Note: to save time, I am going to abbreviate “straight cis white male” to SCWhMa throughout the article.

Indie Haven recently put out a call for writers, and with it, expressed a renewed interest in promoting diversity in games writing. It’s all part of the game industry’s attempts to move away from exclusively promoting SCWhMa voices. I ultimately sympathize with those calls for greater diversity and understand their importance, which is exactly why I feel it so necessary to point out how such calls haven’t gone far enough. In fact, I don’t think they can ever go far enough, at least not as they’re framed right now.

For those who don’t understand why the game industry has been focusing on broadening itself, rest assured that it’s not just to fill quotas or anything like that. In fact, there are a lot of reasons why it’s become a big issue. Some people want more diversity to represent viewpoints and perspectives that, until now, haven’t seen much (if any) representation. Others advocate it hoping that we’ll better understand the games we already play because of it. These are both positions that I agree with. That said, all of these reasons are only in service to a greater idea: that with a plurality of voices, we’ll be able to form more nuanced opinions about games, and hopefully demand better experiences. Demographic diversity (for lack of better phrasing) becomes a subset of ideological diversity.

Necessary as it might be to promote demographic diversity, I don’t believe that it can fully solve the industry’s problems. Much of my doubt stems from the content in games that isn’t related to representation issues, and how we talk about said content. For the longest time, a few theoretical perspectives have monopolized games discourse. Critics often analyze games through their mechanics primarily, often looking for games with complex systems that test the player’s skill. Although mechanics and representational problems intersect all the time (the lack of gay relationships in Fire Emblem: Awakening, for example), there are still going to be a lot of high profile cases where they don’t. So all things being equal, SCWhMa and non-SCWhMa critics would look at Splatoon and Hearthstone in fundamentally similar ways. The conversation would remain unchanged.

Now I’m not saying that the industry should give up on promoting non-SCWhMa voices, or that they should stop actively creating opportunities to do so. In fact, I think they should significantly expand their approach. Look outside the regular circles of games criticism; draw new perspectives from there. Granted, we can do both simultaneously, if current critics are anything to go by. Cara Ellison started off in the world of literary criticism before arriving on the video game scene, and Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women series started by examining film tropes before moving on to game tropes. It’s impossible to deny the impact these two have had on the industry. And these two entered the industry without any sort of reaching out to other fields. Imagine what we could do if we made the effort.

BioShock Infinite serves as the perfect argument for why we should. It received widespread praise from reviewers at launch, but there was a problem: most of those reviewers were SCWhMa. Because of that, many reviews shared the same blind spots, like the implications of racial violence in the game’s Vox Populi arc. Tevis Thompson summed it up best when he compiled criticisms from non-SCWhMa critics. According to him/them, “Though Infinite claims to be a game about a genocidal white man’s guilt, all the racial stereotypes turn out to be true. The racially impure are just as bad as the Founders feared. You are justified [in killing the Vox Populi].”

But there’s another problem: all the SCWhMa voices were also employing traditional approaches to games criticism. As such, any and all approaches to Infinite’s gameplay started to sound the same: that the shooting segments went on for too long, or that the world was off limits to the player’s interactions. And although non-SCWhMa writers diverged from SCWhMa writers, they didn’t always diverge on this point.

I know that as an industry, we can all do better, and we can start by recruiting from other critical circles. Unfortunately, because I don’t frequent those other critical circles, I can only speculate on what they might say. Yet even within those limitations, I can already imagine the variety of perspectives they would bring. Art and film critics might look at the perspective from which the player views the action, how they move about the space in the game, and conclude that the first person perspective and the lack of physicality to Booker’s movement denote a weak presence on Booker’s part. Marxist critics might combine Columbia’s capitalist nature with the city’s oft-criticized amusement park, “look but don’t touch” design.

We might not even have to imagine, because we’re already beginning to see examples like these bleed into video game discourse. Most prominent in my mind is this slideshow by Zolani Stewart, wherein he draws from art criticism to form the language necessary to describe games like Proteus, Dear Esther, LSD, etc. IE he’s filling the very hole that, until now, traditional games press has failed to fill. So like non-SCWhMa writers, writers from outside games have already proven themselves valuable to our medium. Yet also like non-SCWhMa writers, they exist only at the margins, and without much promotion outside those circles. If we want games to grow, we need to make a better effort to promote both groups of people.

  • The only real justification for curating a diverse cast of contributors IS to make sure that your readers feel comfortable, like they are in a space where they are not unwelcome.

    Which begs the question Mr. Crimmins, you are a cartoon character? Just kidding. You guys need to be leaned on harder to get proper headshots up on your bios. Also while I’m dishing out the law, please get someone to make that damn carousel in the side bar to not move on its own! It’s so distracting and frustrating to have to click it in addition to loading every page up on this site. I used to have a browser extension somewhere to hide elements like that but I can’t seem to find it anymore. Laura said she’d bring it up but that was a long time ago. Consider me disabled/it an accessibility issue!