Videogame characters are becoming more diverse, says Microsoft researcher

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      Although videogames take place in fantasy realms, their characters reinforce real-world stereotypes.

      Gamers come in all shapes and sizes. While the hobby is typically perceived to be male-focused, women now make up about half of all players, and research has shown that a higher percentage of black and Latino individuals turn on their consoles daily than any other race. Despite that, few people from those groups see themselves represented on-screen—and, if they do, the characters often can’t be controlled by the player.

      When marginalized figures show up in games, they tend to fall into broad groups. Women are most likely represented as oversexualized, narrative-devoid love interests or damsels in distress. Black and Hispanic characters are predominantly created for sports titles—but when they appear in action or shooter games, they typically surface as violent criminals or are sexually promiscuous. The default for hero figures, by contrast, is a light-skinned, heterosexual fit man.

      With videogames offering a judgement-free world where individuals can explore different identities, it’s vital that titles create universes underpinned by diversity. In the opinion of Melissa Boone, Xbox senior researcher at Microsoft, that cultural shift is finally beginning to happen.

      “One of the things I think is really good in the industry today is how they [developers] are more aware of how important it is for people to see characters that look like them in videogames,” she tells the Georgia Straight on the line from the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington. “You’re seeing more and more of these characters showing up in games, often without comment, which is really appreciated—especially for people of colour like myself. It’s equally wonderful to see a game where the main character is LGBT. It’s just part of them, and they’re just doing things any other character would do.”

      Boone understands the need for diversity better than most. After earning her PhD from Columbia University in public health and social psychology, she spent a number of years studying HIV prevention in vulnerable and minority populations. After making the switch to the technology industry three years ago, she was hired by Microsoft to research representation and accessibility in their games—a transition that allows her to see her conclusions manifested quickly in the company’s titles.

      One of the first studies she designed tested the significance of letting players customize characters.

      “People like to have that option,” she says. “But it’s most important for people who identify as black or Hispanic. They’re less likely to see themselves reflected on-screen. Gender consistently comes up as one of the most important things to be able to customize. Another thing that comes up a lot is skin colour, hair type, and body type. From that study, even though it [looked at] customizing your own character, we can also draw some conclusions about the attributes that people pay attention to when we [the game studios] make characters.”

      Microsoft has begun putting those findings into practice and even updated some of its previous creations. Take, for instance, Chief Thunder, a playable Indigenous character in the head-to-head fighting game Killer Instinct. Thunder, a member of the Pacific Northwest’s Nez Perce tribe, was initially represented in a way that was not in line with his First Nations culture. After sending developers to consult with the tribe’s elders, Microsoft recently redesigned the character’s regalia, hairstyle, and body paint to bring it in line with their traditions.

      For Boone, it’s important that players understand the effort that goes into making sure that the company’s games are both fun and inclusive.

      “Whenever I tell people what I do, I get a lot of reactions that are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I didn’t know that was a job,’ ” she says. “I get to explain to people how much thought and practice we actually put into trying to make their game experiences really amazing. It’s really awesome for a lot of people to hear that [Microsoft] is really thinking about this in a deep way. They have a researcher, they’re asking for feedback, so I love being able to share that. We know that there are people of all different backgrounds who play our games and that there’s something for everyone on our platform.”

      Melissa Boone speaks on a panel titled “When art imitates reality: the value of diverse characters in games” at the Coalition (858 Beatty Street) on Saturday (January 26). More information is available here.

      Kate Wilson is the technology editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays