Around the time I first got to TAY, I was fortunate enough to stumble across a great article written by Nyren about what video games meant to the gamer. Nyren discussed, and I’m paraphrasing, how morality and politics were diluting the game space because they were trying to force an agenda on developers that conflict with the artistic freedom of genre. We had a great conversation about it in the comments of their article. His piece as well as the current climate in gaming definitely inspired me to offer my own thoughts on this issue; where do we draw the line between political and moral agendas negatively impacting art? What do we say to the diverse consumer base clamoring for more representation in the genres that they love and spend their money on?
Full disclosure, I’m an African American woman who has been enjoying games for my 29 years on Earth. When games were more cartoon-like or pixelated I don’t think this was much of an issue. We had dragons, plumbers, spacemen and whatever the fuck Crash Bandicoot could officially be called. Thoughts about realism didn’t really matter to the masses back then because the technology hasn’t caught up. But now that it has we have new issues that come with it.
For as long as I remember I have usually played a male main protagonist and he was usually white. If there were women around, they were a love interest, a hooker or a secondary character to the main protagonist. Sure some of them may have been powerful background players but I couldn’t actually play them. Some people may mention the Tomb Raider franchise for a successful female lead and you’re right. Lara was a very popular female protagonist who also happened to be very brilliant as an archaeologist. However, she was also hyper-sexualized even in her very polygonal form. Some people may mention The Fear Effect franchise too and, if I’m not mistaken, those women were in a lesbian relationship complete with sex scenes if you were ambitious enough to get them.
On the issue of diversity of race in games, if there was a person of color in the narrative it was always surprising and welcome to see but they fit the stereotypical mold too. They were usually male and placed in the underbelly of the games underworld. I know what you’re thinking, we have white male criminals too, and you’re correct. But, you also have white male protagonists who are seen in more hero roles as well to help balance it out. It can be a disappointing to only see people of color in the narrative where they are only a part of the negative aspect of the game. But what I can say is that the environment is changing in a good way (I’m looking at you Watch Dogs 2, Mirror’s Edge). That could be attributed to the consumers or advocates in the industry clamoring for different concepts.
So how has this mindset continued on for so long? When it comes to female representation, the thought may be that women/girl’s don’t play games. Or those women only play cutesy games that don’t require a lot of complex mechanics like First Person Shooters (FPS) or Role Playing Games (RPG). Growing up I didn’t know too many girls who openly discussed playing games. If they did, it wasn’t talked about or you may have been ostracized for not wanting to do “girl” things. I wasn’t ashamed that I played games so I just ended up hanging out with boys who played them too and I was usually the only girl present. Even with the introduction of Twitch, more women present at conventions and more women trying to break into the video game space it still seems like the industry primarily caters to men.
On the issue of cultural diversity in games I have some thoughts about it. It could be that there are not enough developers from diverse backgrounds making these games. Perhaps they don’t know how to tell a story with a character from another ethnic group. And because of that, they end up making characters that fit into certain tropes based on their limited scope of interactions with whatever ethnic group they want to use. However, that’s not a good excuse. There are numerous games on historic eras that none of us were present for but somehow developers managed to make it work. How did they make it work? Developers conducted research on the topic of their game before making their game. They could do this by having focus groups and consulting with their fellow developers about how this character would see, feel and react to “X” situation. It’s doable but isn’t done or isn’t done frequently enough with the question being “why not”?
In some candid conversations with my gaming buddies some of the responses to the issue have been interesting. One response I have gotten from a white friend was that he could not imagine playing as a character that wasn’t white or male. A sentiment that I have gotten from my fellow minority gamers is that diversity doesn’t matter as long as the game is good. A much more troubling but pervasive response is the thought that, this is how it always was so why expect it to change now? Now mind you, these responses are paraphrased from my collective gaming conversations so you are free to take them with a grain of salt. I can even freely admit that I have played as a carefree Japanese girl with a skirt that’s a little too short on my numerous JRPG adventures. I frolicked along without giving the race of the character too much thought because I enjoyed the story.
This post is getting a little long so I’m going to try to get to the point.
Even though some of my fellow minority gamers, whether they are of a different cultural background, race, gender or sexuality, say that seeing themselves reflected in games doesn’t matter I believe that it does. When they revealed that the main protagonist of Watch Dogs 2 was going to be black our community was more hype for that game than ever because he wasn’t in the “stereotypical” role. I remember when I was playing Dragon Age: Inquisition the developers discussed how your character can have homosexual and heterosexual relationships that were well developed in the game and the community was hype about that. Factor in that you can create your avatar in the beginning, you have the all of the ducks in a row for a great gaming experience. In Final Fantasy 14 when Square Enix announced that the Eternal Bonding ceremony in game could be with any gender you wanted the community was ecstatic. For the people who identify as heterosexual they could care less because it didn’t affect their gaming experience. But the point was that people who didn’t identify as “heterosexual” also had the option to play and experience the game how they wanted with no limiters on it.
I believe that is the whole point that I’m trying to make. The normal game developer’s demographic is white, heterosexual males between the ages of 13 to 30. There are a wealth of gamers that fit different molds than that target group that play and love games. Developers have an opportunity to show unique perspectives to different populations that wouldn’t normally get to experience it through a good narrative and game play. I’m not saying that there isn’t a space for mindless smut in games with hyper sexualized men and women or the time for white male protagonists are over. Perhaps I’m asking to have more variety in my games just like movies.
At the end of the day, I love games and if the game sounds good to me I’m going to play it regardless. If I see a game that is different for whatever reason and it seems like it’s going to be a good game I will support it. My support will hopefully send a positive message to the developers and the community that we want more games like this. I’m not asking for gamers to change their gaming preferences. You have the right to like what you like. But I am asking that the gaming community not shoot down others in the community that ask to be better represented in the games. I would also like the labels of “Social Justice Warrior (SJW)” and accusations of “trying to infringe on the creative process of the developers” to cease as well. I don’t want developers to shoehorn in underrepresented groups for the fuck of it either because they probably won’t pull it off well. I just want a variety of different gaming experiences because the gamer in me loves getting lost in all of these adventures.
But Until Next Time Guys,
Edited on 10/27/16: Originally posted on 7/5/16 and edited due to my liberal use of bold text print and grammatical errors.