Equality in the Gaming Industry: An Interview with Ernest Adams

Mr. Ernest Adams

Mr. Ernest Adams; Game Designer, Consultant, University Professor and Writer

A well renowned figure in the gaming industry has kindly taken the time to talk with us about equality and diversity in games and the gaming industry. Mr. Ernest Adams, though not a household name, is known to games developers not only as a founder of the first and largest international body for games developers, but also as a developer behind EA’s Madden NFL series, and as a previous lead designer at Bullfrog Productions. Mr. Adams now works as a consultant working with such clients as THQ, Ubisoft, BioWare, the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), while also being a fellow/visiting professor at a number of universities across Europe and the author of several books on game design.

We’re quite honoured that such a person has chosen to speak with us about the industry and his perceptions of it (we can think of very few who’d have their finger closer to it’s pulse!)…

Mr. Adams, You’re very well known in the industry, and a quick google search shows you to have quite an impressive résumé, but for the benefit of readers, could you please tell us a little about your industry experience in your own words?

I’m a 22-year veteran of the game industry. I got started back in 1989 as a programmer (after having spent 7 years programming in another industry first), and then became a game designer and A/V producer. Along the way I helped to put on the Game Developers’ Conference and founded the International Game Developers’ Association. I’m now a game design consultant, part-time university professor, and writer.

What are your thoughts about Mr. Gaider’s response to the “Straight Male Gamer” in the whole Dragon Age 2 affair recently?

I think David Gaider’s response is one of the most eloquent defenses of equal treatment for all that I’ve ever read. I was particularly impressed by his points that privileged classes of people get so used to being catered for that they see any change as negative, and that they often want to deny the privileges they enjoy to others. This goes right to the heart of the gay marriage issue, in which socially conservative heterosexuals insist that they alone should have the right to get married.

We’ve heared of some statistics suggesting that straight male gamers may actually not be as dominant a demographic as people may first imagine, with one claim from a 2006 study that 70% of online gamers are female, and a claim from a 2008 study that 70% of female gamers typically play as male in order to be taken seriously. Do these numbers match up to your impressions of industry demographics?

It’s nowhere near as dominant as people think it is. According to the Entertainment Software Association’s own fact sheet, 40% of all (not just online) players are women, and more adult women play video games (33%) than teenage boys (20%). This directly contradicts the stereotype that the teenage boy is the typical gamer.

I’m less certain about the gender-bending numbers (“Gender-bending” is standard game-industry speak for playing as a member of the opposite sex, with no disapprobation implied for the most part). I’m surprised to hear that “70% of female gamers typically play as male” — I wonder if that means all the time, or just online, and in what sort of game. I would guess that a very large number of female gamers play Solitaire or Bejeweled as themselves without any effort to gender-bend. In offline games I think men are much more likely to choose a female avatar than a woman is to choose a male avatar. This has in part to do with players’ different attitudes about their relationship to their avatar. For men (speaking generally here) the avatar is really just a means of influencing the game world, whereas for women the avatar is more of a means of self-expression. Women spend much more time customizing their avatars into realistic or fantasy versions of themselves; men are more likely to just grab the default and go.

The gaming industry seems to have taken a few steps forward in recent times, but responses to the BioWare story seem to indicate that the demographics of gamers have diversified faster than the industry itself has. There’s a charge that the industry caters especially to a heterosexual male demographic when in fact it doesn’t really need to do much to be more inclusive of many other demographics as well. Do you feel that the industry needs to diversify in such a way?

The industry absolutely needs to diversify its work force and also to learn to reach other kinds of players beyond “straight male gamers.” Straight male gamers are a solved problem, done and dusted. The question is, can straight male game developers learn to make games for gay, or female, or older, or non-Western gamers? I believe they can and damn well should; but in addition, I feel that the industry would benefit enormously from a more diverse work force. Even with the best will in the world, a man isn’t necessarily going to know what appeals to women — and more importantly, what turns them off. We need fresh perspectives.

One of the ways in which people have felt a little left out on occasions, is that in-game options tend to be limited along traditional lines. In setting up and playing RPG game characters, for example, things often seem to be clearly and unnecessarily delineated between male and female options, which excludes both self-identification for transgender people, and the fantasy for straight people. Do you think that this is something the industry could, and perhaps should, easily rectify?

I think it’s asking a lot to demand that game developers include a third androgynous sex, or even FTM and MTF transgender sexes in addition to traditional male/female in their games. It’s a lot of work to do character animations for two sexes, much less four. In the real world we only construct two kinds of rest rooms (the Swedes often construct only one) and all just have to make a choice; and I think the virtual world is the same and for some of the same reasons: it’s expensive. On the other hand, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to let male characters wear female clothing and vice versa if the player wants to.

In many games there’s no particular need for the player to have an in-game sex; Gordon Freeman in Half-Life is never seen and never speaks, so in fact he need not be named Gordon or have the picture that he does on the box. “He” could have been named “Chris Freeman” and been of indeterminate sex if Valve had wanted to. However, in role-playing games with a story, I understand why it’s necessary for players to either choose a sex or accept a given sex. I have some experience with transgendered people and I know that for many of them it’s a situation that dominates daily life, but in a story of adventure and derring-do, the challenges of being a transgendered person really don’t mesh well with the challenges of destroying evil dragons.

