This started as a comment on someone else's article about the selfishness of privileged players and how they should know their place in the game industry ecosystem. Now, five interviews and a dozen source articles later it has turned into a full-blown article from the "other side". From the ones you never know if are part of a game because they've earned their place there, or if they're part of some onerous "forced inclusion" conspiracy (actual comment on the article mentioned in the beginning).
See, the problem with living in a bubble, with being privileged, is that you're usually not aware that you're living in a bubble, or that you are in fact privileged. You don't realise that there is a problem, or that something is wrong. And why would you? Everything is catered to you, and all forms of entertainment just reinforce this status quo. It's only obvious to the ones left on the outside, who would like to be included in the bubble community, or, preferably, break the barrier and get rid of the bubble once and for all. The largest bubble in the gaming world, or in the pop cultural sphere in general, belongs to straight white men.
Now, before you get all riled up and feel personally attacked we just want to say this: 1. There's nothing wrong with being a straight white man - you can't help what you are. 2. It's possible to be a part of a privileged group, and still have problems and shitty situations as a person. 3. No one wants to push straight white men out of the arts, or oppress or silence their voices. This is not about that.
These are things that shouldn't have to be said, but still need saying. And looking at the reactions to Ellie kissing a girl in one TLoU II trailer, a woman appearing in Battlefield V, and the general attitude whenever the gaming industry tries to do anything solely for minorities, it's obvious to us that there are a few other things that shouldn't need to be said, but have to be said anyway.
This is about diversity and representation in media, specifically in games, and why this is so damn important. So, straight white men, relax, breathe, because this article is not written about you, but it is written for you.
So, how does one go about explaining the importance of proper representation in the media to someone who has always been represented? To a group of people who are always in the majority, who have never been excluded from anything, ever? Who have always seen themselves, or versions of themselves in movies, TV shows, and games?
Alright, here's a scenario: Imagine growing up as a white geek, and everything you're a fan of - all movies, shows, and games - are essentially Black Panther.
Everything you watch and take part in is constantly bombarding you with the underlying message that you are not good enough to be a hero, or a main character in your own story. You are typecast as a villain or the comic relief. You are a token, a loudmouthed, smart-assed buddy, the one who dies first in horror movies, the one who gives the hero a fright in dark alleys and in bad neighbourhoods.
Imagine growing up as straight, hovering in solitude outside the LGBTQ bubble, where 90% of the Earth's population are living. The world hates you. And when you look for solace in the fantasy world that games, movies, and books offer, you discover that your sexuality is a plot twist, the punchline of a joke, that you're a caricature, someone to be outed and buried, and the only roles someone like you gets to fill are that of sassy friend or victim of hate crime. Your sexuality is never a choice taken, it's always optional. Then imagine a triple-A game has a straight main character, and they choose to show her kissing a guy in their newest trailer, which is subsequently met with comments like "this is pandering" and "I'm fine with people being straight, but do they have to shove it in our face all the time?"
Imagine growing up as a man, and even though you make up 50% of the population, and almost 50% of those who play video games, the majority of games (and movies and shows) have female main characters, and are marketed and targeted towards women because they are the only ones that play real games. Men only play Candy Crush, Farmville and The Sims, and aren't real gamers. So your heroes and role models are Britt Blazkowicz, Nathasha Drake, Marcine Fenix, Doom Gal, Super Maria, and Duchess Nukem, and the few men who appear are only there for our viewing pleasure, they are there to be saved so we have a reason for all this fighting and shooting, a so-called "mansel in distress". You are an assistant, secretary, an object, a boyfriend, token male superhero, an object, a motive for women's actions, an object, but never a hero or a main character. Game studios say they can't include men in their games because they're too hard to animate. And should someone dare to put a man in the lead, you can bet your ass it'll be met with comments like "Yeah, boycotting this, can't relate to a man" and "this is totally historically incorrect," and so on and so forth from here and till the end of time. The likelihood of this male lead getting an absurd costume, and posing in positions that are only possible if his spine were made out of rubber, is huge.
