As a magazine, one of the things we’re here for is sharing awesome things in our community, and as an added bonus, we try to be affiliates when possible to try and earn a little profit as well, to keep this ball rolling (takes money to make magazines, you know). I was going through some Kickstarter projects yesterday to boost, and I found a couple of promising games that… Fell a little short.
I mean, anyone can boost a cool MMORPG or tabletop mini-set. But here at Blake’s Dungeon, one of our primary focuses is inclusion, particularly in the geek and gamer communities. You can have fancy economies and cleverly designed settings, but if you have a token female character in your room of fighters and barbarians in a chainmail bikini, I’m not going to boost you. I know a lot of people don’t necessarily think about those sorts of things when they’re designing their games, so here are a few ways to make your games a little more inclusive while you’re still in the design phase.
Is your game sexist?
You don’t need to have an abusive patriarchal society in your world, and a main character's girlfriend stuffed in the fridge to be sexist. It can come down to representation. What is your ratio of male to female characters? Do you have a playable female character? Are the women in your stories delegated to kind queens, loving mothers, nagging wives, and fair maidens? A good rule of thumb is to take your whole cast and give them a once-over with a Rule 63: “For every male character, there is a female version. No exceptions.” Don’t ask, “why would I do that?” Ask yourself why WOULDN’T you do that?
The problem with representation is that often, people represent themselves, and if the majority of people in the game industry are cis white males… Well, everyone in everything is a white guy. If you’re not a white guy, that’s really irritating, although the technical term is “marginalizing”. And you will have a LOT of people who don’t fit that demographic. Aim for an even mix of male to female, make sure that female characters are fully fleshed out, and just as badass as the guys.
And make sure that you give them realistic, practical wardrobes. Keep the bikini chainmail as a DLC or mod if you must, but I promise you that you will get a lot more love from your female demographic (they ARE 50% of the world's population, you know) if you treat them with respect. Critical Role is a prime example of a gaming party that is split pretty much down the middle, and includes a fierce and powerful half-elf druid, Keyleth (Marisha Ray), adorable MONSTAH! and Mama Bear gnome cleric, Pike Trickfoot (Ashley Johnson), and the flirty and coin-savvy half-elf ranger Vex’ahlia (Laura Bailey). There’s also Kima, a halfling paladin, the Lady Allura, a human mage, mad scientist Dr. Ripley (the Moriarty to Taliesin Jaffe’s human gunslinger, Percy), and the formidable Lady Briarwood, necromancer and mage, who rose her own husband back from the dead as a vampire because she loved him so much. None of them feel forced, none are one-dimensional, and absolutely all of them are bad-ass in their own way.
Related: On the flip side, watch out for toxic masculinity. Especially in a fighter society where men are supposed to kill things and fuck women, it sends out a bad bar that boys are expected to reach. Make sure your male characters are given moments of gentleness and kindness (a father and his child, a merciful king) and let them be rewarded for it. Let your men cry, and comfort them. Give your characters a mentor that is patient, not gruff and cruel. And if someone likes wearing silks and collecting porcelain teacups and does things that you consider “girly”, LET THEM. Sexism goes both ways, and a lot of the violence we have today is from boys who were told to “man up,” and aren’t allowed to appreciate things that would ease their troubles. Let your male characters have a feminine side. Have a boy who trusts his mother’s counsel instead of dismissing it as “old wives’ tales”. Have a soldier who treasures his wife as more than just a pretty thing, and who makes him stronger through her own courage and resilience. Don’t make female characters a damsel in distress. Make them fighters, and make sure that your male characters treat them with the respect they deserve.
Is your game homophobic?
You don’t have to be gay to write inclusion into your storyline. It’s like I said before: the problem with representation is that people often represent themselves — you may not be gay, but I promise you some of your players are. A lot of them, actually. Everyone plays games, regardless of who they like to date when they’re not playing games.
A careful thing to note is to NOT let a character become that “token gay character”. Queer coding tends to lend itself to the bad stereotypes of Disney Villain, or as comic relief (gay bff, I’m looking at you) and it needs to stop. I promise you, homosexuality has been a part of human history since long before the Bible (look it up — the Ancient Greeks were gay-friendly; it’s believed Alexander the Great was gay himself, among many other notable figures — Shakespeare also wrote sonnets to male and female lovers), and it is observed in a number of animal species, so all the propaganda about it being ‘unnatural’ is tripe.