Love, lust and romance are powerful human emotions that feature regularly in video games in a variety of guises, not least because by nature they’re a fundamental part of the human psyche. What are your thoughts on any possible need to see options for this in a homosexual context as well as a heterosexual context, and so including options for others while not taking them away from heterosexual players – an equalising of the playing field, as it were?

I’m all for including a variety of romantic opportunities in a game to cater for players of varying sexualities. David Gaider was right on that point: he was serving everyone, not just one group, and I think that’s fair and right. That said, I know that many straight people are uncomfortable or offended being the target of same-sex romantic proposals (and sadly, a great many gay men have been beaten or worse for doing so by accident). This was really the essence of Straight Male Gamer’s complaint; he didn’t like being propositioned by a gay character. Facebook specifically enables people to say they are interested in men or women to try to reduce unwanted proposals, and I think this is a good idea. “Gaydar” isn’t entirely effective even in the real world; it’s much less so when an artificially-intelligent computer character is trying to decide!

Bottom line: yes to same-sex romantic opportunities, but give people the chance to opt out of undesired propositions from either sex.

I’d be remiss not to ask about the old and continuing charge that female non-player characters are often designed to cater more to the stereotypical fantasies of some males, sometimes to the exclusion of female sensibilities. Could you tell us a little about why this may be and whether it’s something that the industry could easily address?

Its roots lie in the fact that the game industry, from the developers up to marketing and to the CEOs who ultimately decide what to spend the money on, are predominantly male and have for many years thought, wrongly, of gamers as teenage boys. It’s something the industry could address without too much difficulty, but it requires some retraining. We don’t need to make pink games or games specifically for women, so much as simply to avoid design decisions that turn women off. Unfortunately, comparatively few men know what those are. Most are entirely unaware, for example, of how female-hostile the average retail game store is. For much, much more on this subject by an expert, read Sheri Graner Ray’s book Gender Inclusive Game Design.

On the subject of inclusivity, do you believe that there’s a significant demographic of people that currently feel excluded from gaming? If the industry were to diversify, though people such as the “Straight Male Gamer” claim that studio’s may lose their custom, is it likely that other people who currently feel excluded will take their place – perhaps even more than take their place. Is it in the commercial interests of game development houses to be more inclusive in this way, in your opinion?

The group most needlessly excluded from gaming is not actually women or gay people — despite the lack of options for those folks. The people most needlessly excluded, and about whom game developers are even more ignorant than they are about women or gay people, are those with disabilities. Game accessibility is in a terrible state. Most developers never give it the slightest thought. In fact, however, it’s quite easy to make games accessible to people with a wide range of problems. Closed captions are technically trivial to implement and make games available to people with hearing impairments, for example.

Something like 23% of the population suffers from some form of impairment; I myself need glasses and am developing arthritis. I don’t think that making games available to these folks will be especially lucrative, any more than installing curb cuts and ramps in sidewalks is lucrative. We do it because it’s the right thing to do. And so should game developers.

You’ve mentioned that increased diversity in the industry would be a good thing. For one final question, would you say that the games development industry would welcome more female and LGBT game developers, and would you give any specific advice to any such person wishing to enter the game development industry?

The industry certainly thinks it would welcome them, but it’s something of an open question whether they will actually feel welcome. So much depends on the corporate culture of the place where you work. I’m on the advisory board of Women in Games International, which is the professional society in the games development industry for women, and know a multitude of women in the business. At a grown-up company that is serious about enforcing anti-discrimination and anti-harassment rules, there should be no problem, but after I moved from California to England, I was shocked to learn how behind the times the UK industry is (and UK culture generally) — “laddish,” and much more dominated by unenlightened young men.

I’ve written a book called Break Into the Game Industry that addresses issues for women and LGBT folks. My main advice is to keep your eyes open when visiting for an interview — if you’re seeing pinups on the walls and no women in positions of power or creative input, watch out. If you hear some young punk using “gay” as a synonym for “stupid,” ditto.

Apart from that, it’s really about showing us what you can do. Job-seeking in this industry is mostly a matter of compiling an awesome portfolio, one that makes the hiring manager say, “Wow… I have got to talk to this person!”

Mr. Adams, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk to us; it’s sincerely appreciated and has been a real pleasure.

Everybody knows that the games industry has it’s good points and it’s bad points, and Mr. Adams’ responses add weight to such a view. Even so, the responses are important in another way: They show that not only is there change in the gaming world, but there is a willingness to change. There is a recognition of where the industry falls short of the mark sometimes, and in the context of these responses, the recent BioWare story can be seen as a step towards a better future both for the industry and for gamers.

These things take time, but the BioWare story changed the world just that little bit. It might not have had a huge impact, but someone, somewhere will have taken notice. It has shown not only that there’s support for the response of David Gaider, but there’s support for such changes of perspective, attitude and understanding in the games industry in general. Ernest Adams’s responses in this interview are no less important. The answers to these questions come not only from a 22 year veteran of the industry, but one of the leading figures within it. Those who wish to see this greater diversity, inclusivity and equality in the industry may wish to share what he has to say, encouraging that change by doing so.

If you’d like to know more about Mr. Ernest Adams and his work, his website is found at www.designersnotebook.com.