So, you’ve decided you want to make a diverse game… now what?
Disclaimer: This article does not intend to delve into why diversity in games is important and necessary, so if you are yet to be convinced, we recommend reading and viewing the wealth of media discussing that particular topic.
The Ideal Situation
It’s one thing to recognise that representing diverse perspectives is important, but once you’ve determined that, the next steps can feel a little like a choose-your-own adventure book (or perhaps a Twine game):
Queerly Represent Me has dealt with developers from a range of pathways in this branching narrative, including helping developers understand why diversity is important, helping marginalised groups to tell their own stories, and connecting developers with paid consultancy.
There is no true ‘ideal’ situation when it comes to representation, but it can generally be assumed that somebody with a particular lived experience is better at writing about or consulting on characters who share that experience than somebody who is not. So what do you do if you want to represent diverse voices, but do not have access to diverse employees or have the money to pay for diverse consultancy?
What do I do!?
We often hear that developers who appreciate the importance of diversity may still avoid representing marginalised groups in their games because they are afraid of ‘doing it wrong’. The solution to this—consulting with diversity specialists—may be outside the price range of smaller studios, and they may feel guilty about potentially taking advantage of a marginalised person by seeking their opinion on a game without being able to appropriate remunerate them for their service.
While hiring diverse—as studio employees or as consultants, or both—is ideal, you can still represent diversity in your game even if you don’t have access to these resources.
Do not make marginalised characters and their traumatic experiences central to your narrative unless you can engage in consultation.
If you cannot engage in consultation, do not put a marginalised character with different experiences to your own in a central role in your game, especially if you intend to use their experience as a marginalised person to drive your narrative.
Do not use the potentially traumatic situations that marginalised people find themselves in as a plot point or flavour text unless you have somebody to consult with about your approach. Trauma should never be a small part of characterisation; it should be something handled with nuance and insight, and treated with respect.
Traumatic experiences might be based on homophobia, transphobia, racism, sexism, or other forms of prejudice based on marginalisation, and could include violence, bullying, misgendering, and an array of microaggressions.
Even if you can’t afford paid consultation, there are many free resources out there on the internet and you should ensure you read up on any identities you are representing so that you understand how certain situations may be traumatic to them.
Don’t treat white, cis, heterosexual, ablebodied, male characters as the ‘default’.
The worst thing you can do is decide, ‘Including diverse characters is really difficult, so I’m just going to make every character in my game white, cis, heterosexual, ablebodied, and male because nobody gets in trouble for that!’ This is absolutely not the best way to be an ally to any of these marginalised groups.
We understand the fear. Sometimes it feels easier to release a game using characters that aren’t going to provoke any potential outcry, but is it really better to have unoriginal characters just to avoid being called out for any missteps you might make? Particularly when you can use the following tips to avoid those missteps.
You may need to learn to listen to feedback and respond graciously, but that’s a small price to pay for ensuring you have made a diverse game. The marginalised groups that you are considering representing show resilience in existing; stand with them and be strong too.
Incidental representation is your friend!
So you aren’t from the marginalised group that you want to represent, and you can’t afford to consult with anyone who is. That’s okay – you can still include diverse characters! Just because you shouldn’t try to tell their story for them doesn’t mean they can’t exist in your world. Consider what it’s like to walk down a crowded street. You’ll inevitably pass by individuals who aren’t white, cis, heterosexual, ablebodied, neurotypical and male – so why shouldn’t your in-game world include people like that too?
One of the things that people from marginalised groups struggle with is the feeling of ‘othering’, or the sense that they are somehow ‘different’ or ‘strange’ compared to what is ‘normal’. While it might not seem like a big deal to someone who hasn’t struggled to feel represented, just seeing people like you included in the background of a game can help to make you feel like you belong and are accepted in the world. Representation like this can also help to normalise diverse personalities and appearances for people who, for whatever reason, might otherwise get limited exposure to people who aren’t like them.
If you’re creating NPCs to wander around in the background of your scene, make sure that they aren’t all white, ablebodied, or gender-normative. If you’re writing dialogue for a background character, question the kinds of things they’re saying. Having a female character casually mention something her girlfriend said, or including a male character that mentions his husband is an easy way to bring queer people and relationships into your world, especially if you don’t want relationships to be the focus of your game. Think about how information about the game world is delivered. AAA titles like Horizon Zero Dawn and Quantum Break use notes and emails to offer extra, supporting narrative without disrupting the main story, and both use this mechanic to include queer characters.
Remember, though their experiences may be different to yours, people from marginalised groups are still just people. So while it’s great to include them in your game in a small way, don’t take that to mean you should resort to stereotypes! No matter who you are, whether from a marginalised group or not, you are more than your demographics and your identifiers. Nobody wants to be reduced down to or defined by one detail.
Empowerment is key
The golden rule when creating marginalised characters without the support of consultancy is to ensure you put the power into the hands of those characters. If you consider the criticism developers receive regarding their representation of marginalised groups, it often stems from these characters being presented with little or no agency.
If the player discovers somebody is trans by snooping through their doctor’s records or flipping through their phone, that trans person has had their power stripped from them. If a character is ‘outed’ as queer without revealing this information themselves, in their own way, that character has their power removed. If characters are presented as stereotypes or caricatures, are ‘deadnamed’ (which occurs when a trans person’s previous name is revealed), or are unable to stand up to bullies mistreating them because of their marginalised identity, their power has been stripped away.
This relates back to Tip #1. Don’t rely on the trauma of marginalised characters when trying to make an interesting story when their empowerment can be just as interesting and much less problematic.
If you want to make a diverse game but can’t afford consultation, and don’t want to ask for free labour from marginalised friends, that can put you in a tough position. You want to represent marginalised people but you don’t want to do it ‘wrong’, so maybe you opt out all together. But please, don’t do that!
When creating diverse characters, the golden rule is empowerment. You may not wish to ‘erase’ the potentially traumatic experiences these characters go through in reality, but who says games have to mirror reality anyway? Trauma deserves nuance and insight, and that deserves expert consultation, so if you can’t afford the help, rely on incidental representation of empowered folks with diverse backgrounds.