and we can solve all those difficult problems because we have some of the smartest people in the world working in this industry. So to tell me that we can’t solve the writing problem of understanding a different group and doing it well means to me that we’re just unwilling to put the hard work in. That we don’t view [including diverse characters] as important as the technical aspects or designs aspects. I know a lot of people who feel that way in this industry.”
Harkening back to my discussion with Neil Druckmann about The Last of Us, Manveer said that for game devs trying to write what they don’t know the solution is simple: Just ask.
“I’m not a writer but if I was to write a woman character; I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I have media representations but half of those, more than half of those, are written by men. So what I would do is have some ideas and then talk to more women, run my lines or my overall story by some women writers, some women I really respect, and ask them to challenge any negative stereotypes that I might have. These problems are solvable we just have to be willing to.
To say we don’t want to screw it up is to take the cop out. To say ‘it’s harder’. So much of what we do in this industry is harder. Why can’t this be something that we try to get better at as well? Why can’t this be a focus as well?”
Referring to Tomb Raider‘s Rhianna Pratchett, who said that she wanted to write Lara Croft as being more than just ‘a man with boobs’, I asked if her comments resonated with Heir at all. Even beyond just female characters, is it important to write minorities that aren’t just palette swaps?
“Oh absolutely! I’ve lived in America almost my entire life until I moved to Canada for work. I don’t think of myself as Indian, I’m American. But I don’t feel the same as a white American either. I was just in Oregon for vacation in Bend, and we would go to bars and every other person would be white, and it would be the first thing I would notice. I would feel uncomfortable, and you know you make a joke or a comment, and demographically that’s a 92% white city. So while I feel American my Indian-ness still influences my thoughts and views of the world. But it’s also not the most primary thing.
I’m primarily influenced by American culture, whether that’s good or bad. Sometimes at work I get told I’m the most loud American they know. And yet there are people who view negatively on me just because of the color of my skin. It’s a unique perspective but where my parents are from isn’t the primary focus. It’s maybe a third.
People have a ton of characteristics and traits and no one thing defines us. Like being gay doesn’t have to be the most primary trait but it could be. It could be the 30th most important thing about you, right? We have to be willing to have characters of all kinds. Like The Last of Us where [Bill and Ellie] just happen to be gay OR it could be the actual focus and this is somebody who is trying to understand their feelings of being young and gay and come to terms with their sexuality. There’s room for both.”
At the end of his talk, Manveer gave an impassioned plea to everyone in the room. He raised his voice, his tone shifted. He told us that were all ‘soldiers’ and ‘agents for change'; that we are an army fighting this battle for diversity. His words brought everyone in attendance to their feet, but this blatantly activist stance is one that many developers shy away from when discussing these issues, not wanting to ruffle any feathers. But this is all in a day’s work for Heir.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I’m very vocal. I’m very outspoken. I don’t censor myself in that way. I’m gonna say what I have to say and I’m gonna let you know. If it’s at work and someone doesn’t like it and they’re above me, you know, I’ll just go ‘I need you to know this is how I feel…but I will respect the authority to make a decision I might not like.'”
It’s this outspokenness that Manveer hopes he can use to help move the fight for diversity in games forward.
“It’s a conversation. I kinda wear my emotions on my sleeve. You always know where you stand with me. That to me is the only way to live life. There are so many people who are hiding or feel they have to hide from who they are. I empathize with those people because I can only imagine what that must feel like. So if I have a literal loud voice and a metaphorical loud voice then I feel like I need to use those for just causes I believe in. To help improve the world. If that’s the one thing I can do to help improve culture, then great.”
For more from Manveer Heir, you can keep up with him on Twitter.
And be sure to check out Lucas Pope’s hit title Papers, Please.