Conversations We Should Have: Bioware’s Manveer Heir on Diversity in Video Games

When I first started studying and writing about media and games, discussing diversity within the medium never crossed my mind. I was naïve in my idealism—complacent in ignoring the nuanced bread crumbs that would eventually lead to conversations we should all be having. But this changed when I began to attend industry conferences, a change elicited largely thanks to people like Bioware’s Manveer Heir (a designer currently working on the Mass Effect franchise).

Heir is not new at being a voice for advocacy within the industry, and the beauty in this is that he is brutally honest is challenging others to push for changes while maintaining an uncanny awareness of his own identity within the situation. His advocacy talk at this year’s GDC acted as a rousing call to arms—a resounding message that we as an industry are entirely capable of fixing these problems. A statement about how diversification can enrich the industry and the medium on a multitude of levels. A discussion on how we can better ourselves. 

 I followed up with Heir after his talk. Joined by my colleague Robyn Miller, we continued the discussion of diversity, the importance of diversification in narrative design, and overall finding ways to help move games forward as a medium for both developers and the community alike. 

Katy: You said in your talk at GDC that games create identities in which people feel they must fall into in terms of playing authored protagonists, probably more so than other mediums. Do you think they do this more powerfully than literature and film in terms of evoking empathy?

Heir: I personally believe that. I don’t know if I have evidence to support that—it’s more of a gut belief. But I think the act of interacting matters a lot more. I know it makes me connect a lot more. I definitely think that being complicit and being a part of a system, actually having to make the choice, even if it’s a false choice where you feel like you had to push it along, I think that matters more than being the outside observer. It elicits more empathy.

Katy: That was one thing that really stuck out to me, because a lot of my Master’s research is based around rhetoric and video games—how games can establish empathy and persuasion through the way players interact with them. It adds another level that other mediums don’t have.

Heir: Right—Ian Bogost talks about procedural rhetoric. I definitely believe that’s true—there are a lot of examples of influential “message” games or games that ask interesting questions at the player. I think things like the Molleindustria’s McDonalds game only works as a game, not as a video of the on the evils of McDonalds.  

Katy: In that respect, given this power to establish identity, do you think the lack of diversity and representation of minorities in games is more troublesome than similar issues in other forms of media?

Heir: I don’t know if I would say it’s more troublesome. I don’t think we have, to use the unfortunate business term “marketing penetration” that film does. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t watch movies but I know plenty of people who don’t play video games. So I don’t think we’re at the level of something like film. But this is the industry I work in and I still think it’s a major problem. I also don’t think it’s a lesser problem—it’s a huge problem in media in general and I work in one part of the industry and I know I can help influence that part of the industry so why not give this message and try to persuade people that this is an issue and why they should care—and also give them some steps to potentially start fixing the problem. 

Robyn: Just along the lines of narratives and your discussions of them—you definitely favor open design and emergent narratives namely for the potentials of diversity that they create. In doing research I actually found an old presentation of yours from 2009.

Heir: Uh oh.

*everyone laughs

Robyn: It’s okay, it’s going somewhere positive! But you critique how the originalBioShock negates the potential for ethical dilemmas by adding a strategy aspect to the treatment of the Little Sisters. So my question is this: in an emergent narrative system, what’s the best way of developing such ethical dilemmas without falling prey to ludonarrative dissonance?

Heir: That’s a huge question. So it’s interesting, I actually gave a talk in 2011 about designing ethical systems in play, not ethical choices. So what I think you need to do is create systems that have narrative wrapped around it that give the player options and the ability to express. Maybe make a couple judgments on the player, but maybe not universal as a game. You could have a character who looks at you unfavorably for doing something but you can have another character in that exact same moment say “Oh, hey that was a good thing to do.” What you really need to do is get away from the structure of systems that can be gamed or min/maxed like Adam in BioShock

So, to me, it’s getting away from the game systems that we currently do and building it more into the narrative which can mean consequences—consequences that actually matter. Then, in this kind of weird way, we actually need to know that consequences came from certain choices, which isn’t necessarily realistic, and it doesn’t completely have to hit you over the head, but I still think you need to know that “Oh, because I aligned myself with that group earlier in the game, now this whole thing is shutoff to me and I don’t get to play this ever, ever, ever.” But that’s also kind of a hard thing to do because it costs a lot of money and a player won’t experience that content. 