That being said, there is a spectrum. Some will be straight, some will be gay, and some will be bi — if you are writing a story like Dragon’s Age or Mass Effect or Witcher where your characters are given the opportunity to romance NPCs, you need to have some options for your gay players. To make it REALLY fair, you should have lesbians that won’t date your character if he’s male, and a gay character that won’t date your character if they’re female, and some really pretty bi ones that will date you either way. And don’t forget your pansexuals (Kirk doesn’t care if they’re even human or not!) and asexuals (and aromantics, too!) when possible.
And believe it or not, but it’s very possible to give a little representation here and there without making it an awful shoehorn. You can even incorporate that into replay value, so really, this is a selling point. But MAKE SURE that you have queer folk in your company (by which I mean, under your employ and part of the design process making the game) to make sure that you are handling the content with respect and avoiding any prickly (and often unintentional) mistakes. There are many little snafus you could have avoided with someone even half-knowledgeable about the LGBTQ+ community there to catch them.
Overwatch made a huge splash when they announced that Tracer was lesbian, but they did so in some side material that doesn’t affect the game, and a lot of the flirty dialogue between characters has #McHanzo as one of the biggest, most popular ships with fans, along with Pharmercy and more. Overwatch has a lot of lore for a PVP FPS game, and they have found ways to tease just enough backstory in that you can easily add details like this in a way that doesn’t take up so much screen time as to be rude about it. Last of Us 2 also launched a new trailer at E3 this year featuring a lesbian kiss (Ellie is notably voiced by Critical Role‘s Ashley Johnson), and it’s got a lot of people excited. Dragon Age is beloved by many for the varied options in romance, but Alistair, in particular, is an interesting character, because one of your options is a gay ship that will end in catastrophe for his throne. If you’re writing a world where homophobia is still rampant, an in-the-closet character can be rife for conflict and story development -- treat his sexual orientation as a deadly secret, a conflict of interest, and for PC/NPC shipping potential.
But do be careful you don’t count out your bisexuals and asexuals! Bi erasure is rampant (because some people can’t seem to wrap their head around someone liking both…? No idea why. Doctor Who does it all the time), but Ace folks are often made to feel like freaks for not being interested, and a number of them even experience sex revulsion, which adds insult to injury. Just as with the Rule 63 exercise, go through your cast and see if someone might be a representative of another sexuality. But make sure that you don’t pull a J.K.Rowling and announce it after. Word of God is cheating, and you don’t get any representation points if they aren’t actually represented in your story. Even Legend of Korra was made to toe the line by their network for that, and the queer community is a bit grumpy about it — shipping them is fine and well, but if you don’t get a kiss, it wasn’t a thing. Matt Smith actively played his 11th Doctor (Doctor Who) as Ace, and Oscar Isaac was an outspoken supporter of FinnPoe in the newest Star Wars films, but the company behind the production did not take make it canon. Be careful also that you don’t participate in queerbaiting (#Johnlock in BBC’s Sherlock is a big perpetrator of this, also touched on in the Korra article) where you set it up and goad them and tease them with representation, and then never follow through. It’s manipulative and it’s cruel. Don’t do it. They know if you're virtue signaling, and yet not putting your money where your mouth is.
Is your game transphobic?
You’ve seen Mulan, right? Read Shakespeare? So you know damn well that cross-dressing has been a thing for a very, very long time. Even Game of Thrones‘ Arya Stark poses as a boy for a good portion of the series, a challenge to the female gender roles her sister Sansa so readily falls for. While you’re on the lookout for sexism, a thing to consider is people who are trans, non-binary or otherwise on the genderqueer spectrum. The problem with being sexist is that gender roles and norms and toxicity bleed into everything in our lives.
Degrading women leads to toxic masculinity. Cross-dressing used as a gag, for comic effect, humiliates and invalidates any trans/nonbinary persons who do it to live their own truth. If you make gender such a thing (like, say, a male-only standing army) then this is a perfect opportunity to include some trans representation — Fa Mulan took on her father’s armor and went to war in his place because she had no brothers and wanted to fight for her family with honor, even though she was a girl. Loki was known to take on the form of women from time to time, and Thor almost married someone disguised as a woman. It was a common plot point in Shakespeare's plays (and actually, for a very long time, there were no women in his troupes, so all of the female characters were played by male actors). If you’re doing your Rule 63 and maybe a character’s backstory fits one gender, but their present role fits another… Consider trans representation.
