What We Aren’t Talking About When We Talk About Inclusion and Representation, And What We Are
Last week on Kotaku, there was an excerpt from an interview with game creator Gavin Moore, who spoke strongly against the idea of an optional female protagonist in his upcoming game Puppeteer. I’m not going to directly pick apart what was said, because there’s already been plenty of digital ink spilled on that front, and besides, that’s not quite my style. But the full interview did kick me into thinking about the all-encompassing conversation concerning inclusion and representation. It’s not just happening in games. It’s happening in comics. It’s happening in movies. It’s happening in SF/F (and how). This conversation has engulfed all of popular culture — particularly geek culture — and it’s gotten messy. The thing that stuck with me about that interview was not that I disagreed — in a number of cases, I didn’t — but that it missed the point of what the conversation is about.
And so, I offer the most navel-gazing question ever: what is it actually about?
I can’t answer that for everyone, but I know what it’s about to me. You may agree, or you may not, which (as I’ll get to later) is exactly as it should be. And though I’ll be using gender inclusion as my primary example (because that’s my jam), when I say inclusion, I mean for everybody. Apply it as you please.
Let me briefly touch on the interview, so you know where I’m jumping off from. Early on, Moore mentions an argument he had over mock reviews of his game. For those not familiar with the practice, mock reviews are exactly what they sound like — reviews commissioned by developers well ahead of release, with the intent of getting an idea of how their game will be received. In this quote, Moore describes the response he got for Puppeteer, which has a fixed-gender male protagonist.
I: There has been a lot of talk lately about options, about gender, about the video games, so…
M: Well, you know, I did have a massive argument actually. We do mock reviews where we send it out to a service, right? Where they review the game for us. It’s not a real review.
I: Yeah, I know mock reviews.
M: And they tell us all the things, all the positives and negatives what they think, right? And they were telling me “Oh yeah, well it’s just a boy. Well it should be a girl”
Moore goes on to say “I’m not going to change my creative vision over something because somebody tells me that that’s what’s important now.” He also disparages the idea of, to paraphrase, wanting girls to play as girls and boys to play as boys.
First things first. It’s just a boy? It should be a girl? Holy cats, does that make me Hulk out. So much so that I’m going to start by breaking down what the conversation about gender inclusion is not.
It’s not about telling creators what they can and cannot make.
I believe that the inclusion of women and minorities in popular culture is vital to both enriching our stories and strengthening our society. I believe every bit as strongly in freedom of expression. As someone who spends most of her time making stuff up, the idea of being told “your character isn’t good enough because s/he’s not [insert demographic here]” galls me. Creators have the right to tell whatever stories they want. Period.
There is a huge, huge difference between discussing underrepresentation or exploring how stories would change with differently gendered characters, and pointing at an existing male character and implying that they’re not important or creative or interesting because they’re not a woman, or a girl. I am not down with that, at all. Identifying overarching trends in storytelling — such as the imbalance of female and male protagonists — does not mean individual stories are necessarily bad or wrong for following those trends. The mere existence of a trope does not condemn the work in which it exists.
It’s not about women “needing” to play as (or read about, or watch movies about) women.
I’m going to focus for a moment here on variable character gender in games, another concept mentioned in the interview. Do I appreciate having the option? Yes, every time. Do I think there are a lot of games in which the story and the gameplay would not change at all if they included a choice of gender? Absolutely. But it doesn’t work in every game. Sometimes, you need a set-in-stone main character, and yeah, sometimes, that character is a dude. It all depends on the story you want to tell. I can’t get behind chastising an isolated game solely for not having gender selection or a female protagonist. I may, however, question why it didn’t. Sometimes there may be a very good reason for it, and I may totally agree with it. Sometimes there may not be a reason at all (and I do think there is value in pointing that out). Either way, the question is not meant to imply that the choice has to be there, or that the game is inferior for not having it.
And yes, there are some gamers — both male and female — who only want to play as their own gender, and won’t consider doing otherwise. That’s fine. There are plenty more who are happy either way. Creators are never going to make everyone happy, but they should consider their options all the same.
It’s not about being trendy, or about tokenism.
Inclusion does not equate to an obligation to add a female character. Put her there because you want to, because she feels right for your story, because you believe in her with all your heart. If you don’t want to, don’t! But if you do, don’t do it for the hashtag, and don’t do it in a half-assed attempt to cross something off your checklist. The audience can smell that from a mile away.
