Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
The stereotype of a video game geek is a teenage boy lost in a game for hours a day, or perhaps a middle-aged man in his basement. In reality, gaming fans are much more diverse: women now make up almost half of all players, and a growing number of minorities identify as gamers. But most games don’t reflect this diversity in their content. Women are often portrayed as objects and minorities as villains. Kojo gets perspectives from three experts about the state of diversity in the video game industry.
- Kristin Bezio Professor, leadership studies, University of Richmond.
- M. H. Williams Staff writer, US Gamer
- Larry Frum Video game writer, CNN
- Kate Flack Lead designer, Mythic Entertainment
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. You might have thought it was only teenage boys losing hours of their lives playing video games like Super Mario or just middle aged men in dark basements plugged into Call Of Duty. But, today, it's not easy to pinpoint your typical gamer. As the variety of video games available explodes far beyond Grand Theft Auto and World of Warcraft, people from all different backgrounds are calling themselves gamers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThey're men, they're women, young and old, and of all racial backgrounds. It's raising questions about what gaming culture is, and whether it can escape its reputation as a predominantly white male world. Joining us to discuss this is Kate Flack. She is Lead Designer at Mythic Entertainment, a video game developer in Fairfax, Virginia. Kate Flack, thank you for joining us.
MS. KATE FLACKThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Mike Williams. He is a video game critic for US Gamer. Mike Williams, thank you for joining us.
MR. M.H. WILLIAMSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Larry Frum covers video games and gaming technology for CNN. Larry, a pleasure to have you here.
MR. LARRY FRUMAlso glad to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. Just pick up the phone. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. What draws you to video games? What kinds of games do you play? How do you think they relate to your values and to your world view? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow using the hashtag, TechTuesday. Larry Frum, many of us have preconceived notions of what a gamer looks like, and what it means to be part of gaming culture.
NNAMDIBut recent data, who's actually playing these games, is calling a lot of our stereotypes and clichés about videogames into question, with more women, more minorities taking part. What does the landscape of gaming look like today?
FRUMIt's a very -- I would say that the landscape of gaming really hasn't changed a whole lot, but what has changed is peoples' acceptance of being a gamer. Or even acknowledging within themselves that they're gamers. Some of the recent data I wrote an article on last fall suggested that 46 percent of gamers are now women. But my contention has always been those women have always been there, they've just never identified themselves as gamers. And I think the landscape of gaming itself is what's allowing people to come out and say, I'm a gamer.
FRUMI play games, whether it's on your iPhone or on your console or on your PC. Those kinds of people, whether other people want to believe them or not, they think they're gamers. They're gamers.
NNAMDIMike Williams, your take on the same question. How, if at all, the gaming world has changed? Does this mean that you no longer have to describe yourself as black and wearing glasses because there are so many others like you?
WILLIAMSThere are a number of others like me, especially when you're looking into certain communities such as Fighting Game Community, which is a competitive scene, there's a lot more women. There's a lot more black males. Black women. A lot of people from a bunch of different backgrounds that are getting in and being able to play. And that's because the platforms that they're playing on are a lot more available to others. More people have computers, more people have cell phones, tablets. They're able to jump on the internet and jump in and just play a game.
WILLIAMSSo, it's become a lot easier than it was before.
NNAMDIKate Flack, same question to you. What does the gaming world look like from your perspective?
FLACKWell, I like some of Larry's points, but I kind of want to challenge you on a couple of them.
FLACKYou know, I think gaming is changing tremendously at the moment, and that's due to technology. Previously, if you wanted to play really high end, what we call triple A, games, you needed a really good computer or a console. And it was always this kind of specialist hardware. Now, with the rise of smart phones, we're seeing so many more people having access to gaming. You know, my mom plays games. She never would have done that before. She would never sit down with an Xbox, but she'll sit there with her phone and play Words With Friends, or Bejeweled or what have you.
FLACKAnd so, as your seeing this massive audience of people, and to put this into context, there's millions of consoles out there. There's billions of phones out there. The audience is huge. You know, we're starting to see more and more people becoming included, because it's becoming more and more mass market and when you have mass market, you start to segment and you start to try to appeal to different groups. So, you know, female gaming, all sorts of inclusion is starting to come in now, and I think it's -- the pace of change is impressive and I'm glad to be part of it.
FRUMNo, I would agree with you that technology plays a big part in who is gaming, but I think when we start looking at the data that we're talking about, I think it's a matter of peoples' inner impressions of themselves. I mean, you say your mom -- my mom games. My mom plays Facebook games. Your mom plays Facebook games. But my mom would never call herself a gamer if somebody asked her that.
FLACKRight. I see what you're saying.
