On Display At Video Game Showcase: A Struggle For Diversity

Over the years, the video game industry has been hammered by questions about a lack of diversity, disappointing narratives and ever-imminent virtual reality. To see how the industry is coming, NPR's Arun Rath takes a tour of E3: The Electronic Entertainment Expo.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

From the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath. This is E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo - the videogame industry's biggest convention. The old Stereotype that gamers are all nerdy, white men - well, there was truth to that. A survey nine years ago found that 83 percent of people making videogames were white men. And the vast majority of college students studying computer science and videogame art are men. Even today, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that nearly nine out of nearly every 10 that videogame protagonists are white men. But in recent years, some in the industry say things are really changing. That interactive games incorporate sophisticated narratives like never before. That games are now directed at and are being played by a much more diverse group - no longer the domain of nerdy, white guy. So we came to this showcase of what the gaming world has in store to see how the industry is going to deliver on those promises. That's our cover story today.

E3 is massive and bright and colorful and loud. Sensory overload doesn't quite cover it.

In spite of all the noise and spectacle, none of the new games here seemed that new. A lot of sequels - to "Assassin's Creed," "Call Of Duty," "Mario Kart," a repackaging of "Halo," and lots of ultraviolence.

The most exciting place at E3 was actually the quietest - a room above the crowded convention floor. Here they're demonstrating a game about as far as you can get from a first-person shooter. It's called "Adrift," and it's being developed for the virtual reality of platform Oculus Rift. You may have heard of Oculus Rift. They were recently acquired in a huge deal by Facebook. I had the chance to try on the goggles that Mark Zuckerberg was willing to pay $2 billion for.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When you pop this on, you'll find yourself in the game world environment. So have a look around, get your bearings.

RATH: And I am in outer space.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You can look down at your feet.

RATH: Oh, my.

I'm an astronaut floating in a face spaceship or space station that's been damaged. All I can hear is my breathing and Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata.

There's the Earth. There's Mexico right below me.

It's incredible, unlike any VR headset I've tried. My brain is processing the input like it's a real sense data.

It's really amazing. I actually feel a bit of vertigo.

Adam Orth is the creator of "Adrift."

ADAM ORTH: The goal of the game is to - A, survive, and B, get home safely.

RATH: Honestly, I don't care about the goal of the game. I was just so excited to be in outer space. I could happily spend hours just exploring the environment. But here's the weirdest part of the experience - I had this deeply emotional feeling of being transported, an intensity I'd never felt before in the game. Orth says he wants to set a motion to take gamers beyond the standard, violent, action games.

ORTH: And there's nothing wrong with those games. They're great. I love them, and I have made them, and I play them. But I don't want to make them any more. And I want to tell emotional stories. And that device is allowing me to tell them in a way that I was not able to do it before.

RATH: It's kind of a buzz-kill to go back to the convention floor. The noise of firearms and explosions, mostly white male attendees playing almost entirely white male characters. Megan Farokhmanesh writes for Polygon, a gaming news site.

MEGAN FAROKHMANESH: To the outside world, video games are violence and men doing that violence. And I think that that's a really good way push anybody out that would be interested in it.

RATH: Past E3 press conferences have been roundly criticized for the lack of diversity. This year, out of dozen of presenters, there were five women and three people of color - an improvement to be sure, but not great. One Polygon headline announced that during the big press conferences, there were more severed heads in game demos than female presenters.

FAROKHMANESH: I think it's getting a little bit better in recent years because people are finally starting to pay attention to it and starting to make it a big deal where it hasn't been so much before.

RATH: And the tradition of booth babes, the hot models who draw attendees to displays - that's dying out. None of the major companies have them anymore. Women make up nearly half of video gamers, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation Study. But that covers not just console games like "Call Of Duty," but social games like "Farmville" on Facebook and mobile games like "Candy Crush." Looking around at E3, it's tough to imagine the console players are really half women. Polygons managing editor Justin McElroy says the current system is self-perpetuating.

JUSTIN MCELROY: Dudes are playing video games. Dudes are making video games. Dudes are putting dudes in the games for the dudes to play. Anything that goes against that is going to be work.

RATH: But some independent companies are taking on that hard work, like the Spanish game studio, Tequila Works.

RISA COHEN: I'd say that our studio is a bit different.

RATH: Risa Cohen is the executive producer for tequila works.

COHEN: I'd for the last 20 years I've been working in video games, it has been pretty white and pretty male.

RATH: Raul Rubio is CEO and creative director at the company.

RAUL RUBIO: We have, for example, 11 nationalities here, four sexual orientations and three different religions.

RATH: Together, Raul and Risa have loaded Tequila Works with top-level talent like their lead animator, a woman with serious chops from LucasArts and Pixar. Right now, they're working on a game called "Rime." Like the last game I tried, you start off in "Rime" trying to make sense of and survive a bewildering situation. In this case, washing ashore on a mysterious, desert island. But this isn't virtual-reality and you see the character you are betraying. It's a striking contrast to any videogame hero I've seen before. This one is a child, maybe 8 or 9. You can't tell if it's a boy or girl - long, black hair and brown skin. Again, Risa Cohen.

COHEN: Someone wrote to us and said it's so refreshing to see a character that's not, you know, this big, muscled white man that we've got you know kind of small, long-haired, brown skin, lanky-leg character.

RATH: Raul says people were entranced by the promise of a game that bucks the trend of violence.

RUBIO: This is a game with no combat, at all. This is not about shooting. Quite the opposite - it's about discovering a feeling that all things can look new and mysterious.

RATH: There's no set release date for "Rime" or for the Oculus Rift platform. So the revolution in video games may be coming just a little later than advertised.

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