Robyn: How do you think that these ethical systems can amplify the emergence of more diverse characters in video games?

Heir: I don’t know that they necessarily do. I wouldn’t view it as being an open world game because those allow you to project yourself on the avatars. They allow yourself to project your identity on this sort of nameless or faceless avatar and then some even allow you to customize the looks of your character to take it one step further, right? I think that’s one thing. But I think we also have a need for strong authored characters of a diverse nature. To just only fall back on creating your own character or projecting your own personality is kind of the cheap way out. It feels almost cowardly to me. Why can’t Nathan Drake be black? Why can’t Nathan Drake be a woman? None of those things preclude the personality or the plot of the game. Yet we still don’t make the decision very often. I still want to challenge what are probably more linear games and more importantly, more authored games—authored being the characters themselves—to diversify. 

Katy: It feels like it’s such a huge feat for AAA developers to do that because it’s business—you have to go through marketing and communities and appeal to so many different audiences in that context. There’s the whole argument around the idea that games like that just don’t sell and therefore we shouldn’t do it. At GDC, you brought up the concept of dynamic narrative hooks, and how they can get players to ask questions and elicit thought. The example you provided was playing as a protagonist who is a gay man having to hide his identity in the military. I think that’s a good concept because it can draw empathy but what sort of problems can stem from this narrative? It seems to draw from expectations and stereotyping. 

Heir: Absolutely. I heard some criticism about that example afterwards which I thought was fair. Effectively, LGBTQ people are so underrepresented in video games, and to only represent them as being characters without power or with disempowerment may not be the escapism that community wants when they go to a video game—which I think is completely fair and absolutely true. So, I think that we need to be careful with how we treat characters that are following-up stereotypes or how we marginalize characters in game worlds. A big part of this to me is that all groups deserve the right to take part in escapism and fantasy constructs.  If I can’t escape out of whatever the real world is by playing a game because that game hammers over the fact that brown people are inferior, or for you it might be that women are inferior, then I think it’s problematic if you only have those choices because you’re not getting the same out of games that a white straight male would be getting.

 I think that’s where the problems come in—how do we represent those people? It’s not that you can’t make the game I suggested, it’s that we shouldn’t only make that sort of game. I think it would be interesting, but I’m also not gay. So frankly, I could see why someone who are gay would say “I wouldn’t ever want to play that game.” I think that’s completely valid feedback. So why couldn’t my hero happen to also be gay? That doesn’t have to play into it [the narrative] or it could just play into the romances on the narrative side of the game—those are all possible as well.

Katy: I definitely think there is room for games like that in terms of evoking empathy and understanding from others. But like you said, falling into these stereotypes alone should be avoided.

Heir: Yeah, exactly. George Lucas made a movie in 2012 called Red Tails. It had Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding Jr. and it was kind of a trashy Hollywood flick. But what I thought was interesting was that I was like “Hey, the African American community deserves to get their trashy Hollywood flicks too.” They can be those terrible heroes as well. The problem is, if we only ever make bad movies starring black characters as the protagonists, there’s an issue because if you’re white then you’d get everything else. People want to see themselves represented in movies, so what I want to see is a little bit of everything. There will be some bad ones, but there will be some great ones too. I would love to get to the point where that didn’t even matter—where we can be like ‘Oh there are so many good LGBTQ characters that I don’t even care if this is a bad game that stars a gay character.’

Katy: It’s a matter of breaking the mold of what we keep creating. 

Robyn: As I understand, a major hurtle standing in the way of diversity is a general fear on the developer’s part of “goofing up” the representation of diverse authored characters. To me, it seems that a major contributor to such “goof ups” stems from developers getting so caught up in the characters’ gender, race, or sexual orientation that they forget to treat them as people first and foremost. How can these fears—and this threat of tokenism or ethnocentrism—be overcome?

