You Are The Hero

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion of the importance of having diverse characters in fiction, so that everyone has someone to identify with. It is possible, nay, easy, to make this discussion sound really, really stupid.

“I can identify with an immortal, magic-wielding elf in an entirely fictional world, but only if it shares my skin colour and genital configuration!”

Of course, the discussion is not stupid, and the fact that it can made to sound stupid really easily suggests that something important is being missed. In particular, it is not important that characters in fiction are “like you”, in general. What matters, I suggest, is that the characters share features that are central to your sense of your own identity. People have trouble identifying with a character who is not something that they take to be fundamental to their sense of self.

I’ll use myself as an example. When reading the Lord of the Rings, I do not identify with either Boromir or Aragorn, despite the fact that they are the only human beings in the Fellowship. This is because “human” is not a fundamental part of my sense of self; apart from anything else, I am never required to define myself against others who are not human. This seems to be quite general, in that there has been no call for a purge of non-human characters from genre fiction. There is, essentially, no-one who finds a lack of humanity to be an obstacle to identification.

On the other hand, when reading Harry Potter, I do not identify with Harry; I identify with Hermione. Hermione is, essentially, me. There is a scene in the first film, in the potions class, where she is exactly me. Yes, I am male, and not remotely as pretty as Emma Watson (although I can probably stand up to book-Hermione), but neither of those features is particularly important to my sense of identity. I am perfectly happy with being a man (I’m definitely cis), but I have no problem imagining being female. This is not true of all men, however, and it would appear that a lot of women cannot easily imagine themselves being male.

That is not to say that I can identify with anyone. I can’t identify with characters who solve problems through physical force rather than mental power. I identify with Gandalf and Hermione, I play elves but can’t imagine playing dwarves or half-orcs, and I was the Line Editor for Ars Magica, a game that sidelines physical force, for 14 years. The primacy of the mental is a central part of my self-conception, so give me a choice between a straight, white, male barbarian and a queer, black, female sorceress, and I’ll identify with the sorceress. She’s the character who is like me in the only sense that really matters to me.

If we rephrase the initial idea with this in mind, it does not sound stupid at all.

“I can identify with any character, as long as they share the features I regard as essential to my identity!”

This, incidentally, is why nobody gets annoyed about the absence of redheads in all the Star Wars films, as far as I can recall. It is not something that people tend to regard as central to their identity (and if they do, it isn’t something they mention). It’s also why “black Hermione” is a bigger issue than “blue-eyed Harry”; race is often regarded as central to someone’s identity, eye colour almost never.

This might lead us to ask why race, gender, and sexuality are so important to so many people, but only if we have been completely failing to pay any attention to modern Western (particularly US) society. However, they are not the only important features, as I noted in my case, and they are not always important. For example, take a look at Japanese anime. Look at Studio Ghibli films, and note the lack of any consistent differentiation between characters who are supposed to be Japanese, and characters who are supposed to be Western. The “Rose of Versailles”, a classic anime from 40 or so years ago that is currently being rebroadcast, has no Japanese characters at all, because it is set in 18th century France (and the main character is a woman who presents as male). “The Mysterious Cities of Gold”, another thirty-year-old anime, has European characters for the European audience, because it was a co-production, but no Japanese characters for the Japanese audience. As far as anime goes, it looks as though racial difference is no barrier at all to identification for most Japanese people.

When it comes to other important features, I suspect that my preference for intellectual characters is rather idiosyncratic, but there is another big category that is often central to people’s self-conception.

Religion.

For a lot of people, their religion is central to their view of themselves and the world, and they cannot imagine themselves as having another religion, or even imagine a world where their religion, or an analogue, is not true. Again, I speak from personal experience here; back in my teens I had a problem with anything I couldn’t read as Christian or a Christian analogue. I’ve also seen it from the other side; there are people who have a deep problem with the fact that paganism is, in an important sense, fundamentally wrong in Ars Magica (but the Mythic Europe analogue of Christianity, called “Christianity”, is right). These people cannot get into something that violates their worldview.

This is not, I think, any kind of bigotry or narrow-mindedness, any more than women’s problems in sympathising with male characters, or my problems in sympathising with physical characters. It’s not even necessarily impossible for those people to play games without an analogue for their religion; it is just more effort. In fact, I still face a similar situation, in that I find it very difficult to get into worlds where, by design, the actions of my character cannot significantly improve the world. (Horror games, or anything with Cthulhu in it, basically.) I generally play them differently, or make changes. This is more fundamental than a simple preference. I can’t easily see myself in such a world. The idea that I can do something to make the world a better place is, it would seem, a fundamental part of my self-conception. (There is evidence that unjustified optimism makes people more successful, which is good, because I need all the help I can get.)

