Nov 01


Inclusivity in Choice of Games

Posted by: Becky Slitt | Comments (1)

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

Choice of Games is strongly committed to inclusivity. Our audience includes people of many different genders, races, orientations, abilities, ethnicities, and life experiences. We want our games to immerse readers in a world that shows the same diversity, and for people from all backgrounds to see themselves fully reflected in that world.

Therefore, in our contest, inclusivity is worth 10% of the score. When we assess whether a game is inclusive, these are the criteria we use:

  • Do the characters reflect the full diversity of the society in which the game is set?
  • Are all types of people (especially groups traditionally underrepresented in media) treated respectfully and non-stereotypically?
  • If there is romance in the game, are there equally satisfying romance options regardless of the player character’s orientation?

At minimum, if the PC’s gender is stated, then the PC must be playable as male or female. If there is romance in the story, the PC must be playable as gay or straight. Games which do not offer this do not simply receive a score of 0 for inclusivity, they aren’t eligible to be published as Choice of Games titles.

For the last criterion – how to offer good options for romanceable characters – our Author Guidelines give a lot of details and examples. So this blog post will focus on the other two points. We’ll discuss what those criteria mean, give you some best practices for creating an inclusive world, and offer some resources that will help you through your writing process.

Learning how to write inclusively is an ongoing process. We can’t possibly teach you everything there is to know about it, or cover every single detail, in a single blog post. What we hope to do here is to give you some starting points for your own learning process and some tips for how to approach the task. Keep reading; keep learning; keep listening.

Inclusive Environments

Choice of Games titles give the player a first-person perspective within the story. The PC always takes action as “I,” and the narration always addresses the PC as “you.” It’s what makes our stories feel so immediate and immersive: what’s happening to the PC is happening to you.

That means that many players like to construct PCs that match their real-world selves: the same gender, orientation, appearance, etc.  Therefore, we want to make sure that as many people as possible can see themselves in the main character. One way to do this is to include as wide a range of options as possible for the PC’s fundamental character traits. Offer names and backgrounds that make it clear that the PC can have many different potential ethnicities, races, and origins. Think outside traditional binaries of gender and orientation. ChoiceScript’s method of handling pronoun variables makes it very easy to add more options. So for gender, include the option for the PC to be nonbinary, genderqueer, genderfluid, transgender, etc. For orientation, include the option for the PC to be bisexual, asexual, aromantic, etc.

But being inclusive means more than having diverse options for the PC alone: it means having that diversity fully integrated into the world where the story is set.

To achieve this, you’ll have to think very carefully about some things that you might usually consider to be “neutral” or “default”. As Chuck Wendig recently said, “not being inclusive is also a political choice” – or, to put it another way, as Foz Meadows wrote, “default narrative settings are not apolitical.” What we consider “defaults” actually reflect deeply embedded structures of power and politics – for instance, the idea that a white character is “neutral” and characters of any other race need a “reason” to be in the story. Make sure that you’re mixing up your defaults, and including diversity in your minor NPCs as well.

Historical settings, both in the real world and in historically-flavored fantasy worlds, are especially susceptible to misconceptions. Kameron Hurley has written very eloquently about how difficult it is to overcome these preconceived ideas. Medieval Europe in particular was much more diverse and egalitarian than it’s often depicted as being. See the end of this blog post for some resources that will help you build an accurate medieval or medieval-fantasy setting.

So, if you’ve got a sword-and-sorcery fantasy game in which the PC is a knight, and the PC can be of any gender, that’s a good first step. But if all the NPC knights are men, then that’s not really inclusive. Likewise, if you include romance in your game and leave open the possibility for the PC to have a romantic partner of the same gender, that’s a good first step – but if all the other relationships that you depict are straight couples, then that’s not really inclusive. The NPCs should represent the same wide range of genders, orientations, ethnicities, abilities, etc. as the PC.

You don’t have to make this a major plot point; in fact, it’s usually more inclusive to not make a big deal about it. Normalizing diversity communicates to the player that the PC is part of a world that contains many other people like them – in other words, showing the player that the PC belongs in that world and isn’t an exception.

There are subtler ways to promote inclusivity beyond the types of people that fill a story. The language that we use communicates ideas about the world and its power dynamics.

Countless casual phrases perpetuate destructive stereotypes. “Man up” implies that only men are strong. Using “crying like a girl” as an insult implies that crying shows weakness, that girls are weak – and therefore, that girls are inferior. “Psycho” demeans people with mental illnesses. Describing a disabled person as “confined to a wheelchair” implies that wheelchairs are a punishment, when many wheelchair users say that wheelchairs give them more freedom and flexibility than they would otherwise have. Like those “default narrative settings” mentioned above, these phrases are so deeply embedded in our common language usage that many people don’t even realize the potential hurt that they can cause, or how they reinforce stereotypes. Being aware of the phrases you use can help you create a more inclusive environment within your game.

At the end of this post, you can find some links to useful websites that will help you fine-tune your prose to make sure that you’re using the most inclusive language possible.

Best Practices

With all of this in mind, here are some ways to work towards an inclusive environment for your game. Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list; no single list can be! These are some starting points for your thought and research.

  • Think about the structures of power in the gameworld: think carefully about who’s in power and why, and about what kinds of people you place in positions of leadership. Are all the assertive leaders men and all the nurturers women? If so, you should mix things up.
  • Be aware of the tropes in fiction that perpetuate stereotypes or destructive patterns of power. For example, don’t give tragic endings to gay couples, or magically cure a disability. Even “good” stereotypes can be harmful in that they limit our perception of what certain people can do, and what roles they can play in the world: don’t make your only Asian character a math genius or martial-arts expert; and don’t make your only black character a giver of folksy knowledge, or only there to assist a white character.
  • Pay attention to the way you construct scenes. Try switching around the genders or races of the characters: does the dialogue still feel authentic? Does the switch reveal some unconscious assumptions? If a man is chasing another man down a dark alley, it’s a standard action scene, but if a man is chasing a woman down a dark alley, then the scene acquires a very different kind of fear and tension.
  • Pay attention to the way you describe NPCs. Make sure that when you’re “looking” with the PC’s eyes, you don’t assume what the PC will find attractive or not. Make sure that you don’t assume that one race or gender is the default and another is “exotic” or “different.”
  • Get a diverse group of beta readers. The more first-person perspectives you can get on your writing, the better information you’ll have about how your audience will respond to your work. You may even want to consider getting an expert reader or sensitivity reader for some more targeted feedback about best practices for representing specific groups of people.
  • Listen to your feedback. If a reader alerts you to a problem, look closely at that problem and see what you can do to fix it. If you’ve made a mistake, apologize, fix it, learn from it, and do better next time.
  • If you do choose to include discrimination in your game, either because of the historical setting or to create narrative drama, handle it with respect and care. Understand that discrimination is something that many players have experienced in their real lives. Seeing it represented in a game can make that game feel more authentic, but it can also stir up painful memories and emotions. Take it seriously, don’t treat it lightly, and be considerate of the players’ experiences.

Further Reading

These are some useful starting points for your research about how to write inclusively. There are many many more resources out there on the internet!

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