There’s a Polygon article that’s being linked around the web right now, riling up a lot of people, and I admit, it got me riled up to. The gist behind the article is that developers such as Nintendo and Blizzard are not taking a stance on inclusiveness and basically ignoring women, LGBT folk, and other minorities, saying that to focus on those issues would be the antithesis of “fun”.
The author, Todd Harper, gathered his information from a MIT talk with Rob Pardo, Chief Creative Officer, that he attended, as well as a Rock-Paper-Shotgun interview with Dustin Browder, Lead Designer of Starcraft II. So I decided to dig into the source material, because I was really angry at Blizzard’s statements, and I wanted to find out more from the source. Turns out the truth is a bit more nuanced than what Todd Harper wrote up. On the other hand, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for Blizzard, either.
So, I present to you, in full, Rob Pardo’s statements in response to Todd Harper’s question (70:11 to 73:44)
So early on when you were talking about Blizzard's values you were talking about providing the most epic entertainment experience possible and the brand is the currency of the company, and also the idea that taking risks should be safe. I'm wondering if you could talk about the relationship between those frameworks and your perceived audience, and the ability of the company to include socially progressive ideas and content as you develop new things for your games.I guess I bring that up because you specifically called out Bioware, for example, for being a narrative focused company rather than being a gameplay company, which I guess I would say is pretty true of their last few big titles, but they're also one of the companies that's at the forefront of including more socially relevant content in their stuff, so I wonder if you could talk about how that plays out at Blizzard with that separate focus you discussed?
So when you're saying socially relevant you're saying the things they've done in their storylines and kind of the inclusion of gay characters and things like that?
That's part of it, but it's not just representing diversity in your narrative content, though that's certainly part of it. I think it really comes down to reflecting the diversity of player experiences, specifically diverse players, but also just the fact you have a lot of different people playing your game and reflecting their desires, experiences, contexts in what you're producing.
Yeah, I wouldn't say that's really a value for us, it's not something we're against, either, but it's just not something we're trying to actively do. I'd say that one of the reasons we do sci fi and fantasy is that we're kids at heart. We're not trying to bring in serious stuff, or socially relevant stuff, or actively trying to preach for diversity or do things like that. I think that sometimes it's not necessarily always the right thing to do, it's just how we develop the game.There's no maliciousness to it, but I'll give you an example where I think sometimes we struggle is our portrayal of women in the game. Because most of our game developers are guys that grew up reading comic books, so what do they draw? They kinda draw oftentimes comic book looking women which is offensive, I think, to some women. It's something that we sometimes have to actively catch ourselves and go, "wait, we need to not make our women characters wear armor that look like Xena or Sonya" or something like that sometimes.But it's a struggle for us because the diversity within our workplace is unbalanced. And it's not because we don't want more women developers, it's just what the industry is. If you look at the industry it is kind of like that, and it's very hard to oftentimes, just use female game designers as an example because I hire game designers, I just don't get the applications so it becomes challenging for us, I think.
So Rob Pardo's response, "I wouldn't say that's really a value for us, it's not something we're against, either, but it's just not something we're trying to actively do,” was in direct response to Todd Harper’s question about reflecting other players’ experiences. Basically, Rob is arguing they’re just trying to make a video game they want to play, regardless of the social issues going on around them.
I get that, I really do. But it also underscores an important point here, which Rob Pardo made himself, is that it’s not really malicious, they’re just not thinking about it. Rob Pardo’s point about catching themselves is awesome, because it does tell me they understand the problem to an extent, but they have no real mechanisms in place to enforce it. And I totally get his point about not having enough diversity in the workplace, because that would make all of this easier, too.
But that’s where the crux of the problem lies. They’re not thinking about it actively. So when they make those hyper-sexualized comic book-esque women, or when they make most of their characters ultra-masculine power-fantasy males, that’s what they’ve been doing for 25 years. They’ve built up a reflex within their company culture and, to be fair, within most of the game industry, that this is the way you make video games and tell a story. And for those of us on the outside of the straight white male point of view, we find ourselves wanting for someone we can relate to.
Blizzard talks a lot about how they’re gameplay-focused, rather than narrative-focused. That makes a lot of sense in a game like Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. There’s pretty much no narrative there, by design. And you could squint and kind of argue that Starcraft and the Warcraft RTS games, the narrative is really a framework to show off the gameplay. But World of Warcraft is a world, with characters, motivations, ideas, and interactions. I could be snarky and say their lack of focus on narrative shows, especially in their Warlords of Draenor storyline, but at the same time I think they’re doing themselves a disservice by claiming that for their Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game.
The thing about building a story or a narrative is that you want to ensure you have characters people can relate to. If your heroes are perfect, or your villains are flat, the story gets old really quick. Immutable personal identity, like gender, sexuality, and race are some ways that folks end up relating to characters. But more importantly, when those aspects are missing from a world, the absence is noticed and makes the world less relatable to the consumer. A world where there are almost no strong female characters? You’ve lost a chunk of your female audience. No gay characters? I can’t relate to that at all; that’s not what my world looks like. Why should I buy into yours?
