Stereotyping–for Profits!

In my last post, I discussed some touchy issues relating to gender in games. I got a couple of comments from readers, and I wanted to take some time to reply to them today, as well as delve deeper into an issue that keeps coming up: generalizing about people to tailor games for particular audiences.

Is that all the blood you can muster up?

Before I get into all of that, though, I wanted to address one of the games Simon brought up in his comment to my last post: Mortal Kombat. Before the Grand Theft Auto series got big, Mortal Kombat (and Doom) were the big bad corrupting video games according to… well… people who need scapegoats. The game became famous for its over the top blood and extreme violence, including giving the winner an opportunity to finish each defeated opponent in several ridiculously violent ways, including ripping his or her still beating heart out and tearing him or her in half. The game series was even popular enough to spawn several movies!

Simon brought it up because he loves the game series and was concerned it went against basically everything I said in my previous post. Well, he’s right. BUT, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think Mortal Kombat gave up on having a broad audience a long, long time ago, and that’s ok. It has its niche, and it’s been very successful in it. If Mortal Kombat did give up the extreme violence, they would lose a lot of fans, and probably wouldn’t gain many, because the series has quite the reputation.

As far as liking it–that’s totally your call. It’s not my cup of tea, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it. Knowing Simon personally, I can say with some degree of certainty that the game hasn’t corrupted him too much.

In response to my last post, Simon also brought up another game he was concerned about, Mall of Horror. I haven’t played it personally (I want to, though… it sounds pretty interesting), so I’m basing this on what Simon said in his comment. In the game, players attempt to keep their characters alive during a zombie infestation. Apparently, the single woman character in the game, a screaming cheerleader, is worth more points than any of the other characters, but is also harder to keep alive than the other characters.

Now, as far as mechanics go, I don’t have a problem with that. A character with a vulnerability but a reward if you can overcome it–that’s good game design in my book. Making her a woman… well, she had to be one or the other, right?* The problem I have with this is that she is the only woman character in the game. There could have been any number of other women characters, and they could have even riffed on existing zombie stereotypes (Resident Evil immediately comes to mind as having strong, protagonist women). By having only one woman in the game, and having that character be weaker than the others, the game is perpetuating a negative stereotype about women.


We use stereotypes all the time in our daily lives. They’re basically shortcuts. Lots of dogs you’ve seen have chased cats (at least in cartoons). You use that knowledge to expect that your new dog is probably going to chase a cat if she sees one. Pretty harmless, and pretty useful, since it can help you avoid an awkward encounter when you visit your friend who has cats.

Stereotypes can be very dangerous, though, especially when they’re applied to people. Stereotyping has led to some of humanity’s ugliest moments, including slavery and genocide. It continues to drive people to hate and murder each other all over the world. Things aren’t a whole lot better in the United States, where the legacy of slavery lives on in racial stereotypes and LGBT students are pushed to suicide from excessive bullying, to name just a couple of extreme examples.

Even seemingly harmless stereotypes can have major negative consequences, though. For example, stereotypes about girls being bad at math and science continues to have a negative impact on enrollment of women in these fields, leading to people not living up to their potential, as well as industries and departments seriously lacking in diversity. These seemingly innocent stereotypes are sometimes even held by presidents of major universities, and when these views are discovered, the backlash can be swift and serious.

So, why am I talking about this on a game studio’s blog? Well, game design makes heavy use of stereotypes, and I want to stress the importance of using them responsibly. I’ve discussed before, here and here, why you’d want to use stereotypes, but the quick and dirty reason is that stereotyping allows you to communicate a great deal of information to large audiences quickly, which is important when you want a large audience and can’t rely on people dedicating any time or mental energy to your product.

But now I want to talk about the potential dangers of using stereotypes. It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll cause some of the worst effects of stereotypes, but every little bit can contribute to a less happy existence for many people. To me, there are two main dangers of using stereotypes when designing games: establishing or reenforcing stereotypes in the minds of players who will then go on to use those stereotypes to hurt people; and alienating people who do not fit the assumptions you’re making about your players.

Teaching Discrimination

One way game designers use stereotypes is to quickly convey something to players. The cheerleader from Mall of Horror is a great example of this. Most players will already have a concept of a pretty girl who freaks out at the smallest sign of danger and just makes things worse, so they’ll immediately understand how that character’s mechanics work. Another benefit is that you’re providing the player with a cute, simple puzzle, giving him or her a little positive feeling when he or she gets it.

