When I initially conducted this interview with Tanya DePass, diversity games consultant and founder of I Need Diverse Games, it was soon after GaymerX. I was inspired by the content of the conference, and felt spurred on to make a difference in small ways through my group Queer Geek! Seattle, finding ways to be more inclusive.
Flash forward to today, with our country in a state of disarray over politics, when the need for representation matters more than ever. While video games may not seem like an obvious target area for diversity, it’s a continually growing industry spanning multiple sectors which grossed $23.5 billion dollars last year, more than music or movies. Media has an influence on people, and tons of people are playing video games.
Tanya fell into her role promoting gaming diversity somewhat by fortuitous accident.
“When I started the hashtag #INeedDiverseGames,” she explained, “it was because I was frustrated and literally angry about games at 6 in the morning, as you do. The latest round of ‘it’s too hard to animate women’ and ‘we were inches from playable female characters’ had been making the rounds on my social media, as well as more games with the same bland brown-haired, blue-eyed, Scruffy McScruffy white dude protagonist had just set me off on a tear. So, I added the hashtag to the tweets I was sending out.”
“Some people noticed it,” she added, “and one of my friends, Mikki Kendall, retweeted some of my tweets. When a friend with over 35K Twitter followers at the time retweets you… that tag grew legs, and by the time I got to work a couple of hours later, it was getting a lot of use.”
I Need Diverse Games grew into a popular Twitter handle and blog. While she received a lot of positive feedback, it was the pushback that inspired her to keep at it.
“It got the attention of the vocal few,” Tanya indicated, “people who can’t stand the idea of diversity or women ‘infiltrating’ their hobby, and I had to get block bots to keep my Twitter feed readable. What people don’t realize is that I’m ornery. The more people pushed against the message, the harder I pushed back, and realized that this had clearly hit a button with folks. There’s a greater conversation that was happening again. It needed to happen, so I threw myself into it fully, to the point it became a second job, one I am happy to do now as a full-time gig.”
There is an undercurrent of negativity around diversity, whether out in the open with Gamergate, or behind closed doors.
“I don’t know honestly what the best response is,” she admitted. “Ignoring them doesn’t seem to work, and engaging with them just gives them what they want: more attention to tilt at windmills. I’ve definitely been targeted by them. At first, #INeedDiverseGames was unreadable because of the things they’d spam it with: anime porn, memes, other ridiculous shit that they think will trigger the social justice warriors or something.”
“It’s pathetic really,” she added, “their wailing against progress, because POC, women, LGBTQIA folks have been here, even if they have refused to see us, and this mewling rage is unbecoming. It was always, ‘But diversity is here! Look, two different white guys with different hair color! A red-headed white woman instead of blond!’ That’s their idea of diversity and it’s laughable.”
Tanya recommends several effective ways for fans and developers to advocate for diversity in games.
“Fans can push back (respectfully, screaming and yelling doesn’t always work; in fact, it rarely does) on why there are no characters of color in a game, or if the game is already out,”she mentioned. “Question why a character falls back to a trope instead of maybe getting to be more than a one note joke.”
“If you’re a developer,” she added, “speak up when you see a character design that is tropey. notice how many POC, LGBTQIA, women, trans characters there are and question why. Lastly, hire diversity consultants on your games. If something is outside your experience and you want to be sure you don’t fuck it up? Hire people to do a review of the character’s back story, art and design to be sure you’re not getting it wrong.”
While Tanya thinks some developers get it right, there are some that get it really wrong.
“I always give Bioware a mark in each box for this question,” she confessed. “On the side of LGBTQIA issues, they do pretty well and are improving with each game. However, on issues of race? They still have a long way to go. But if I didn’t love their work, I wouldn’t want it to improve.”
“Eidos needs help,” she explained, “as their two recent Deus Ex titles show. Deus Ex: Human Revolution had Letitia the Trash Lady, someone who sounded like she stepped out of a Stepin’ Fetchit cartoon. That makes me cringe even remembering it. Also, their most current game, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, just fell flat with their ‘Augs lives matter’ fail! You can’t try to address real issues of race, racism and go ‘oops, well not really.’”
“2K really stepped up the Mafia franchise,” she noted more positively, “with introducing Lincoln Clay as the main character in the third installation of the game and actually addressing issues of race and racism in-game.”
I was curious to hear the difference in her mind between getting more representation vs. positive representation in games, whether it was the same battle or not.
“I’d rather they not try at all,” she stated. ”To have characters of color all be terrible stereotypes rather than fully fleshed out characters is a worse crime to me than having none at all. On one side, you have the utter lack of representation in a game. Say for instance, Witcher 3. Love this game so much. The writing is fantastic, the story is brilliant, and Geralt grows as a lead in the game. However, there aren’t any POC. None. This made no sense in a game where people clearly traveled, have magic, and other wonders. Elves, dwarves, etc. don’t count. You can’t swap out non-humans for POC. It’s a tired fantasy trope that really needs to die out.”
Tanya has been a gamer most of her life, from pen-and-paper role-playing games to arcades to console gaming.
“My favorite kinds of games are story driven, role-playing games,” she noted. “I have a soft spot for Final Fantasy VII, I always will. But the FF series, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate, Mass Effect, Witcher 3, where we get to know the characters, save the world (or the universe in Shepard’s case)? Those are the ones that will always have my heart. I love fighting games too. Give me Street Fighter, Killer Instinct, Guilty Gear, King of Fighters, or Mortal Kombat, and I’m happy.”
Some gamers argue that conversations about diversity and incorporating diverse characters in games takes away from their escapism. One common argument is that incorporating POC/LGBTQ characters is not historically accurate for a lot of games. Tanya doesn’t buy it.
“The common counterarguments are that it’s not realistic in general,” Tanya explains. “Or, that women don’t play games, or people of color don’t play games, when we actually make up a good part of the market. The other one that gets me is that games with a black lead, or female lead, won’t sell. However, it’s simply ridiculous to assert that, when games with non-white scruffy dudes don’t get the same marketing or ad coverage that, say, another Call of Duty title or similar gets.”
In addition to being socially responsible, diversity is good for business.
“Not incorporating diversity in gaming is leaving money on the table, pure and simple,” Tanya pointed out. “If I only get games with the same retread hero, the same story, and nothing new, in addition to no people who look like me, I’m going to stop supporting that company’s games. For instance, I was pretty much done with the Assassin’s Creed franchise until Evie Frye. Finally, the chance to be a female assassin, to kick as much ass as Ezio! Multiply that $70 I dropped by however many people felt the same way about the franchise, or picked up Assassin’s Creed 4 because of Adéwalé in the game and his own DLC? That adds up and that’s a lot of money people are spending elsewhere.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Tanya’s work, check out I Need Diverse Games’ Patreon, which funds all their work as a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit. You can also find I Need Diverse Games on Twitter, Facebook, and Twitch. Tanya’s Fresh Out of Tokens podcast is on Facebook and Twitter, and Tanya is also on Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, and Patreon.