Small Games with Big Change: Indie Games and Diverse Storytelling

Zack Duma, Clara Gagnon, Jess Goldman, Tyrell Meaney, Olivier Sylvestre

Carolyn Jong

ENGL 255B: Video Games and/as Literature

17 March 2017

Small Games with Big Change: Indie Games and Diverse Storytelling

For those of us living in North America, visual media permeates our lives (Anthropy 1 & 2). The power of such media to sell us certain values and ideals is great. Mainstream profit-driven media imposes a particular worldview, defining societal norms and, on the flip side, telling us which people and ways of being should be disposed of and rendered obsolete (Brice). The AAA gaming industry is one such mainstream media that caters to a hegemonic worldview and positionality – that of the young, white middle-class man (Anthropy 6 & 7) – in order to turn a profit. Anna Anthropy says in her article, The Problem with Video Games, “…if one looked solely at videogames, one would think the whole of human experience is shooting men and taking their dinner orders,” (Anthropy 3). In AAA videogames, complex representations of women and other marginalized identities are simply non-existent (Anthropy 6 & 7). The current narrow representations of marginalized identities in AAA videogames have a material consequence on the lives of marginalized peoples, however independent developers (indie developers) have more creative freedom and are creating a more diverse pool of characters in games.

The AAA gaming industry’s target audience is young, white middle-class men, the result being that the principal avatars of mainstream videogames largely resemble able white males (Brice & Anthropy 6 & 7). In other words, white men are the default. These avatars are often hypermasculinized in roles symbolic of a powerful maleness. One such character is Captain Price, the soldier in Call of Duty 4, who is described on one website as being “known for his seeming invincibility and his amazing moustache” (Giant Bomb, Captain Price). What is important about the moustache comment, as humorous as it is, is that it connects to his maleness – strength via moustache. Captain Price’s reality, considering he is a hypermasculinized soldier, is not necessarily closer to a white male gamer’s reality than the reality of, for example, a white female gamer. Thus it is not his relatability that seduces white male gamers, but rather the power such avatars wield in their virtual worlds (Stern 3). Eddo Stern, in his article, A Touch of Medieval, talks about historical fantasy games as a means for American citizens to, “…locate… a historical narrative that validates and befits the ‘glory’ of their culture… [an] American Pathology…One could say that technology operates to realize what was previously in the hypothetical realm of magic,” (Stern 3). Though speaking of historical fantasy, Call of Duty 4 works within a similar framework, that is, to realize the glory of these fantasy battlefields in which white men are the primary heroes. So the power that some white male gamers feel they should wield in the real world might also attract them to these avatars, considering in virtual worlds someone can play as the ‘perfect’ person:

“‘In a large majority of cases, VWs [virtual worlds] users create a digital identity that looks close to Western ideals: leaner, younger, more fashionable versions of themselves… While such ‘perfect bodies’…have benefits to some…it may cause VWs to become much less diverse than physical environments in the long run, which may in turn lead users to a fairly stereotyped vision of what a human body should be,” (William Sims Bainbridge, emphasis added, Online Multiplayer Games 59).

Augustus Cole from Gears of War is another hypermasculinized AAA character. Though not white, but a black man, Cole, a former ‘Thrashball’ player – Gears of War’s sci-fi version of football – is described to have arms, “triple the size of any other character in the game, and is known for his aggressiveness in battle and often ‘outlandish behaviour’” (Giant Bomb, Augustus Cole). Augustus Cole’s character shows that hypermasculinity is not limited to the white male persona, the fact that he is even more exaggerated than his white counterparts combined with  his former sports career, and his pathologization in that his skills on the battlefield are offset by his questionable and irrational behaviour show more aspects of the masculine image while incorporating black male stereotypes. This type of incorporation is a weak attempt to grow the target audience while reinforcing the stereotype of the physically stronger black man with a weaker mental stability. These kinds of stereotypes in games can have detrimental consequences on the lives of marginalized identities. For example,

“Literature on stereotype threat… showed that the risk of confirming a negative stereotype about one’s group is enough to impair task performance… lower performance expectations… and entail negative emotional responses… It is argued that such practices could eventually lead to disidentification with a particular domain or field…” (Vermeulen & Van Looy, emphasis added, 2 & 3).