That said, while gender representation is a relatively new discussion in gaming (purely because gaming is the newest medium on the block), the larger conversation has been present for a long, long time. True, the conversation nowadays is bigger and louder than ever before, but it did not appear Athena-like on the day social media was invented, cleaving its way out of a comment thread. Just because a lot of people are talking about it now — probably because it’s easier to talk about it now — does not mean that it has only just recently become important. Women are not a trend.
Which brings me to what the conversation is about — to my mind, at least.
It’s about making the audience feel included.
Knowing your audience isn’t pandering. It’s…it’s knowing your audience. It’s the most basic, necessary thing about telling stories in a making-a-living sort of way. You have to be true to yourself, but you also have to consider who you want to talk to. If you’re unintentionally excluding or alienating someone you want present to, you need to know about it, and you need to consider how best to address it. If you don’t want to address it, that’s fine, but you should recognize this narrowing of who you want your audience to be.
It’s about inspiring creators to consider perspectives other than their own.
Let me switch over to my creator hat for a moment. There are few things more valuable to me, as a writer, than discovering a perspective relating to my work that I have never before considered. Without seeking new information, my work will stagnate. Everything I make is influenced by my identity — my gender, my race, my sexuality, my physical ability, my economic class, the culture in which I was raised, the philosophies I adhere to. In some ways, that’s great, because that’s me! That’s my voice! But it also means that I, like everyone, run the risk of getting lazy. Without considering outside perspectives, all my characters will feel and sound like me — or, they’ll feel and sound like my desires and my biases. To some extent, that’s unavoidable, but I can still always strive for my work to be better than that.
So when readers and other creators offer their perspectives on the world, or on how stories work, or on how stories make them feel, I find it valuable to listen. It makes me go, “Oh, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of that.” That realization is priceless.
Back to my commentator hat. The hands-down best, most humbling thing about writing for The Mary Sue is that every so often, I’ll get an email from a developer or writer or artist who says “Oh, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of that.” Or even, “Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m not sure I agree,” which can be equally rewarding. We bounce ideas around, we ask each other questions, and I usually learn more about my own work in the process. It’s high-grade fuel for making new stuff.
Now, some folks aren’t interested in expanding their perspectives, and are perfectly happy with having an audience that only wants said same. I have no argument with that, even though that’s not how I roll. But you can stay in your comfort zone and still encourage and welcome stories from all perspectives. Because…
It’s about encouraging and welcoming stories from all perspectives.
One of the most common responses to discussions of inclusion, especially when they come from critics or fans instead of creators, is “Stop complaining about someone else’s work. If you want stories to change, you write them.” And yeah, we should! The wonky representation we’re talking about is a direct result of our media being overwhelmingly created by just one slice of humanity. “Straight white male” often comes off as a dismissive phrase, but it shouldn’t be. We need that perspective, too, because it’s just as present as the rest of us. The problem is that right now, we’ve got an imbalance, a storytelling culture that favors that perspective above others. The stories and characters we commonly see do not present a complete picture of the world we live in. The rest of us are part of the narrative, too.
The trick with fixing that imbalance is that there’s no one root cause. Let’s focus on women in games again, for the sake of example. Games have a long history of poorly representing women, both in negative stereotyping and outright absence (as with all things, there are exceptions). Within the gamer community, harassing and bullying women is common, both in game and at conventions. As for women in the gaming industry — I’ll just leave it at “#1reasonwhy.” All of these things feed off of each other. All of these things impact current and future creators. It’s a barrier of entry that doesn’t exist for others, and it can stop creators dead in their tracks before they ever get started. So yes, we need to be telling our stories, but we also need an environment that welcomes us. Chicken and egg.
We’re not asking for anyone to do the work for us. We’re identifying our difficulty level, and we’re hoping to pick up some allies along the way. Inclusion isn’t possible unless we all work together.
This isn’t about making sure we have a perfect 1:1 ratio of male-to-female characters. It’s not about statistics, or homogenization. It’s about telling better, more varied stories. It’s about putting games and books and comics in the hands of everyone who wants them. It’s about building bigger, stronger industries. It’s about trying our damnedest to shift our society into one where all stories, all people, are given the chance to shine. Even the ones we may not be interested in. Even the ones we don’t like.
So what’s the inclusion conversation about? It’s about a big table, which has room enough for everyone, but is only used by a few. Those who are already there — be they creators or consumers — can stay. Should stay. What we want is to bring in a few more chairs.