Understanding Designer Bias
Before worlds are created, they must be understood from the perspective of the players as well as the creators. World building can create as many barriers for players as it can break down. It’s important to understand how to avoid creating barriers that interrupt gameplay or keep a player from understanding the lesson of the game.
Designer bias creates barriers and keeps people from playing games. While game designers don’t set out to create these boundaries and barriers they nevertheless exist because most people are unaware of their own biases and how they affect the worlds they create.
Everyone has biases that have been formed through their life experiences which form their perspective and understanding of the world. No two people have had the exact same life experience and no one has the exact same biases, but players can experience these nonetheless.
When biases go unexamined games are created that form barriers, such as excluding female playable characters from the game. Because, as Judith Lorber argues, “gender signs and signals are so ubiquitous that we usually fail to notice them—unless they are missing or ambiguous” (Lorber 14) there is often little attention given to the fact that video games make the assumption that the player is a heterosexual male. Even in games with no necessarily gendered characteristics the playable characters are made gendered during development through the use of various signs that reinforce the idea that the game player is male.
These biases affect the decisions players make in which games to purchase as well as how these games are played. When players are continually asked to play games from a perspective different from their own, be it gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation it shifts the players experience of the game to one where the player is constantly transgressing their sense of self.
Barriers are not only created through visual cues and game design, these barriers can be even more prevalent in the audio design of games where the character’s voice and soundscape reinforces the game creator’s perspective as being different from the player.
We all try to be unbiased about our potential audience, but the truth is that everyone creates games using some basic assumptions about who will play the game, which can lead to games that have no female playable characters or where African American playable characters are absent.
Bias is so ubiquitous for all of us that it takes not only an awareness of the bias, but also an understanding of how to counteract the bias for change to occur. It’s not enough to know that games should have an equal gender balance; the creators need to also understand how their personal biases work so that they can create such a game.
Bias is tricky and slippery. It’s hard to see and even harder to understand, but it’s essential for the game industry to understand how bias operates so that games can go to the next level of entertainment.
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Suzanne Freyjadis is interested in changing how bias and perspective work in the media to create barriers.