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Video Games A Platform for Civil Rights Movement?

BioWare Developer Manveer Heir fights for greater diversity in video games.


Has anyone noticed that BioWare's RPG franchises, Dragon Age and Mass Effect, are very socially liberal video games? You can be virtually any human race, either sex, and the in-game lifestyle choices you can make are virtually unlimited. it works well in both of those franchises as well since BioWare places such an emphasis on the cultural and racial interplay within the games' story lines. Well, this is at least in part due to one of BioWare's main developers, Manveer Heir, who creates games for the successful studio during the day, and fights the good fight for greater social awareness and diversity in video games by night.

     It's absolutely true that games seem to have a largely Caucasian, twenty-something male cast (or at least a cast that will appeal to 20-something white males) with very little diversity to speak of. Most of the shooters and sandbox games that I particularly enjoy may cast a minority in the role of a sidekick, but more often a villain. In addition the games almost uniformly employ women in the role voluptuous set dressing. Well Heir is attempting to change all of that, and why not? The fight for social diversity and cultural awareness has come to every other medium, why not the fastest growing on in the country?

      This is not a new crusade for Heir, who actually began his quest last year at a 2010 DICE panel on "Games of Color". Though little in the preceding year has shown that much has changed, but Heir nonetheless returned with his message this year, and brought it to Gamasutra. Here's an excerpt of Heir's argument:

"You can think of fantasy games where if you were the dark elves, you know, the Drow, were always looked upon... They were the black people of the fantasy world, right? And if you played the dark elves, you were treated like garbage by many of the townspeople... so, my only question is, why can't we do that when we're actually talking about real people?"

     Makes sense, right? Although I tend toward the idea that egalitarianism in game design is just a no-brainer in the modern world, and that it's about casting minorities and people of other sexual orientations in the same heroic roles that traditionally only white guys have filled, Heir doesn't necessarily feel that way (despite the title of this article). To Heir it seems about being responsible in making better games, more real games; not just fulfilling some social crusade. Here's what he says about why he wants games to be more racially and socially diverse from the 2010 DICE panel as reported by Joystiq:

" me, thinking about the sexual orientation, the gender and the race of a character... the age of a character -- can change the way your game is structured, what your game is about, the things a game can comment on, the mechanics of a game... I find that to be incredibly interesting because I don't want to see this medium get ghettoized."

     I can see this principle working a lot better in RPG's, which are much more character-driven than say, Call of Duty. For one thing, much of the problem here is the relatively big publishers, companies, and developers that seem to control a wide swath of the market and are only going to keep making this stream-lined product if that's what people are buying. One thing, though, that I've always appreciated about the gaming industry is the actively contributing indie developers out there that could take an idea like Heir's and apply it to nearly anything. That said, Heir admits he doesn't expect to see any real transition in this for 20 years. Until then I suppose we'll just have to be more conscientious in our gaming.