Meir: The complex answer for, which I don’t have a solution for, is to diversify the workforce better, so that you have better voices within your own workforce that can identify problems and manage that situation. That’s a more long term thing that is very difficult and I don’t have answers for that. The more immediate solution to me is—we are an industry of amazingly bright people, some of the smartest people I have ever met in the entire world work in video games for some reason. We can make these progressive worlds and these crazy new shaders and these intricate deep systemic designs—but you’re telling me that we can’t run our narrative by enough people, have enough iteration on it, get enough feedback on it to make sure it’s not problematic? I just wholeheartedly feel like if we make it a priority we could do it. The problem is we just don’t make it a priority. I want to challenge that as not being a priority. If you tell me you can’t do that without offending anyone but just hire one writer at minimum wage and he just writes in the corner then you’re just not trying. How about we try? We try in so many other hard things.

Robyn: So you would say that a more immediate solution is having more diverse playtest groups, kind of like how Naughty Dog insisted that women play the Last of Us as well?

Heir: I haven’t really thought about that specifically, but that makes a lot of sense. But I also just think that running your work by other people in the industry who are potentially under the group that you are trying to represent to make sure you’re not falling back on stereotypes. There are people out there willing to give feedback for pay, some for not for pay. If I was writing a character that was a woman—my perception of how women are in media is colored by two things, most likely my interactions with them personally and how they are portrayed in the media. But how they are portrayed in the media is often written my men. So now it’s really easy for me to use those things to draw what I think a woman is and come up with a character and then you guys are like “Well that’s not how I think.”

I think this is a reason a show like Girls became very popular, because finally someone was speaking to women of a certain generation and actually out of their own voice, not the voice of someone like me trying to write them. If I was doing that, I would then run my stuff by people that I trust who are women and go “What am I doing that is a stereotype or that is not the way girls you know act?” and I would challenge the preconceived notions of my biases along the way.

Katy: There’s a lot of finger pointing in the industry as to where the lack of diversification in games come from—who is doing the gatekeeping? Is it the lack of diversity on development teams? Is it the lack of representation in media? Or is it the bitter and often volatile online communities? Obviously the problem is more holistic. As a developer, where do you see the problem stemming from and what can we do to advocate change?

Heir: I see it in all of those things. I see it as an extremely complex problem and I don’t know if we can unpack and go “this is the most important part of the problem.” I think that diversity in the workforce is a huge issue. There is a major lack of women in the industry, there is a major lack of minorities in the industry, of LGBTQ, etc… We make things that speak to us, but culturally things that speak to me as an Indian and you as a woman are very different. We might have very different viewpoints on the world and society at large based on how we grew up and the coloring of all of that. As a result I think we would have very different but probably differently interesting view points on the world.

 So getting more people in the industry to do that—to contribute voice—is big. But then there is the next layer of putting them in power, right? In the West, how many women are leading the design of games? How many minorities can you name? It’s not many. Most women are in production, QA, very few are in programming and design. So, it’s not just getting those people into the workforce, it’s actually getting them experienced and having them in positions of power which is a whole different problem. Women have specifically been pushing for that for years and you can still see the problems that occur in the West in all of the industries, despite steps being made. So that’s part of the problem. The other part is yes, if we make games that represent people more I feel, and again I don’t have proof to back this up, but I feel like more people will want to come into the industry from varied backgrounds because the games will help draw them in. I think they both need to be worked on at the same time. 

Katy: How effective is character design in helping the problem? The new Lara Croft is obviously not as objectified as the original but she still has some problems.

Heir: You know, I’ve kinda said this before where I said I feel like we’re going to make mistakes along the way. I would hope that there has been criticism online about her character, and people can use that to do a better job next time. It’s not like we got to the characters we represent in the majority right now were always there. That had to build up from something. So, I do think characters like Lara can be a net-positive at the end of the day while recognizing in the immediacy, if done very poorly—though I don’t think Lara Croft was done very poorly—can be very damaging. 

So yes, you have to be careful, and it goes back to what you were saying before about people just being scared. It’s easy to be scared because it can be damaging, but that’s an even better reason to work hard and make something good. Most games aren’t particularly good in the industry. If you took every game ever made and just picked one game out, it’s probably not going to be a good game, so why does the narrative get treated any differently? Why can’t the top-level games that people are choosing as the best of the best do this well? I think they will become the games that can do this well. 

