GeekGirlCon ’15 Recap: We’re Not NPCs: It’s a (Straight, White, Cisgendered) Man’s World

The first panel you attend at a convention can easily set the tone for the whole time, so I was thrilled that this last year at GeekGirlCon ’15 I was lucky enough to have my schedule set up so that my first panel was “We’re Not NPCs: It’s a (Straight, White, Cisgendered) Man’s World.” This panel has gone through lots of iterations at several different conventions; I’m pretty sure I’ve attended panels of the same name at different PAXs as well as previous GeekGirlCons. Each year, though, as the media circus continues but doesn’t quite evolve, it’s always a great way not only to see where things can improve but also to get some great recommendations.

Our panelists this year were Les Banks, Godfrey Harris, Mia Gipson, RaeRae Sachs, and Bijhan Valibeigi, all of whom had great things to add to the conversation.

The panel started off with a talk about problematic media. Right away, Godfrey started with the example of GTA: “These are just characters in a situation. They are not a representation of every person, of every type. And unfortunately you have to tell people that. Because. Damn. Really?”

And not a brown face among them. Source: Fable.wikia.com

And not a brown face among them. Image source: Fable.wikia.com.

Fable,” Les proposed. “It’s your story-slash-adventure if you’re a fair-skinned, blue-eyed guy or girl. That’s not my story.” (Note: I’m now not sure if Les meant Fable or Fables, but as it happens both are rather whitewashed.)

Bijhan also brought up a generally well-loved example: Super Mario. Another story where everyone is white and to think otherwise would be radical and crazy. Mia said she had problems with the lighting issues for Cortez in Mass Effect 3, which Bijhan agreed with. “It’s rarely done with malice,” she said, “just laziness.”

Cortez, as shown in the different stages his model went through. According to a post on the Bioware forums by an employee [link: http://forum.bioware.com/topic/252459-landing-in-the-hot-zone-steve-cortez-discussion-thread/page-120], Cortez’s final skintone choice was made pretty late in the process and the designers “didn’t have time to adjust their lighting for his darker skin tone,” which means that in lots of the shots, he’s barely visible.

Cortez, as shown in the different stages his model went through. According to a post on the Bioware forums by an employee, Cortez’s final skintone choice was made pretty late in the process and the designers “didn’t have time to adjust their lighting for his darker skin tone,” which means that in lots of the shots, he’s barely visible.

The panelists were happy to talk about some great examples too, hoping to give their audience more options for inclusive media. Les brought up the video game Beyond Good & Evil and Bijhan mentioned the second generation of X-Men, which instead of just using mutant metaphors to talk about racism and prejudice actually introduced characters of different genders, races, abilities, and sexualities. Bijhan was also happy to have the chance to talk about the Netflix show Sense8, which got a big reaction from the crowd. Another Netflix show got a mention from RaeRae: Daredevil, which has a disabled hero literally kicking ass.

Sense8’s cast is a welcome, amazing diverse change of pace. Source: thenerdsofcolor.org

Sense8’s cast is a welcome, amazing diverse change of pace. Image source: thenerdsofcolor.org.

When the panel was posed a question about creators defending their problematic media as the problems being “unintentional,” the panelists were quick to judge those creators just as, if not more, harshly.

“Just stay vigilant,” Les said about how to speak truth to this issue. “Be seen and be vocal. I don’t project it like an angry thing, but just like, ‘well, that’s how it is.’ If you want to see change, become an artist and make it.”

“Or support people who are!” pointed out Bijhan. “When people make lazy choices, they’re just being lazy.”

RaeRae said, “Something that I’ve noticed is that if you’re going to make a character who doesn’t fit the mainstream type, I think their element of diversity either needs to be the point of the story or not a point at all. When you try to go toward the middle, it tends toward problematic.”

Storm really, really is a badass. Image source: Comicbookresources.com

Storm really, really is a badass. Image source: Comicbookresources.com.

Godfrey agreed, giving an example of a character done right in that way: Storm, from X-Men. “They’ll just talk about her, like, she did this is in her time in Cairo. It’s not like, oh, she was black earlier. They’ll talk about her experiences and it’s a part of who she is, not what she is. It’s not a determining factor.”

“What she is, is a badass,” Mia declared.

“She literally could not have the story she has without the background she has,” said Bijhan.

