from the art-reflects-society dept
For some years, we have been banging the drum repeatedly pointing out that video games need to be viewed through the lens of artwork. There a variety of headwinds in solidifying this stance, but they mostly revolve around older generations repeating the sins of their forefathers in declaring any art they aren’t “in to” to not be art at all. And, yet, thinking about this for ten seconds will reveal just how silly that is. Video games include elements of drawing, storytelling, creative modeling, and music. Any one of those is most certainly art in and of themselves, yet combining them to make something entertaining somehow throws a lot of people for a loop. And, yet, we see revolutionaries turning to games these days to make compelling artwork, while museums have already begun curating the output of this relatively young industry.
And once we accept that video games are a form of art, it follows that the flow of culture and society will influence that art. That’s the way it’s always been. Art is a mirror held up to society. And one of the glaring flaws in that mirror image in gaming has, for a long time, been the multi-faceted lack of diversity in both the industry and the games themselves.
One of Nintendo’s recent games, Fire Emblem: Three Houses has some downright insulting LGBTQ+ interactions, which is rife through the series dating back to Fire Emblem: Awakening in 2012. In Three Houses, your male or female avatar can romance other characters of the same gender, yes, but throughout the franchise, the LGBT options have been extremely limited and mostly amount to nothing more than platonic ‘special friendships’.
Consider as well, characters like Cal Kestis from Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, who are seemingly considered the norm. Respawn could have meaningfully designed Kestis as literally anything other than just one more white male protagonist. The reason behind his design? Respawn has said it thought about having either an alien or female protagonist, but Kestis was ultimately used because they didn’t want to “alienate” the player.
It should be immediately understood just how absurd that reasoning is. Who is at risk of being alienated… and by what? If Kestis was a female character, it would alienate men? And, if that is indeed true, doesn’t it follow that the male character alienates women? Or are only men so frail as to be unable to play a game as a character of the opposite sex, whereas women are able to shrug off such base concerns? If Kestis were black, or gay, or old, or Buddhist, would that alienate anyone? And, if so, isn’t the same true in reverse? Being in the majority, I would think, ought to make one more secure in this sort of thing, and yet the opposite appears to be true.
But with the reckoning and awakening of the racial justice movement that’s occurring, games are changing in its wake.
Last weekend, Guerilla Collective – something of an alternative to E3 following its cancellation due to coronavirus – held dedicated broadcasts focusing entirely on Black video game studios, which make games with Black protagonists.
Among those featured were the likes DecoyGames, Gameheads, Waking Oni Games, and Jesse Wright, among several others.
This is, of course, a step in the right direction and only helps spark further conversations about why video games themselves are so white, and why games with people of colour as a starring role are seldom found.
And whereas stock main characters are indeed becoming more diverse, finally, there are also changes being made in games that allow for custom character creation, in order to add more representation and diversity as to what kind of character a player can play. World of Warcraft Shadowlands is an example of this.
Shadowlands will also bring the ability to make changes to a character’s gender on the fly. As reported in Eurogamer, Blizzard intends to make gender changes free in Shadowlands. Before, one could customize face, skin color, hair, and eye color for a nominal sum of gold in one of the game’s many barber shops. Changing a character’s gender, though, required paying real money to do. “We felt like that’s not the right message,” according to WoW executive producer John Hight. “Unfortunately we can’t fix that right now,” he told Eurogamer. “But it is our intent with Shadowlands to take that out of being a paid service thing and [put it] in the barber shop.”
The changes and additions being made to Warcraft’s character creator seem to reflect a broader push for more diversity in the game. This initiative goes beyond the start screen and delves into the world of Azeroth itself. “We are planning on broadly incorporating the range of character customizations for NPCs just across the world,” said WoW game director Ion Hazzikostas during an event yesterday. “Walking through Stormwind, walking around other parts of the world, you will see guards and random civilians that have these looks as if they’ve been there all along. Frankly I think we see this as correcting an oversight on our part over the years. [We’re] trying to improve representation more broadly.”
Like all new inclusions for the sake of diversity, these changes will surely face a backlash. There is some cadre of gamers out there that seems to think that these nods towards representation are either a threat, somehow, or else a pathetic genuflection at the altar of virtue signaling. But to break it down to its most basic: if you spend even one calorie fretting over players having more choice in the creation of their characters, you’re the one that has the problem, not the gaming industry. And if you enjoy the character creation in games as much as most people do, you will realize how important it is for any gamer to be able to see themselves in those options.
Character creation is so important because, in games like WoW, it’s the only way we’re able to express our individuality as humans. We tell a bit of our stories in the flesh and fur and bone we shape to our liking. The story of World of Warcraft is one you experience. Sure, your actions drive the plot, but the story is largely not your own. This character creator and the other changes the development team are making allow the player a far greater ability to tell their own, personal, story.
These are good changes. Whatever backlash may occur from art transforming as a result of societal change, well, art always has its critics. But good art reveals more about us in how we interpret it, rather than we reveal the value of artwork by doing so. It just might be that changes like these are simply revealing how far we have to go as a people in accepting differences, diversity, and our fellow men and women.