One scroll through Twitter in the days following any open-world video game release and you'll see a common refrain pop up: More female characters! More LGBTQ characters! More racially diverse characters! Take Mass Effect: Andromeda, for example.
One scroll through Twitter in the days following any open-world video game release and you’ll see a common refrain pop up: More female characters! More LGBTQ characters! More racially diverse characters! Take Mass Effect: Andromeda, for example. Gameplay mechanics criticisms aside, ME:A inspired a number of complaints about its handling of a transgender character Hainly Abrams. The non-playable character revealed her pre-transition name during a conversation with main character Ryder, which left some players feeling it did not accurately represent a trans person’s experience. BioWare, the studio behind the game, issued a statement to IGN claiming they had “several discussions with members of the transgender community, both internally at BioWare and in the broader community, and [are] working to remedy this issue.”
Miranda Comay is a city councilor who happens to be a transwoman. Credit: Ubisoft Ubisoft
But there are developers out there who are aware of the lack of character diversity in gaming and are actively trying to change the landscape. Watch_Dogs 2 Creative Director Jonathan Morin boldly admitted during a Tribeca Games Festival panel the accountability comes down to the people who do the hiring. It’s up to the development team to be aware of the sensitivities and consciously seek out help when creating characters.
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“We immediately started saying, ‘Look at ourselves! A bunch of white people talking about a black main character. We’re going to fail at this in a terrible way,’” Morin tells Newsweek. “You can make a treatment and research about living in the city of San Francisco. You can’t ‘research’ what it means to be a black person in an environment surrounded by white people. You just don’t. You’re better off working with people who’ve lived it.”
Josh Sauchak, pictured in the green hoodie, is a brilliant hacker. He was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. Credit: Ubisoft Ubisoft
Morin wasn’t ticking boxes when his team conceptualized Marcus; his background became crucial to the story. Marcus was a child raised in Oakland, Calif. and, as a result, likely experienced social injustice early on. They had a responsibility to make sure he came across as an authentic character. To do this, Ubisoft actively sought out African-American script consultants and actors to give voice to the characters and had them improvise dialogue to make the characters feel real. They encouraged collaboration to avoid turning characters into caricatures.
“[Ubisoft] believes in that concept,” Morin said. “Bring [the voice actors] in early, talk with them and let them chat with each other. Embrace the natural synergy that could happen between two actors. Let them go, let them bring to their stuff to the table. It just happened to work well between two actors that are black because [Ruffin Prentiss and Michael Xavier] had a natural way of saying things to each other.”
Watch_Dogs 2 features female characters, people of color, a transgender woman named Miranda Comay and a character with a developmental disorder. Josh Sauchak, the best hacker on the DedSec team, is on the autism spectrum. In a later DLC for the game, it’s revealed Josh was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.
Marcus Holloway is the protagonist of Watch_Dogs 2. Credit: Ubisoft Ubisoft
Seeing a character with a developmental disorder thrive is not common in video games. Morin, whose son is autistic, wanted to include a character like Josh in Watch_Dogs 2. Josh is a genius, but has trouble understanding social cues. He doesn’t process emotion like the others, nor does he understand slang, but the characters embrace him as one of their own. Morin couldn’t believe the response the studio got just for featuring Josh.
“Some people were saying, ‘It’s cliché having a smart autistic person.’ I was like, Really? You say it’s cliché because you’re uncomfortable with the subject matter, but in reality it’s not,” he said. “These guys are really good at certain things. This reality fits with the social differences they have. What I like is not that Josh is autistic, but the funny references in the game because the characters are natural with him. He’s the genius of the group. He has a lot of courage and he steps up.”
Morin insisted the characters found in Watch_Dogs 2 are the people you’d find in San Francisco; not including them didn’t feel right by the developers. Not only does Watch_Dogs 2 dive into the socioeconomics of racism, classism and gender identity, but the team behind the game made it a point to do their homework before ironing out the game’s plot.
Watch_Dogs 2 isn’t a perfect game. Even Morin told the Tribeca Games Festival crowd there are things they can do to improve. But Ubisoft and the team behind Watch_Dogs 2 are examples of how progress can be made in the gaming industry, and that there is a desire among players to see heroes outside the traditional conventions of the medium.
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