Games are becoming more diverse, but there's always more work to be done. Jem Alexander speaks to Life is Strange writer Christian Divine about representation in games
Diverse representation in games is incredibly important. Thankfully the games industry is at the point now where the inclusion of different races, genders, sexualities and cultures is becoming more and more commonplace. One title which excelled at this was Life Is Strange which, as well as having a wide variety of characters, touched on some issues that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from a game.
“I’ve been writing for games since the 90s,” says Life Is Strange’s writer, Christian Divine. “So I’ve seen the arc of game development history turn away from a very cool point of view, but also very limited. It was a male-centric point of view, but I knew things would change because gaming is a very young medium. We’re at a point where the film industry was, say in the 60s, when all production code changed and you could have nudity and violence and cursing and all of these more adult issues. I think that with gaming, it’s like any other kind of art, it’s got to develop and get to a point where all people that need to be represented can start feeling like gaming reflects their point of view.
“It’s important to show these different points of view and to make people feel like the games are representing a wide swathe of the public, and I think that’s why Life Is Strange was so successful. What was so pleasing and interesting is how people around the world, across race and gender and culture, seemed to embrace the game and feel a connection.”
Hopefully the warm reception that Life Is Strange received will make diversity in games less of a risky prospect for devs and publishers. “So many games are doing this now, it’s not just Life Is Strange,” says Divine. “Gone Home and Virginia, for example. All these new games coming out are now touching upon all of these different issues and I expect there to be even more variety based on how many more people will be developing games. Now you have a whole new area, a whole new level of people entering the game world.”
With this variety of developers comes a wealth of experience which can inform stories, characters and settings for games moving forward. For Christian Divine, this came in some important forms. “I brought my own point of view to the game in terms of David Madsen,” he says. “My dad served in the military and I grew up on military bases, so I have a direct connection to having a military man for a father. One thing that was important to me was to make sure that David wasn’t the typical cliche?, angry PTSD veteran. “I’m partially disabled so it was also very important to me to represent disability in a way that’s not condescending.
You have to represent, you just have to
Christian Divine, Writer
"I can only speak for myself, I can’t go into everybody’s point of view of how they are as a disabled person, but certainly when it came to Chloe’s representation in the wheelchair, we wanted to make sure that we were doing justice to people who have these social and physical obstacles and present them in a way that hopefully makes the player relate to them if they’re familiar. And, if they’re not, maybe give them an insight as to the challenges that people have to face. The things that we don’t think about. Just the idea of going to the bathroom, or going to the door or going to a cafe.”
As Divine says, even within a minority group, one person’s experience may be completely different to another’s. It’s impossible to get across everyone’s story from a single viewpoint, but that’s why it’s important to have a variety of diverse creators involved in the industry. So people are able to tell their own stories. It’s so easy to underestimate the impact of seeing yourself reflected in your favourite games as a member of a minority group.
But even though Christian Divine doesn’t need a wheelchair to walk, his own disability makes him cognisant to the struggles of those who do. “In terms of Chloe’s disability, I was born with one hand,” he explains. “It’s not being in a wheelchair, so I have a totally different frame of reference. I know people in wheelchairs, to the degree that I can understand what obstacles they go through. I’m empathetic. As a writer I think you need to be empathetic.”
This empathy as a writer is really the most important thing when it comes to drawing your characters as real people, in a way that will get players to react to them with their own sympathy and empathy. People all over the world fell in love with Max and Chloe and that’s a testament to Divine’s ability to create loveable, human characters.
“You put yourself in the point of view: ‘okay, if I was in a wheelchair and I had to use a restroom, what does that involve?’ That’s not just getting up and walking into another room, that’s a whole other issue. And so you have to riff off that. In terms of Chloe it’s talking about these issues and how Chloe feels abandoned by people because of her condition and she’s treated differently.
“I feel like people who are disabled are the biggest minority in the world, but it’s a minority that’s not bound by culture or gender or race or anything. There’s fewer people who speak out for the disabled, because it doesn’t just represent one point of view. It’s not a cultural point of view, it’s not a gender point of view. I was able to bring something of that to the character in terms of how I have seen people with disabilities treated and how I have been treated.
“It’s not just disabled people, if you’re a person of colour, if you’re a woman, if you’re trans, anything. If you’re different from the group, you’re going to be treated differently. And I think we all understand in the end, people all around the world, even if they don’t share these obstacles, they understand them.”
So what’s the best way to integrate non-white, straight, male, etc. characters into your work? In short, do it for a reason and with sensitivity.
“Don’t be exploitive. Don’t try to go for the easy emotion. Don’t try to paint Chloe as ‘woe is me, I’m in a wheelchair’, because that’s not necessarily how people in these situations perceive themselves. I know dynamic individuals who live really amazing lives. But they’re also people. They’re just people. I can be disabled and still be an asshole.
“As a writer you want to present all aspects of that personality. You don’t want people to be heroic only, or only bad. Just make them human.
“Even if you don’t like David Madsen at first, I love the fact that many players grow to really love him. And some people don’t love him at all and that’s totally valid too. That’s what’s fascinating about the game, everybody brings their own point of view and the outcome is based on their own empathy or sympathy or anger, or whatever the emotion.
“But the main thing is just not to be exploitive. Not to go for the very simple solution to complex realities and to push yourself as a writer, to go beyond what would be the obvious response or obvious scenario.” As for when these characters and themes should be included? There’s never a wrong time. People will see themselves in your games and will be stronger for it. It could help them through a tough time of self-realisation, or simply be a character who resonates with them on a deeper level. Either way, you’re connecting with people who may not experience inclusion on a regular basis.
“You have to represent, you just have to,” Divine states. “The world is a big place and it doesn’t just represent one point of view. Life Is Strange doesn’t have all the answers, nor is it intended to, but the fact that we were able to present different points of view, different representations, cultures, it’s really important in games.”