FRUMYeah. I think the idea...
NNAMDII didn't call myself a gamer until today when I realized that Angry Birds counts.
FRUMIt all counts, and that's the trick of it all is that we're all playing games, whether we really realize it or not. When we go to McDonald's and play the Monopoly game, you know, for free fries or something like that, that's a game, but that's not what we consider to be gaming. But we're talking about mobile games. We're talking about console games, PC games. The technology has made gaming available to more people, and more people are accepting of themselves as being gamers and identifying themselves as gamers.
NNAMDIIn as way, that's the next question I was gonna ask, starting with you, Mike. When a lot of us think of video games, the first examples that come to mind are often titles like, World of Warcraft or Call of Duty, but with hundreds of games being released each year, the games that are best known in pop culture now make up just a tiny slice of the market. What is it about games coming out today that's drawing a wider demographic?
WILLIAMSI think because people can play games from a number of different perspectives, and they can get a number of different experiences now. I mean, we still have games like Call of Duty. We still, of course, have World of Warcraft. But there are also games such as Papers Please, which is about, essentially, you being an immigration worker. There's games like Gone Home that put you in the shoes of a girl trying to find out what happened to her family.
WILLIAMSThere's even web games, such as Unmanned, that have you as a drone operator. And these are a bunch of different perspectives and different ideas out there that people can partake in and be a part of. So, I know Kate is going to bring this up. It's like, you know, movies and TV. Call of Duty and games like that will always exist, much like there will probably always be Avengers or Transformers films. But there's also going to be games that are from a more artistic bent, from a more personal bent.
WILLIAMSAnd they're going to be treated like movies in the Cannes Film Festival or even just movies that a director does by himself on YouTube.
NNAMDIGames are coming up now with what seems to be more interesting storylines, and according to a report, some women have pointed to a rise in the number of games with complex themes and more scenarios that call for decision making, but not necessarily brute force.
FRUMAnd that's drawing in women, because they have the -- they don't have to feel like they're all roided up or testosteroned up to play a video game. And we were talking earlier about a game that Kate was working on that had a male protagonist, and that's what people focused on, even though the majority of the characters in the game were female, and it was a female audience. But the idea that games aren't just about go shoot the bad guy are appealing to more people, not just women and not just, you know, the college student anymore.
FRUMIt's people who want to think through games. It's people who want to challenge themselves mentally with a game. And the idea that, and Mike hit on it, there are many ways that people can play the games. There are many ways that people can get games now. I mean, publishing has become more -- easier than ever before. And that's where I think we're seeing a lot of the independent titles, that you mentioned, are garnering a lot of support because they don't need the big money backing anymore.
FRUMAnd they can get out there to the public and a public that wants that kind of gaming. It's exciting.
NNAMDIKate, a lot of these games are taking players through narratives exploring stories as complex as the 1979 Iranian Revolution. What do you think people are trying to learn or experience in video games today, and why does it seem that women are attracted to the more complex stories?
FLACKWell, it's certainly true. You know, we're seeing some wonderful and sophisticated storytelling happening nowadays. You know, Bioware, you know, they're a company that's very well known for having intricate plots, great character interaction, wonderful cut scenes, and focusing on stories of romance, stories of heroism, and they've proven to be very popular. I think another thing that games do is they -- sometimes they don't have a narrative and they allow you to place your own narrative in there.
FLACK"The Sims," for example, is a game that's -- I mean, it's essentially a virtual doll's house. And we see user data coming back from people saying that they use this game in different ways. Some of them use it to create their perfect dream house. Others use it to simulate the family that they no longer have, because their parents are divorced. Some people use it to create a family that they could never have because they're infertile. Games actually allow people to experience things, go places and have feelings they never would have in a novel or, you know, anything that has a kind of linear narrative.
FLACKAnd I think that's really interesting. You know, I'd love to work in that sort of field, if I, you know, in the future.
FRUMWouldn't we all?
WILLIAMSAnd I will say part of the categorization is that, you know, women like, you know, complex games, but it's not that men like one...
NNAMDIAnd if you're smarter than we are. Yeah.
WILLIAMSYeah. It's not like men like one style of game and women like other styles of game. It's just for a long time, at least, in the triple A space, we catered to specific style. And now people are reaching out. It's not like only women played Gone Home, or any of these other games. Or only military people played Unmanned. It's a bunch of different people being pulled in a bunch of different directions and finding out that there's more out there than just one style of game.
NNAMDIMike Williams. He's a video game critic for US Gamer. He joins us in studio on this Tech Tuesday conversation on the new gaming culture with Kate Flack, Lead Designer at Mythic Entertainment. That's a video game developer in Fairfax, Virginia. And Larry Frum covers video games and gaming technology for CNN. You can call us at 800-433-8850. What do you consider a video game in the first place? Is Candy Crush as much a video game as, say, Call of Duty, in your view?
