The current buzzword in game development seems to be “diversity.” Now of course while the term was originally coined to mean racial inclusion, it’s actually being used today more to mean women and members of alternative life style communities such as homosexuals and transgenders (I apologize if I’ve used the wrong form of the word here, Google failed to provide a definitive answer on what the plural form actually is). Once again, racial minorities get ignored or tossed to the wayside but that’s not the specific point of this post so I won’t dwell on it today. What I find interesting is that developers seem more to be pandering to pro-diversity groups as opposed to actually developing games with diverse characters in a genuine form. Since I haven’t personally read anything that good on the subject, I decided I wanted to put in my two cents.
“Pandering is the act of expressing one’s views in accordance with the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal.” I want to talk specifically about inclusive pandering. This is not yet an official term in game development so I’ll provide what I mean when I use this with as much detail as possible so there can be no confusion or debate about what I mean. I would define inclusive pandering as when a developer includes something related to diversity (race, gender, sexuality among other things) in a game that is not at all important or necessary to the plot, world, or gameplay of said game. This is usually done in such a way that seems inauthentic or less than genuine in order to appeal to an audience outside of their normal target market in order to bolster sales or avoid backlash from potential consumers and press/social media.
As an example let’s look at Soul Calibur by Project Soul/Namco. This is a long established fighting franchise with six main titles, four spinoffs, and one remake spanning all the way back to 1996 across 11 different platforms including arcades. If you play through all the games you will have to admit that the main/target audience for the franchise has always been males of Asian and white, European descent. Let’s start with gender. Soul Calibur is known for its overly sexualized female characters and revealing costumes on said characters. Ivy always being the go to example. There are a ton of female characters which allows the company to argue that they are actually focused on both male and female audiences but when looking at the way female characters are designed and dressed it’s pretty obvious that they’re more meant to be objectified than revered. It’s not Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball status, but still. The target races the franchise markets to are a bit more obvious.
It can be said with confidence that the focused market for the Soul Calibur series are Asians and whites. The reason for this is that the more than 100 characters spanning the franchise across multiple continents and several countries, (the human ones anyway) are either white or Asian or from ancient tribes that don’t fall into the current ethnic groups. And even when you include supernatural characters such as gods and ancients there is only one human character that is not white or Asian. This is of course Zasalamel who is considered black but again is from an ancient time with no origins mentioned. This makes it impossible to clarify what his ethnic background actually is and because he bears such a great resemblance to Dhalsim (Street Fighter), it’s possible that he’s actually closer to Indian, which is still technically Asian. It’s clear that female Black and Latino consumers among others are not the targeted market of the franchise and thus they are perfect example groups in how to define inclusive pandering.
While there are tons of characters in Soul Calibur, each game does in some way have main/focused characters. If tomorrow it was announced that a brand new Soul Calibur game was being released and the main character was a “new” black female, that is not inclusive pandering by my definition. Assuming the game truly is a full quality, main title with the same level of writing and development of games one through five, that should be seen as a genuine desire from the developers to now include a new group of people as part of their main target audience. It’s not done in a cheap or lazy way. It takes a lot of time and money. Most importantly, it risks the future of the franchise by possibly disappointing the normal target audience of the franchise. I am of course assuming that the character also has a legitimate story, fighting style, and at least some semblance of respectability. Now behind closed doors the idea may have been to try and bolster sales by focusing on a new audience but the fact that the endeavor was taken seriously places it outside of the pandering category. But if instead tomorrow it was announced that a new black female character would be released as a paid DLC for the latest installment (Soul Calibur: Lost Swords), which is a free to play, digital only game on PSN, that would absolutely be inclusive pandering. Such a character would in no way add to the story or core game and would clearly be a way to target specific groups of people to toss some unnecessary money at the company in order to feel included in the Soul Calibur universe.
Now that I’ve probably in too much detail defined what I mean by the term inclusive pandering, let’s actually talk about it. Should inclusive pandering be seen as a good, or even acceptable thing? This is one of those rare occasions where I’m not really sure how to decide. There actually are a number of reasons why inclusive pandering can be seen as a good or bad thing.
On the negative side, it’s cheap and a bit disrespectful. Essentially companies are preying on the desire of minorities to be included and treated equally in game development by adding characters that serve no important purpose in order to bolster sales. Such characters are often overly stereotyped and not realistic because the developer wants to make sure that you know the character is a minority and that their presence makes the game diverse and inclusive. Such development practices actually lead to less overall change in many instances because developers use pandering characters as an argument for why they don’t have to create non-white male main characters. In the same vein, developers also use these characters as a shield against accusations about prejudice.
I think the Assassin’s Creed franchise is a good example of this. For reasons that I didn’t agree with, AC Unity was attacked for being sexist and non-inclusive. Essentially, a bunch of people were mad that a multiplayer game didn’t allow for female avatars. Of course completely ignoring the fact that so many multiplayer games that aren’t at all plot based are guilty of the same thing. Not to mention there are also games that only include female characters that no one ever seems to complain about (at least not to the same degree) such as Girl Fight (2013) and Skull Girls (2012). Whether you agree or disagree with Ubisoft’s decision not to include playable women in ACU, one has to admit that they got the hint because the soon to be released AC Syndicate is selling itself as a haven for gamers seeking diversity. As of right now Ubisoft claims to have included a playable female character, missions featuring a transgender character, and a focus on marginalized groups such as the lower class which differs from most of the other titles in the franchise. Now, are these leaps towards inclusive game development sincere changes in how Ubisoft chooses to portray the world? Or are they concessions made out of fear for the longevity of an already played out franchise that has already been scrutinized heavily for various reasons? Only time will tell. It’s not actually this next AC that will really tell you something, but the game(s) after it.
