Garwulf’s Corner #2: Steve and the Diversity Onion

Originally published April 1, 2015

ONE OF THE favourite pastimes of my wife and I is to watch Loading Ready Run, a Canadian comedy troupe, stream games on Twitch. One of their members, Alex Steacy, came up with a trope that summarizes one of the problems with diversity in modern AAA gaming, particularly horror games, better than I ever could. So, permit me to introduce you, complements of Mr. Steacy, to Steve.

Steve is white, fit, in his twenties or thirties, with short dark hair. He often has perma-stubble, or at least some conceptual difficulties when it comes to shaving. He’s a violent fellow when pushed, and he frequently wants to find, avenge, or at least know what happened to one of the women in his life.

From a storytelling perspective, he’s a pretty good character. There’s really nothing wrong with him in that regard. When you’re creating a protagonist, you want somebody your audience, be they viewers, readers, or listeners, can identify with. For the average Caucasian male in North America, Steve is probably like looking in the mirror — and let’s face it, the nightmare scenario that would force all of us into action is something happening to one of our loved ones.

Steve is a trope not just because he’s common, but because he works. That Steve happens to be Steve is not the problem.

The problem, as Mr. Steacy put it, is that Steve sometimes seems to be all we’re being given for protagonists.

Once you realize that, Steve suddenly becomes a trope you can’t un-see. He appears everywhere, to the point that, after a while, you can’t help but wonder why they won’t at least give us a different white guy for a change. From sheer laziness of cookie-cutter storytelling alone, the trope becomes a cliche.

And, from a storytelling standpoint alone, an abundance of “Steve”s is a problem. A gripping story relies on taking a main character out of their comfort zone and pushing them to find previously unrealized strengths. Likewise, a memorable story relies on giving its audience something they haven’t seen before, from a new perspective to new ideas. But if just about every player character is Steve, you are limiting the perspectives of the story, leaving you telling it with one hand effectively tied behind your back.

How one handles adding diversity really depends on the medium. One of the best examples of stealth diversity I’ve ever read was in Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where the final scene of the book revealed that the first person narrator, Johnny Rico, is a Filipino (sadly, the filmmakers chickened out and cast a Caucasian in the role for the movie). This can work for radio as well, but once you’re into a visual medium such as movies and games, it has to be right up-front, where the audience can see it from the beginning.

Done right, it works like gangbusters. One of the most effective survival horror games I’ve ever seen is Among the Sleep, wherein the player character is a toddler. That immediately creates a heightened sense of helplessness and fear, for the simple reason that when just walking is a challenge, the only thing you can do when the monsters come is to hide and pray.

The trick is to avoid stereotypes, in large part because they don’t ring true in the real world, and are thus unlikely to in the fictional one. I have met and known plenty of gay people, but most of them would have had to tell you about it for you to know. It’s easy to fall into the temptation of having that which makes a character part of a minority, or different from the usual offerings (skin colour, gender, sexuality, etc.) be the main defining attribute of that character — after all, it’s the most obvious thing to bring out. But that’s not the reality for anybody. Having to face things such as racism, sexism, or antisemitism does change somebody and how they deal with the world, but there needs to be much more than that for the character to have true depth.

For video games — and stories in general — diversity is necessary. The world is filled with people of all sorts of different shapes and colours (well, if you happen to be purple with pink polka dots, you really should get that looked at). In your day-to-day life, everybody you meet is different. Bring that into a video game, and you get new perspectives, some of which will have a massive impact on how the story plays out. The classics are still there, and always will be — there’s a reason rescuing the damsel in distress goes back to Greek mythology and beyond — but that extra bit added in is what can take a game, movie, or book from good to truly memorable.

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.