So, people who do not fit the mold of the AAA gaming industry’s target audience not only struggle to feel represented in the games they play, but can also experience feelings of displacement from the medium itself as well as other negative emotions that can affect them in real life (Anthropy 2). Another example of how the mainstream video gaming industry not only alienates non-white male players from the gaming community, but reinscribes the belief that a white male worldview equals the (largely uncontested) truth. In Claudia Lo’s article on RimWorld’s coding – even though it is an indie game, it was created by a white man and the coding reflects this. Rimworld reinscribes the belief that men’s sexual harassment of women has no psychological consequence on women and that, in fact, the psychological consequence of female rejection on the male mind is what we, as a society, should be concerned about:

“Remember how constantly being hit on and rebuffing people doesn’t lead to a mood penalty…In daily life, the feeling of having to constantly turn people down is not a nice feeling. But… because of the way romance initiation is handled, you end up having to cater for the sad rejected men, rather than the women who are always having to turn away these unwanted encounters… this model [is]… flawed in a way that perfectly mirrors existing sexist expectations of romance…Code is never neutral…we can end up uncritically coding in harmful assumptions, which ultimately means we are constraining what our games could be while also alienating other players” (Lo).

So here, Lo echoes the sentiments in Vermeulen and Van Looy’s article that the gaming worlds constructed by white men have a material consequence on the daily lives of marginalized peoples; or rather, they peddle the illusion of a closed loop between our real and imagined worlds in which mainstream ways of seeing and being seem to go uncontested and remain dominant, “…the system [the mainstream video gaming industry] chooses what looks like it from the margins to seem adaptive. In the end, the system is perpetuating itself, only allowing games and people complicit with how things are going to thrive” (Brice).

A large factor in representation is putting the control back into the hands of the indie developers or rather easing access to creation. By facilitating the creation process and increasing access to resources more people are able to create material related to their own experiences and different perspectives, from this will come a larger ground of representation. The current platform of game creation still lies largely in the hands of a few major companies that tend to recreate minor variations of commercially successful formulas. As Anthropy states in her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters:

“When I criticize games for being mostly about shooting people in the head, that’s a design criticism as well. Most games are copies of existing successful games. They play like other games, resemble their contemporaries in shape and structure, have the same buttons that interact with the world in the same way (mouse to aim, left click to shoot), and have the same shortcomings” (Anthropy 8).

Following these repetitive formulas alienate people who cannot relate to the themes and storylines of mainstream games and also limits videogame production in its expansion into the realm of arts. Game themes that are continuously recycled and revamped lack the ability to really dive into experiences that appeal to a more diverse audience. Such is the problem. The lack of access to game creation by means of software and methods of production. The cost of creating videogames is too high and therefore the room for error or attempts to step out of successful formulas is minimal.

“With that much money at stake, publishers and shareholders are not going to permit a game that is experimental either in terms of its content or in terms of its design. The publisher will do the minimum amount it can get away with in order to differentiate its game from all other games that follow its previously established model and that are being sold to its previously established audience” (Anthropy 9).

So this is where innovation has to begin; with easier access to production programs and more methods for smaller developers to advertise their games. Software such as Yaroze, a Sony powered software that allowed users to develop their own games, were catalysts to putting the power of creation back into the hands of the general public. (Szcepaniak) By connecting this system to a computer, users were able to create games using code. This was far from a perfect model as it was wrought with many issues that still restricted creation on a grand scale. Firstly, the models were far too expensive for most people: prices for the machine and software were approximately 750 dollars which was a hefty investment to make. The system also had a very steep learning curve. There were also limitations on release. A large part of creating change lies in distribution: “Once you made a game there wasn’t a way to get it to players without a Yaroze. In the UK there was a chance you could get the game on the OPSM disc, but it wasn’t guaranteed.” (Szcpeniak) So without a large scale of distribution it is difficult for indie games to even get the exposure required to challenge typical types. However difficulty in no way means impossible. There have been many new and easier software created to facilitate game creation. This is leading to exploration into many different ideas and creating new platforms for discussion and innovation.

An amazing example of how indie games can reshape videogame culture is Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia. The videogame is an indie game created in order to take the player through the hurdles of what it feels like to go through hormone therapy both from Anna’s perspective and how others perceived her. The content alone is a refreshing escape from the repetitive themes that are littered through mainstream videogame culture. Each level takes you deeper into the stages of her transformation. What the game succeeds at doing is not only representing the experience of one person, but it also allows players to understand a perspective other than their own. The game creator uses not only a different theme to address, but also very unconventional ways to convey the journey. The game essentially consists of minigames that the player must complete. They are organized into 4 categories or stages: “gender bullshit,” “medical bullshit,” “hormonal bullshit,” and, “it gets better”. An interesting change in the game is the inability to lose: the game plays more like a book, where the tasks are only set up to get to the next chapter of her experience.