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Let's go to Nicole in Olney, Maryland. Nicole, you're on the air. Go ahead, please. Don your headphones, Kate and Mike. Nicole, it's your turn.
NICOLEHi. Hi. I'm a 35-year-old black woman and I have always identified myself, since about the age of nine, as a gamer.
NICOLEI started out with a Nintendo. Yes. When they first came out, my father's one of the dads who spent the night at the Toys 'R Us on Rossvale Pike to get two of them, for me and my stepsister. And my mother and him weren't speaking at the time, and she had also gotten me one, because they both wanted to get me the first gift. And Christmas morning, I saw those two boxes sitting there, and I almost had a heart attack. And I knew, I had two Nintendos, and I just freaked out. It was the best day of my life.
NNAMDIYou know, Mike Williams, how have you seen the racial demographic of gamers change in the years since you've been involved? Nicole might still be, somewhat, the exception to the rule, however, huh? Not anymore.
WILLIAMSWhen you go to certain events, and I think sometimes, when the media talks about gamer culture, they go to specific events like E3 or PAX, and they see maybe a number of white males. But even at those events, you're starting to see more women, more minorities, more people of a bunch of different backgrounds. There's definitely more people in the LGBT community who are out there, and they have their voices, and they have things that they wanna say, I mean, we love games.
NNAMDILarry, why do you think more people of different races, whether they're Black, Asian or Hispanic, might not have been playing video games before, but are identifying as gamers today?
FRUMI think it goes back to what my initial point is that they've always been playing games. They just had been playing them within their own circle of friends or their own circle of culture, and never really ventured out to the big events like an E3 or like one of the competitive gaming scenes that you often see is predominantly white male. But I think more and more, today, we're finding that not only games appealing to more people, and drawing them out, but the people themselves feel like, I'm a gamer. I'm part of a bigger culture.
FRUMI'm a part -- I'm not just a black male, gay, who's playing a game. I'm a gamer, and I'm part of that culture now.
NNAMDINicole, you get the last word in this segment. Does that mean you are no longer feeling as lonely as you used to feel?
NICOLEWell, I would feel lonely, a little bit, but I had a lot of girlfriends, and we would all sit around after school, and this is what we did. And it surpassed a lot of races, like, that I grew up in Olney. So, I had Latina girlfriends and white girlfriends and we were all into it. And we also played this with our guy friends, so maybe we were the exception at the time, but I saw a lot of people that, you know, we -- it was very much a part of my growing up. My kids play it now. I'm still very much a big Zelda and Nintendo fan, and we're having a big discussion as to whether or not to bring out an Xbox into our home. That's the big thing now, so.
NNAMDINicole, thank you very much for your call. First Olney, then the world. 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We're gonna be taking a short break, but you can still call. You can also shoot us an email to email@example.com or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our "Tech Tuesday" discussion on the new gaming culture. We're talking with Kate Flack, Lead Designer at Mythic Entertainment. That's a video game developer in Fairfax, Virginia. Mike Williams is a video game critic for US Gamer, and Larry Frum covers video games and gaming technology for CNN. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question or make a comment there. Or simply shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 800-433-8850. Kate, when you started making games, you were the only one, it is my understanding, on the creative side.
NNAMDIHow have you seen the video game industry change in that respect? And how do you think it has influenced the games that we're seeing released today?
FLACKThat's a great question. I've been making games for about 12 years now. All sorts of different games, from, you know, text based online MUDs, early on, to, you know, pen and paper games to triple A MMOs to now making mobile games. And, you know, I've seen more female developers coming in, and I think it's healthy for several reasons. First of all, it's good for the teams to have multiple perspectives. You know, there are some brain differences between the way that men and women think and process information.
FLACKFor example, maps. And so, if you have a female perspective saying, look, this map is not clear to me. It may be completely clear to you with your kind of, you know, your male brain, but it makes no sense to me. That makes the game more accessible for more gamers. So, you know, that's healthy. Women tend to be more collaborative in the office, as well, which also just helps, you know, things get made smoother with less arguments. And, you know, it's always good to have more perspectives and more ways of thinking about the games.
FLACKIt, you know, inspires you. It draws you on. And, you know, there are women, you know, my age, in the industry, but there are a lot of 20 something women who grew up playing games. And I think in the next 15 years or so, you're gonna see young girls who are currently playing Candy Crush or whatever, on their phone, getting into making video games. So, I think it's inevitable that we're gonna see more and more women, you know, thinking, aspiring to making video games, because more women are being exposed to them.