Depending on how your game’s culture views such things, this can be as deadly a secret as being gay, and Krem from Dragon Age is a perfect example. He joined a male-only Army to support his family, and when he was found out, the price for his treachery was death. He managed to find work as a mercenary, where they don’t care so much who you are or where you came from, and is actually now second in command in his company. If you have any group of people that are outcasts — mercenaries, a traveling carnival, circus or performing troupe, etc. — then this is an opportunity to show some of those people who are ostracized from society. A lot of people celebrate Pride in June, but they forget that the people who were in Stonewall at the time were the cross-dressers, transfolk and homeless youth that had nowhere else to go but a Mafia-owned establishment that was ratting on them to the police, and that even at the first anniversary, there were lesbians complaining that trans women were demeaning “real women” — look at the statistics. Even among LGBTQ+ hate crimes, the most common victims of rape, assault, and even outright murder are minority trans women.
If you have a revolution, make the fight personal. Make a few of your rebels the kind of person society likes to pretend doesn’t exist, and give them a voice. But make sure you treat them with dignity and respect. Do not misgender them, don’t make a joke of it, and make sure you empower them. If you have someone with the benefit of a fluctuating wardrobe, let them be genderfluid and shift from female presentation to male presentation in their own subtle ways — just another Critical Role boost, by the way; Mollymauk, Jaffe’s tiefling was both pan and genderfluid, and they’ve had two nonbinary characters in the series, one of which was a brass dragon and monarch of Marquette. If you have someone non-binary, make sure that you dress them accordingly, and use ‘they’ or whatever pronoun they prefer, AND STICK TO IT. You can even include an agender species to really bring it home, if you’re doing high fantasy or science fiction. There are a million ways to bring representation into your world that is completely organic, but try to keep it in mind from the beginning, rather than trying to fit it in later.
Is your game xenophobic?
Again, representation is indicative of the person writing the thing. Yeah yeah yeah, give me all the excuses you want about, ‘Well, we’re in X area and there aren’t a lot of Y people there!’, but you’re wrong. There are always foreign diplomats, merchants from afar, displaced refugees and curious tourists no matter where you go. Gandalf doesn’t belong in Hobbiton, and yet he is there often enough that everyone knows and loves him. Even if you’re in a specific land, make sure that your cities are bursting with diversity. Maybe you have a shop run by an immigrant, a restaurant or a deli, where the proprietors are people from another country that you can meet and talk to. If you have a neighboring nation with war and discontent, introducing a minority/foreign family of someone trying to avoid the war or discriminatory laws, this is where you can both give representation and express greater world politics — an Anne Frank hiding in Nazi-occupied France, a Romeo & Juliet pairing from battling nations, etc. Saga touches on the absurdism of racial and religious prejudice using a Romeo & Juliet set up, and they do so MASTERFULLY. If you’re running a cop game (or, say, Batman), you can add diversity with the varying factions and gangs — Italian, Irish, Chinese, Mexicans. Imports and exports! There’s really no excuse. Take a walk down a busy street in your own town and see how many of the “corporate chains” in your area are actually franchises owned by immigrants and the wartorn nations or politics or poverty they came here to avoid.