It seems obvious that we do not want to write games that some people cannot imagine playing, but there is also an obvious problem here. An individual story cannot have a main character that everyone can identify with. Even if we stick to the “standard” categories (male/female, asian/black/hispanic/native american/white, straight/gay/bi, cis/trans), there are 60 possible combinations. You really can’t have more than half-a-dozen central characters in one story, and even in RPGs, where you can have larger casts of NPCs, 60 is going to be more than you have in almost any book, and many entire game lines. And that only gives you one of each, of whom a fair number need to be antagonists, which means that a lot of people are only going to be offered villains to identify with. Even the ones who get a hero only get a single token character. If we add “intellectual/physical/social” as another axis, we need 180 characters, which may be beyond the realistic limits of any roleplaying game, especially as they all need to be central.

The problem is even worse for religions and world views, because it goes beyond issues of practicality. It is simply not possible to write a game of nihilistic horror that provides characters I can identify with. It is not possible to write a world in which Christianity has no true analogue and make it accessible to Christians for whom Christianity is central. On the other hand, if Christianity has a true analogue, then many forms of paganism do not, and some people strongly identify with those. Further, a game that conservative Muslims will find accessible and inclusive must not include positive portrayals of queer characters.

The idea that you can write an “inclusive” game, one that does not exclude anyone, is an illusion. It is not logically possible, and in purely practical terms it is difficult to even get close. When you design your world, or write your novel, you have to choose an audience. A conservative Muslim audience will want something very different from Seattle liberals. You could also choose yourself as the audience, and from a purely creative point of view, that choice has a lot going for it. People outside your audience might not like the game. They might find that the game excludes them. They might even complain about it. Conservative US Christians have a long tradition of complaining about games that did not adopt a Christian worldview. They claimed that they led to devil worship, and tried to get them banned.

This is something that creators should recognise, and actively oppose. If a particular game excludes you, find one that doesn’t. Write your own, if necessary. (This is entirely practical for RPGs, unlike Hollywood movies.) The hobby as a whole should have games for everyone, so it is a problem if no games include women, people of colour, or queer characters. However, no individual game needs to do so. Someone may take the commercial decision to try to appeal to as many people as possible, and offend as few people as possible, but that approach has rarely been consistent with the creation of art worth the effort. (Also, I would note that the so-called SJWs are not doing that; they are creating games in full knowledge that they offend and alienate substantial groups of people, and doing so because they have an artistic and ethical vision that demands it. That approach has a track record of producing great art.)

Once again, this comes down to the need for more diversity among the creators of RPGs, novels, and films. That will naturally lead to diverse games, books, and movies, even though individual works might draw from a limited palette. I really should write something about how I think we can go about increasing that diversity.

Posted in Game Design.

8 Comments

  1. You know, I’m not at all convinced it’s so hard to write stories that appeal to a large number of social categories. I’ve read AND written books that feature rich and poor, old and young, women, people of color, sexual minorities and disabled people at the same time, with sufficient prominence, and it never once felt forced. It’s a lot easier than you think. Minorities… simply exist and are among us. You don’t need any special reason to feature them.

    As for stories meant to appease conservative Christians… you mean like the vast majority of stories out there? Most games, books and movies by far feature a hetero cis white man in his mid-30s saving the day, getting the girl and patting the poor little savages on their ugly heads. They’re not the ones who need even more representation. And do I have to leave out gay characters to appease a bunch of bigots? Why? Why do I have to respect hatred and tacitly endorse oppression?

    Sorry… just no.

  2. On second thought, the idea that it’s too hard to have a truly diverse cast might stem from seeing minorities as stereotypes. Writers think they’re supposed to have the Great White Men front and center, and then the Token Woman, Token Gay, Token Black… But people aren’t cardboard cutouts. Why can’t you have a brown transgender woman in a wheelchair? Such people exist too, you know. Bam! Instant representation for many different audiences.

  3. The assumption that a brown person can identify with any brown person is treating “minorities” as uniform groups, which is not the case. (Incidentally, women and people of colour are not minorities.) I suspect that there are a lot of people of colour who would have trouble identifying with a transgender person, for example. Representation is not a matter of ticking boxes, and then designing characters to tick as many boxes as possible at the same time. White cis men in wheelchairs also exist, and need representation for the same reason white gay men, or white trans men, need representation. However, if you are designing characters to hit as many bullet points as possible, you won’t have any characters who miss the (US) default in one thing. I’ve been writing books featuring a wide range of social categories for pushing twenty years, and the problems raised by intersectionality are real, as are the problems raised by trying to write characters outside your personal experience. (Japanese women have told me that I can write convincing Japanese women, so it isn’t impossible; I wouldn’t know how to write a convincing African American, however, because I don’t have enough knowledge of the cultural background.)

    To pick up your previous comment, as I said in the text, the SJWs are writing things in the knowledge that they exclude and alienate substantial groups of people, because they think there is a moral and ethical imperative to do so. I don’t think you should be writing games that appeal to those groups. You should be writing the games you want to write. I do think that someone should be writing games that appeal to them, however. That is why this comes down to needing diverse authors.

