Monday, May 26, 2014

Analysis of Argument: Developers Think Minority Players are 'Worthless'

On Friday an article made waves through the WoW themed twitter bases and as always I play catch up to these things because I follow the very edges of this community having only really concerned myself with gold making while I was in the game.  The article in question is obviously Polygon’s opinion piece Erasing your audience isn't 'fun' written by Todd Harper. In the article he is described as an MIT researcher in their Game Lab specializing in eSports and queer/gender representation in games. 

When I was going through the article and organizing what I thought about this it became clear that I needed to separate my thoughts (and now by extension my post) into my analysis of points and arguments brought up in the source piece and then distant from that decide how I think this subject matter in general affects games and ‘gaming culture’ so bear with me as I first break down the article and then ramble through a much more generalized opinion maybe later. 


I preface by noting that I will focus mostly on the Blizzard commentary in the article while trying to untangle what the author was saying about Nintendo as they jumped back and forth between the issues in a manner slightly confusing to me. 

In the header of the article we start with a grand statement and I will explain shortly why I do not agree that the point is as “very clear” as he states it which will lead me into what I think is the biggest pitfall of the article; the premise that will shape his piece was a false premise which renders useless the resulting conclusions. 

Rob Pardo of Blizzard gave a presentation at the MIT Media Lab which is linked in the article and you can watch the whole thing like I did. During the Q&A section Todd asks a question and this whole piece minus the Nintendo afterthought was him combining this with a question asked to the Heroes of the Storm game Game Designer on Rock, Paper, Shotgun and forming a bleak representation of the industry from it. 

During Rob’s presentation he notes that value number one for Blizzard is ‘Gameplay’ and they often make sacrifices in other areas such as story narrative for the sake of smooth and engaging gameplay.  He contrasts this with studios he described as being more story driven like Naughty Dog or Bioware. Todd frames this as putting Blizzard “in opposition to” Bioware. He makes his next point that Bioware was one of the only AAA studios attempting to diversify their games with LGBTQ content while Blizzard struggles with representations of gender.  This wording is deliberate so that he can follow up with a key premise to this opinion piece, “Blizzard's Dustin Browder, much like Nintendo in its statement regarding Tomodachi Life, positions "gameplay" and "fun" in direct opposition to producing socially-conscious content.”  Rob Pardo never says Blizzard is in opposition with Bioware only that one developer focuses on simple gameplay and the other focuses on rich narrative stating that both produce great games. Dustin by the same token never mentions gameplay in his answer regarding Heroes of the Storm female models. This assertion that they position ‘fun’/’gameplay’ in direct opposition to social content is produced here by cobbling together partial statements made months apart by two different men speaking on very different topics. 

In the next paragraph they touch back on Dustin’s comments saying that the message is “why can't we just have fun? Why do we have to be responsible for being respectful?” I do find fault in the interview and the dismissive manner of Dustin’s answering but this last statement begs the question stating that they are not ‘being respectful’ by not addressing the problematic characterization of females in comic books through their game. [It has to be noted that the Blizzard quote is in response to a statement by the interviewer saying comics are not a good reference point for character design because they are notorious for ”sexing up” and putting females in “some fairly gross situations”] 

This paragraph is just noting what was said as a matter of fact and reference for later; In the Q&A he asked Rob to talk about the relationship between the company values and their ‘perceived audience’ and Blizzard’s ability to add socially progressive content to their games. Rob responds by asking if he means adding diversity in the story.  Todd expands asking if Blizzard will “reflect the experiences of their players, specifically diverse players … reflecting their desires, experiences, and contexts in what you’re producing.” Rob replies that while they are not against it, this is not a value or “something we're trying to actively do.” He acknowledges this isn’t always the best choice - Blizzard struggles with the portrayal of women for example by having design that “is offensive to, I think, some women.” He notes the workplace are mostly men and “"I just don't get the applications” referring to female designers. 

The author finds it disappointing that Blizzard does not focus on releasing socially progressive messages which I grant him and he mentions the problem with too few female designers is one that can certainly be fixed which I happen to agree with wholeheartedly. Where I start to seriously split is under his “This is a wider issue” header.  Here he uses what I can only describe as pure equivocation to suggest “Blizzard, through Pardo, expressed really problematic notions of what's "valuable" — and what isn't” and furthers this by stating, “But what do you do when what they say all but outright says "we don't value you?" How do you maintain hope when the industry says "we don't think you're worthwhile?"” When Rob said something was a ‘Blizzard value’ it was in context of a speech on how they prioritize game elements in development. The term could have just as easily been “framework” (one way Todd references it in the question), design goal, or any other term, but because they said ‘value’ now we can equivocate that to mean they don’t find gay players or female players ‘valuable’ as a consumer base. These are simply two uses of the same word to describe fundamentally different things – one Rob actually said and one meaning that was forced onto him. 

With the premises now set up that ‘fun’ and ‘socially conscious’ are mutually exclusive opposing forces and players that identify with various minority groups are ‘valueless/worthless’ to game companies – the rest of the article just grabs onto these notions and rides them like a rollercoaster down the slippery slope finally climaxing with the conclusion that even acknowledging that these groups exist is the definition of “anti-fun” and game companies think that only ruination will come from it – and ends with the positive note that this is not actually the case.

Next I plan to deep dive into what I feel like are the real factors and issues we can gather from these statements without having to sensationalize. 


  You can reach me here in the comments, on Twitter @formerruling, and on my YouTube channel FormerRuling

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