Robyn: I know that one discussion circulating around Tomb Raider in particular and really anything else with a diverse lead character that breaks the “white every-man” mold is this idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy that people like Ben Kuchera have touched on. They are deemed unmarketable, and we’ve seen this with how BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth was relegated to the back of the box and how Naughty Dog was encouraged to remove Ellie from the front. On the other hand we’ve had indie games like Gone Home and the Walking Dead that have been introducing us to some wonderfully diverse heroes and heroines. To what extent to you see indie games as a potential for debunking the unmarketable myth?

Heir: Massively. I think the Walking Dead did huge steps. Because in the bigger AAA industry people care about money. The people who make the decisions at the top are looking at money at the end of the day. And you look at something like the Walking Dead, which I believe sold over 8 million copies across all platforms. That is an unquestionable success. That gets attention more than me yelling on stage on a conference. Games likeGone Home winning Game of the Year at places like Polygon and other sites gets noticed. 

There are a couple of things here. One, I think it influences other people. I played Gone Home and I played the Walking Dead, those games are influences one me. I think about them on a decent basis. So now going forward next time I am working on a game they could subtly or very overtly influence decisions or thoughts that I have about games. On top of that I think it also de-risks some of the problem because the big budget industry is also very risk adverse and if you can point to things that have done it well you have an easier case to make—that’s unfortunately the reality of the situation. I wish it weren’t but that’s just how it goes. I think indie games have an amazing ability. They usually have a lower barrier that is self-directed and has full authorial control, whereas Katy said earlier, in the bigger games you have to deal with layers of marketing and PR.

Robyn: Your talk has been referred to as the most important moment at GDC, but like anything else you’ve already had some criticism with your example of the gay military character. In doing my research I encountered some concerns about how maybe the academic language and loaded words in your talk may “turn-off” the common gamer—in full disclosure I’m obviously okay with academic discourse as a PhD kid.

Katy: You’re such an academic. 

Robyn: *laughs* But I was curious about your response to that particular criticism. 

Heir: Yeah, I read that criticism and I understand where that author was coming from and I don’t know if I necessarily agree. Reason being that at some point I need to not get into a level 101 discussion about basic things—I need to be able to talk one level beyond that. So if I had to explain everything single concept without concise words for what you’re calling academic language, then I think it is hampering my ability to discuss what I think is a complex and difficult message in the right amount of time. Frankly, that talk could be three hours long and I still wouldn’t address all the different problems in the industry with that issue. I made that choice understanding that. I wasn’t trying to persuade every single person out there. There’s a group of people in the middle who are open to change and thought, who are smart individuals that may not realize some of the things they are saying or doing are problematic. 

I know this because I have been that individual. I look at the behavior and the words that I used and the things that I said in the way that I acted coming out of college into the industry and I’m frankly embarrassed by it. Me 10 years ago would have loved to see what me now has to say. So, the talk was almost in a way supposed to be like that. How can I challenge you? How can I explain this to myself 10 years ago in a way that I would have logically brought and understood and possibly have helped changed my behavior earlier rather than later? Eventually my behavior changed from other people having these conversations with me over and over again and listening to people and trying to be an adult and taking in new information ultimately changing as a response to it. I use academic language and I feel like the people I am trying to speak to would not be put off by that. There are people on the very far end, guys like men’s rights activists—I’m not trying to persuade those people. If somebody wants to, go for it. But I don’t have the energy or even the capacity to do it. 

Robyn: Do you think that there is any chance that having these sort of conversations and establishing this healthy discourse can help improve the validity of video games as an art form?

