How Blizzard is changing the diversity game.
It is an understatement to say that diversity in gaming has become a hot topic as of late. Themes of sexuality, racial prominence, and gender depiction are now a hotbed for passionate discussion across developer, journalist, and player communities.
From 2012 to 2013, the number of games showcased at E3 featuring a playable female protagonist rose from 2% to 6%. Reluctance to include the theme of sexuality is being countered more frequently by games such as Gone Home, The Last of Us, and Mass Effect. This is clear evidence that players are yearning for character dynamic and identity in their games. Video games are a medium that exudes immersion more than any other, and in turn becomes the perfect platform for sympathetic and relatable storytelling.
On April 16, 2014, Blizzard Entertainment released their latest foray Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft to the iPad. As a free-to-play (F2P) digital collectible card game (CCG) built by a AAA developer that prides itself on the promise of polish with a highly reputable back-catalog, it is an extremely inviting and sure to be incredibly popular download. From testing with a PC/Mac open-bata to trickling the iOS version out to Australia, New Zealand, and Canada prior to world-wide launch, Blizzard was sure this game would be a massive hit.
At the news of Hearthstone for iPad’s launch, I was extremely excited to see what the buzz was about. After rave reviews across the industry, I could not wait to invest in this new Blizzard title that seemed perfectly suited for the tablet platform. Upon launching the game, I assumed I would be given the opportunity to select/create a character and possibly build a deck. Thankfully, I was wrong.
Ultimately, Hearthstone does not include a single protagonist. From Orcs to Elves, Druids to Barbarians, players are eventually offered the chance to unlock a collection of Heroes to chose from. Many veteran CCG players will understand this at the onset. What they may not realize is that they will be forced to begin their Hearthstone experience in a tutorial as Human Mage, Jaina Proudmoore. A female.
This tutorial consists of six ‘missions,’ each introducing details about the game’s mechanics and subtleties. Each ‘mission’ sets the protagonist Jaina against an eccentric opponent, throwing out comical comments that unfold their caricature against a backdrop of the colorful and cartoony tones of the Warcraft universe. Jaina faces her six opponents in the following order:
- Hogger – Male, Gnoll Barbarian
- Hemet Nesingwary – Male, Dwarf Hunter
- King Mukla – Male, Gorilla
- Lorewalker Cho – Male, Pandaren
- Millhouse Manastorm – Male, Gnome Mage
- Illidan Stormrage – Male, Demon / Night Elf Hunter
Six males versus one female. This alone is a powerful statement that will likely slip into the unconscious if not willingly observed.
Sex aside, characters banter back and forth throughout matches. Each foe’s optimistic attitude is met with Jaina’s cautious yet powerful tone. The addition of voice-acting helps build a bond between player and protagonist. Like reading through Katniss Everdeen’s struggles in The Hunger Games, it is nearly impossible not to build a trusting connection with Jaina, rooting for her to defeat each of the tutorial’s quirky baddies.
The initial tutorial took me roughly one hour to complete. Once finished, I felt an attachment to Jaina. Not only had we defeated six opposing (male) Heroes without fail together, we had conquered the powerhouse that is Illidan Stormrage even though the game told us we couldn’t. (A comical, clever and original design choice)
While Jaina and I must spend more time together in order to unlock additional playable Heroes and decks, I am not racing to change protagonists. This tutorial has certainly bonded me to Jaina and is likely to do the same for most players: young and old, male and female.
As subtle and simple as it may appear, Blizzard has made a bold move as a AAA developer in building a tutorial showcasing a powerful female protagonist against six male rivals. Forcing hardcore veterans and casual novices to learn from, protect, and assist a female protagonist in what has the potential to become the largest cross-platform game is a great leap for the cause of diversity in gaming; however, the job is far from done.