Activision-Blizzard has been busy making controversial headlines for a while now, although I’ll admit that this week’s info-drop had me more curious than anything else.

In a surprise blog post, Editorial Content Director Eric Alt of Activision Blizzard published an explainer, highlighting their behind-the-scenes software — a character design tool that aims to inject a dose of diversity into the publisher’s games.

How Does It Work?

The tool was initially created by King — the Candy Crush hitmaker acquired by Activision in 2016. Working in tandem with MIT Game Lab, the group crafted software that took into account various character features — from ethnicity to disabilities, age, and many more factors. The end result gives each character a sort of index of diversity, presumably with straight, white, cis male characters scoring the lowest as a baseline.

“The Diversity Space Tool is a measurement device, to help identify how diverse a set of character traits are and in turn how diverse that character and casts are when compared to the ‘norm’,” explains King’s Globalization Project Manager. Jacqueline Chomatas. 

“Once it establishes a baseline for typical character traits (which is done by the creative team working closely with DE&I experts), it can then weigh new character designs against it to measure their diversity. During this process, the tool also uncovers unconscious bias, such as why certain traits are seen as “male” vs. “female,” or why characters from certain ethnic backgrounds are given similar personalities or behaviors.”

Confused? Let’s take a closer look at the original infographic provided:

Overwatch Diversity Tool

This image shows us a simplified summary of the tool’s parameters, focusing on three characters from team-based shooter Overwatch.

The first character is Zarya, a Russian powerlifter-turned-soldier. As we can see, she scores low on ethnicity, age, sexual orientation and ability diversity factors, but scores well on her gender identity, body type, and gets an extra ‘culture’ point due to her Siberian heritage.

Next up is Lúcio, a Brazilian musician-turned-freedom fighter. Lucio scores flatly across body type, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, and ability, while picking up some points in the culture and ethnicity department as an Afro-Brazilian.

Finally, we see Torbjörn, a Swedish combat engineer. As a straight white Scandinavian man, he scores quite low on gender identity, sexual orientation, culture and ethnicity. He makes up for this by being nearly 60 years old, and is missing an arm.

I think the problem here is evident without the need to dive deep into the system. Who decides which parameter is worth how much? Why is Torbjörn’s dwarfism somehow ‘less diverse’ than Zarya’s powerlifter body type? Is Brazilian culture as diverse as Russian culture?

None of these questions can be answered using a series of arbitrary numbers, so…

Why Is This Problematic?

To get the biggest issue out of the way, Activision Blizzard absolutely screwed up by using a bunch of Overwatch characters in this article, misleading readers into believing that the tool is actively being used by the design team (which it most certainly isn’t).

This was clarified by character artist Melissa Kelly, who has worked on the game:

Apart from confusing fans and drawing lots of ire, the project seems to have been dissected online for being ‘creepy’ and ‘dystopian,’ several fans agree that while a diversity tool may come in handy during early character development, it’s tally-like system seems to devalue the actual human angle that every character designer brings to the table.

As long as the tool is used simply as a way to gauge Activision Blizzard’s characters in relation to the rest of the gaming industry with a transparent, clearly demarcated and explained scale, the project has some merit, even if just hiring a diverse and culturally-sensitive team would have been simpler and easier.

The concept falls flat especially if the numbers used have a scientifically applicable relationship with the current status quo of videogame characters. Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty and Overwatch can use the tool, being set in the real world. So what about the vast majority of games, set in unrecognizable worlds where our politics and social issues are either irrelevant or addressed through allegory?

Take the current top fice videogame sales hits, as per April 2022’s rankings; The main cast of this list comprises of Lego characters (who are yellow as a way of being race-agnostic), cute balls of fluff with superpowers, or medieval fantasy characters.

Any quantification of diversity in these scenarios is… well, quite useless.

Diversity is currently on the frontline of the cultural war between liberals and conservatives, especially in America. While it may take a while to get over the cultural hangover of defaulting to white straight dudes in every single piece of media, some level of intentional representation helps build a healthier landscape where everyone can see their communities represented in media.

(Featured Image Credits: Activision Blizzard)