Friday, June 21, 2013

Everything You Wanted to Know About Video Games (But Were Afraid to Ask)

I was delighted to see that the Game Developers Conference recently added David Gaider's awesome talk on "Sex in Video Games" to the free section of their Vault. The GDC is a huge conference in San Francisco for professional video game developers, from the big AAA majors to the indies. This year saw two watershed presentations that should serve as wake-up-calls for their industry: Gaider's talk, which touches on important issues of representation, and the #1ReasonToBe panel, which addresses the conditions women endure while working in the industry. The GDC usually keeps videos of its sessions locked in their vault, only available to professional dues-paying members, and I think it was very cool of them to make an exception for these important talks.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Gaider is one of my heroes. He was a writer on my all-time favorite game, Baldur's Gate 2, and is the lead writer and one of the main creators of the Dragon Age franchise, my current favorite ongoing series. Beyond that, though, he's an interesting, thoughtful guy. He's always willing to engage with people on controversial topics (like homosexuality in video games), and combines an appealing personal humility with a strong sense of fair play. He'll call out his own fans when they're acting unfairly to one another, while also acknowledging the motivations behind their anger (which often aren't voiced).

This deep level of engagement with fans is cool, and I think it's pretty unique to see it from a staff-level member of a larger game development company (as opposed to a solo indie game creator). I first became aware of him because of his amazing work on the Ascension mod for Baldur's Gate: Throne of Bhaal. Basically, after Bioware shipped the game, he decided to spend some of his own time to tweak the ending; the fast pace of the production schedule kept them from iterating on it as much as they would have otherwise, and he felt that there were some things he would have done differently. It was never an official project or patch, just something that he did as a fan of the game, and then shared with the world.

Gaider has also been an active presence on the Bioware forums; I don't frequent them very often, because the mood can get very tense, but whenever I see a thread that Gaider has contributed to I'm impressed by his thoughtfulness and candor. I've sought out a few other interviews he's given, with Felicia Day and at conventions, but this GDC talk is probably the longest and most focused piece of his that I've seen.

And, it's utterly fascinating. Anyone who thinks that video games have any level of social relevance will probably enjoy watching this, and BioWare fans will particularly get a kick out of it. It's interesting initially from a historical perspective, as Gaider gives an insider's perspective on how BioWare first approached the idea of romances in BG2, almost as a whim. The thing that surprised me most was how it seems almost accidental: they were completely surprised by how strongly people responded to the romances. It's also interesting, and very encouraging, to see how deliberate their evolution was. BioWare paid attention when female fans complained about the Anomen romance, and as he wrote for later games (including Knights of the Old Republic), Gaider started to directly talk with women gamers to get a better idea of what they were looking for.

The talk covers a lot of ground, but I think that the core of it is about the fairness of representation. Any video game sends a message: even beyond the explicit content of the game and any plot it has, it is also sending messages about who it's intended for. As Gaider points out, for a very long time games have been almost exclusively marketed towards the young white male demographic. Even in spite of that strong slant, a large number of women and other people outside that demographic play games. He makes some good moral arguments for more thoughtfulness, but also some solid financial ones that game companies could use to justify changes: "How about if we at least try to not actively repel half of our potential audience?"

I have to admit that I realized a bit of myself in some of the anecdotes that Gaider shares. I have complained in the past when a character who I don't like hits on me in a game. For me, that's a relatively new experience. However, for a large number of players, virtually any time a character hits on them, it would be unwelcome. And, of course, it never occurred to me to think of that as unfair, until it happened to me.

While he has a strong message to share, I was very impressed with the measured way in which he shared it. Gaider is... well, he's Canadian, darn it! He's polite and thoughtful and humble. Whenever he brings up facts that support "his" side (47% of game players are female!), he's already anticipating the counter-arguments that could be made against it ("Those are just casual players!"), and gently suggesting responses.

Ultimately, Gaider is speaking to the game development industry, not people like me who just enjoy playing games and thinking and talking way too much about them. However, I think game players can get a ton out of this presentation - it helps illumine the way that game companies make decisions, and shows a possible path they might take into a better future.

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