Heir: I think so. I think if we actually start making more games that make you think at the end of the day—that make you reflect at the end of the day and make you emote in different ways that just don’t act as pure escapism. I think that’s better for the medium. Not that it needs to go away—it absolutely does not. There is always a place for the escapist games. But you’ve seen games like Gone Home and Papers Please, games that have either messages or posit questions to the player to make them think deeper. Last year at GDC I gave a micro-talk on Papo y Yo, which is a game that literally made be ball my eyes out. I thought about it possibly every day for about a year. It made me reflect on my own life, my brother’s suicide, how my family has been affected, and the way I was brought up— really a large number of things. That deeply touching emotion I thought made me a better person. I gravitate towards those types of games. I gravitate towards it a lot more than I do a sports game or racing game or a shooting game. There’s nothing wrong with those games, it’s just where I am personally in my life. It goes for all media. I’m done watching the giant tentacle Hollywood movies as well. I find myself watching more indie films and things with interesting reflective or emotive content. I think we need to be building content like that in our games, and I think it doesn’t have to be exclusively about that. It can be in there and you discover it along the way and have these deeper thoughts. I think the BioShock series, especially BioShock one, had some amazing and interesting thoughts that at least created a large conversation even though it wasn’t perfectly executed. 

Katy: Even with games like Gone Home—it shows that there is this capability to tell something epic or give an emotional message in a much more intimate story without sacrificing entertainment. I loved the way you ended the talk at GDC by the way, the tone of voice change at the end was rather inspiring. The point that I ended up taking from the talk was the importance of creating conversation in addressing the issue of diversification. Helping people realize that it is a problem. Discourse and conversation is one thing that can spread like wildfire through communities, through media, through development and can ideally tackle the issues more holistically. The audience at GDC was mostly developers—so how would you recommend the media and press carry this forward? 

Heir: I think, from the media’s angle, I saw a lot of coverage of my talk and other talks on the advocacy track by a number of sites. This interview is an example of that. I think that’s a start of covering the discourse or conversations that are happening amongst the development community. I didn’t need to be a game developer to give that talk. I need to be a game developer to perhaps persuade more game developers to listen to me. And frankly, they are probably going to listen to me more for a few reasons. One, I’m a man and that’s unfortunately the way the world is right now. Two, I work at a AAA developer, Bioware, and that for some reason gives my voice more ground. And then three, the actual arguments in the talk. People are flawed obviously, so that’s why they listen to that more. That’s why I got the response I did versus if somebody else had given the talk. 

That being said, I think that media can be covering these same things—obviously it has to be something they believe in or they can come at it from a neutral angle and be like “what are the different sides here?” and I feel like that’s starting to happen. Maybe I’m in an echo chamber and I just read the same handful of authors that write about this stuff. So I think the media needs to keep the discussion happening but also maybe go one level further and have people who are actually doing features, who are actually looking at these things and researching. And I think academics even play a role. They have been, frankly. I’ve cited a number of academic studies in my talk and so they are kind of doing the hard work and then I can come in and cherry pick that and sum it up very easily and take a lot more credit. 

Robyn: It’s funny that you say that as both of us are staring down 15-20 page seminar papers.

Katy: Oh god…. I don’t even want to hear about this week and defenses. But it’s worth it—I never thought I would be studying games and new media and it’s so good to know that our voices as academics aren’t just stuck in the vacuum of the ivory tower. If they are used, there is so much more purpose in that. Now that’s how the media can help uphold the conversation—but how can communities and fans interact to also act as an impetus for change? 

Heir: Development at a large scale, especially with AAA developers, wants to make money. So if everybody in the world was asking for that [diversification]. Like “I require this,” guess what? It would change overnight. There would be no resistance or questions. That’s obviously not going to happen but, okay, clearly the steps are: if this is stuff that’s important to you, start asking about it. Start being vocal about it if you do have a larger voice because you’re a writer or have a well-read blog or even a well followed Twitter. Even if you don’t have those things, start speaking up about the things that you believe in and find communities of people who also do that and help them have those interesting discussions. They do get noticed eventually; they do start bubbling up. And that’s why having the conversation with a larger group of people is important because the voice of the many is stronger than the voice of the few. You can see that in vocal minorities. You can see how loudly vocal minorities can affect change in positive and negative ways on the internet. Now that’s dangerous too because someone can just take that form of “What is a cause I don’t believe in?” And I don’t have a response as to how I judge which ones are good and which ones are bad. I don’t have a good sense on how to handle that. But I think on a personal level if you’re a gamer, and if you care about the stuff, start speaking up, start demanding it from developers, start questioning the things that you are being given. You are only going to be given what you ask for. That’s the more cynical way to look at it, but there’s some amount of truth to that.