NNAMDIWell, a 2013 study found that women now make up just about half of all self identified gamers. Are more women actually playing today, or are more women simply identifying with gaming culture, Larry?
FRUMI think they're just identifying. I think it's a matter of -- and something, you know, we don't -- it's kind of the dark shadow of gaming is something that has been keeping women back, and that's the, you know, abuse that women take when they do come out and say, I'm a gamer. Or start to play an online game. Or attend an event. I mean, I think we've all read about it or experienced it or seen it in one form or another, and it -- but I think that women are starting to feel more empowered now, so that they are saying, hey, this is happening to me, to pay attention. And more people are paying attention.
FRUMTherefore, more women are coming out and saying, oh, it's now -- I feel comfortable coming out and saying that I'm a gamer now. I think it's exciting. I think the changing way that gamers are making games today is helping develop that a lot and to get more women playing games.
WILLIAMSI'd like to say that I also think that the internet has played a large part in people identifying as gamers. Because before, without the internet, you're playing a game and you think, maybe I'm the only, you know, woman playing this game. Maybe I'm the only gay person playing this game. And with the internet, you can -- you have people going out into communities and saying, oh hey, there are other people like me. There are other people who are passionate about games. There are other people who wanna make games.
WILLIAMSThere are other people who want to see different things from games. And I think that's part of the change that you're starting to see. So, I mean, the internet allows them to sort of wade into the pool instead of being dropped into an event like PAX without any training wheels or anything.
NNAMDIIf you've called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls, but you raised the issue of the internet allowing people to have greater access. It also allows people to have great access to other human beings. There is this notion that the gamer is somebody who's sitting there alone, by himself, or herself, and that there is a sense of isolation. But as, Kate, you were pointing out during the break, this is now a worldwide phenomenon, so you can be sitting in your basement by yourself, but you're really socializing with people, presumably, all over the world.
FLACKThat's right. I mean, you know, if you're playing a massively multiplayer game, very often you're having to manage very complicated social, you know, relationships. You've gotta get 24 people together, at a set time, in order to go and take down the dragon boss. You've got all the drama that goes on with running a guild. You've got romance, you've got all sorts of things going on. So to think that just because you're looking at a computer, and you're not talking face to face with people, some of the online interactions you can have can be tremendously rewarding.
FLACKI know children that exist on this earth because their parents met in a video game. That's lovely. That's glorious.
FRUMI think what's happening, and I agree with Kate, I mean, there's -- relationships are built, not just from the face to face that we, you know, we assume from TV Hollywood movies, but, I mean, when I'm sitting playing a game, and I don't sit in my basement. I sit in my living room. And it's well lit, you know, and I have cats and, you know, cushions, and everything else.
FRUMYeah. Just saying. But when I'm playing, it doesn't matter where they're from. I'm having a good time with this group of people. And then I find out later, oh, you're from Australia? Well, that's cool. I know this guy from Australia, or I know this person from Europe. Or I know this woman from Africa. It's just one of those things where you play the game first, and then you find out how many other people are out there that share your interests and share your passion for what is ultimately just entertainment for us all.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. We'll start with Gigi in Rockville, Maryland. Gigi, your turn.
GIGIHi Kojo. I've been listening to your show every day. You brighten my day everyday and I just want to thank you. I'm a 59-year-old woman, and I'm a gamer. I can't tell you the amount of money -- I've spent thousands on PC games, and I have been to outer space, I've been to different lands, I've learned about the Hope Diamond. I mean, it has just -- it's the most fun thing I can think of to do, and I literally feel like I'm addicted to it, but I really do love the gaming. And the new games that are coming out are a little fast for me, cause of the shooters and all of that kind of stuff.
GIGII can't keep up with it. But, the other games that take you to different lands, to different worlds, it's just amazing. And the graphics are just so incredibly beautiful. I just wanted to throw my two cents in there. I've been gaming...
NNAMDIWell, apparently, you've been throwing a lot more than two cents into games, Gigi. As a test of whether or not you are addicted, why don't you reveal to us just how much money you’ve spent on games over the years?
GIGIOh my God. I'm trying to think. It's probably in the thousands, because I've been playing for 30 years now. So, I...
NNAMDIAnd still enjoying it?
GIGIYes, sir. Every day.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gigi.
GIGIThank you. Bye bye.
NNAMDINot long ago, in mainstream pop culture, people who played video games were seen as geeky or perhaps out of touch with reality. What do you think is changing about the perception of video games and gaming culture among people who never used to consider themselves gamers, Mike?