On the positive side, inclusive pandering is still including otherwise marginalized groups in games. Whether you think Ubisoft is authentic or not, you can’t argue with the fact that they are responsible for the first transgender character in AAA game development, assuming of course that it actually does end up being a transgender character and not just a cross dresser or some other phony misuse of the word. While inclusive pandering may not come from the right place it does ultimately change the way games are made. For better or for worse the inclusion of a transgender character in ACS will ultimately lead to the inclusion of transgendered characters in other games. The fact is that this is a huge leap towards equal representation in video games for the transgender community. Inclusive pandering also creates opportunities for discussion. Even when a developer does it all wrong or for the wrong reasons, the issue gets out there and becomes an acceptable topic of discussion without automatically getting diluted to the reverse prejudice and over sensitivity arguments.
So again, I say that there are valid reasons why one could support or be against inclusive pandering. But at the same time, I take issue with arguing that a bad thing leading to a good thing makes the original bad thing acceptable. If a man walks into a school and shoots a bunch of kids, which leads to a change in gun control laws, that ultimately makes it so that such an occurrence never happens again, doesn’t mean that it was good or even ok that the original school shooting occurred. It simply means that the occurrence ultimately led to favorable outcomes in the extreme long run. I would say the same thing about inclusive pandering. If the inclusion of diverse characters in a stereotypical, insulting, money grubbing way ultimately leads to the equal and fair inclusion of diverse characters in video games, that should not make us look at those original moments of pandering and abuse as good things hidden behind terms like “growing pains” and “transitional periods.” It’s still a bad thing that people should feel compelled to speak out even if the groups they personally identify with aren’t necessarily being negatively or unfairly portrayed and misused.
Do I personally think that inclusive pandering should stop and that we as a community of gamers should be avidly opposed to it? I can’t really give a hard answer. Game development is a business and as I’ve said there are some long term benefits to the practice. But at the same time I do get insulted when the only black characters in games are side characters limited to pimps, hookers, drug dealers, drug addicts, old cops, and the occasional Lucius Fox/Morgan Freeman copy. I will say that in all plot based games I support realism and believability. For example: A lot of people today get mad at the idea of a game set in say, Medieval Europe about knights not including playable female characters.
Some people might call this sexist, but I, and any other person who takes the time to pick up a single book about history of the time in that region, call that being historically accurate. It’s historical fact that women couldn’t be knighted. Even today women still can’t be knighted in the United Kingdom. They can be Ladies of the Court and retain similar honors of notoriety, but they cannot and were not ever allowed to be knights. They certainly never took part in combat unless you take your history from movies like that Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) where one woman kind of fights in one battle against the wishes of the main character and basically every other man on the field. That’s just the way the time period was. But for better or for worse, it was the time period. And we’re not talking about a game like The Witcher which isn’t based on real history and thus can’t justify not being inclusive nearly as easily. I’m saying a game based on actual Medieval Europe and claims to be historically accurate should not allow female characters to be playable assuming you can only play as a knight.
If the game is accurate and believable in its setting then I don’t inherently think there’s anything wrong with inclusive pandering because when done right it shouldn’t even look like pandering. Looking at the transgender character in ACS once again; making it a selling point is pandering first of all. It would have been a lot more respectable if they had included such a character but never commented on it until the game had been released, people found out on their own, and then questioned Ubisoft about it. Then it would look like Ubisoft chose to include the character because they felt that such a character was important to include for whatever reason without making it look like a publicity stunt.
I don’t know yet how the character will be presented. It might be very well done or it could be totally offensive to the transgender community, which I’m not a part of and as such don’t really believe that I have a right to decide if such a character is done in an offensive way or not. I also don’t know enough about the history of transgender people in the industrial revolution era United Kingdom. Also, having not read anything substantial on the presence of transgenders in the region or world at that time and not knowing enough about when the technology and medical breakthroughs that allowed for the true existence of such people were first discovered, I have no idea if such a character should exist or not at that time period and thus in that game. While it may be inclusive, the presence of such a character at a time period when such a person could not have or would not have existed offends me when it’s in a game that claims to be historically accurate.
In the same mode of thinking, I’m fine with the fact that the upcoming For Honor, which I will absolutely be buying, will not feature any playable black characters even though I’m black. Why? Because it’s historically accurate. There were no black knights, samurai, or vikings, and thus the game should not include such a thing. Doing so would not only be pandering, but it would be offensive to people such as myself who consider themselves historians at some level.
So ultimately, we come back to the original issue/question(s): Is inclusive pandering in game development a good thing or not and should we allow it or actively work to stop all developers from doing it unless in a completely respectful, accurate, and serious way? I still can’t give a hard answer, but I will say that there are very few games that offended me so much on the diversity issue that I refused to buy them or wish I could return them. One such game though was/is Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, which I did write a blog post about several months ago.