What We Think of Diversity

Presented at the 2018 Freeplay Independent Games Festival in Melbourne, Australia.

If you use a screen reader, go here to access a version of this article with full slide descriptions.

Queerly Represent Me is currently working on a number of research projects behind the scenes. Many of these are based on the ongoing analysis of survey results from 2016, 2017, and 2018. This presentation will show some of our preliminary 2017 and 2018 findings.

Additional research happening behind the scenes at Queerly Represent Me includes our ongoing additions to our database, and two concurrent interview series. One involves interviewing any queer folks working in games (with a goal of publishing 100 interviews), and the other includes in-depth semi-structured interviews with developers about creative freedom and artistic integrity.

In our work so far, we've discovered some truths that can be backed up with data. Firstly, there was a major spike in the creation and distribution of queer games in 2013.

This can be attributed to a number of factors. Firstly, there was a major push in 'gaymer' events and diversity-focused conventions in 2013, including Different Games and Queerness in Games (academic), the #LostLevels diversity stream at the Game Developer's Conference (industry), and the first GaymerX convention (consumer). Secondly, a push towards accessible development tools was starting, exemplified by Anna Anthropy's publication of Rise of the Videogame Zinesters the year before, and increased distribution tools, with the launch of itch.io.

This begins to demonstrate to us the types of factors that can impact our development of games featuring marginalised characters and themes, and we can use this to continue pushing for marginalised games.

We've discovered that the most recent releases of queer games are most predominantly featured in visual novels, interactive narratives, and role-playing games (RPGs). This discovery has led to us consider the accessibility of tools; we see more queer games appearing in genres with accessible engines, such as Ren'Py (visual novels), Twine (interactive fiction), and RPG Maker (RPGs). We're currently working on an analysis of how genres of queer games have shifted over time, and whether this can be attributed to the accessibility of game-making tools.

We have also discovered that there are some major hurdles preventing diverse samples for our research. Queer game makers have a double dose of imposter syndrome: am I a game developer, and am I queer enough? Many people who reach out to us sound very uncertain about their eligibility to be involved in our research, which makes us realise that many people are likely discounting themselves without reaching out. Who are we missing out on speaking to, and how do we reassure them that they are enough?

Our research has revealed that the independent game-making space is leading the way in the creation of queer games. Independent games don't have the same expectations as those reliant on the support of major publishers, and have potential for telling small stories made by individuals. They can act as a 'proof of concept' for triple-A companies, proving that diversity can be successful before publishers attempt to take risks.

But queerness isn't just about queer characters or narratives. Non-normative mechanics can also act as 'queer games', and independent games are known for pushing boundaries and breaking rules. Making games that break the rules of commercial success creates space for new, unusual, queer games.

Knowing that independent games are a vitally important space for the creation of queer games, and given we were speaking at Freeplay Independent Games Festival, we highlighted what we do for independent developers. We prioritise listening, learning, and educating: we listen to developers, learn from audiences, and educate who we can about what we discover. We would like to be able to help audiences and developers bridge the communication gap, and give everyone a voice as part of our support.

As part of our education, we used this opportunity to discuss preliminary results from our 2018 survey. The major component of our 2018 survey was made up of a Likert scale, which included 31 statements based on common trends discovered through our qualitative coding of the 2017 responses. These statements are deliberately divisive, designed to see whether participants have strong opinions on these topics.

The statements provided to respondents in 2018 can also be found here.

Yep, that's a lot of statements! We use multiple statements to reflect each factor so that we can ensure we have relaible results. This means it takes longer to analyse! That's why this presentation is all about the preliminary results; we're still working on the final findings!

That said, here's some of our interesting findings! We found that most people seem to agree that "Creators should be allowed to make games however they like" and most people seem to disagree that "'Casual' games (e.g. mobile games, visual novels, interactive narrative) aren't 'real' games". These are interesting points for an independent developer: respondents are encouraging you to make the games you want, no matter the engine or genre.

People have mixed opinions about whether "Diversity should never be included in a game at the expense of the game's mechanics", with some individuals caring more about diversity and others caring more about mechanics. Players have different priorities.

Lastly, people were particularly torn over whether "The people I see in videogames should reflect the types of people I see in reality". Participants are unsure whether games should act as a reflection of reality, or a fantastical escape, or somewhere inbetween.

Our results regarding reality and fantasy are worth exploring further. A graph of our 2018 results shows just how divisive this statement was for respondents. Similar statements also revealed some interesting results, with more people believing that games should be diverse because reality is diverse than those believing that games do not need to be diverse because they're fictional. This conflicts with our 2017 results, which show people believing games should be a fantasy escape rather than a reflection of the real world; we intend to investigate this further by engaging more deeply in qualitative responses.

Another interesting set of results come from the statement "Representation is about increasing diversity across the whole of the games industry, rather than within every individual game". The statement wasn't divisive, and the majority of respondents agreed with it. It encourages us—as proponents of diversity—to continue our work in improving representation in our industry.

In addition to our exploration of these statements, we ask participants some broad demographic questions. Firstly, this was a simple indication of whether people saw themselves as privileged and/or marginalised (which most did). However, in addition to this (and where we will be establishing most of our demographic information) we asked a qualitative textbox question to determine in what ways participants considered themselves marginalised or privileged. This is an alternative way to establish demographic data; it allows for more detailed, interesting response gathering than a series of checkboxes can, but it also takes much longer to analyse for identifying intersections. We're working on it!

So far, we have put these responses into simple word clouds to see what sorts of privileged and marginalised responses we receieved. We're looking forward to examining this data further.

So far, in examining in this data, we've discovered that only one statement has a statistically significant difference in the responses of marginalised and non-marginalised individuals. We have discovered from this that respondents have different views on an audience's ability to empathise with characters based on their own experiences with marginalisation.

One major discovery from our 2018 responses—which aligns with our 2017 findings—is that diversity is largely 'irrelevant' to a player's ability to empathise with a character. As such, a marginalised person should be able to empathise with factors of a non-marginalised character's experience beyond their identity, just as a privileged audience member should be able to empathise with a diverse character.

If diversity within an individual game is largely irrelevant to a player's ability to empathise, but statistics show that diversity across the games industry is important, than there is no reason not to deviate from the current over-emphasis on homogenous, white male cis straight ablebodied neurotypical characters.

Our talk had three major takeaways. Firstly, our research shows that there is no reason not to create diverse games. Secondly, independent games are hugely important to the diversification of the games industry overall. And lastly, you—yes, you—are valid.