During a passionate speech during day three at GDC, Manveer Heir, a gameplay designer at Mass Effect 4 developers Bioware, called for developers to work harder at fighting against the issues of social injustice and negative stereotypes in games.
Diversity in gaming has never been the industry’s strong suit, with most gaming lead roles going to your typical straight white male. Heir discussed reports that many games with female leads fail to receive a decent marketing budget as they’re perceived as not being worth the effort. He’s bang on the money there; with the exception of Tomb Raider, when was the last time you saw a TV commercial for a game with a female lead role?
The Mass Effect veteran went on to discuss how gaming consistently fails to tackle issues like “misogyny, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia and other types of social injustice.”
“These negative stereotypes affect the identity of individuals in these groups – they affect the way people think and treat others in the real world and perpetuate the social injustices that occur in these different groups.”
“We should use the ability of our medium to show players the issues first hand, or give them a unique understanding of the issues and complexities by crafting game mechanics along with narrative components that result in dynamics of play that create meaning for the player in ways that other media isn’t capable of.”
As an example, he envisioned a game where a soldier comes out to his squad and over time he works with them to earn their trust and acceptance and they become a stronger unit for it. While such an idea has a rough starting point, as you could argue why should he have to prove himself (and you’d be right), I think this is Heir’s way of making gamers think about the ‘issue’ rather than the sort of ‘there if you want it’ options offered by the sexuality of Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard.
There’s definitely some scope for an idea like Heir’s to be worked into a game. Although it’ll need to be designed well as to avoid coming across as patronizing to the audience. That said, the industry certainly can’t continue on its current track. It’ll be interesting to see if any of his ideas are brought to life in Mass Effect 4. Heir called on the developers of not just Triple AAA titles, but indie and boardgame ones too, to ensure that the shift in attitudes can be felt throughout the industry. After receiving a two-minute standing ovation from his peers, it would seem he’s not alone in his desire for some much needed change in the industry.