  4. You’re totally right that brown people aren’t a uniform group. I was giving an example. In other stories I more explicitly featured Roma Gypsies for instance — and that’s still not specific enough. Doing what I can here, and all that. But you’re missing my point.

    I don’t feature characters from marginalized groups to tick a box. THAT is a mistake. I create characters for my stories, who just happen to be black, or gay, or poor, because *such groups exist around me*. But since that also helps more readers to identify with them, it helps to think of representation explicitly.

    You’re also right that on a global scale people of color aren’t a minority — on the contrary, white people may be the least numerous in the world. But in western countries, where racially motivated hate crime is a long-standing issue, they are. And women are the (slight) majority everywhere in the world, but they’re still a marginalized group, so the issues are similar. Intersectionality is important. Also, “marginalized group” is more unwieldy.

    And again, how exactly is it bad to “alienate” and “exclude” HATEFUL BIGOTS who would gladly KILL gay people — and often do, even where the law nominally forbids them? How is hate deserving of respect? These people consider themselves slighted because gay people EXIST AT ALL. Do they deserve a world where that ceases to be true, just so their disgusting bigotry is momentarily appeased? They’d just latch onto other targets anyway.

    No. Just no. That way lie pink triangles and concentration camps. And this is the 21st century.

  5. Judging from your first paragraph, it looks as though you are agreeing with my point: it isn’t possible to represent every group in a single work, so we need a diversity of works.

    I also agree that it’s good to think about representation explicitly. I do; I keep count, and if there’s an under-represented group I check why, particularly if that group is historically marginalised. (I don’t tend to worry that much if there’s a shortage of WhiCH men, for example.) There are limits to what can be done there, both within a single work, as we seem to agree, and by a single author. I, for example, do not know enough about the Roma (incidentally, I understand that English-speaking Roma find the term “Gypsy” offensive, so you might want to avoid it when using English) to write about them sensitively, and that’s why I don’t. It’s important that people like you, who do, are also creating, so that there are works that do include them. While I can learn enough about any group to write about them, and I can’t learn about all of them. There simply isn’t enough time. Again, it comes back to diversity of creators.

    As for terminology, “person of colour” is more unwieldy than the n-word, but that’s not relevant. Referring to those groups as “minorities” reinforces the idea that western culture, and male dominance, is normative. I’m not even convinced that “marginalised groups” is the best way to think about it in general, for the same reason.

    As for exclusion, I fully understand that you want to exclude certain groups, not just from enjoying the works that you create, but from enjoying any works of art at all, and that you think that is the right thing to do. I do not agree with you. I wrote about the reasons in the post on Liberalism and Diversity, a couple of months back.

    Finally, most conservative Muslims are not disgusting bigots who go around murdering people for being gay and just need a target for their hatred. A realistic candidate for the Presidency of the United States actually has suggested requiring Muslims to wear distinctive badges, on the basis of that sort of propaganda. (OK, it’s Trump, but he could get the Republican nomination.) That’s quite a lot further down the road than “that way lie…”, so I would ask you to tone down your rhetoric.

  6. “I fully understand that you want to exclude certain groups, not just from enjoying the works that you create, but from enjoying any works of art at all”

    So, what you’re saying is, there are people who can only enjoy art if it doesn’t trigger their bigotry, and they have a right to enjoy being bigots? You do realize they can only do that at the expense of everyone else, right? What you’re saying is, they have a right to be hateful. And once again, there is more than enough art out there tailor-made to appeal straight white men. Much more than they actually need. And nobody’s burning books, or movies, or games. Heck, I’ve read my share of right-wing military sci fi. But these same people seem to consider themselves silenced (somehow…) by the simple fact that diverse works ALSO exist AT ALL. Yet somehow I’m party-pooper here?

    And I never, ever mentioned Muslims in any of my comments. Not once. You’re the one who seem to have an obsession with them.

    But yeah, I fully agree that a work of art meant to appeal to certain groups may focus less or not at all on other groups, and it’s better to just create a diversity of works, each of them imperfect, than trying to appeal to everyone all the time. That way lies madness. As I wrote in a blog post a while ago, imagine gay men looking at a game with an all-black cast and complaining that all the characters are *straight*. That would be so missing the point. It’s just that featuring multiple marginalized groups — as opposed to one at a time — isn’t nearly as hard as you make it sound. So it’s worth trying.

  7. My apologies. I assumed that you were responding to the blog post, where conservative Muslims are given as the example of a group who wouldn’t enjoy games with gay characters.

    It seems that we agree about almost everything: that you can’t cover all groups in a single work, that you can cover more than one, that race, gender and sexuality are not the only important categories, that it’s good to broaden the representation in your works, that works that fail to do so should not be banned or burned, and that greater diversity among creators would be a good thing. Let’s both keep working on it.

  8. Pingback: More about diversity and representation « No Time To Play

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