Negative effect from lack of diversity in video games

Computer Science researcher at the U of S says most people want to play video games in which the character reflects themselves.

Cale Passamore, a researcher in our Human-Computer Interaction Lab, was recently interviewed about his research on how the lack of diversity in video games has the same impact as everyday racism on minority players.

To conduct his study, Passmore sent out a 92 question survey to nearly 300 Americans in an effort to see how this lack affects players. "We started out talking to friends, people of color, we created a survey that asked the types of questions that are on people's minds but get buried or not approached," Passamore told CBC. What they found was the lack of diversity in video game characters has different effects on players based on their own real-world experiences. "The same long-term effects of depression, detachment, disengagement, low self-worth are present as outcomes, as you would see in everyday, daily racism," Passamore said. 

According to the findings, video game players want to play as characters they can identify with. However, most protagonists in major games are white. If there is a minority, they're often a stereotype – or worse, when presented with a create a character option, people of color were often just pallet swaps, creating what Passamore called the video game equivalent of "black face." However, despite the desire for diversity, when asked how respondents felt the United States would respond to more diversity in games, Passasmore says they were divided on what they thought. As CBC puts it, "Many predicted a negative reaction from some groups of people, but the same respondents said they believe their own 'community' would support an increase in diversity."

"So this was indicative of a trend we see throughout the literature where we're giving way more credit to this highly-vocal, negative minority, to this sort of fear, than is actually warranted by data," Passamore added. Passamore's findings aren't entirely surprising. The game industry – especially the AAA scene – is dominated by a predominately white male workforce. As one might expect, because of this, game protagonists are often white and male. That's not to say there haven't been efforts by game developers to change up the mix. But even then, they've been short-sighted changes that, yes, change the gender of a character but still appropriate other cultures. 

Independent developers have been vocal about adding to diversity in games. It's more common in the independent scene to find games made by an for people of minority groups. It best the question, how can the AAA scene learn from this? An answer might come from Pillow Fight Games co-founder Jo Fu, who recently took to Twitter to say if a game is going to have a minority character, then the developer should have that minority represented on staff, and in charge of the character. 

One of the reasons for this lack of diversity, may come from a belief by some in the game industry that if a white male isn't a game's main character, displayed prominently in front of its box, the game won't sell well. In 2012, when launching The Last of Us, Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann says he had to fight with publisher Sony to keep Ellie, one of the game's protagonists, front and center of the game's key art, as opposed to male protagonist Joel. 

"I believe there's a misconception that if you put a girl or a woman on the cover, the game will sell less," Druckmann told VG247 in 2012. "I know I've been in discussions where we've been asked to push Ellie to the back and everyone at Naughty Dog just flat-out refused."

According to a recent industry survey by the International Game Developers Association, 84 percent of developers feel diversity in the game industry in general is "very" or "somewhat" or "important." But that said, only 42 percent of people polled feel its taken steps to create a more diverse workplace, down from 47 percent in 2016.

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