Overwatch has been an amazing example of how to do this well — for an international task force, it really is international. There are no ‘stock Asians’ — there’s a Chinese climatologist, a pair of Yakuza princes from Japan, and a Korean ace pilot/pro Starcraft player (a Blizzard in-joke because Starcraft is HUGE in Korea). Europe? French sniper, German paladin, Swedish doctor. A BLACK Brazilian (who is also a pop star and support class, and one of the coolest cosplays I’ve yet seen pulled together), as well as an African wiz-kid who built an omnic tank, and a medic hero from his own wartorn nation. Even their Americans aren’t straight white — Soldier 76 is (hilariously so -- he's from the midwest), but his peers are Ana Amari, an Egyptian sniper and pilot, and Gabriel Reyes, an Afro-Chicano from Los Angeles who is the head of Blackwatch, the black ops end of Overwatch. The perks of having a diverse cast is that literally anyone can find a toon they like and relate to (I’m a die-hard McCree fan, and I’m not sorry — I left my heart in Tucson, covered in jalapeños and ranch), but it also means that they celebrate the Lunar New Year with new skins, holiday references (like Hana wearing Korean traditional New Year’s robes or the Aussies wearing summer swimwear for Christmas), home nation pride gear during Fifa and the Olympics, and design maps to immerse players in settings and lore from worlds they’ve never been to, like the cherry blossom-covered castle of Japanese Hanamura, the Big Ben of London, Route 66 of the American Southwest, or Mexican Dorado. Not only is this a GREAT way to get some flavor in your story, but if you do the setting and character and cultures justice, you can also open your players to new worlds, to say nothing of providing work for underrepresented demographics — make sure you have consultants from your setting, natives to check your writing and confirm cultural norms and traditions, and even get voice talent and designers with those born-and-bred details that can bring that vision to life in ways you would never be able to come up with from just a Google search. A diverse crew makes a diverse game. And that’s better for everybody.
Is your game racist?
Remember what I said about white guys? Still follows. Go to any video game store and look at the cover of a game. What are the odds the main character is a white guy? (I’ll wait…) Now, do you see ANYONE else on that cover that isn’t white? Some games can get around this by making their characters non-human and avoid the implication altogether (Night In the Woods, Spryo, etc.). Just like that Rule 63 thing, see what you can do about changing up your cast a bit. If the characters come out profoundly different, maybe you should check yourself for some bad racial stereotyping you might have done inadvertently. If you’re going to do an urban game, make sure you aren’t a white guy shooting up black and Latino neighborhoods or (like in Resident Evil 5) put a white character in another country and automatically make anyone that doesn’t look like you a bad guy. That’s just racist. If you think it isn’t, you’re probably racist and don’t realize it. (But then, everyone’s a little bit racist, right?) Don’t write in a person of color as a token sidekick with witty one-liners and then just kill them for effect — it’s a bad trope, and it tells your POC players that they are worth nothing but as a punchline and a plot device.
Telltale’s Walking Dead has taken the zombie apocalypse setting to bring in a diverse cast of characters, including POC protagonists, which is rife for potential. Horizon Zero Dawn even cut off that “it makes sense in the lore” bullshit at the top by using lore to explain fantastic diversity. Watch Dogs 2 is also a great example of how you can tackle racism head-on and include it in your story for impact and post-game reflection. Don’t have a token, don’t let them be one-dimensional, and don’t make them disposable. Always make sure you have a member (or five) of that demographic to go over your content for tone and subliminal implications that you might not have caught, but they will. You can use coding, slang, mannerisms, colloquialisms, regular practices, and other cultural differences to celebrate the character’s individuality, like a quinceañera, family gathering, or other cultural celebrations like a GreekFest or Mardi Gras to give a taste of where they come from. Don’t forget that Western colonialism went all over the world and infected cultures that will have had different customs and practices, and the culture clash can have devastating effects, such as conflicting beauty standards, mutated holiday practices, paradoxical religious practices, and superstitions they might have carried through the years. Just make sure that you are respectful and honest, and get a fact checker — Dia de Los Muertos is a day of joviality, but it’s also a time to remember those who have died. Don’t mock. It is one of the most important festivals of the year.
Are you pathologizing neurodiversity?
This one has a couple of buzzwords, so let me simplify it a bit: Hollywood psychology is not only full of bad stereotypes, outdated diagnoses and inaccurate depictions of the mentally ill, but there’s also a bad habit of making the bad guys crazy people. Literally. Batman’s entire Rogues Guild (and in fact, Bats himself) is some variant of psychosis, and someone even wrote a book about it. After the living horror that has been the mental health industry (or lack thereof) throughout history, there’s still a lot about the mentally ill that even professionals are still working through, and since pop culture is only a reflection of society, that ignorance is repeated like a bad punchline.
