Just A Few More: The Importance of Diversity and Representation
by Liam Esler | July 13th 2015
Diversity is one of the most important issues facing the games industry right now. In Australia this is fairly well accepted, a fact for which I — and many, many others — have fought hard and are incredibly grateful for. Game development and game audiences are changing; we’ve all seen the figures. We still have a long way to go towards good representation of minorities both within games and in the workforce creating them, but the conversation around diversity is irrevocably changing.
But why is diversity important? What does it mean to the people affected by the lack of diversity we’re currently dealing with? Who is diversity for?
I can’t answer these questions alone. I’m a gay white man, and I represent only a small part of the ‘diversity’ spectrum. I don’t have the experience of being a woman, of being trans, of being bisexual, of being disabled, of having an alternative ethnic background. I can imagine, and even empathise to an extent, but I don’t have those lived experiences. With that in mind, I’ve asked some questions of a variety of diverse people, and we’ll be looking at those answers in the coming months. Hopefully these interviews help provide some context for diversity, and shed some light on why we believe diversity to be so incredibly important to the future of our industry.
For me personally, diversity is about inclusion. It's about not tolerating discrimination, and about creating spaces where people feel safe to express who they really are without fear of recrimination or consequence. It’s crucial these spaces exist, and a lot of what I do - with GX Australia (Australia’s first queer gaming convention), with Game Connect Asia Pacific (Australia’s primary game development conference), and as co-director of the IGDA LGBTQI+ Special Interest Group - is about creating spaces where people are comfortable and safe in which to share, learn and create friendships.
Safe spaces are important, but diversity goes far beyond creating spaces where that can occur. It’s about inclusion and acceptance in a broader context.
On the train into work the other day, I saw a straight couple kiss each other goodbye. It was a perfunctory peck, a totally normal, natural moment and for almost everyone else in our carriage, it was a non-event. And it hurt, just a little bit, because my partner of over 8 years and I can't do that without getting looks of (at best) confusion and (at worst) disgust, even in Melbourne.
So many aspects of society are subtly -- and often not so subtly -- targeted at heterosexual men, and to a lesser extent, heterosexual women. Every billboard I see featuring a straight couple reminds me I am 'other', that I'm different, not part of the norm. And that's okay! I'm not part of the norm. By chance, genetics or something else entirely, I'm gay. I don’t expect society to exclusively feature gay male couples on billboards just because I, personally, am gay. Gay men are a small minority in the scheme of things. I don’t expect or want special treatment. All I want is to feel okay with kissing my partner goodbye in the morning, and — occasionally - to play a game where people like me are represented and recognised, and to know that game was created by men and women who are as diverse as the audience playing it.
For white gay men such as myself, we have the privilege of being the most heavily represented of the queer and trans minorities in popular culture. Companies like EA, BioWare and Gearbox are working to create characters that represent me. My demographic is by far the most heavily represented of the ‘diversity’ spectrum, and we are still underserved and underrepresented.
Imagine I am a black trans woman. I have maybe three positive characters representing me in pop culture, and maybe one or two in games at best. Most movies still won't cast people of colour in leading roles, let alone those who don't fit the strict gender binary. And games? Not a chance. Not even in minor roles. I’m not a black trans woman, and I can’t speak for them or their experiences, but I imagine that must be so much more painful than my momentary sadness at not being able to kiss my partner in public.
We don't expect all media to cater to us all the time. We don't want all characters to represent us: We just want a few. We want a representative who stands for us, someone who looks like us and acts like us. We want to be recognised. We want the world to know we exist, with all our wonders and foibles, and realise that we struggle with things they don’t have to. We want them to realise that maybe we aren't that different from them after all, that we’re not something to be gawked at or remarked upon. That we are worthy of respect, of friendship, of love.
It doesn't take much. A few more, that's all we're asking. Just a few.
I don't see why that's so problematic.
Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing some thoughts from diversity advocates and diverse people. I hope they prove useful and interesting, and help provide some context to issues of diversity and representation.