Wednesday 1 October 2014

Diversity in Fiction, #Gamergate, and the Problem of Meta-Issues

Diversity in fiction is a topic I find continually fascinating in terms of how we approach it as both artists and consumers, particularly in a world where certain cultures, lifestyles, races, and even genders can be the source of controversy in the arts.
This is something that's been on my mind a lot lately with the emergence of the Gamergate controversy. For those who are unfamiliar with the latest buzz in the video gaming world, Gamergate is essentially a discussion revolving around corruption in gaming media, tying in strongly with concerns about the perception of misogyny and sexism within the industry.
While much of the most vocal Gamergate discussion consists, in my opinion, of very shallow and shortsighted views (on both sides of the debate), it has provided a lens through which to examine exactly why people feel so strongly about the topic of diversity in fiction, and what can or can't be done to address it.

The Gamergate controversy is largely centred around gender diversity within the gaming medium, but I would like to talk more about the broader picture of diversity (by which I mean; anything that differs from what we consider the "default") in the arts in general.

So, why is diversity a thing and why do people debate it? Well, in a very broad nutshell, it comes down to the idea of freedom of expression. I think most people would agree that more diverse casts of characters and broader arrays of topics in fiction are good things -- after all, nobody wants to keep reading the same story over and over again -- but contention arises when we start discussing how to make fiction more diverse than it already is. You may have noticed that I used the word "make" there, and that innocent little bit of phrasing is precisely what many people take issue with. Why should we have to make our work more diverse? Who are these people who want to make us do it, and why do they have the right to say what we should and shouldn't be including in our own stories? What if I have no interest in writing a story that involves gay characters, or a multi-ethnic cast, or with an equal balance of males and females?
Of course, nobody has the right to brow-beat artists into changing the nature of their work. The idea of filling a "diversity checklist" is incredibly offputting to many people, both fans and creators alike, and, when forced, it can often feel artificial and pandering (or even worse, lead to token characters and stereotypes that end up doing more harm than good).

But despite that, diversity is still an enriching part of fiction that should be encouraged and treasured. What hamstrings much of the discussion going on in #gamergate is the polarised opinions that topics of diversity should either be pushed on artists to make them change their storytelling, or that these topics should just go away and stop bothering people, leaving developers to keep on telling the same straight-white-male-centric stories for as long and in as great a volume as they want.

So what is the solution here? How do you appease the people who yearn for more diversity in their fiction without imposing pressure on creators to change their artistic vision?
As you can imagine, it's a moderate middle-ground. The reason a lot of content creators shy away from topics of diversity is quite simply because they lack (or think they lack) the experience to do them justice. They simply don't like to step out of their comfort zone, and focusing on making their work diverse is really not what they want to be pouring their energy into when they'd rather be mapping out a great plot or digging into the richness of a compelling character.
And how do you change that? You encourage the artist to stop feeling uncomfortable with topics of diversity.

I have never had any problem with including male, female, gay, straight, foreign or familiar characters in my work. They occur naturally, when and where I feel they are appropriate. I certainly don't hold myself up as a paragon of diversity in storytelling -- I'm sure just as many of my stories lack it as include it! -- but it's there, and it's not a big deal. I put this down to the simple fact that I've been lucky enough to grow up amongst all kinds of different people living different lifestyles, and I've never seen any of them as weird or different or uncomfortable more than they are familiar and similar to me. Once you start to realise that the person living next door to you has just as much potential to be strange and unfamiliar as someone living on the other side of the world, it becomes very easy to start understanding that cultural, ethnic, gender, and sexual diversity are often no more defining as characteristics than a person's job or the choice of clothing they wear.

You can't force people to make their work more diverse. You should not single out artists and point fingers at them for perpetuating the status quo. The status quo is nothing inherently right or wrong, nor does anyone need to be judged for adhering to it; because it is a meta-problem that exists independent of individual artists. When a thousand innocent attitudes converge to create a medium where women (or any other social group) are under represented, no single person should be blamed or made to feel bad for the nebulous collusion of ideas that have all naturally shifted towards one general focus.

All of us want more diversity. More natural, enriching, interesting diversity in our fiction. So have these discussions. Talk about atypical characters. Let artists get to know the rich collection of people who enjoy their work, and let them start to see how a character being straight, white and male doesn't always need to be the default template they start with. Don't approach them with accusations or ultimatums; just do your little bit to broaden their understanding. Because the only way fiction will become more diverse in a natural, meaningful way is if the artists behind it genuinely understand, appreciate, and, most importantly, want to include that diversity. It will start to happen without many of them even realising it. The unfamiliar will become the familiar, until one day artists across the world will be writing diverse stories without even thinking of them as being diverse.