Anthony Burch: diversity is common sense

The Borderlands 2 writer shares his list of practical reasons for diversifying games.

There are many moral and philosophical arguments to be made about why diversity in games matters. Unfortunately, there are also many people who remain unmoved by those arguments. Trying to change people's minds by appealing to empathy can be challenging, which is why Borderlands 2 lead writer Anthony Burch is proposing a new approach to diversify games.

In a talk delivered at the recent GX3 convention in San Jose, “Cynical Reasons to Diversify Your Cast,” Burch outlined some ways that we can appeal to people who don’t believe in the intrinsic value of having a diverse cast. His talking points ranged from soft-spoken (“it’s easy” and “gamers won’t revolt”) to practical (“diverse casts can lead to a more diverse staff” and “[it is] easier to differentiate the characters”) and financially-motivated (“it gets you press” and “gamers are diverse and want to give you money”).

I got in touch with Burch after the panel to discuss his pragmatic approach to diversifying games. To make an argument for diversity without talking about morality, Burch puts an emphasis on profits. "The people holding the checkbooks don't go, 'Oh, neat, they're starting a dialogue! This will somehow result in more press and sales,'" he says. "They're more likely to be petrified that [people] will boycott their game, despite the fact that this is something that has never happened with any degree of efficacy in the games space."

Indeed, there seems to be a perception that diversifying your cast will decrease profits, but according to Burch, that's just not true. So where does this perception come from? "Marketing," he says. "Games are still, primarily, marketed to young boys, and have been ever since the NES came to America and chose to exist in the boys' section rather than the girls'. Marketing defines a lot of our conversation, regardless of the actual realities of the situation... Gamers are diverse and want to give you money." For example, when Marvel reintroduced Thor as a female character, the new Thor books outsold the previous ones by about 25%. Successes like Thor can help to build momentum towards creating more diverse media. Once people see good results, it's easier to move on from purely philosophical discussions and focus on the bottom line.

Diversity-related success stories are heartening to see, but change still doesn't happen overnight. If you try to do too much too quickly, Burch warns, you may walk away from the table empty-handed. "I would always be careful to frame my suggestions as, 'Hey, this may be me being dumb, but hear me out for a second,' which is a natural outgrowth of my inherent self-deprecation anyway," says Burch. "It helped, though, because people were much more likely to listen to me when I made diversity a light conversation rather than a confrontational argument... It depends on the mood in your studio. If you think you can push hard for something extreme and won't be laughed out of the room -- if, worst case, you'll be compromised down to something progressive but less controversial -- then go for it."

It is also helpful for developers to pick their battles, Burch says. If you're coming into the studio every day to throw down over a new issue, it won't be as meaningful when you argue in favor of a more diverse cast. Instead, Burch suggests letting other people have their way on decisions that don't mean as much to you, then when it comes time to talk about diversity, they may just feel like they owe you a favor. It may not be an enthusiastic "yes!" that you get from your team, but an agreement to diversify the cast as a personal favor is still progress.

It’s not just the cast that can benefit from diversity, either. Minorities are also underrepresented on development teams. How can we argue for better representation in games if we aren’t even a part of the decision-making process? Burch acknowledges that it is easier for him to build a rapport with many of his fellow game developers because he doesn't automatically stand out as a minority. "I'm an almost-white almost-straight cis guy, and when I come to the table I generally get a lot more automatic respect and benefit-of-the-doubt than, say, a black woman would. I tried not to get too angry or too emphatic when making arguments for diversity, because I didn't want to get painted as the angry Social Justice Warrior, but it's also way easier for me to avoid that label because, again, I'm a dude."

It is an unfortunate reality that members of minority groups often have trouble getting people to listen when we want to talk about diversity. As an "almost-white almost-straight” cisgender man, Anthony Burch believes he is in a position where he can use his privilege to advocate for diverse games. "People are much less likely to dismiss the opinion of someone who is fighting for diversity if they're not a member of a marginalized group," he says. People in positions of privilege can help, "by speaking up about it when they can, and being a voice for diversity... And, obviously, signal boosting the words of marginalized people on [platforms like] Twitter."

In an ideal world, equal representation would come easily to game development. But for now, studios have a long way to go and can benefit from using every tool at their disposal. According to Burch, "If the people in power don't care about diversifying their teams, then they either need to experience an example of positive diversity in their personal lives, or they need to see some other team get [hugely] successful and wealthy because of diverse hiring practices. Anything beyond that -- the moral arguments, the pleas for consideration -- probably isn't going to do a lot. You can't un-racist somebody with conversation."

Anthony Burch, and many outspoken developers like him, offer hope that a more diverse game industry is possible, without relying on the whole world to wake up tomorrow with a change of heart. Because, to be perfectly honest, many players (this writer included) are tired of waiting.

Richard is a gaymer from Portland, OR whose sleep schedule is determined by the RNG. Charisma is his dump stat. Twitter: @RichardTheWorst.

Tags: GX3, Interview


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