WILLIAMSI think that's not just necessarily a gaming thing. I think, largely, pop culture, geek culture has become pop culture, so you're seeing a lot more creators in film, television and even games who share a common, you know, culture of, like, Star Trek, maybe Star Wars, or comics. Or video games. And that entire geek culture has just become our pop culture. This is what everyone sees now. So, it's not as much of a stigma, because everybody does it. I mean, everyone plays games.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Andrea who says, how can -- is gaming being used to drive interest in STEM education for girls and young women? And I'd like to follow up with a question along the same lines, I think, from Christian. Christian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISTIANOh, thank you. Well, I'm 48. During my time when I was a teenager, we had Atari. That was like incredible for us, but difficult to get. Now, gaming is everywhere. You can play on the internet, on your cell phone. Also, actually I have my Wii where I can play tennis. My son killing aliens and terrorists on his Xbox and my daughter is playing fitness on her Wii. But my question is, there's an experience, like, when you can, for example, for students to know a little a little bit about immigrant's American history.
CHRISTIANBeing part of the founding fathers and writing the Constitution or the creator of independence, or fighting against the British army. Is there such an experience or has nobody tried that and why?
NNAMDIChristian, hold that thought for a second, because I'd like now to introduce you to Kristin Bezio. She is a Professor of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She's also a gaming critic for a blog called "The Learned Fan Girl." She joins us by phone from Richmond. Kristin Bezio, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. KRISTIN BEZIOThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIDid you hear Christian's question? Would you care to respond?
BEZIOSure. I did hear Christian's question, and I've very much been enjoying the conversation so far. I actually do use games to teach, and I use games to talk about both American history and world history and major issues that are confronting us, sort of across the globe. I do know that there are games that are very conscious about making sure that they represent history accurately. One of the first ones that comes to mind is actually Assassin's Creed.
BEZIOI used to live in the city of Boston, and Assassin's Creed 3 is set in colonial Boston. And I didn't need to use the mini map, because it's so accurate to the way that the city's laid out -- I could, I went to my old work and climbed on it, and then stood on the roof. Cause there is a lot that games can offer.
NNAMDIOh, I'm sorry. I hope I didn't cut you off, Kristin.
CHRISTIANNo, I'm here.
NNAMDIOh, you're right there?
NNAMDINo, I hope I didn't cut Kristin off. I've got Christian on, and Kristin was responding to Christian. Now, is everybody confused enough? Christian, was that response from Kristin appropriate? Oh.
CHRISTIANActually, I have played Assassin's Creed, and actually, there is one that is on Washington, D.C. and we visited, with my son, some places over there. But you have to kill people. I mean, there's nothing more peaceful that we can interact with?
FLACKWell, you might consider looking at some real time strategy games. There's a lot of them that simulate, you know, ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, how these empires got started and you can completely play through these games using peaceful diplomacy, researching history, researching science. You can play these games in a non-violent way, so maybe that's something you can look at with your son.
FRUMAnd even the Smithsonian, now, is getting involved in gaming. They've just recently, I believe, released a game centered around the Hope Diamond. And so, educational facilities themselves, and I'm sure -- I'm hoping we'll get our educator back. Educators themselves, I know, Civilization, the series Civilization is used in schools to teach about history, about world history, and about how cultures develop and things like that. So, it is becoming more and more prevalent in the educational area, because kids are growing up playing games, so that's how they're used to learning.
FRUMThat's how they're getting -- that's how they're used to getting their information.
NNAMDIKristin Bezio is a Professor of Leadership Studies. You've looked at the relationship between society and different media, like video games. In this discussion, we've heard that women are playing a lot more video games and buying a lot more of them also. But how likely is it that their favorite games will include a female protagonist?
BEZIOBased on my experience, it is becoming more likely. One of the things that has been happening in many of the more recent, especially triple A titles, is the inclusion of either a female protagonist as a choice. So, some of the series that I play in, Kate had mentioned Bioware as a major company earlier, is a lot of their games offer the player the choice of whether they want the protagonist to be male or female. And so that's becoming increasingly more popular.
BEZIOOr you see something where the Gears of War series has multiple playable characters, some of which are female, some of which are male, some of which are characters of color. They have both Hispanic and African American characters in the most recent couple of Gears of War games. But you are also seeing more games that offer female protagonists. But, you know, to support the first caller's love for Nintendo, Nintendo's Metroid series has had a female protagonist for years. Samus Aran is a female character.
BEZIOAnd so, it isn't that there aren't any. It's just that they are becoming, now, more common.
FRUMYeah, but how long did it take before we found out she was female? I mean...
