Games and inclusion: gender, minorities, and society

“[In] Dragon Age there’s a transexual character, which is something really important because if a transsex person […] sees themselves represented in a positive way, it can give them hope.”– quote from an interview with a player. PI06.

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Description

For all ages, video games are an expressive medium that is increasingly diversifying both the identities of the protagonists and the events and interactions presented in them. Issues addressed by video games include gender identity, treatment of cultural and ethnic minorities, refugees and war survivors, grief, love, sexual health, domestic violence, religion and faith, socialism, capitalism and neoliberalism, and, in a notable example from 2017, a playable interpretation of the work of the philosopher of Alan Watts (Everything). Such games can be used in a classroom context, but they are also commercial and non-commercial entertainment products that are already being played by millions of Europeans. The expansion is not restricted to content, but also includes a wide range of people that are becoming involved with, or more visible in, the development and communities of video games.

However, this increased visibility is not occurring without challenges and, like in society more broadly, there has been populist opposition to progressive inclusivity. Such opposition has included threats or murder, rape, assault, financial and legal implications, and even ‘swatting’ (the making of fake reports to the police of gunshots at their target’s house, with the hope to provoking an armed law-enforcement ‘SWAT’ response). As seen in many parts of society, moving beyond the past and present systemic prejudices against women and minorities is making bumpy progress, but the determination to do this successfully was supported by every game developer stakeholder interviewed during  the Gaming Horizons research and aligns with the goal of increasing RRI presence in EU funding policies beyond only ethics compliance.

Meet Pierre, a gamer who is heterosexual, and his friend David, a gamer who is gay.

Pierre feels like there’s too much fuss over minority groups saying that they are not visible in cultural artefacts, like video games and television. He thinks there’s nothing wrong with the way games reflect society, and he sees a lot of characters in games that he can relate to: white, male, cisgender, and heterosexual, and he’s never really thought about how it would feel for others to see themselves so rarely. Rather than engage with the lack of representation, Pierre makes jokes about others who are asking for equality. David is Pierre’s friend, but he would like to see different communities represented in games.

Although David laughs at Pierre’s joke, ‘dragons don’t exist?’, David secretly wishes that Pierre would take him seriously, but as a member of a minority group he knows that objecting puts him in danger: at the least he would change the nature of their friendship, but at worst he could be attacked verbally or physically. David has friends who have been attacked for being gay and he’s nervous about being too forthright about wanting equal treatment.

In a nutshell

Encouraging entertainment and artistic games developers to use women and minorities in their games will help build visibility for these communities as participants in everyday life and society. The wide reach of video games into European society allows them to function as a key asset in improving cultural understanding, relationships, and community. It is also likely to stimulate creativity in the industry, presenting new gameplay scenarios and inspiring new interactions.

Three approaches would contribute to progress in this area:

  • further research to understand the current, past, and possible future states of women and minority gender and sexualities in video games, particularly in a European cultural context;
  • training and workshops aimed at minority groups specifically intended to give participants game development skills;
  • targeted arts funding for creative video games that specifies inclusivity (either in theme, individual/team, or both) as a metric of consideration.

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Funding and supporting games as culture

“I think any entertainment game can be defined an applied or serious game the moment they can touch somebody’s feeling, so, I don’t know, I feel […]  that there should not be that much separation between entertainment games and serious games, to be honest” – quote from an interview with a developer. LSD2879

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Description

Who decides what is serious and what isn’t? Nowhere more than in the gaming industry does this question cause frustration and confusion. The contested and arbitrary nature of such a label has been noted by others before. Gaming Horizons simply confirmed it. It is perhaps understandable that, when it comes to taxpayer money, many worry that funding should be highly selective and not go to projects that may be perceived by the general public to be frivolous.

At the same time, our research on European funding highlighted some unclear strategies in relation to serious and applied gaming. It was difficult to tell if Europe wants to support serious gaming because it is right and ethically justified (according to criteria of social value), or because it is viewed as a promising sector that will contribute to economic growth and more jobs.

The contradiction at the heart of this tension should not be underestimated. Some argue that criteria of social utility, value and worth are best negotiated in the context of citizenship and democratic dialogue, while prioritising the market and economic benefits over everything else will ultimately lead to cultural impoverishment and trivialisation.

