"If we make that main character, it won’t be appealing to fans.”
“I don’t think this story is very relatable.”
“Why does a white person writing ‘Asian fantasy’ get more attention than people from the original culture??!”
I imagine many of us have seen the discussions, the debates, the criticisms, the arguments—in fiction publishing, in video games, in movies, in tabletop games—that point to an ongoing problem: the entertainment industry is still dominated by Western, white, often United States-centric creations and themes.
This dominance doesn’t continue because no one else exists in these creative spaces. A diverse range of people, across multiple aspects of identity and experiences, are creating entertainment.
But who gets funding?
Who gets PR?
There are exceptions, sure, but the majority still focuses on the same demographic.
There’s a conversation we can have about accessibility and resources (and many people are, which is great) but there’s another element at work: the challenge of creating a sense of resonance when you don’t belong to the majority culture.
What do I mean?
I’m going to use Mark Rosewater’s talk as an example: “Magic: the Gathering: Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons Learned.” His talk includes useful lessons about what helped make (and keep) MTG so successful. It's not The Definitive Guide to Design Success, but he does make a lot of useful points...that underscore an inherent inequity we need to discuss more.
Lesson #3: Resonance is important
To quote from his blog write-up of the speech: “humans come preloaded…with a life’s worth of experiences, including a lot of shared pop culture…build on that knowledge to make a rich, emotional game experience…it has a far greater impact on them than anything we could have created in a vacuum.”
Grabbing the emotions and engagement of someone will absolutely impact if they try your creation, how quickly they feel invested, and if the experience sticks with them enough to talk about it with others.
But what if you want to create something that isn’t based in the majority culture? Something that doesn’t have automatic resonance with the majority? It could be that the majority knows nothing about your culture—or they only know the stereotypes.
I’ve lost track of how many games I’ve seen that involve at least one Native American creator which lean full on into Hollywood stereotypes for their marketing material. And on one hand I think, “Well sure, they want to tap into resonance so people buy their product,” but on the other hand, I’ve seen countless non-Natives use those marketing descriptions as proof that their own stereotyped descriptions of Natives are perfectly fine.
What about people from Native American tribes that have nothing in common with the Hollywood stereotypes of plains tribes?
This isn’t limited to just Native American designers. What about the entertainment stereotypes around “Asians”, throwing together an entire continent of people into one label?
What if you come from a culture of experience that doesn’t even get stereotypical representation?
You start with a vacuum. You start without the benefit of “resonance.”
Lesson #4: Make Use of Piggy-Backing
Mark defines this as “the use of preexisting knowledge to front-load game information to make learning easier.” So piggy-backing is like resonance, but focused on learning instead of emotion. In the talk, he gives several examples: flying, zombies, a Trojan horse. By understanding these references, players more quickly understand and memorize the associated mechanics.
Some of the examples do reference things most people who have prior experience with (e.g. flying). But many others again point to culturally-embedded references. If we want to include these examples, we are required to inject the majority culture into our own.
How quickly someone understands a game or a fictional story will influence the likelihood they will continue to engage. Anything that blocks understanding can become a barrier that deters them.
This has the same problem as the resonance example: if you want to write outside the majority perspective, you must either use majority-culture references, find other ways around piggy-backing, or risk disengagement.
Lesson #11: If everyone likes your game but no one loves it, it will fail
Lesson #16: Be more afraid of boring your players than challenging them
I am linking these two lessons because they can cause the same challenge. The talk included an example of getting player ratings on a Magic card from 1 (hate) to 10 (love). Mark asked, as a designer do you want to receive a majority of 5 responses, or a split of 1 and 10 responses? The answer is the latter: divided opinions are better for the health of your game than generating a tepid response from everyone. Strong opinions, and debate around it, generate and sustain engagement.
This advice makes sense…but if we put it in the larger social context it also places a disproportionate risk on anyone in a marginalized status. There are two reasons for this.