Katy: This is more of a thought, but it seems like with anything that you read on diversity in games or even in any kind of media—there is an immediate sense of negativity in the comment section. Especially on things like YouTube videos. Maybe a lot of the lack of communication or conversation going on in this context is out of fear of having to deal with what can often sometimes even turn into insults or attacks. 

Heir: Yeah, a dear friend of mind Adam Orth gave a talk at GDC on internet toxicity and the incident he dealt with after a tweet he made exploded where he got death threats and things like that. Yes, there was a major problem with discourse in the conversation on the internet. And I think we have noticed that for a very long time and it has a good amount to do with anonymity as well as just not having to look somebody in the face. The physical idea of not having to connect with them as a human being matters a lot. But there are good examples—sites like Polygon go out and moderate their comments. The level of discourse there still has some problems, but not nearly as many. You’re starting to see more sites moderating comments and I think that’s to turn it from the most filthy awful things that exist at the low level into some amount of useful discourse. I think that’s a step. I don’t think it’s ever going to be great, but it’s a step. I also think that having the conversations in meet space is useful too, because no one has ever come up to my face and said really terrible things. People don’t usually do that because there are social norms and frankly I’m a big dude. 

*everyone laughs

So you can get a better conversation in that meet space but the downside is that you don’t necessarily hit as many people. 

Robyn: On behalf of those who are dealing directly with this sort of vitriol—I know Anita Sarkeesian was very open about her persecution on social media and other outlets. There was the instance with GameSpot’s Carolyn after readers called out for her to be fired after her Grand Theft Auto V review for calling out its misogyny. What would be your advice to individuals like that, who upon calling out for this greater diversity have to deal with this sort of response?

Heir: I don’t know if I have advice or that I am even in the place to give it. The sad truth is that I gave a talk like this and got none of that response. None. I mean none. I said on Twitter shortly after that “If I was a woman and gave this talk, there is no way I’d get that response.” So frankly, I don’t even know what it’s like. I can imagine, but that imagination is probably nowhere near the actual reality of it. That being said, I think that they are a brave sum of people for standing up for what they believe in and they are willing to keep going and not stray from the vocal minority that are being terrible human beings towards them. I don’t know of a way to combat that other than to call it out. We need more people who keep going. The more we discuss it, the more it will raise awareness. I think that will affect sites and how they curate comments. For all I know, maybe that curating reduces the amount of people who act completely awful to others. But again, I don’t think I have good answers because I don’t think I’m in a position to understand how that feels. 

Katy: To end on a positive note, because I’m an idealist even in the darkest of caves… actually the ending on a positive note will depend on how you answer this, so never mind. Do you see much progression both internally and externally? Are we moving forward in diversification or are we in a stagnant area? We see more talks and press on the issue—but to what extent does that matter? 

Heir: Do I see us moving forward? Yes. We weren’t having these discussions five years ago. I struggled to get people to show up to a talk about race in games at DICE in 2010. Next to nobody showed up. At GDC we were in the small room when we talked about the same thing as a panel. I think the conversation is happening and that more people are listening. Anecdotally, I haven’t sat down and broken down the numbers by year so I can’t absolutely prove this, but it feels like we’re witnessing better representation in games.

 But again, I think we’re light years away from where we need to be. So we’re making progress, but the progress is so slow to me that if we don’t do something about it we’re going to get in a big hole. I think we’re going to be turning away people from the industry, from buying the games. People that are really going to care. So that’s part of the impetus for giving a talk like this—to say, “Yeah okay, we might not be the worst thing in the world, but let’s not be okay with this.” We can always do better, and we can do better fast. We can make a lot of changes tomorrow if we wanted to. If everybody agreed on it we could make so many changes tomorrow and it’s really more about agreeing on it or thinking that it matters than the actual logistics of doing it. Doing it isn’t the hard part to me, it’s the convincing people that it needs to be done. 

Katy Goodman is a freelance writer and graduate student. When she isn’t busy training birds of prey, horses, or freshman composition students, she can be found hiking or playing video games. She also really likes grilled cheese sandwiches. Follow her on Twitter @InvizzyB or on her blog, Process of Thoughts.

(Article published on Gameranx.)

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