Meet Sanna, an EU Policy Advisor and Kim, a game critic

Sanna is a policy advisor who has been working with the EU for more than 10 years trying to bring a multidisciplinary perspective into the EU Research & Development (R&D) agenda. Such multidisciplinarity is reflected in her own background in philosophy and engineering. Sanna is very much interested in matters of social responsibility and ethical design – she has focused on the grand socio-technical challenges such as AI, big data and automation. Recently, she was assigned to a working group who will help shape the European agenda on serious gaming and gamification. The overarching objective of all R&D strategies in Europe is to create favourable conditions for innovation, market growth and employment, and this applies also to serious gaming. Quickly, however, Sanna becomes aware of a contradiction: while market growth and a self-sustaining business model may be the aspiration, the European serious games sector relies heavily on public funding. Sanna is struck by the contrast between the dynamism of the ‘entertainment’ gaming industry,  in touch with the trends, debates and the cultural tastes of modern society, and a serious games industry that exists in a rather insulated space, where academic research and small or medium-sized companies depend on institutional support to survive. As part of her new role, she organises a consultation workshop to gather views from a wide range of stakeholders, beyond the traditional EU-funded networks. Participants include independent game developers, representatives from game publishing companies, and a video game critic called Kim. Kim is an outspoken advocate of independent games and digital arts, and quickly makes a thought-provoking observation about cultural value, commercial viability and ‘seriousness’. She claims it is possible to create games which wouldn’t necessarily be called ‘serious’, but which nonetheless are important and have cultural, artistic and societal relevance. Most importantly, she suggests that cultural and artistic relevance are not commercial constraints, but can in fact ensure forms of market viability which are perfectly suited to small and medium sized companies. Kim proceeds to illustrate several examples of small, culturally important games that managed to be profitable. She also emphasises the importance to engage with those mediation and curation channels (online communities, digital distribution platforms, games journalists, YouTube content creators) who can enhance the visibility of games and, thus, their commercial success.

In a nutshell

Criteria of social, artistic and cultural value can be part of an effective business model for games ‘with a conscience’, beyond restrictive labels such as ‘serious’ or ‘recreational’.

Artistic and cultural relevance are not barriers to commercial viability but can in fact enhance market appeal in some cases. Public funding is still needed to support game developers or researchers that seek not only commercial success but also positive social impacts. However, criteria of social, artistic and cultural value should have more weight than they currently do in funding strategies. These criteria should not be viewed as fixed but can be negotiated through regular consultations with relevant stakeholders.

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Reframing ethics in gaming R&D: beyond compliance

“You can only do that if you go beyond compliance. So it is not just ticking the box […] but to think […] about how we can be responsible and mainstream Social Sciences and Humanities meaningfully, not just as a cherry (on the cake) or an add-on stuff” – quote from an interview with a policy maker.  P14

Description

The notion of what is ethical in research and development is currently rather limited. Our own work focused on gaming and gamification in the European context, but the implications are broader. We talked to many experts and carried out an in-depth analysis of how research and development are framed as priorities in the European flagship funding programme: Horizon 2020. We found that ethics in R&D are almost exclusively focused on compliance, where compliance refers to the need to abide by ethical requirements and conditions. These requirements and conditions are concerned exclusively with the process of research, for instance in terms of ensuring informed consent or equal gender representation in R&D teams, rather than with its outcomes, or with the design principles that inform the process from the outset.

In this scenario, we describe a situation in which a more complex, nuanced and positive idea of ethics informs the design and development of video games.  Rather than being narrowly framed as a collection of requirements that may constrain innovation and creativity, ethics becomes a positive mindset that puts the entire R&D process in a different light. Ethics, in other words, becomes synonymous with aspirations for social and cultural relevance – something aligned with the humanistic, democratic and egalitarian values that underpin the European project. In this alternative scenario (and in its ‘child’ scenarios), policy makers, developers and researchers also begin to challenge strict accountability criteria that revolve exclusively around utilitarian goals and measurable outcomes. Alternative definitions of cultural and technological value, this time more negotiated and dialogic, begin to be explored.  

Meet Michel (an EU policy maker), Simone (a social researcher), and Rita (a game developer)

Michel, Simone and Rita have been invited to an international round table to discuss the future of the gaming industry in Europe. The event is sponsored by the EU Commission and the focus is, predominantly, on the role of institutional support and public funding. The EU Commission is worried that its R&D strategies are beginning to be out of touch with the concerns and priorities of the various EU publics. Games are viewed as a profoundly ‘social’ and pervasive technology and they receive a significant amount of funding. As such, they are an area where concerns for cultural relevance and impact are particularly pressing.

The event provides an interdisciplinary forum to discuss games ‘for good’, which therefore have a distinctly ethical dimension. The event also provides concrete opportunities to examine examples of best practice, focusing on the experiences of developers (and users too) whose games don’t fit into pre-existing categories such as ‘serious’ or ‘educational’ but still have recognisable cultural and educational value, and at the same time manage to operate in the market conditions of the leisure-oriented gaming industry. 

During the event, Michel, Simone, and Rita begin to outline a number of alternative cultural dimensions associated with games: narrative poignancy, appropriate representation, responsible usage, and so forth. They also begin to explore alternative ways to evaluate the cultural and social impact of games. One approach is forming citizen panels collectively recruited through social media; these examine, through a form of ‘crowd-sourced’ evaluation, the social of cultural impact of games developed under the patronage of the EU Commission.

In a nutshell

Ethics in research and development are often viewed as a restrictive set of requirements simply to be complied with. In our project, we often came across this limited interpretation, but we also saw signs of a different position where ethics are part of a more positive mindset, and where notions of what is good, decent, and worth pursuing are grounded in the priorities and concerns of society.  

Funders and key institutional actors like the EU Commission could make more efforts to establish platforms  (including face to face events and social media initiatives) to explore definitions of responsible research and innovation in a dialogic and democratic fashion.

Resources

Our own analysis of EU Funding offers a critical perspective on how ethics and social responsibility are accounted for in the flagship EU R&D programme: https://www.gaminghorizons.eu/wp-content/uploads/sites/18/2017/05/D2.2_critical-analysis-of-H2020-sources.pdf    


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