Diversity standards aren’t the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to writing for Episode Interactive. As a mixed-race woman, believe me when I say that diversity is definitely an essential aspect for the improvement of a platform aimed at younger audiences. Globalisation has become a standard part of our world today, and so it is crucial to ensure that we are able to empathise with the people around us despite our differences. I am definitely not disputing the importance of promoting this cohesion and helping younger people to focus on the similarities rather than differences between different people. However, as a writer on Episode Interactive, I have to say that diversity standards don’t always work.
Why would I suggest this? Well, sadly, you can’t wave a magic wand and make the world more accepting. Forcing people to add diversity to their story when they have little knowledge about how to handle these topics sensitively and appropriately can do more harm than good. Despite the best efforts of these budding writers, they can often find themselves perpetuating gross stereotypes and creating two-dimensional characters to meet a quota, or they can fall into the trap of thinking that merely having a black, gay character in their story is good enough. This is especially true of an app like Episode, in which so many of the writers are young girls who are in the midst of developing their own literary style and opinions of the world.
I have to admire the efforts of some of these girls when they are creating these characters. They really do try their best to make sure that there are a plethora of characters of different ethnic origins, religions and sexualities. Often, though, this falls short of being genuine diversity when you have a look at the tropes that run through a vast majority of these stories. You may have a character in a hijab walking in the background and saying nothing, or a gay character who spends every breath in their lungs reminding you that they are, in fact, gay. Then there is the fear that I have spoken to many Episode writers about when it comes to actually making the protagonist of their story from a minority group. They fear that they will not capture the character well enough and will end up offending someone.
Furthermore, diversity standards also run the risk of causing more of a rift between the writer and the various minority groups that they are tirelessly trying to capture correctly. This can be done in one of two ways: it could cause people to view minorities as quotas that they have to fill, rather than genuine people who deserve to be represented in the media; or it could cause people to fetishise things like skin colour or sexual orientation. Both of these outcomes are bad as they promote the dehumanisation of people who belong to these minorities.
What do I mean by fetishising these traits? Well, I have to admit that I am a fan of anime. One of the genres I like is yaoi or shonen-ai. It’s great to see a love story about gay characters in anime! However, a lot of yaoi fans tread the line between considering these relationships as romantic and seeing homosexuality as something that is alien, but cool. While that doesn’t seem pretty damaging, it means that minority groups are not being viewed as people in the same way as you might see your friend from school. It may give them celebrity status in your mind, but how are you supposed to have a genuine friendship with someone who you do not view as anything like you? This phenomenon has started to bleed into Episode Interactive, with stories about gay or lesbian characters, in which the single marketable or appealing aspect is the fact that they are gay. They are the only genuinely developed characters, if there are developed characters at all. The plot revolves around the fact that they are gay. Nothing matters in the story apart from their sexuality.
Or maybe you’ll have it sprung upon you at the last moment. You’ll play as a woman and be introduced to two male love interests from the beginning that you know you’ll be able to choose from at the end. You’ll begin to see different characteristics that you like and dislike in these male love interests and make your mind up slowly as the story progresses. Great. Then, with two or three five-minute chapters to go until the end, the writer will shock you with the fact that your best friend, or this previously unknown character – who is, of course, a girl – is head-over-heels in love with you. Why do they add this in? Well, it’s their opportunity to nod towards the LGBT+ community. Why not give the protagonist the opportunity to be gay? The problem with this is that there is no other reason to choose this late edition apart from the fact that it is a chance to see a gay relationship. The idea of this person as a love interest has not been established throughout the story, so it seems pretty disingenuous. After all, gay people do have preferences and ‘types’, too. Everyone needs the chance to develop a genuine relationship with someone before considering spending the rest of their life with them.
If you ‘add in’ this relationship at the very end as a chance to give LGBT members of the Episode community a chance to express their own sexuality, you’re basically encouraging them to forfeit the plot and the genuine nature of the protagonist to be ‘happy’. This completely negates the fact that sexuality should only be a small part of someone’s personality. We are complex human beings, after all! If a character has been established as straight throughout the story, there should be a very good reason as to why they may choose to be in a same-sex relationship by the end – or just have them bisexual or pansexual from the beginning! Don’t make it seem like being gay is the other choice. At the moment, a lot of the stories project a weird message about sexuality. It’s almost like the writer is saying to the reader “well, you can choose to follow the story as it should be… or you could be gay”. That shouldn’t be a choice we have to make. We should be able to keep the story intact and choose the sexuality of our characters.
Stereotypes are also an issue. I mean, when is it ever good that all members of a specific minority group act in a certain way in media? Who wants to see all black characters as criminals or all gay male characters as flamboyant and effeminate? As I have said before, being part of minority groups should not define us. I am definitely proud of my diverse heritage, but it doesn’t make up all of who I am as a person. It is only one small section of an extremely complex and multifaceted human being. I can do whatever I want with my life. I can choose to be good, bad, funny, serious, successful, married, single… it is all up to me and not a few labels I’ve been given. No one should feel stuck in a box because of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity or anything else. If you enforce diversity standards without actually helping people understand what it means to be diverse, we are failing at something.
So, what’s the solution? Well, first and foremost, education is essential. We need to teach people how to deal with minority groups in ways which won’t offend or undermine the aims of diversity standards. In an app full of young people who want to share their wonderful stories with the world and participate in a warm, loving community, we should be helping them flourish as writers and continue to improve. If we genuinely want diversity standards, we need to do more than just set targets and enforce rules. We need to teach people what it is we mean by diversity. We don’t just mean attaching a few labels to our characters and hoping for the best.
I’m personally hoping for Episode to become so advanced that it can somehow figure out a way for the reader to choose the gender and pronouns of both the protagonist and the love interests in the customisation section of the story. When that happens? We’ve suddenly given people the capability to really choose their story. Sexuality, ethnicity, gender… nothing will need to affect the story. I can’t wait for that day. You give us the tools, Episode, and we will break down the wall.