Les had another example: “Another game that does this well is Splatoon. At any point when you’re not in combat, you can change your eye color, your skin color, even your gender. Like, yeah, just change it, whatever.”

“I often tell the story of House of Sand and Fog,” said Bijhan. “The person who wrote it was white, but it’s totally representative because he was really dear friends with someone who was Persian, and trying to tell their story had become personal to him. If someone can’t afford to do this research, can they still contribute to the conversation? If you don’t understand or if you don’t have a confident understanding of what, you know, slavery or Jim Crow was like, don’t set your story in that setting!

“But that’s the power of fantasy and science fiction,” Bijhan continued. “Make up anything, then the color of their skin isn’t tied to any particular backstory. If you’re doing a little side-scroller and the mage looks like a woman with dark skin, and that’s the freedom of science fiction and fantasy. You don’t have to be tethered to the burdens of real-world racism.”

“There’s also a counter I like to give to even our own argument,” Les brought up. “In my opinion, I’m not saying we need a full-spectrum character generator in every game. It doesn’t belong in every game. If I’m playing a Japanese fighting game, I’m not expecting to see brown people because it’s in Japan. If I’m playing a Viking game, I’m not expecting to see brown people unless they sail across and see early Americans. And that’s fine, because it’s a Viking game. And I accept-slash-expect that. I’m not saying put it everywhere and shove it down everyone’s throats. I’m just saying in areas, it should be opened up a bit more.

Godfrey laughed, adding, “Actually, I was just thinking to myself there’s all these types of movies out there and so on, but there’s one type of movie you will never really worry about having black folks saying we are not represented: And that’s ‘climbing Mt. Everest’ movies. And there are black folks who might do that and it’s cool—but there’s also Black Republicans.”

Mia brought up, “Well, black people are definitely represented in horror!”

Godfrey responded: “Or giving a great ‘let’s go get ‘em!’ speech and then—CHOMP.”

“Among my friends,” Les said, “if a movie comes out, the first person to see it will tell the others if the person of color survives. And then we will decide to see it based on that.”

Required viewing. Image source: Wikipedia.

Required viewing. Image source: Wikipedia.

Mia added, “Also, everyone see Dear White People.”

The topic shifted, then, to real-world scenarios with the question of how to handle it when you’re in the workplace or another public situation and white, straight, and/or cis guys do or say something problematic.

Les said, “I’ve had good experiences and no bad ones, oddly enough. A good one, I’d like to put out, was when I was testing for a new game and they had the hand prompt and it was done in such a way that it looked like a white, hairy hand. I pointed out, I’m in a tutorial and I already feel like it’s not for me. And they’re like why and I said that’s not my hand. It was just overlooked. They were like how do we fix that? So in this game, they ended up going with a bone-white, translucent human hand. So it was also a touch game, so seeing through the hand when it was moving around was actually really great. And so they fixed it and that was no problem.”

“When I was working in testing video games,” Bijhan said, “there was very little harassment, but there was a lot of just really basic talks about what I meant by ‘this game is not representative.’ It just felt like a big waste of time to have to be an educator for coworkers and subordinates.

“And it’s the same thing over and over again. ‘Why is it a problem that all the playable characters in the game are straight, white guys?’” Bijhan mimicked. “You’re not the first person I’ve had this conversation with, it’s not an electrifying discussion, you’re the one being informed.”

“There’s also the situation of when you’re walking around, working, and speech changes to be more urban around you,” Godfrey said wryly.

“Ooh,” Bijhan agreed. “I just hear buttholes clench. ‘Oh, what am I going to say, what am I going to say?’”

Before the panel ended, RaeRae brought the talk back briefly to race not necessarily being the point: “It shouldn’t be a huge point, but it should just be in the background as fact.”

Bijhan explained this well, saying, “A good example: we don’t always watch characters poop, but we know they do. There’s a lot of characters where their sex lives don’t matter. I assume at some point the Red Ranger watched porn, but that’s not the story we’re telling. If we’re just putting things in about their race that aren’t relevant to the story, the question becomes why?

That question remained unanswered, but hopefully the discussion between the panelists and audience are just one starting place for media and creators to start including actual representation. Thanks again to Les, Godfrey, Mia, RaeRae, and Bijhan for a fantastic, funny, and thoughtful panel!

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Liane Behrens
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