FRUMAnd that was because of the culture of gaming, at that time, was centered around young boys. Was centered around the male perspective of being the protagonist. And then when it was revealed that Samus was a female, it was like, oh my God, and so many peoples' eyes were opened at that point that, I've been playing a girl all this time.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Do you think video games today do a good job of reflecting their widening audience or even society as a whole? 800-433-8850 or shoot us an email to email@example.com. Kristin, I'll start with you on this question, but it's for anybody else who also cares to respond. When Pac-Man created a female character, she had a bow on her head. Of course, video game graphics have come a long way since those days, but looking at the depictions of women in games today, do you think there's a right way and a wrong way to think about how to craft a female character?
BEZIOI think there is a more realistic way and a more sexist, to be honest, fantasy way of creating female characters. I think that as a feminist critic, and as a gamer, I am a horrible gamer, but I do play all the time, I'm looking for characters that are realistic. And there are games out there like the Mass Effect series, and even like the most recent Tomb Raider where the clothing that the characters wear is appropriate, even if occasionally tight. But, then you have games like Warface or even in World of Warcraft, where the clothing that female characters wear is wildly unrealistic.
BEZIOAnd would be completely inappropriate in an actual situation. And I think that's where the problem comes up most often.
FLACKWell. So, this is a thorny issue.
NNAMDIWhere should I start?
FLACKSo, sometimes, when you're designing a character for a video game, there are just certain technical restraints that you need. If you have a tiny, tiny character on the screen, for example, in a mobile game, you need to be able to communicate the gender of that character quickly, and many people take the shortcut of put a pink bow on it. Because it's a common cultural signal that everyone understands and, you know, you don't have the number of pixels to depict someone wearing something reasonable. So, you know, some of the perpetuation of these things is to do with, you know, some art director somewhere going, yeah, let's make her really sexy, but some of it is just, you know, some of the restraints of the medium.
FLACKSo, you know, as a game maker, I'm always aware that there's two sides to the story, much as I'd like characters wearing reasonable armor that doesn't seem to be, you know, anti-gravity or whatever. So I kind of see both sides.
NNAMDIWhat are your thoughts on this, Mike?
WILLIAMSThere's sometimes some pushback online from people coming in and saying, hey, we want games to have a specific representation for men and women, for what are fictional characters and I really think that we just want more representation, just more options. It doesn't necessary mean that the burly man or the scantily clad women have to go away completely, but why don't you switch it up?
WILLIAMSScantily clad men, burly women. That's not…
FRUMMike, you're frightening me. Stop it.
WILLIAMSThat's not, like, even from a moral perspective. That's just from an entertainment perspective. It's boring to see the same thing over and over again.
NNAMDIWell, Larry, calls for more diversity have been met with resistance from some longtime gamers. Articles on that topic can garner hundreds of angry comments asking why games should change their storylines just to be more inclusive. How willing are long time gamers to welcome new kinds of people into their communities?
FRUMIt's just like every community, I think. I think you're going to have some hardcore people who think that the only gamer is somebody who sits down and plays Call of Duty or Battlefield all the time and spends hours and hours and then you're going to have the moderate people who play those kinds of games, but also are willing to include people who play, you know, Pacman or whatever, the softer games, to include in their community.
FRUMI think what's really happening now is the idea of being a gamer -- and I think somebody touched on it earlier. I think maybe it was you, Mike, that the idea of being a gamer is so enriched in our pop culture now and it's in TVs and it's in movies and if -- I'm not going to be the person to tell Vin Diesel, who plays Dungeons and Dragons, that he's not a gamer and he's not willing to come to my game because he doesn't fit the stereotype.
FRUMYou know, it's out there. It's part of our overall culture now and I think that that's played a great part in getting people to accept more and more when somebody says, I'm a gamer, they don't look at you with disdain anymore. They're just like, oh, that's nice.
NNAMDISpeaking of what's part of our overall culture, Jose in Gaithersburg, Maryland, wants to take it up a notch. Jose, your turn.
JOSEYes, hi. I wanted to know if the mainstream games, the really even the very popular ones will be inclusive of transgender roles in terms of the protagonists or transgender characters or maybe gender neutral as well as diverse characters, if there were gonna be Latino or Asian or something like that.
NNAMDIKristin Bezio, I'll put this one to you.
BEZIOI think they will be. I don't think they're all ready to go there yet. A lot of games that do allow for player customization, the new Call of Duty: Ghosts has a little bit of that for the Xbox One, but a lot of, again, the Bioware games allow you to customize skin tone and facial features so that you can include as your avatar whatever components of ethnicity or gender you prefer.
