At E3, Critics Renew Calls for More Diverse Video Game Characters: NPR

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Even though women make up a significant proportion of dedicated gamers, there are few female protagonists in top-selling video games. The same is true for ethnic and racial minorities.



RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The great Los Angeles video game extravaganza known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, wrapped up yesterday. Some 45,000 people descended on the city to preview new game titles, though many of them were sequels, like “Far Cry Four” and “Halo Five.” But as NPR’s Laura Sydell reports, with these old titles came an old problem – the lack of diversity in video game characters.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: There’s a myth – only nerdy white guys play and make video games. At its E3 press conference, Microsoft did little to change that image. There was only one woman standing on stage and speaking. Bonnie Ross runs the Microsoft studio that produces her hit game Halo. She spoke for less than two minutes.

(SOUNDBITE FROM E3 PRESS CONFERENCE)

BONNIE ROSS: When you think of the Halo universe, you think of it as a real place inhabited by real characters.

SYDELL: Leigh Alexander, who writes about gaming culture and business for the Gamasutra website, is an avid gamer. But says Microsoft turned it off from its Xbox console.

LEIGH ALEXANDER: That brand image never really appealed to me. And when I watched Microsoft’s press conference, it looked more the same to me. I did not feel any diversity.

SYDELL: It’s a complaint that has haunted the video game industry since its inception.

YUSUF MEHDI: I think that’s a fair comment.

SYDELL: Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft vice president for devices and studios.

MEHDI: We’re very aware of – do we have women on stage to tell us the story? Play some games? I think we had some yesterday, telling our story, but we can do more – we want to do more.

SYDELL: But what was on stage mirrored what was in the games. One game, among this year’s titles, has sparked an internet storm.

(SOUND EXTRACTION FROM THE VIDEO GAME, “ASSASSIN’S CREED: UNITY”)

UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER: Help. Someone help me.

SYDELL: The last “Assassin’s Creed: Unity” takes place on the eve of the French Revolution. The game will be available for Microsoft’s Xbox but it’s made by Ubisoft. There are four playable characters. None of them are female. In an interview with gaming site Polygon – the creative director of ‘Unity’, Alex Amancio said having a female assassin was, in quotes, “a lot of extra production work”. Twitter lit up with the #womenaretoohardtoanimate. Game reviewer Alexander thinks Amancio’s comments are telling.

ALEXANDER: What their answer reveals is that they didn’t think about it – that from the start it wasn’t a problem.

SYDELL: Alexander was also among many, including game designers, who wondered why animating a woman was so difficult.

ALEXANDER: I think they have to assume that they’re going to have to animate all these flowing dresses and flowing hair and bobbing boobs and things like that, which is a really interesting insight into how the technicians in the industry of the video game see the female body.

SYDELL: In previous versions of “Assassin’s Creed”, Ubisoft had female protagonists. In a statement, Ubisoft says it is committed to diversity and will continue to seek to showcase strong female characters. To the company’s credit, actress, comedian, and gamer Aisha Tyler has hosted its E3 press conference for the past three years.

(SOUNDBITE FROM E3 PRESS CONFERENCE)

AISHA TYLER: I’m super excited to be here. And I hope you do too.

SYDELL: Tyler says initially she got a lot of flak from some players who refuse to believe she’s actually playing.

TYLER: Come tell me something that I’ve lived with and loved since I was little is illegitimate, that I’m lying about it, I’m literally going to tell somebody to their face, [bleep] you. And I made it to this floor.

SYDELL: Tyler says she loves first-person shooters like “Halo” and “Gears Of War.” But she thinks there is a large segment of gamers who fit the white guy, loner, nerdy stereotype.

TYLER: They’re a band that got kicked out and now they’re touring and kicking out. And the irony and hypocrisy of this is extraordinary. So I call a lot of people about it. So nobody let you into your club and now you have one, you don’t want to let anyone else in – and you know you’re jam-packed with them right now.

SYDELL: Tyler says that over time the criticism of him has diminished. Although the first players may have been white men, today the first half are women. And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, African Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 spend more time playing video games than young white people. Sadly, 85% of the people making the games are white and male.

REGGIE FILS-AIME: To see me – an African-American man – running the American branch of a Japanese company.

SYDELL: Reggie Fils-Aime is the president of Nintendo of America. He said Nintendo cared about diversity, but it had a higher priority…

FILS-AIME: For us, it’s a way of having fun. And the way the characters are or the way we approach the business, really, is from that perspective.

SYDELL: Nintendo’s new line, in particular, features the princess from its hit game “Zelda” as a warrior. And with its first Consul Wii, which focused on fitness games, Nintendo expanded its market among women. In 2013, the global games industry surpassed 90 billion in revenue. The fastest growth was in mobile and online games, which are more diverse. According to reviewer Lee Alexander, now that console games are being played online, major game companies should expand their roster of characters.

ALEXANDER: Online competitive games were very present at E3. And no one will really want to buy them and play them only with 17-year-old boys.

SYDELL: And certainly the controversy over “Assassins Creed: Unity” has shown that, on the Internet, gamers are willing to fight, not just to win, but to be heard. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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