Kim Belair, Part ThreeComplications Ensue
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Monday, September 07, 2020

Alex: How do you explain the importance of what you're trying to do?
Kim: We're hitting, what, 40 years of video games. And I think people are starting to ask, why are we making very similar products? Why are a lot of our stories not resonating with the younger audiences? Why is our audience not growing? I like to say that representation is innovation. I think when people are asking for diverse stories, we're not asking for the same story with, you know, diverse characters.

Kim Belair in a sunny dressWe have to look at story and narrative as one of the things that we can innovate on. Like when you bring someone in from a different culture, from a different background, from a different gender, they’re going to create something that we haven't seen before.

The way that we look at demographics is that we go, OK, the majority of our player base is, let's say, a white male. So we're going to make stuff for white males.

But if you make something from the perspective of an Asian trans woman, and it’s really strong, then it will work for people. People crave new stories. If you want to innovate, even to stay current, it's not about graphics, it's not about hardware. It's about opening up new perspectives for people. So I explain it as, it’s important to game development to diversify. It's not just part of advocacy or activism. It is going to make your games better.

Alex: Also, of course gamers are mostly white guys: you’re making games for white guys! Try making games for somebody else, maybe they'll show up!

There’s an old story about Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures, who everybody hated. But everybody went to his funeral. And someone said, “See? Give the people what they want, and they’ll show up.”

Kim: The market has always been frustrating to me because we make assumptions based on what we already have instead of what we could have. A couple of months ago we were talking a lot about player choice in Assassin's Creed. People were saying, well, no matter how good this female character is, a majority of players played as a male character. So therefore people prefer male characters.

And what I had to explain was, no, actually, from a marketing and a psychology perspective, most people are going to choose the gender that they most align with. It doesn’t mean that’s what they want. If you are male identified, it's not that you don't want to play as a woman. You're just going, oh, that one's for me. I’m a guy, I don’t go to the ladies’ room.

We look at the success of something like Horizon Zero Dawn, which is a game led by a female character. If they had made it a choice, most players would have played as a male. But they didn’t, and it was a huge success.

Alex: On the flip side, even if you did believe that players will only play their own gender, which obviously I don’t, well, if 20 percent are playing a woman, you just increased your player base by 25 percent for almost no cost.

Kim: I think that the majority of the men, if you had Assassin's Creed starring a woman, they would play it anyway. Aside from a couple of trolls on Twitter, the odds are they're gonna go, oh, this is the brand that I like, I'm going to just play.

Alex: I would add that, not only can you tell more stories with diverse characters, you can explore more worlds. Our game Contrast was set in a shattered carnival world. What would it have meant to explore that as a typical 30-year-old white dude with a beard? But an eight-year-old girl and her seven-foot-tall circus girl invisible friend, that opens a door.

What is one of the most interesting narrative systems you have not been able to implement for whatever reason?

Kim: We were talking about how your choice of character has a profound effect on your experience. And I think one of the problems is that we only look at diverse characters in terms of what deficits that creates. Like if you decide to play a Black guy in Mafia 3, people are going to call him the N-word. OK, if I'm a White guy and I play as a Black man and someone is racist towards me, maybe that builds empathy. But all it says to me as a Black person, is that this game isn't for me. I already know that people are racists. This is not teaching me anything. This is just making me experience the worst of what I experienced in my life.

Alex: So for example, other Black characters might code switch...

Kim: Yeah, and be a little more forthcoming with you.

Alex: On a project I was on I worked with a Black consultant who asked if we would present Black characters as White people see them, or as they see themselves. So if I play a Black character, maybe I get a little peek behind the curtain.

Kim: That would be really, really cool. Something inviting.

We did a cultural assessment on a game project, and I employed this wonderful Cree woman named Sonia Valentine, and we asked her, what do you see too much of when you see indigenous characters? And she said, a lot of ceremonial garb, that is only meant to show non-indigenous people that this character is indigenous. And she was like, I don't go around in my daily life wearing ceremonial garb to show people how Cree I am.

And I said, What would you like to see? And she said, beads. She was in the process of making a bead work Superman logo. She's a huge DC Comics fan. And for her, beadwork is part of her culture. But the way that she uses it is to express who she is.

And if I saw a beadwork Superman logo, I wouldn't necessarily read it as, oh, yeah, that's an indigenous character. But she would.

Alex: Did you watch Mohawk Girls, the TV series, at all?

Kim: Not yet, no.

Alex: I think this is in the pilot, one of the characters meets a guy and it immediately becomes an issue of who are his parents, because the Mohawk community is so tightly intermarried, but you're not allowed to date cousins who are too close to you. And that's a problem that someone outside the Mohawk community wouldn’t necessarily know about. But Tracey Deer, who’s Mohawk, who created the show, did know it. It’s her reality. And if you're Mohawk, maybe you're like, “Exactly. Maybe I don't want to date a white guy, but how many Mohawk guys are there that I can actually date?” And I thought that was, you know, a look behind the curtain.

Kim: And that to me is so much more inclusive. Are you creating a Maori character for people to see that this game has diversity in it, or are you creating them for Maori people to see themselves?

Alex: Is there academic theory that you find useful?

Kim: My goal on every different project is to lead by lead by emotion and to make people care about what happens in the game. I don't necessarily subscribe to a school. But as a rule, when I draw inspiration, it's largely from action and blockbuster films. I use The Fast and the Furious a lot. I use Mission Impossible rather than dramatic films. Because we’re making action products. My job is to take this action thing and add character and world stories that are emotional, grounded and dramatic. Like, if I look at Mission Impossible, that movie makes you care about the folks in it. It's a lot healthier than if I look at a dramatic film and then try to add gameplay mechanics to that.

Alex: Have you ever seen Night of the Iguana? Elizabeth Taylor? 1964?

Kim: Yes.

Alex: A friend of mine saw that. And he thought it was Night of the Iguanas, with an ‘s,’ and he was waiting for the iguanas to show up. It was a perfect horror movie setup, you know, two people, cabin in the woods. You develop these great characters and you start to care about them, and then here come the iguanas.

Kim: I want to respect the medium. I want to be a writer who serves the greater project rather than someone who comes in and goes, I really want to tell this beautiful story, and I'm going to just cram in gameplay where I have to. Show me the thing that you're trying to build and I'm going to try to bring feeling and love to it.

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