JE Sawyer Comments on Writing Characters From Marginalized Groups

JE Sawyer, lead gameplay designer and project director of Fallout New Vegas, recently commented on his personal blog regarding how to write characters hailing from marginalized groups in video games. In this post, he notes four major points:

  • “Represent marginalized groups when sensible.” The rationale is pretty straightforward: diversification allows for richer, more interesting media and allows the content to explore new areas it otherwise might not explore.
  • Remember that you are writing for specific groups of people. “It’s a little dehumanizing to reduce them to demographics, but still, we aren’t writing for everyone.  It’s our job to be the arbiter of propriety among them.”
  • “Write good characters.” Another fairly straightforward point; Sawyer speaks to the idea that it’s important to pay mind to the character you are writing, especially when it comes to marginalized groups. For example, Arcade Gannon–a character in Fallout New Vegas–only has a handful of lines that refer to his sexuality. In spite of the minimal number of lines refering to his sexuality, it was his sexuality that caused people writing about him to heavily scrutinize his character. Likewise, other characters hailing from marginalized groups will be heavily scrutinized because of their background–thus, it’s important to make sure they are well written.
  • “Understand and accept that we cannot write the Perfect X to meet all fan expectations of X.” The gist of it being, do what you can to the best of your ability. Do not sweat not getting it fully right because, frankly, it’s impossible to. At the very least, you can attempt to “broaden the margins of the marginalized.”

All of this sounds progressive, though I can’t help but wonder if something isn’t compromised in writing for specific demographics.


  1. David

    I forget if it was a post here or elsewhere (my apologies), but maybe games should be targeted towards a certain audience. I realize that we should never purposely alienate someone, but other media (particularly books) are normally created with a specific audience in mind.

    For instance, young adult fiction is red hot right now. Many of these books have broad appeal (I’m a male in my late 20s and read a lot in that genre) but I’m certainly not the audience they are written for.

    • David

      I think the danger, though, is that games involve such large production teams. It’s one thing for a singular author to write dialogue with an audience in mind without being too transparent about it. With several authors (and many content creators) in game production, however, writing for an intended audience might end up pandering to fit certain stereotypes or guidelines.

      • Ramunas Jakimavicius

        @ David

        In addition, one must remember that many games nowadays try to appeal to larger audiences to recoup their investments. Books have an easier time with writing for specific audiences because, while the cost of producing and publishing isn’t trivial, most books also don’t cost millions of dollars to make.

        • David

          That’s a good point. The higher budget of games is not negated by their higher (in the case of major ‘AAA’ titles) purchase price.

          Still, I think the point still stands to some degree.

    • McBeeferton

      I definitely agree with you. Games seem to be designed with two main groups in mind. Kids and Adults. That’s rather plain, don’t you think? It’s all just a little too… open. It’d be nice to have them focus on a target audience.