BEZIOBut it doesn't really allow for anything beyond the binary male or female just yet. There is sexuality customization in a lot of those games, but I think we're moving to a place where transgender will become an option because it is such a part of the conversation on the critical side of things now.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on the new gaming culture. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you think it's important for developers to include more women and minorities in the storylines of popular video games? You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow using #TechTuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. It's Tech Tuesday. We're discussing the new gaming culture with Kate Flack, lead gaming designer at Mythic Entertainment, a video game developer in Fairfax, Virginia, Mike Williams is a video game critic for US Gamer, Larry Frum covers video games and gaming technology for CNN and Kristin Bezio is a professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a gaming critic for a blog called the Learned Fan Girl. 800-433-8850 is the number to call if you'd like to join the conversation.
NNAMDIIf the phone lines are busy, send us an email to email@example.com. Kristin, one of the more prominent games with a leading female character is Tomb Raider. You mentioned it earlier. And while Tomb Raider's history has been fraught with feminist criticisms, her latest reboot has been praised by people like, well, you, Kristin. Why do you think she could be an example of the kind of female characters women might want to see in video games?
BEZIOI think there are a couple of things going on with Tomb Raider and, you know, one of the most important things is that the new Tomb Raider was created by a woman. The company there used a female voice to create her or to recreate her and so I think that had a really remarkable impact on the new Lara Croft versus the old one. And just in terms of in a physical model, she is more proportional, let's say, and her abilities in the game are much more centered on her intelligence and her capacity to overcome problems, rather than just pointing her guns at things and shooting and needing to be rescued.
BEZIOSo I think there's a lot in terms of just making her a real human being that has made her a much more powerful feminist figure.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that she has a notably down-sized bosom and upgraded intellect. Does that make a difference to you at all, Mike William?
WILLIAMSI actually wouldn’t say she has an upgraded intellect. I'd say Lara Croft, even the classic character, was reasonably intelligent. I do appreciate the more realistic character design of the new Tomb Raider. I enjoyed the Uncharted games which were influenced by the original Tomb Raider and then this Tomb Raider is influenced by Uncharted.
WILLIAMSAnd this Lara is a more nuanced character and a lot of it -- there's not even romance in the game unless you count the real connection between her and her friend who she tries to save throughout most of the game and I thought that worked really well in defining Lara outside of some of the ways female characters can get defined in games.
FLACKI actually didn't enjoy Tomb Raider at all. First of all, just from a game play point of view, I found lots of it very frustrating. Lots of quick time events. The balance of the game I didn't enjoy. I also felt that, you know, Lara -- it almost went too far in the other direction. Lara gets beaten up a lot. The violence that -- the wounding that happens to her is, like, almost seems over gratuitous. It's a bit like "Kill Bill" the movie in that way.
FLACKAnd, you know, I also thought some of the cut scenes, particularly the death scenes, had some kind of disturbing undertones of, you know, what happens when we cut -- fade to black when she's been grabbed by a guard. You know, there was some sort of sexual undertones there that I found uncomfortable to watch. So I didn't actually enjoy it, but I like the fact that, you know, it's being celebrated as a, you know, a new way to represent women in gaming.
FLACKIt just wasn't for me.
FRUMI kind of agree with both Mike and Kate on this one. I mean, it was a new representation for Lara, which I think was needed before she became a complete caricature of what she could've been. But I also agree with Kate that the game play itself and her progression through that game play, it's something that I particularly felt like she plays this weak player in the very beginning.
FRUMShe's very helpless. She's always asking for help, but yet, she does these amazing things, like scaling a downed plane that's hanging off of a cliff all the while thinking, oh, my gosh, I don't know if I can do this. It's that depiction of strength in body, but weakness in mind that I really found disturbing as a player because it just didn't feel right.
NNAMDIThat's the other thing we know about gamers, highly opinionated, wouldn't you say? Here is Carolyn in Centerville, Virginia. Carolyn, your turn.
CAROLYNThank you, Kojo. My question is this, I'm in my 60s. I've never played games, except, you know, Pacman back in the '70s and my eye-hand coordination is just not like somebody who has been playing since they were teenagers. So if I wanted to start, what kind of system would I start with, what kind of game would I start with?
NNAMDIAny advice, Kristin Bezio?
BEZIOI started my mom with Plants Vs. Zombies and you can play it on the computer or on a tablet. It is available -- for iPad, especially, is easier to sort of deal with the eye-hand coordination because you can tap physically on it instead of needing to move a mouse. But my mother doesn't play games. She tells me she doesn't like them, for the most part, and yet she played it for several hours straight.
BEZIOAnd so it's a good one to start with because it doesn't require a lot of speed and yet, it still has a lot of the adrenalin component that really makes games like that addictive.
NNAMDIAnd Carolyn, there were a lot of nods of approval across the table from me so I'd go with that advice, Carolyn. Thank you very much for your call. Good luck to you.
