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Native Informants in Game-Based Learning: Gender

Game-based learning comes in many different shapes and styles that encompass everything from dedicated educational content in serious games to training simulations to communicating knowledge about historical eras or events and questions of ethnicity or gender in AAA action-adventure games. Yet, as always, well-meant isn’t necessarily well-done. In the case of AAA and high-quality independent games, it is often the lack of “native informants” during the development process that turn good intentions into public meltdowns.

“Native informant” is a term from post-colonial discourse, particularly as developed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. It indicates the voice of the “other” which always runs the risk of being overwritten by, or coopted and absorbed into, a dominant public discourse. Even the term itself always runs this risk.

There are three topics of the “other” I’d like to touch upon in three consecutive posts: gender, ethnicity, and madness. For this post on gender, let’s look at some well-known examples.

With a native informant, the original portrayal of Hainly Abrams wouldn’t have failed as abysmally as it did in Mass Effect: Andromeda. BioWare’s reaction was laudable, certainly—they reached out to the transgender community and made the appropriate changes. But why didn’t they reach out in the first place? Who, on the team, was comfortable with writing the “other” without listening to their voices? Another egregious example were RimWorld’s early gender algorithms—where, in contrast, the developers’ reaction was anything but laudable. (I might be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think OkCupid data qualifies as a native informant.)

Calling in native informants as consultants is exceptionally useful in more than one respect.

First, obviously, they prevent your team from making outrageous mistakes. In the case of Mass Effect: Andromeda, it was a particular mistake that could be fixed with a patch. But when a character’s actions or even whole chunks of the plot are based on faulty premises, that’s not easily fixed at all. Enter Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s DLC “Legacy of the First Blade: Shadow Heritage,” where Cassandra was “hetconned,” i.e., forced into a heterosexual relationship to become a parent.

Then, why would you want to stop at merely not getting it wrong? Native informants will provide you with involving details that will turn cliche attitudes into motivated actions & emotions and transform your cardboard characters into engaging personalities.

Finally, hiring native informants as consultants adds diversity to your team, enriches your game, and broadens your reach beyond your mainstream audience. Toward people, that is, who would gladly buy your game if they see themselves represented in it—in the contexts of visibility, of acceptance, and of role models as drivers of empowerment.