The problem, of course, is that it might make the player think that all women are helpless and make problems worse. In this case, it’s particularly bad, since the game has no other female characters to offset that perspective. But even with other characters, that joke will strengthen the negative stereotype in the minds of players. What if the player had never thought of that before? He or she now has an idea that women are helpless. What if the player already kind of thought that? Now he or she has more reason to believe it, since the game designer seems to think it as well.

A lot of stereotypes have become so unattractive in our society that they have almost been eliminated from mainstream media. Blatant racism immediately comes to mind. Homophobia and sexism are also both stigmatized, though to a lesser extent. That said, subtle forms of all of these stereotypes–and more–do come up all the time, and can be nearly as damaging as the blatant versions. And honestly, the game industry is waaaaaaaay behind the curve when it comes to representing women, anyway.

It’s impossible to totally avoid stereotypes altogether, but if you want to minimize the damage they might cause your player, one partial solution is to avoid realistic settings. Some of you might remember that I once argued against using fantastical settings, and instead suggested directly addressing real world issues, but this is one situation where adopting a fantastical setting can be helpful. It’s much less likely that your player is going to start thinking people unlike him or her has a negative quality when the character in your game with that quality is a member of an alien race.

Even better, in my view, is to make sure you have complex characters that aren’t one dimensional or simple stereotypes. Give them some real personality. That can be difficult, since a lot of game design is simplifying and abstracting things, but give it a try. You can always establish a stereotypical character, then surprise your player by making the character break the stereotype.

Another helpful option, one that would have greatly benefited Mall of Horror, is to make sure there are multiple representations of all types of characters. This would show that there is real variety among groups of people, which can break down stereotypes, rather than building them up.

People are Unique

Another way to use stereotypes in game design is to think of your player as a stereotypical member of your target demographic. When I’ve discussed using stereotypes this way in the past, I’ve tried to take care to mention that I’m generalizing, and that I realize that no one completely fits the description I’m giving, and many people don’t fit it at all. That’s all well and good for me, but what about the person who doesn’t fit the stereotype but sees the product. Will he or she feel bad because he or she doesn’t fit in? Or worse, will that person try to change who he or she is to better fit the stereotype?

I think a lot of people get uneasy with the idea of using stereotypes like this, and honestly, I’m not the biggest fan. I recognize the value, but shouldn’t we be striving to encourage people to be unique and interesting, not all the same? Conformity has been something I have personally tried to avoid my whole life, so why should I create something that might help other people conform?

This is a pretty tough one, but the best I can offer is to make sure your game doesn’t target one type of person too much. Add a little subversion in there. Give the people who don’t fit into your stereotype a character to root for. Throw in a few light hearted jokes at the expense of an extreme version of the stereotype you’re targeting.

A lot of Pixar movies do a good job of this. They target kids, and most of the movie is for kids, but you’ll notice jokes throughout that only an adult would understand. While the movie creators know that parents will be subjected to their movies with their kids, they’re also providing something for older siblings and kids who are mature beyond their years to enjoy, even if the content a stereotypical child would appreciate is beneath them.

With Great Power…

Stereotypes are a powerful tool, but like all tools, they can be used for good or for bad. It’s important to be able to wield them, but it’s also important to remember what you’re doing, and make sure your choices aren’t going to perpetuate the negative stereotypes that exist everywhere in this world, or make an unusual player feel even worse about his or her not fitting in. We all believe that games carry real meaning and change people’s lives, right? Let’s make sure they’re doing it for the best!

I’m honestly going to try to tone down the ethics a bit on this blog, but I’m not going to lie, it’s something I think about a lot, so it will probably come up again. If it’s something you’d like to see more or less of, definitely let me know.

Until next time!

* Actually, she could have been neither a man or a woman, or both, or transgender. Sadly, most game audiences aren’t ready for something like that, so for the time being, games that include humans that are not simply men or women will probably stay out of the mainstream.

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1 Comment

  1. Christie

     /  July 1, 2012

    Why tone down your ethics? People don’t have to agree with them, but having them in there makes it clear why the topic is important.


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