Similar to producers of mainstream media, educational media developers are discussing how to improve their approach to designing diverse characters. While our studio has intentionally created different characters since its beginning, we’ve more frequently reflected on our process and refined our approach in recent years. Here’s what we’ve learned about creating animation, games, and other digital tools with consideration to diversity and representation.
Based on that work, I provide recommendations on how any developer of media can work towards media which is more representative.
Review related research
Use media research about character representation to generate ideas for your products. Learning which social groups are seen and erased, the roles and portrayals of these groups, and the types of characters commonly presented in products for that audience (e.g., human, robot, animal, etc.) can help your team determine what to design. Take time to learn stereotypes and other problematic character clichés, such as narrow roles of certain identity groups being portrayed as helpless victims or characters wearing garments that are not reflective of the current times or their specific ethnic group. This is especially important if you have a limited number of characters for your product. Finding out the current and previous status of characters reflecting different social identities, such racial, gender, ability, etc., can help your team determine characters you want to include and those you want to avoid.
For example, during our design of the preschool apps, we discussed presenting non-human characters: only monsters and other fictional characters. In conducting research, we learned some important things that informed our approach. Research shows that:
Children’s books show non-human characters more often than characters representing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.
Children’s books show White characters more often than non-human characters.
Other children’s media reflect the same character choices. A similar discrepancy was found in the representation of gender groups, with males appearing more frequently than females in children’s books, cartoons, and programming.
Characters who represent gender communities outside the binary are seen less frequently than males and females, or they are not included in the analysis at all.
We also reviewed studies on how children’s identification and relationships with characters support their learning: some were animated human and non-human; others were human and puppets. Findings showed when children related to characters, they were more engaged in the program, and this positively impacted children’s learning. This research helped frame our ideas about character design and character traits best suited to engage preschoolers in the apps: we decided to include animated children and non-human monsters.
User test with audience
User testing sessions inform developers of what works and what to improve in the product. Testing character design in the early stages of development tells the team if characters are appealing. Continue testing with each iteration to help your team notice if the characters draw players into the product and if there are consistencies or changes in the audience’s reactions as the product progresses to its final version.
Our team utilizes multiple qualitative methods in user-testing sessions to compare findings and identify patterns, such as observations of gameplay, focus groups, and video closet entries. When testing the suite of preschool apps, we modified these methods for the age group to get feedback on characters. For instance, with character sketches, we asked preschoolers to select characters for a story, and either the designers or preschoolers told a story. With the digital versions, we tested what characters players chose and if players maintained engagement with the apps. After each user-testing session, the team regrouped to discuss preschoolers’ responses and identified commonalities, surprises, and recommendations for design. Findings from user-testing sessions built on the data from media research.
Bring in team’s experiences
Actively encourage design team members to talk about their experiences with media and characters. These conversations can occur during user-testing recaps, research discussions, or impromptu chats. Members may talk about their media memories (e.g., tv shows, books, films, etc.), favorite characters and programs, what types of media and characters interest children in their family, and their impressions and thoughts about overall character representation. It’s important to recognize the value of each person’s contribution during these talks and create a “safe space” by actively listening, acknowledging people’s willingness to share, and asking questions for clarification or to further understand rather than defending a point.
While designing preschool apps, our team conversed about the products, characters, and our media experiences in design meetings, informal small group chats, and one-on-one dialogues. From multiple conversations, team members learned different perspectives about media, how media impacted our daily lives while growing up and now, and the connection between these experiences and character design. We intentionally acknowledged each person’s perspectives, gave people several opportunities to share their experiences, and reflected on our sharing process to ensure no one’s perspective seemed more valuable or “normal” than someone else’s. We held many of these conversations, and over time team members felt increasingly comfortable sharing their experiences.
Having insight from the team’s individual experiences, user-testing, and research helped our team intentionally decide to consider both human and non-human animated characters.
Refine your studio’s guiding principles of diversity and inclusion
Use the iterations of product development to revisit and refine your studio’s guiding principles toward diversity and inclusion. Start your first design meeting with a shared definition of diversity and inclusion, and periodically integrate discussions of diversity and inclusion during product design. Revisiting your definition can inform your team of what works, what’s missing, and what can be edited or expanded.
For us, reviewing our lab’s principles toward diversity and inclusion during the production of the preschool apps helped our team identify points we wanted to add, modify, and expand upon. We also chatted with other studios about their approach to diversity to exchange ideas and discuss processes. A combination of internal and external discussions about diversity and inclusion helped our team refine our guiding principles.
Putting time and attention into diversity within character design allowed our lab to have several nuanced conversations about research, user feedback, and media experiences that guided our design choices and refinement of our principles. While we have a process and principles that work for our team, we still constantly ask ourselves, “how can we do better?” For us, this means each year we revise and update our process and principles to make products that are representative and welcoming. Our approach to diversity and inclusion not only includes character design, it also addresses issues of representation related to diverse environments and accessibility. This is a continual process and commitment for us to create products where no one feels excluded and more players feel represented.
Written By: Amanda Armstrong, Games Lab Coordinator, email@example.com