Dys4ia is just an example of the growing ability for “outsider” indie developers to challenge norms in the field of game creation. The advent of new and more accessible technologies should bridge the gap between not only mainstream and indie developers, but should also include outsiders like Anthropy. During an interview, speaking of the indie development community, Anthropy says:

“It sucks. I don’t really see the point of distinguishing between big games publishers and ‘the indie scene’ when they’re basically the same thing: white dudes with beards making money by endlessly remaking the same game. I’m much more interested in this burgeoning community of outsider game creators that tools like Twine are allowing to exist” (Alexander).

Games like Dys4ria prove that people outside the industry can make games about their own experiences. The attention that Dys4ria got from small online publications is only the start, more support for these developers can ensure further diversity in the industry.

The videogame industry allows a player to experience life through someone else’s body and abilities, deal with problems and encounters they may not ever have in the real world. This medium should allow developers to expand their creative abilities and maximize the diversity of experiences a player can have within a game. Counter to this, the majority of industry games reiterate the same experiences with the typical white male protagonist going through the same motions of killing all the bad guys and saving the day. This lack of diversity fails to represent any marginalized identities and as a result alienates persons outside the white male audience. However, independent developers like  Anna Anthropy are showing that one can create new and interesting experiences in videogames while appealing to marginalized groups. In order to achieve change in the industry consumers need to support these smaller developers who show true creativity and turn away from ‘AAA’ developers who rely on stereotype of the white male protagonist.


Group Project Questions:

  1. Many ‘AAA’ games use the stock character design of a white male protagonist. Does a monochrome character design like this dissuaded people outside this demographic from gaming because of this lack of representation or affiliation?
  2. Indie games are a decent platform to spread new ideas and concepts, but these are naturally small in scale. Should ‘AAA’ games be pushed to include more diverse cast of characters or will this take away from the creative appeal of indie games, or more so create an issue of ‘AAA’ games sacrificing character development to insure diversity and have them creating characters by committee?
  3. Would a game like Dys4ia have the same effect and appeal if it came from a big time, mainstream developer or would that take away from the artistic appeal of this game?  
  4. Big companies have the benefit of being able to choose who they hire out of many applicants and by that structure pick the most appealing and qualified personnel (on the most part). Would companies being pushed to hire personnel from diverse backgrounds solve this issue of protagonists being samey or bland? Would this create a situation where people who are qualified are not being hired for someone else because companies need to meet this quota?

Works Cited

Alexander, Leigh. Road to the IGF: Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia, Gamasutra, March 12, 2013, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/188242/Road_to_the_IGF_Anna_Anthropys_Dys4ia.php . Accessed March 10, 2017.

Anthropy, Anna. “The Problem With Videogames.” Rise of the Videogame Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Artists, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You Are Taking Back an Art Form. New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2012.

Anthropy, Anna. Dys4ia. Videogame, 2012.

“Augustus Cole (Character).” Giant Bomb. CBS Interactive Inc., 2017, http://www.giantbomb.com/augustus-cole/3005-687/ Accessed March 16, 2017.

Brice, Mattie. “Our Flappy Dystopia.” Alternate Ending. 10 February 2014. http://www.mattiebrice.com/our-flappy-dystopia/

“Captain Price (Character).” Giant Bomb. CBS Interactive Inc., 2017, http://www.giantbomb.com/augustus-cole/3005-687/ Accessed March 16, 2017.

Entertainment Software Association. Essential Facts about the computer and videogame industry, 2015, http://www.theesa.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/ESA-Essential-Facts-2015.pdf . Accessed March 10, 2017.

Jackson, John, Greg Nielsen & Yon Hsu. (2011) Chapter 1. Sources for a Critical Sociology of Media. In Mediated Society: A Critical Sociology of Media. Oxford University Press.

 

Lo, Claudia. “How RimWorld’s Code Defines Strict Gender Roles.” Rock Paper Shotgun. November 2nd, 2016. https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/11/02/rimworld-code-analysis/

Rugnetta, Mike. Why Is There So Much Sexy Overwatch Fan Art?, PBS Idea Channel, YouTube, November 16, 2016, https://youtu.be/4LopNFgl50E . Accessed March 10, 2017.

Stern, Eddo. “A Touch of Medieval: Narrative, Magic and Computer Technology in Massively Multiplayer Computer RolePlaying Games.” In Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference Proceedings, ed. Frans Mayra. Tampre University Press, 2002.

Szcepaniak, John. 15 Years Later: How Sony’s Net Yaroze Kickstarted Indie Console Development, Gamasutra, April 26, 2012, http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/169245/15_years_later_how_sonys_net_.php . Accessed March 10, 2017.

Vermeulen, Lotte and Jan Van Looy. “I Play so I Am?” a Gender Study into Stereotype Perception and Genre Choice of Digital Game Players. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 60, no. 2, June 2016, pp. 286-304. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/08838151.2016.1164169.

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Small Games with Big Change: Indie Games and Diverse Storytelling

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