Rock, Paper, Shotgun had their own interview with Blizzard’s Dustin Browder, where RPS asked Dustin Browder hyper-sexualized female characters in Heroes of the Storm.
You have some interesting alternate outfits for heroes. Roller Derby Nova, especially, caught my eye. On its own, that’s totally fine – just a silly, goofy thing. A one-off. But it got me thinking about how often MOBAs tend to hyper-sexualize female characters to a generally preposterous degree – that is to say, make it the norm, not a one-off at all – and StarCraft’s own, um, interesting focus choices as of late. How are you planning to approach all of that in Heroes?
Well, I mean, some of these characters, I would argue, are already hyper-sexualized in a sense. I mean, Kerrigan is wearing heels, right? We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool. Our sensibilities are more comic book than anything else. That’s sort of where we’re at. But I’ll take the feedback. I think it’s very fair feedback.
I have to add, though, that comics might not be the best point of reference for this sort of thing. I mean, it’s a medium that’s notorious – often in a not-good way – for sexing up female characters and putting them in some fairly gross situations.
We’re not running for President. We’re not sending a message. No one should look to our game for that.
But it’s not even about a message. The goal is to let people have fun in an environment where they can feel awesome without being weirded out or even objectified. This is a genre about empowerment. Why shouldn’t everyone feel empowered? That’s what it’s about at the end of the day: letting everyone have a fair chance to feel awesome.
Uh-huh. Cool. Totally.
Dustin Browder, in his response, states, “We’re not sending a message to anybody. We’re just making characters who look cool.” He contradicts himself in the second sentence. By “just making characters who look cool,” he’s sending a message that those are the characters they think look cool. I mean, sounds kind of silly when I lay it out like that, but at the same time, it absolutely is a message. When the grand majority of your female characters are hyper-sexualized, you’re sending the message that non-hyper-sexualize female characters are not cool.
Again, Dustin Browder’s point, not unlike Rob Pardo’s, is they’re not trying to send a message, and that they’re just trying to make awesome games. But media is a message, whether you want it to be or not. Art reflects society and societal norms. My point above still holds, if there’s no one that you can relate to, it makes it harder for you to enjoy the product, or to find it fun. So again, it’s not something they’re thinking about actively, and it shows.
Now, to be fair, Blizzard has done good things in the past. Just because the higher-ups are dismissive doesn’t mean that everything is terrible. If you look at the Alliance, there’s a few strong female characters around, such as Sky Admiral Catherine Rogers, Grand Admiral Jes-Tereth, and Moira Thaurissan. I can’t speak much to the Horde myself, but I’ve heard there’s a few over there. Granted, they’re not in positions of great power—those are still left to the men-folk, apparently—but it’s a start.
And for gay characters, Blizzard did actually put in a tribute for a guildie of mine, Ghemit the Hunter. His late husband, known as Elloric in-game, has an NPC, which isn’t the sort of action taken by a bigoted company.
Let me be clear: some of the things that Rob Pardo and Dustin Browder said are troubling. We’ve seen in the past by the words of Chris Metzen and his “boys’ trip” comment for Warlords of Draenor that again, they’re not really thinking about this stuff. And even worse were the homophobic remarks by the band LVL 90 ETC in a video that Blizzard had shown at Blizzcon really was hurtful.
Blizzard as a company has a clear pattern of ignorance. Time and time again, that ignorance has played out resulting in hurt and annoyed customers, and at what point do we have to stop pointing it out and just start voting with our feet and dollars? I’m not sure I’m at that point myself, especially given that there aren’t that many companies out there that are any better than Blizzard yet, just less vocal and/or smaller. But I don’t blame folks who decide that this was the straw that broke their back.
At the same time, it’s not terribly hard to make this right. I’m not asking for quests about women’s suffrage, or the Stonewall riots. I’m just asking that we have some sort of respectful representation in-game. Heck, it can even be a villain for all I care. Some dude trying to take over the world, oh, and footnote, his husband died so that’s why he’s so angry. Or more ladies who aren’t scantily-clad and have positions of power. You don’t need to convert all of your characters into nuns, because there are women out there who do like to dress sexily because it empowers them, rather than the sole purpose of making themselves the object of someone else’s desire.
To write off the issue as some developers happen to like comic books and so portray women like they do in comics, or to say it’s difficult because you have no diversity in the workplace are excuses, and not great ones. I sincerely hope they’re actively looking to fix that, because they have the power to do just that, and to not do it just perpetuates that ignorance and makes it willful, as well.
This isn’t an insurmountable problem. It’s not even that hard to fix. All it takes is to think about it, just a little.