Representation and Video Games

I’ve grown up with video games; so, one might say that I’m a connoisseur when it comes to looking inwardly at the culture. Perhaps one of my favorite attributes of this medium is the amount of time you get to spend in the narrative. A typical film is around two hours in length, but video games extend to well beyond ten-to-twenty hours (sometimes going well over one hundred hours). While they don’t always succeed, video games have the potential to craft a far more personal and consequential story because you are given agency within the narrative. With that being said, one issue circulating the gaming community has always frustrated me. When gamers call for better and more common representation for different kinds of people, their request is often met with disdain or apathy. Should video games work to be more inclusive? Can gamers relate to a character that doesn’t share social identifiers with them?

My answer to both of these questions is a resounding, yes. While I don’t think art should have some sort of racial or ethnic quota- I do think that content creators should step out of their comfort zone. Perhaps representation is indicative of too few perspectives on development teams, but I won’t make that assumption without proper research. Either way though, creators should look to learn about perspectives they aren’t familiar with. Many game designers will travel in order to explore environments that influence their work. I think that simply talking to co-workers, friends or even acquaintances about their experiences is a good first step to understanding how to create authentically diverse characters. Often times, we see caricatures of minority groups rather than a fully fleshed out character.  There are so few games that genuinely portray queer experiences, black experiences, etc. I don’t expect minority groups to represent a majority in media, but it’d be nice to be thrown a satisfying bone every now and again. After all stereotyped characters are only really an issue when that is the commonplace portrayal for nearly every member of a certain group. Most importantly though, is remembering that minority groups are people. It is okay to write a story for them that doesn’t inherently include their identity, but that tells of their experience as a human being.

So, now that I’ve rambled about being inclusive- I’d like to talk about the practicality of inclusion. It is true that the vast majority of video gamers (in the United States) are white males. There are studies that certainly indicate a rise in female gamers, but many of those statistics included mobile games like ‘Candy Crush’ which, unfortunately, don’t really count. Nonetheless, it does appear likely that more women will be members of the gaming community in the future. We’ve begun to see far more respect and representation paid to women in a myriad of titles. The reboot of Tomb Raider, Life is Strange, Final Fantasy XIII, Bayonetta, and Mirror’s Edge – to name a few. I will say, that we still have a ways to go in this regard however. Others would disagree with me by arguing that, with the aforementioned majority demographic gamer,  games featuring diverse protagonists wouldn’t sell as well. While I question how relatable the ultra-bad-ass demigod is for the average gamer, there is some merit in the idea that representation can affect childhood development and self esteem (See study: here). Even with that in mind though, the majority of gamers are adults who are well beyond that stage of development. As well, it is important to  keep in mind that video games are becoming increasingly popular, and not just here in the United States, but in countries where white people aren’t the majority. An interesting side note is that many Japanese games and manga feature majority white casts, or white protagonists. This is despite Japan’s majority Asian population.

Even in Japanese media there seems to be a lack of diversity, especially when looking at anime and video games. Wherever you live in the world, the idea that adults cannot empathize and relate to a character who has a different skin color, sexuality or gender is quite baffling. In my opinion, it is far more likely that people are uncomfortable with differing perspectives. I would argue that art in any form is meant to evoke these kind of emotions, and is meant to challenge insular perspectives. I say this, fully aware that not all games are meant to be artful. This post isn’t meant to dictate the creative process, but to provide suggestions on how to expand and diversify the gaming community. As well, this post seeks to assert that it’s okay to relate to others who might be different from you. When we are a more inclusive in our content it becomes much easier to avoid tropes and cliches, and it becomes much easier to expand our community.