Now that we’re working on Desktop Dungeons: Rewind we have an opportunity to re-visit some of the old decisions that were made during development. A decade ago, we felt we had things to say about gender representation in games. Not only have our views matured, but they’re sadly more pertinent than ever (that’s right, QCF says Trans Rights). This article by Jon Keevy (writer on Rewind) goes into detail about our most recent decisions to broaden gender representation in the game:
When you play a game, do you see yourself in the story? Obviously you haven’t gone toe to toe with a dragon in your real life (probably), or had to scavenge antibiotics while hiding from zombies. But you can see bravery, determination, cunning, and whatever spectrum of human emotion the developers have explored. Emotions that resonate with your inner life.
But what about your outer life? Do you literally see yourself in the story? In the characters? If you’re white and male then you share that with a majority of game characters, and an even higher proportion of the protagonists. We don’t have to litigate the gender and race imbalance in games; it’s there. It’s the product of innumerable decisions by teams and individuals. Or rather one decision made over and over again: to go with the perceived default.
When we first made Desktop Dungeons, we made that same decision. This article is about how we unmade it and why.
The earliest iteration of Desktop Dungeons seen in public was the freeware version. The core mechanics of DD were in place, including many of the adventurer class and race combinations. It was at Indie-cade where we were asked a very obvious question: “Why are all the characters male?”
This question wasn’t a surprise. The team had realised the near total lack of female representation in the prototype up to that point, and was already working to correct it. But the reason it got asked in the first place is because we had made that same decision: we went with the default. Even with progressive politics and good intentions the default snuck in via our unconscious biases. And this didn’t just apply to gender. Our characters were overwhelmingly white.
But because we’d recognised what we’d done, we were able to fix it and turn Desktop Dungeons into an ideal example of representation done right. Except it wasn’t that simple. It never is. The solution to bad representation isn’t good representation, it’s reforming the process and systems that produced the bad representation. It requires not only a philosophical but also a technical approach, with all the provisos around time and capacity that comes with it. This is true even though we had decided that character gender should have nothing to do with how Desktop Dungeons works. It is devoid of mechanical impact. The same can’t be said of race. ‘Race’ is a messy term when it comes to fantasy, humans being a race unto themselves and non-humans also being races. We changed our terminology from ‘Race’ to ‘Kin’ – a quick fix to the confusion, but not to the lack of diverse human representation.
The solution we attempted for the full release of Desktop Dungeons was to create a female version of every playable class/kin combo. Equality! Players would get a random gender for each dungeon run. The technical problem was that this approach doubled the amount of art to create, increasing the workload to the limits of the team’s capacity. Perhaps this is why the default choices started creeping back in. Female coding in games (in the semiotic and not the programming sense of ‘coding’) can be stunningly basic. It’s best summed up by Ms. Pacman and her pink bow.
We repeatedly fell into this shorthand for ‘female’. We deliberately and successfully avoided the sexualisation of the female characters but the eyelashes got out of hand.
The end result was a genuine attempt at adding female representation but it fell short of what we wanted to achieve. In fact after release we wrote the forebearer to this article and came to this conclusion:
“If there’s one thing that we hope, it’s that our next game project will be more observant and inclusive from the very beginning, encompassing intersectional representation where possible and showing players that there’s always one more way to represent a complex group of people!”
And here we are. It’s not every team that’s afforded the privilege of trying again. And rarer still to have a second chance at the same game. So, did we make good on our hopes? We started development knowing the goal and knowing why we fell short before. Here’s what we did:
First off we scrapped our binary thinking about gender expression. We need non-binary, agender and androgynous representation! And we tweaked our language around it as well and spoke about male- or female-presenting characters. Secondly we needed the work to be within our capacity. The solution involved dice.
Instead of creating male/female versions of each class/kin combo there would be only one portrait for each. Players had never been able to choose gender before, so that remained unchanged. We went through the list and divided them up into male-presenting, female-presenting, or agender. There was definitely a programmatic way to do these, but we’ll take any excuse to break out some physical dice. We got rolling: 1 & 2 male-presenting, 3 & 4 female-presenting, 5 agender, and 6 reroll. The reroll was to balance out the statistics but we realised it also mapped well to a character choosing a gender expression that may have differed to what they were assigned at their creation. Yup, some Desktop Dungeons characters are canonically trans. No, we’re not revealing who.
This led to a new way of thinking of the class/kin combos. They really became individual characters to us. There’s only one gnome priest and she is feeling too old for this shit. Thinking of them as individuals allowed us to scrap prescriptive thinking for the art direction. These are a random sampling of characters from the world of Desktop Dungeons and the expression of that broke the gender and race coding we’d struggled with originally.
Can everyone see themselves somewhere in Desktop Dungeons? No, not yet. We know that our principles and our ambitions are constrained by unconscious forces even as we try to examine ourselves. They’re constrained by our limited time and capacity, and the choices of what to prioritise. And so we wait with an open mind to hear what our community has to say, what they see that was invisible to us.
Getting an opportunity to learn from our mistakes is a privilege we’re grateful for. An opportunity to develop as creators and as humans. We will keep growing and refusing to choose the default, because everyone deserves to see themselves in the games they play.