Diversity and Character Design

A parent recently wrote us saying “I LOVE the diversity in the characters that the kid can choose to represent themselves…” The writer explained that their kindergarten-aged daughter is of Central American descent and both parent and child are well aware of the lack of diversity in most animated shows, video games, and toys. I’d like to thank this parent for her kind words regarding our efforts and bringing up an important issue. Though this is the only email we’ve received on the subject, she makes a salient point regarding how a majority of cartoon and game characters are depicted in popular media. A brief and rough history of animation will show how the philosophy of character design has been evolving over the years.

When studios first started working in what was the “new” medium of animation, they designed very homogeneous casts when it came to depicting humans. It was rare to have any character (especially main characters) deviate from a particular ethnic palette or body profile. When racial groups were included in cartoons, they were mostly unflattering and offensive portrayals. For decades, that’s how it was. Then during the 60’s to the 80’s when television made cartoons more accessible to a wider audience, well-intended attempts were made to introduce more positive depictions of ethnic characters. Examples include Haji from Johnny Quest, The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Fat Albert, and Bravestarr among others. Perhaps the most diverse and progressive cartoon cast on TV during this period was the team from the GI Joe cartoon series in the 80s which went as far to include characters that were Eskimo, Samoan, and people of mixed heritage. The show even addressed interracial relationships. Though progress was slowly being made on the television, it wasn’t until 1992 when Disney, arguably the most influential force on character design for animation, released Aladdin and broke from its traditional formula of European-based fairy tale heroes and signaled a shift in corporate thinking regarding what a protagonist should look like in animation. In 2001 the idea of the skinny, pretty princess was challenged by the movie version of Shrek by Dreamworks. And in 2003, Pixar introduced a tale about a single parent of a child with a disability in Finding Nemo, injecting two topics that family cartoons don’t usually tackle. These are positive changes that are relatively recent and ongoing in an industry where long held beliefs of sticking to formulaic plots and characters have dominated the culture throughout the 20th century.

Continuing to Break the Mold in Kid’s Games

The DreamBox art team continues in this tradition of change and progress when it comes to our own animated creations. We share the concerns of the parent who wrote us and we are proud of the diversity of the characters we’ve started with. The writer’s approval of our avatar designs shows that we are beginning on the right path. As an artist at DreamBox, I approach my character creations and stories knowing how important of having positive depictions of people from a wide variety of backgrounds is to all children. When you take into account that online programs such as ours are accessible to every person on the planet with an internet connection, the importance of having a diverse range of characters isn’t just an ideal to strive for but a fundamental element of design.

As the DreamBox universe continues to grow and develop, we look forward to introducing an even greater spectrum of characters. It is our hope that it will allow kids from all walks of life feel more included in the DreamBox world and help them engage with the lessons more comfortably.

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