News and culture through the lens of Southern California.
Hosted by

Gotta represent them all: Mobile games and avatar diversity

Via Screenshot in Pokemon Go

Listen to story

Download this story 4MB

It's been a whole month since Pokemon Go was released. That's right, a month since our lives were changed forever by wild Bulbasaurs and Pikachus popping up all over the place. And while the mobile app has become a cultural phenomenon, it hasn't been without its critics.

The latest complaints are about the game's avatars and the lack of customization features it has for minorities. Specifically, curly hair and dark skin. So, how important is it to have a wide range of these kinds of features in video and mobile games? And what's the impact?

For more Dmitri Williams, associate professor at USC who compiled the survey "The virtual census: representations of gender, race and age in video games".

Interview Highlights

Your survey on diverse representation in games was the first of its kind. What were your main takeaways?

"We were curious for whether the audience looked like the players, I mean the actual characters. If you looked at the universe of playable and non-playable character in the games. Where did they come from? Were they a mirror of the real world? Were they something fantastical? Were they systematically off? We wanted to know what the gaps were so we compared it to census data and we found in terms of gender, race and age it wasn't very representative at all at the time, though this study is getting a little dated now. 

The thing that predicted the character base the best were the developers themselves. In other words, a survey of who the developers were was, with the exception of sports games, a pretty accurate read of what kind characters get made. In other words, creators make games about themselves as kind of a default state."

Why is there a difference between the avatars offered in mobile games versus games on other platforms?

"When you have a small screen like on a cell phone it's hard to have really great resolution and so, it's a question of pixel count...

It's a combination of screen size but it's also about the budget and mobile games are much less expensive to make, that's why there are a billion of them suddenly popping up whereas a AAA game on a console might cost $50-100 million dollars to make in some cases and when you spend that much money, of course, you're going to have great customizable avatars and what not. But if you're a developer and you're doing this in your dorm room and you're doing it by borrowing five grand from your dad or mom or something, then you're probably not going to have this amazing rendering engine and so it's a technical issue in that case. But you know, at least there's more awareness and I think it really goes back to, who is the kid in the dorm room? If it's a girl and if it's a person of color with kinky hair then it's probably going to matter more."

To hear the full segment, click the blue play button above.