Best practices for creating diverse characters

This article summarises the best practices for creating more diverse characters from Finnish game studios’ interviews conducted as a part of the Gender in Play project. If you wish to learn more about the basis of the interviews, please look for our previous article, “Gender-Based Violence in Games: Game Developers’ Perspectives“, and refer to the […]

This article summarises the best practices for creating more diverse characters from Finnish game studios’ interviews conducted as a part of the Gender in Play project.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

Why bother making more diverse characters?

The main reason is because players would like to play using more diverse characters.

40 % of players in the U.S. prefer full character customisation, and most choose characters that resemble them. Half of the players want companies to take a stance on social causes (1).

A highly diverse audience plays games. Accoring to NewZoo report, 46 % of players in the U.S. and U.K are women, 20 % are Latinx, 16 % are LGBTQIA+, and 31 % have a disability, often related to mental health. Similar numbers can be found from different sources, casually women making about half of the player base (2).

Another very good reason is to consider how you, as a game maker, can influence the world.

Being the most profitable entertainment industry in the world, 3,5 times more valuable than movies, games have a huge possibility to affect worldviews and either build or break stereotypes (3). Research made in the film industry has shown that stereotypes repeated by media do not only affect the attitudes of others but also the self-image of those belonging to that group (4). If someone like you is always presented as a helpless princess or an enemy, that can have consequences on how you view yourself and how others treat you.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

How well are game companies scoring on making more diverse characters? 

Previous research studying game characters’ representation has demonstrated that the most typical game character is a white man. Numbers tell the same: according to Statista, in the year 2020, 23 % of game protagonists were men, 18 % women, 3 % non-binary characters, and 54 % of games had multiple options. Four years prior, women characters were only 2 %, and nonbinary genders did not exist. The year 2019 study of game protagonist by gender from E3, a major gaming event, listed only 5 % of female game protagonists and 2 % gender-ambiguous, compared to 22 % of male protagonists. 

Best practices for making diverse characters, developers’ tips

All quotes are from the Gender in Play interviews, where we interviewed Finnish game developers about diverse character development and gender-based violence in games. 

Aim for diverse characters

When there is a will, there is a way. Setting the diversity of characters as a goal starts to guide the actions toward that. It might provoke some questions; for some of them, you can find the answers below.

Aim for a diverse narrative and design team

"Have [add here any aspect of diversity] people on your team! Because they are gonna have these experiences, and they can tell you whether something you have written for the game is believable and good and all of that stuff. And they can tell you if there's something that's like big yikes or a big problem."

Team diversity is the easiest way to add diversity to characters as long as everyone on the team has the right to have their say and the diversity is valued. Adding more diversity to your team adds different opinions, experiences, and knowledge. A variety of opinions can bring great insight and value to game design.

"The cultural diversity is a challenge for us too. Everyone is native Finns, with very similar backgrounds, middle-class. If we go to a foreign culture, we have to be pretty careful, because we don't have anyone who says that hey, have you considered this aspect? There is a danger in it that no one is going to say that to us."

Have a look for Jenni Varila’s article “Diversity matters because you matter“. Varila calls for finding ways to lure rock hard female talents to work in the studios article in order to add more diversity in women characters.

Consult the members of the community

If you can’t have enough diversity on your team, no problem! Consult the members of the community you are writing about. There are professionals offering consultancy services, councils that can help, and private people with first-hand experience and background in the culture for which you are writing.

"It really requires that you dare to ask and dare to contact and throw yourself in, and possibly dare to hire someone who then belongs to that group of people."

But please pay them for their consultation.

Disclaimer: If you are writing a space odyssey happening in a faraway future, in an alien land, it might be challenging to find anyone to consult. It is still possible to stay mindful of the story and characters, as shown by Housemarque in Returnal (2021).

Do the background research

If you are writing a game about existing culture, check the facts! Do not rely on and repeat the existing, often ethnocentric stereotypes. Rather, seek a deeper understanding. Ask questions like “Why is this important?” and ”What is the aim?” Ask an expert if you are unsure; do not assume.

Respect your characters and their cultures

If your character represents an existing culture, and moreover, if it is a minority culture, respect the nature of the culture and your character. It does not mean that the game gets super serious, but you should know what is sacred to the culture. Once again, it helps if you have a person who is from the culture.

Do not just place diversity

While diversity issues have become more widely discussed, we have seen the rise of placing one character in the game that then represents diversity. Diverse characters should have their own story, role and reason to be in the game. Blackface is not okay anymore in real life, either.

Give players multiple options

Let players choose what kind of characters they would like to play! Nowadays, it is getting easier to create a game with a selection of protagonists or even to let the player build the character they like. Leave space in a game for the players to create and develop their characters. Collect data to determine what kind of characters your players prefer.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

Double-check the gameplay and story

It is always a good idea to revisit your gameplay and story regularly and seek for stereotypes and gender-based violence – it would be even better if you have someone else doing this. Ideally, it could be someone who does not have similar background to your.

Make sure that all characters have similar possibilities to develop

They do not need to be exactly similar development options as that might be a bit boring, but there should be a possibility to win and advance to the same levels with every kind of character.

Ensure that the actions of characters representing minorities (women, non-binary persons, non-Western ethnicity, sexual minorities) are important gameplay features on their own and not only necessary because they are aimed towards supporting men characters.

Take advantage of the body diversity

Not every woman, man, or non-binary person looks the same. We are different in our bodies, skin colours, height, weights, body decorations, disabilities, scars, and so many other levels. This kind of variety can strongly add to the personality of your characters and make them more relatable.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

Use character diversity to create new game mechanics

Diversity can be a source of inspiration for game mechanics too. A few times in our interviews, Bentley, a turtle in a wheelchair from Sly Cooper was mentioned as a great example of creating a new kind of game mechanics and play experience. There is a vast amount of similar new mechanics to be used.

Use randomly generated diverse characters when reasonable

When needed, randomly generated side characters celebrating a variety of ethnic backgrounds and body types, clothes, hairstyles, and so forth can bring more variety to your game. Still, it would be nice if the main character would not represent the most typical characters in games.

Collect ideas and feedback from everyone in the company

Collect game ideas from everyone in the company. Keep the idea box open; you never know what comes out. Create a company culture where it is okay to comment on others’ work in progress, and perform development reviews often, leaving space for everyone to comment.

"It's very important to us that everyone has a say. And everyone has a spark in that project."

Coming up with new game ideas

When you want to make your next hit game, you should find interesting stories worth telling. Our interviewees hinted at a couple of ideas: tell stories from a different perspective, break the stereotypes and feel free to break historical or cultural facts – there have always been people who were breaking norms!

We wish to express our gratitude for everyone participating in our interviews. 

Endnotes:

1. For more information, please see the NewZoo’s recent article ‘Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Games: Gamers Want Less Toxicity in Games and Want Publishers to Take a Stance’ (link takes you to NewZoo’s page).

2. Statista (2022). Distribution of video gamers in the United States from 2006 to 2021, by gender. Available online at https://www.statista.com/statistics/232383/gender-split-of-us-computer-and-video-gamers/.

3. For example Statista: Gaming: The Most Lucrative Entertainment Industry By Far. Available online at https://www.statista.com/chart/22392/global-revenue-of-selected-entertainment-industry-sectors/.

4. For example Geena Davis Institute has made a various studies about the media representations and their cultural aspects, see https://seejane.org/. Their study “The Double-Edged Sword of Online Gaming: An Analysis of Masculinity in Video Games and the Gaming Community” shares similar findings than our research for Gender in Play project.