One, people in the majority often don’t receive as virulent or threatening feedback as people in the minority. Look at the verbal abuse sent towards male vs. female video game designers; all of the verbal abuse it awful…and yet there is often a difference in the violence, slurs, and intensity of the response.
Two, people in the majority often have more resources to handle polarizing feedback. This can range from being able to actually use institutional resources (e.g. law enforcement, upper management, etc.), to having a bigger cohort to push back against the criticism, to having more emotional resources because their daily level of harassment and insults is lower.
Embodying this principle as a marginalized designer also means pushing back against the systemic pressure to maintain the status quo. That status quo means the majority maintain the power of definition, and the minority comply with that definition. Does this mean marginalized people can’t stir up debate, controversy, reactions? Of course not. But it does mean that doing so often means pushing back against cultural expectations (within and without).
Lesson #1: Don’t fight human nature
As Mark says, “We are creatures of habit and fear change.”
The entertainment industry, regardless of medium, is full of archetypes, tropes, genre themes, narrative structures, that all create certain expectations. When people’s expectations are met, they feel safe and content.
When their expectations are not met, they often react with anger.
Part of this is our physiological programming: we are literally built to respond to “expectations not met” with “become angry.” Why? Anger is an energizing, activating emotion. It fuels us to push past that disappointment or difficulty and continue.
But there is a difference between, “I expected there to be drinkable water in this river, now I need to push through a few more miles to get water” and “I expected this game to be a ‘traditional’ FPS and now it’s not.”
The emotional reaction can be the same, but the appropriate action would hopefully be very different.
But, often, it’s not. People get angry, they act on their anger, and they push and push with their anger.
On a business side, this means changing the formula means a risk of lost sales. Why do you think Hollywood resorted to reboots during the economic downturn? They wanted a sure-sale.
On the health side, being the target for this anger can be exhausting, discouraging, and even frightening.
Summarizing the Problem
Let’s put this together. Just using a few examples from Mark’s talk, marginalized creators may find it harder to create immediate emotional investment, more difficulty teaching concepts, risk a harsher backlash for creating controversial design, and be at higher risk of triggering angry reactions just for being different.
So what are the solutions?
On the consumer side, we need to recognize that we may not have the instant emotional reaction or instantly “get” the concept. (You know that emotional hit: it’s the one that causes you to immediately retweet, buy, or tell someone about a product). We need to be willing to spend a little more time exploring diverse entertainment. If it’s a game, maybe play it before dismissing it. If it’s a novel, commit to reading more than 5 pages before setting it aside. If it’s a movie, watch more than a trailer.
We need to think about what causes us to reflexively promote certain material. If we promote something only because we get that instant emotional connection…what is causing that resonance? Who are we promoting? Who are we leaving out? Who are we saying, “It might be good, it’s just not for me” about?
On the consumer side, when we feel anger towards a product by a marginalized creator we need to pause. And ask ourselves. What exactly is making us angry? Is our response proportional to the facts? What role are expectations (met or unmet) playing into our reaction? We also need to take a look at the broader situation and ask ourselves if acting on our anger is appropriate and proportional within the larger response…or would it just be piling on?
None of these things are about “giving marginalized creators a chance”: it’s about creating equity in a fundamentally unequal system.
Have you heard of Jane Austen? If someone says their product is like Jane Austen does that instantly bring up some ideas or references?
Have you heard of Chinua Achebe? If someone says their product is like Things Fall Apart does that instantly bring up some ideas or references? (And yes, I am picking a famous and acclaimed novel on purpose for this point).
Now whatever your response, ask yourself: would the majority of people you know instantly have an emotional response to Achebe’s work?
If the answer is no, that’s the inequity when it comes to resonance and piggy-backing.
Neither resonance nor piggy-backing make a product fundamentally better; they make it easier. And let's be honest...people generally prefer the path of least resistance.
Solutions for Designers?
This is a full topic on its own. I'll add a later post looking at some strategies for creating resonance based on examples from marginalized creators.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.