The Soapbox: Why inclusion matters in games

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

You know what's awesome? Feeling cool. And at the best of times, we get that feeling in our day-to-day life anyway. But that's one of the great things about video games, MMOs especially -- they give us a chance to feel cool. They give us a chance to look at ourselves standing over a pile of fallen enemies, wielding a weapon of unimaginable power, and getting that rush in the back of our head from being totally awesome.

Especially if you're a straight white male.

I wrote a column up a while back about the issue of gender as it affects MMOs, and it garnered a lot of positive comments from readers. It also garnered a lot of comments that proved some players didn't get why it mattered in the first place, and a lot of comments pointing out that women weren't the only group in need of some better representation. The funny part is that I think the former ties directly in to the latter -- and the former is also missing the point. Because it does matter, and even if you are a straight white male, it should matter to you.

Invisible me

When I was a kid, I very quickly learned that I wasn't any good at things that required a high degree of physical skill. But that was all right, because I already had someone to idolize, someone who thought and talked his way through problems, someone who wasn't physically threatening but who was important and admirable. My hero was Jean-Luc Picard, although I was thankfully wise enough not to say that too loudly on the playground.

I was lucky enough to also be a little white boy, much like the entirety of the command structure in the early days of Star Trek.

Before the angry comments start in, yes, I know. Star Trek has historically been great about showing all sorts of people in charge. Arguably the best series ever in terms of narrative was Deep Space Nine, and that was anything but whitebread in its racial makeup. But at the same time, when you're growing up, you don't know that a series is pushing boundaries of race and sexuality; you just know that the people on screen or on paper or whatever do or don't look like you.

MMOs, of course, aren't in the same realm as movies. Your character can look however you want, they can be either gender with almost any skin color -- but you're still going to be surrounded by storyline NPCs who are white as the driven snow. (Quick question: Where do humans with dark skin come from in World of Warcraft?)

It's a persistent issue that has to work overtime to get noticed, because it's self-perpetuating. A bunch of straight white men work on a game with a story involving a lot of other straight white men, and as a result, the game finds a robust audience of straight white men. As a result, the followup game is also made to appeal to straight white men, and the straight white boys who group up to make their own games assume that it's just the norm.

And the obvious question is whether or not that's really a problem. After all, there's nothing strictly wrong with entertainment's targeting a particular demographic over others. Why does it matter if MMOs mostly cater to a single audience?

The rule of cool

Quite simply, everyone deserves to feel cool.

Imagine, for a minute, that you're a gay black teenager. You live in a mostly suburban neighborhood, so you already stand out a bit, and you're kind of nerdy to start with. You already feel like you aren't included in the world around you. But when you get home, you can at least log in to a game and be yourself, right?

Until you start noticing that all of the storyline characters are also straight white guys. Even in a fantasy world where you can step outside of the mundane world around you, you still wind up dealing with the notion that you don't fit in. That sort of subtle message that you aren't wanted is an insidious one, the sort of thing that drives people away without even realizing it. And when it is realized, more often than not we get the same pointless "cater to X" pedantry, treating women or dark-skinned peoples or homosexuals or whomever as some sort of alien thing instead of a person.

We all need heroes to look up to, even as adults. We need someone to look at who makes us say, "Yeah, I could do that." But if all the heroes you want to identify with don't share any of your attributes, that identification is a lot harder to reach. You feel a very subtle but persistent pressure, the idea that your presence isn't welcome. This is a fantasy for someone else, and you're intruding.

And if everyone just shrugs and says, "Well, that's how it is" -- then nothing changes. One of the effects I mentioned in the previous column on gender issues is the idea that if you accept something as the norm, it becomes progressively more difficult to notice that something strange is going on. I'm sad to admit that until I created a dark-skinned PC in World of Warcraft, I hadn't even noticed the fact that there aren't any major dark-skinned NPCs. (So yes, the earlier question was a trick, albeit a small one.) Compare this to Guild Wars, which has a cast of heroes and villains composed of peoples from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

Subtle shading

So if this is so important, why do so many people decline to care or even actively dislike the idea of changing it? Why would anyone be averse to the idea of having more NPCs from different backgrounds or genders or orientations or whatever?

Part of it is a fear of shoehorning, which is pretty legitimate. I would love to see a bit more screen time for gay characters, for instance, but I don't want WoW to go down that route by having a questgiver superfluously add "also, I am a homosexual." There's a perfectly legitimate reason to want to avoid that.

But I think the larger and more overriding issue is that we're looking at the end result of the process. We've gotten used to gaming being a medium dominated by a single demographic, to the point that the concerns of those who don't fit into said demographic are a secondary concern. Unfortunately, a lot of people aren't going to see the problem unless they're told specifically that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

It might seem like an irrelevant problem. Why complain about the social awareness of MMOs when there are balance issues and distribution problems and security holes and all that to worry about? But it is a relevant problem if we want MMOs to be more than just a hobby belonging to a bunch of white guys. One of the selling points from the days of Ultima Online is that you can log in and be whoever you want to be. It's a promise that has largely been realized, which is wonderful.

But you're still adventuring in a white man's world. And when there are so many other people in the world who might enjoy the hobby that we love so much, there's no reason to be so limiting, to tell countless people that they aren't wanted just because we're used to the way things are.

Everyone deserves to feel cool. That's why inclusion matters, why background NPCs make a big difference, why it's important that players aren't just forced to play in the fantasy of straight white men. It's darn hard to feel cool when every other character is subtly telling you that you're an aberration, an outsider, not part of the accepted demographic -- either by turning you into an object or just making you the only person with an oriental complexion in a room full of blue-eyed blonds.

There's no harm done by including others, only by excluding them. It's really that simple.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.