It’s not split personality disorder, it’s Dissociative Identity Disorder, which is completely different from Healthy Multiplicity. Bipolar Disorder is perfectly manageable with proper routine, medication and eating right, and with the right support system and lifestyle choices, some patients can forgo the medication altogether. One in ten people will experience some form of depression, and anxiety disorders are twice as commonplace. The problem is, our society has a taboo about the mentally ill, which leaves our most vulnerable citizens — those who are in the throes of suicidal depression, self-destructive mania, psychosis, and the abuse put on them by others for a thing they can’t control — lost as a statistic.
As hard as it is for trans folk to get the hormone treatment and surgery they need to live the life they want, it gets exponentially harder when they find out you’re mentally ill of some kind, and your control over your life can be taken from you by ignorant and intolerant health care professionals. Being LGBT, or a person of color, or a foreigner, each come with their own prejudices and micro-aggressions to endure, but intersectionality means that even amongst your rainbow coalition friends or ethnic gatherings, you can be ostracized as “the crazy one”. There’s a huge debate going on right now in the autistic community against the behavioral therapy (that many had to endure as children) that is now being called out as barbaric and even torturous, akin to the now (thankfully) defunct practice of “curing” left-handedness, and the still touted “conversion therapy” to “cure” homosexuality.
Although there are laws in place to protect mentally ill and disabled persons from discrimination in the workplace, a lot of jobs still require testing and interviews and other processes that effectively weed out a number of neurodiverse types. Mood disorder? Good luck making sure that your managers stick to a consistent eating/break schedule, and no overnight shifts. Dyslexia? Having to do 25 pages of quizzes and take a timed math test is not going to go well. Anxiety? It’s not like most workplaces have a quiet room where you can turn down the noise and take a break when life gets overwhelming. God forbid you’re autistic and start scripting, your co-workers will stare.
Do not. Pathologize. Stop making your bad guys crazy — it’s as bad as queer-coding, and it’s not just disrespectful, it’s incredibly damaging. After the giant clusterfuck that was 13 Reasons Why, the growling over Split, and the million times the Joker has been given a new diagnosis, Hollywood has become notorious for having its own brand of psychology that bears no resemblance to reality. DO SOME HOMEWORK. In fact, I personally have a book I found that was specifically written for this purpose sitting on my shelf right next to my character studies. Do your research. Make sure that you aren’t using bad stereotypes and outdated techniques (and no, that’s not how electroshock therapy works), and that you are not demonizing the mentally ill.
In fact, make them the hero. Night In the Woods has gotten a lot of good press for being an absolutely gorgeous game with a distinctive aesthetic, clever and quotable dialogue (“I make my own luck. With a luck machine!”), and a heart-wrenching story about a college dropout who has come home to a struggling town and trying to figure out what to do with her life. This character has struggled with psychotic, violent behavior for most of her life, and has a bad episode at school that resulted in her taking a baseball bat to a statue on campus, and she goes home to a town that is dying in its own close-minded little ways. Of her best friends, one is a childhood bestie gone estranged, a chain-smoking goth kid who is stuck running her father’s shop to keep the bills paid and feels trapped in her own existence. Gregg is a manic fox with a penchant for mischief and “crimes” and a good/bad influence on Mae. There are ghosts and spooky imagery and questions about the strange things that happen in small towns, and maybe demons? But a lot of the story is psychological. It’s taking the time to wander around town and see things and explore your world. It’s picking which friend to hang out with and get to know them. It’s spending some time on the couch with your old man, watching cheezy late-night TV.
It’s also a long talk in the woods with Gregg about how he has been struggling with his mental health, and the toll it’s taking on his boyfriend, as they try to leave the tiny town where they are the only two gay guys around. It’s Bea venting her frustration that Mae had college, something she would kill for, and squandered it. It’s well-meaning, poking parents, the kid whose self-care includes a classic monster movie marathon for Halloween, the recovering drug addict writing poetry as therapy (oh, and Mae sketches in her notebook for the same reason, too!), and band practice, and the million little things you have to do to keep running, and in the middle of it, something terrible happens, and you don’t know how to explain it because no one would believe you.
It’s just good storytelling, and it hits you in so many ways, and it’s a perfect example of how to do it right. Other people have done it. There’s really no excuse.
So… Please. If you’re writing a book, drawing a comic, designing a video game, or even just prepping a Pathfinder game for your friends, think on these things. Make your game more inclusive, and celebrate the marginalized. They’re there, they’re playing, and they’re watching you. Give them a voice, and they will answer back.