How Do We Combat Biased Audiences and in Turn, Our Own Biases as Game Designers?

[Some revisions made as of March 7, 2018]

I’m starting off my games blog diving head first into a big question: what is the responsibility of the author in combating the deeply ingrained biases and stereotypes in their audience? I don’t plan on coming anywhere close to answering it in this first post, but it’s a theme I plan on repeatedly returning to and want to lay some of the groundwork for my fascination with this question here.

“Imaginations fill in the gaps”

In the second week of the ETC’s Game Design course we discussed consciousness, the nature of experience, and the role of the game designer in crafting experiences. Jesse said that imaginations “fill in the gaps” of stories. This is a positive twist on another question that has plagued my thoughts for a long time. How can authors combat imaginations that will only ever fill in the gaps with straight, white, abled, and otherwise privileged representations? When, and how, and how much, and must they do this? think they clearly must. I want to be clear, including those characters and representing those identities is not an issue, but ONLY representing those identities and ONLY giving those identities focus and nuance is a problem. Especially in the larger context of games we see this type of protagonist is pervasive (see Kaiser’s “The Curse of the Scruffy White Male“). Addressing diverse representation first requires the desire to represent diverse groups as well as the acknowledgement of the author’s own biases.

I want to acknowledge my own identity and biases. As a young, able-bodied, Asian American, female PhD student there are several axis through which I experience marginalization but very many in which I experience a great amount of privilege. Understanding marginalization and using the resources I have to empower marginalized groups is deeply important to me, but this work requires me to grapple with my own privilege and limitations on a daily basis. Answering this question is as much to help my self as an author and game designer as it is to help myself as a consumer.

In Jesse’s anecdote he very briefly describes “going to the store yesterday” and meeting a female cashier. He then proceeded to ask questions to the class about the woman’s age, what time of day it was, etc. And many people in the class confidently answered! Their imaginations filled in the gaps. My focus is on instances where that filling in goes awry and becomes problematic and even dangerous.

In several highly public instances in the recent past we see how the (perceived) ambiguity of book characters lead many readers to the majority default (See Anna Holmes’ “White Until Proven Black“). When Jesse would correct people, he pointed out how easily their minds adapted to the new information and moved on. But in some of these public cases (e.g., Black actresses cast in the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchises) where people feel they have a stake in “the truth”, rather than responding with acceptance, some of these more vocal ‘fans’ aggressively defended their stance that their beloved characters were white and that it would “ruin” the movie/play/show to represent them otherwise. When authors or “experience designers” aren’t explicit in their intent, we lose out on diversity.

I think games have the power to play with this desire to fill in the gaps in a powerful and interesting way. The mobile game Lifeline asks players to converse with an astronaut named Taylor via text. When pressed to give a definitive answer on Taylor’s gender, the creators respond that that is up to the audience. This approach comes with both benefits and drawbacks. By allowing players to fill in the gaps, they can become co-designers of the experience. However, Adrienne Shaw in her dissertation writing on diverse representation (see: “Identity, Identification, and Media Representation in Video Game Play“) critiques games for often promoting pluralism rather than diversity (where pluralism simply allows players to create representations of themself in the game rather than actually encountering and interacting with marginalized or underrepresented groups).

I recently wrote an academic paper on character diversity in games (in press at ToDiGRA) and how both digital and non-digital games can and do successfully represent diverse players. The (abbreviated) four main lessons for game designers are: 1) match diversity affordances to player needs, 2) draw strengths from both the digital and non-digital realms, 3) design for conversation, and 4) consider player diversity. You can read more in the paper, but as another preview, games we cover that do interesting or deep things with character diversity include (but are not limited to): the Dragon Age series, Dream Daddy, Night in the Woods, Monsterhearts, Heroes Wanted, Dead of Winter: The Long Night, and Thou Art But A Warrior. These games all take vastly different approaches to diversity. Some leverage their medium by overwhelming the player with a variety of diverse characters to choose from, some take the blank slate approach and allow the player to fill in the gaps and then approach diversity through the challenges and options afforded to them as the game story progresses, while others use the game mechanics themselves to represent diverse identities.

Rather than considering the solution to combating bias and creating diverse characters, I think game designers must A) become fluent in games that approach characters from a variety of perspectives such as the ones described above and B) must care enough to consider and then leverage any combination of these many approaches as it appropriate to the experience they want to design.

One of my goals moving forward in this blog is to collect more examples of how games succeed or fail at scaffolding the audience’s imagination and the conversations designers have once their games are released into the world.


One thought on “How Do We Combat Biased Audiences and in Turn, Our Own Biases as Game Designers?

  1. You bring up an important issue! I did think on how everyone filled in Jesse’s cashier example but not quite through this lens. I’d have liked to hear your thoughts a bit more on one of the most prominent such cases; J.K Rowling and the case of Albus Dumbledore being gay, or Hermione being played by a black actress in The Cursed Child. (assuming you’re open to media beyond games)

    I think in those cases, it is interesting how people have claimed ownership of the characters. Most agree that it is a gross disservice to claim that Dumbledore’s identity as a gay man has no bearing on the story. It is a strange case of canon representation where the author “said” it but doesn’t really leave much to show for it in the books. In the Hermione case, people seized it as a “well she never said she’s NOT black” thing, and filled in the gaps. There is countless fanart of Hermione where artists give her a skin tone to help represent all those eager, young, smart girls that they know.

    Countless novel-to-TV/movie adaptations have the responsibility of filling in the gaps of imagination, and the pattern that they do so is disheartening on most occasions. Video games, being a visual medium to start out with, have fewer such cases but that also means that the choice to be explicit is important.

    Do you think allowing the audience to fill in the gaps may help them fill it with whatever helps them enjoy the experience best? For example, the gender of the Pyro in Team Fortress 2 is unknown, and will probably stay that way. A number of people choose to think Pyro is a woman (bringing the total count of playable women upto 1!), while others prefer to think of Pyro as a man, and there are still others comfortable with Pyro being a genderless person that likes to burn things (I’m personally in the third camp). If Valve were to come out and reveal a gender now, they’d likely ruin the experience they’ve created for two out of the three groups.

    I think being explicit with representation is important if you do it from the beginning and weave it into all your material. Half-assing it and pulling it out much later (the Dumbledore case), after your fans have already filled in the gaps, takes away enjoyment and leads to a lot of negativity and unproductive arguments among the fans.


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