NNAMDIMike, Larry, racial diversity is also often missing from video game storylines. The University of Southern California studied 150 video games and found that only 10 percent of video game characters were black and just three percent were Hispanic. What kind of roles have minority characters typically filled in video game storylines? First you, Larry.
FRUMThe bad guy, unfortunately. I mean, traditionally, if you looked at video games, the minorities have always been the bad guys. But what I think you're seeing now is that there are more minorities getting involved in the making of the video games and that's gonna help create more minority protagonists, not only African American, but Hispanic and many other different races that want to be depicted, even alien races that want to be depicted.
FRUMBut traditionally, they've always been the bad guy.
WILLIAMSBad guy, yes, but also supporting cast. African American characters have tended to be the jive-talking or more humorous, but you're seeing a lot more change, especially -- I think Assassin's Creed was mentioned earlier. They've done a lot of work in showing that people aren't afraid of having a protagonist of Middle Eastern descent or Native American descent.
WILLIAMSIn fact, the new Infamous game has a protagonist who's half Native American. And I don't think anyone's afraid of that. And as you start to see that, you're starting to see more protagonists of different races and I think once you get through race and gender, then next is, say, sexual orientation, religious orientation. You're starting to see more experimentation of where your main characters are coming from.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Susannah who said, "I wanted to ask the guests, in particular Kate Flack, about the aggressive sexism in gaming culture, example the gamer girl meme.
FLACKOh, a great question. So just to kind of give some context to some listeners who may not kind of be aware of what this is, if you're playing on Xbox Live and you've got your headset on, you can talk directly to other players and there's a lot of girl gamers who play and they're playing, you know, Call of Duty or whatever game and they're getting, you know, a lot of abuse from the guys they're playing with once they figure out that they're female.
FLACKAnd this is -- I mean, I liken it to in Victorian times when women started going into the bars and into, you know, out of the women's saloon and into the main area and started taking that space and reclaiming it as you started to have the first suffragettes and that kind of thing. And this is exactly the same experience, you know.
FLACKIt's been a boys' club for awhile and the first women who go into that environment are having a hard time. But, you know, the 12, 13, 14-year-olds now, you know, are a little bit more accepting and then the generation after them is going to be a bit more accepting and the generation after them is going to be fine, there are girl gamers, no big deal.
FLACKSo I think it's getting better. Personally, I don't let anyone know that I'm female if I'm playing an MMO because I just don't want the hassle. And I actually don't tend to play a lot of games like that. I'm not -- despite the fact that I make games for a living, I'm not particularly dexterous or, you know, great at these shooter games.
FLACKYou know, I think it's a very thorny issue and, you know, it really we need the male gamers to stand up and say, that's not okay. Stop doing that.
FRUMRight. But then, you run into the white-knighting thing and that's part of the problem...
NNAMDIWhat's the white-knighting thing?
FRUMWhite-knighting is when if I'm in a game and some guys are harassing a woman and I say, guys, knock it off, you know. You don't want to -- just leave her alone. Be nice to her. Then, I get accused of being white-knighting because I'm trying to gain favor with that woman. You can't -- as a guy, you have to walk that fine line.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. But there's a perspective here that hasn't been aired that I'd like to. Email from Mark. "In 2000, I went cold turkey and stopped playing all PC games, console games. I realized I had been playing these stupid games until the wee hours of the night, then I had to get up for work the next morning, very groggy and kept thinking about how to beat a game during working hours.
NNAMDIOnce I started wasting all this time, I got my life back. My 23-year-old son has done the same without me coaxing him. Video games are evil." Mike Williams, what would you say in response?
WILLIAMSI wouldn't say video games are evil. They're just like any other hobby that you can have. Some people go to the gym. We see a Gold's Gym right across the way, probably go to the gym in the morning, maybe they go to the gym at night. Maybe some people are running at 2:00 a.m. Everyone has a specific thing. It's just for the game culture it's games and everything needs to be done in moderation.
FLACKAny media can be abused.
WILLIAMS...we have Larry here who has a shoulder injury because hockey just went a little bit too far on him. And that's not hockey's problem. That's just in moderation.
FRUMThat's Larry's problem.
NNAMDIThat's Larry's problem. I'm afraid we're not gonna have time to deal at greater length with Larry's problem 'cause we're out of time. Larry Frum covers video games and gaming technology for CNN. Kristin Bezio is a professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and a gaming critic for a blog called The Learned Fan.
NNAMDIMike Williams is a video game critic for US gamer and Kate Flack is lead designer at Mythic Entertainment, a video game developer in Fairfax, Virginia. Thank you all for joining us and thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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