AdventureX 2019: stereotypes and not being 100%

Over the past few years, representation in video games has been a big subject. We no longer want muscly men saving the world and princesses waiting in castles to be rescued: we want characters we can more easily identify with and to whom we can even look up to.

While at AdventureX last weekend, my other-half and I attended a talk by Ed Fear entitled So You Got in the Room, Now What? This was billed as being about the ‘trials and tribulations of creating a third wave gay character’. It focused on the Senior Creative Designer’s work with Mediatonic Games on Murder By Numbers, a 90s-themed Hollywood detective game featuring a character called KC who is happy with himself and doesn’t really care what people think of him.

I do love adventure games but I have to admit here that Murder By Numbers isn’t the sort of thing I’d usually play. It’s good to pick up something fun and silly every once in a while, but I tend to gravitate towards more serious stories with a different kind of art-style. That being said however, Ed Fear’s presentation was an enjoyable one; he was a great public speaker with an important message to share, and left me thinking about a couple of points he made long after his talk had ended.

He said: “I came to the realisation there is absolutely nothing wrong with stereotypes. Every single person in this room conforms to a number of stereotypes, be it about their gender, their job, their social class, their sexuality, where they come from, whatever. The reason these stereotypes are pervasive is because they’re true.” We use stereotypes to simplify our social world because they reduce the amount of processing we have to do when we meet someone new. This makes them perfect for use in media such as video games.

Fear continued: “The problem with stereotypes is that they need to be a foundation. Your character obviously has to be more than that. Stereotypes are actively useful because they’re hooks, they’re handholds that people can grab onto when they see your character. When they first get to know your character they can go, ‘Ok, I get something about them’, and that’s great. That’s your opportunity then to subvert that or to build on it in a way that people aren’t expecting – but you’ve got to get people to grab onto it first.”

The designer then went on to explain why it’s so important to recognise the difference between stereotypes and caricatures. The latter is derived from an Italian term that literally means ‘a loaded portrait’ and this sums up the point perfectly: it’s loaded with bad intentions and representations. As a member of a particular group, you know which of the stereotypes and which are those that have been wrongfully placed on the community – and that, as said by Fear himself, is where your power for change lies.

AdventureX, conference, video games, The British Library, Ed Fear

During his talk, he briefly discussed a Murder By Numbers character who he feels some players may respond to negatively. This is someone who doesn’t necessary agree with how ‘forward’ KC is but they’re ultimately a good person who just needs a little educating. The designer believes some might ask for him to be removed from the game because he’s not 100% on board – “And if you’re not 100% perfect, then you’re 0%.” This made me realise something that’s been on my mind somewhat in the following days.

In the present day, we’re told over and over again by the media and influencers how important it is to view our bodies in a positive light, embrace our personalities and love who we are. But what if Fear was right: if we’re continuously being torn down online for not being 100%, then how can we ever truly be confident in ourselves? How can we embrace the person we want to become when there are so many voices telling us that person isn’t good enough?

They’re complex questions far too big to be answered in a single post so I’ll leave them there. But I will say it seems to me as though we’re all caught up in this constant battle to be happy with ourselves that we’re never going to win until we become more accepting of each other’s differences. Fear ended his talk at AdventureX on Saturday by explaining how important it is to talk about representation in video games – and that’s very a good place for us to start on other issues too.

He concluded: “The whole point of me doing this talk was that we need to start talking about [representation]. We talk so much about how to get in the room that we don’t talk about what you do when you get there… I wanted to show the fact that you can get it wrong and that you can need other people to kind of set you on the right path. So we need to start talking about this more.”

5 thoughts on “AdventureX 2019: stereotypes and not being 100%

  1. Some good stuff here — particularly the bit about “if you’re not 100%, you’re 0%”. This is something a lot of people seem to miss these days, and it goes hand in hand with the concept of “depiction is not endorsement”.

    Part of good, realistic, convincing and valuable representation is showing how different people react to one another — whether those are good or bad reactions — and how everyone deals with those reactions after the fact. It’s not good representation if you have, say, a gay or a trans character who is completely immune to anything bad ever happening to them and is also incapable of doing anything “wrong” simply by virtue of being part of a “protected” class; it doesn’t make for interesting stories either!

    Ideally we should have characters that don’t let traits like this define them; they should just be a part of the rich tapestry that is a complete character. Some games do this very well — a lot of the games I’ve covered over the years have gay female characters, for example, but it’s just part of who they are and something accepted by their peers rather than something that is brought up endlessly — and others do it badly. The most egregious examples of the latter are probably the several Western RPGs that have had “Hi, I’m trans, here’s my deadname” conversations over the last couple of years; that sort of tokenism doesn’t help anyone.

    Stereotypes and tropes can be helpful narrative devices. You just need to make sure you do something interesting with them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope I understood this correctly: We’re all agreeing that “If you’re not 100 %, then you’re 0 %” is wrong, right? Nobody is perfect, everyone has weaknesses (Wait, isn’t that the Assassin’s Creed?). The important part is not ACHIEVING 100 %, but striving for it, constantly improving yourself and working towards a better you.
      It’s important to learn the difference between stereotypes and tokenism, and I don’t really need to say anything else, you summed that up pretty much perfectly.

      One thing I’d like to mention, though (which is a bit besides the main points, but still): People are always talking about how we need new things, and we have to use stuff to subvert expectations, surprise players, subvert tropes. Sometimes it can seem that anything that has been done once before, should never be repeated, and everything that’s tried and tested should be condemned.
      But there’s a reason that things are tried and tested. People respond to those things, people like those things. They recognise them and can identify with them, no matter if they are narrative tropes, character stereotypes (which are not all bad, as we agree) or a fun gameplay mode.
      Even at the start of the article Kim says ” we no longer want muscly men saving the world and princesses waiting to be rescued”. I have to at least partly disagree with that. After game after game after game filled with complex narratives, moral dilemmae, plot twists and intricate character design, it can be immensely refreshing to just pick up a sword double my size, defeat an evil wizard and his goons, and get the girl. No twists, no complications, and no “funny” remarks about that old cliche. Just an honest, plain old power fantasy.
      Of course, the context within society has changed (hopefully). Video games are no longer only for boys, women are not just prizes you have to win, and smart people are no longer incredible nerds with thick glasses. Yes, the change in video games was important (very much so, even) and we no longer want ONLY muscly men saving the world and princesses waiting to be rescued, but in a sea of nearly limitless narrative and representative options, I think there is once again room for such simple-minded games.

      I realise that these games have their own “difficulties” to face. Degradation of any sort, for example, can have no part in such a game. It can be an effective tool in more complex games, where it can hold a mirror to society or make you think about some moral implications, but in a “simple” game where you are meant to take everything at face value, you can’t have stuff like that.

      Liked by 2 people

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