Welcome to the pop cultural wasteland we game minorities have been wandering around in for the past 40 years. And even though it is tempting to start a revolution and overthrow our oppressors, that's not what we want. All we want is a little diversity. We just want to be included in a way that reflects the diversity in the real world, and you know, be treated with some semblance of respect... like we are regular, ordinary human beings.
Now, not everything is doom and gloom, and some aspects are getting better. According to a study made by Teresa Lynch, who holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from Indiana University, where she looked at 571 female characters from 1989 to 2014, the hypersexualization of women in video games has been slowly declining since 1995. So that's good. We also have more female characters to choose from. Imagine that! Choices! It's almost a foreign concept for minorities (thank the gods for RPGs and Overwatch!). It's still a foreign concept for most, but not for us. Why? Because we happen to be white and straight. Super privileged! Well, except for the fact that we're a woman...
"I sobbed when I finished Gone Home. I sobbed because the closing beat of the narrative moved me to tears but also because I finally felt my own queer womanhood reflected back at me within the context of a fully realized game world." - Samantha Allen in Closing the gap between queer and mainstream games.
We have a veritable cornucopia of games to choose from (despite this it's still pretty huge to see ourselves represented in established franchises - we had a lump in our throat all the way through Force Awakens, Rogue One, and Wonder Woman, and you can bet we screamed when Kait was revealed as the main character in Gears 5!). Well, our Horn of Plenty is at least half full (or half empty depending on how you look at things), but the more adjoining circles you have in your minority-Venn diagram, the worse things get. If you're white and lesbian, the choices are halved. White male and gay? Even fewer choices. Not white? Only a quarter left. You're also trans or queer? Well, we think there are some crumbs left waay up in there. Oh, you have a physical disability? Have fun with the first half hour of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus and episode 4 of Life is Strange.
Despite things improving somewhat in some areas, only 8% of the games showcased at this year's E3 had female main characters. Eight percent! In 2015 only 5% of all games had an African-American main character, despite the fact that 53% of the African-Americans surveyed play video games (so saying there's a not a market for a video game with a black main character is nonsense, to be honest), according to figures from Pew Research Center. The situation is even more abysmal for Latino and Asian gamers (1% and 3% respectively in 2014). In 2017 GamesRadar counted how many games contain a queer character. The number then was 179. That's out of all the games that have been made. Period. Of those only 83 were playable characters. Of those again only eight were written as queer. In all the others it was optional. So the fact that someone thinks that one woman appearing in Battlefield V, and one main character being queer in a game launching in 2019 (hopefully) can somehow be classified as pandering and forced inclusion, is, in our opinion, absurd.
So why is diversity so damn important?
We asked Kim Johansen Østby the same question. He is a senior lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Oslo, and has written his Ph.D. thesis on the representation of gender and sexuality in Bioware games (From Embracing Eternity to Riding the Bull: Representations of Homosexuality and Gender in the Video Game Series Mass Effect and Dragon Age), so we though he might have a thing or two to say about the matter. And we were right!
"There are several reasons diversity and representation is so important. On the most basic level: The world is diverse. Western culture is diverse. If the mass media want to reach the masses they can't keep targeting the same groups over and over again. It won't do in the long run. It marginalises and excludes," he says.
"Games are sociocultural products and are as such never just fantasy and make-believe," he adds. "Games are often based on, or creates content that resonates with society, culture and ideologies. It can be both implicit and explicit, concious and subconcious, and it can help confirming or challenging ideas that are "other". Games aren't just a passive reflection of the state of the world or culture, but is an active agent in furthering norms, values and ideologies. Diverse representation in games can help break down restrictive ideas and norms, and pave the road for different types of experiences."
Another thing is stagnation. If the same stories always are told by the same types of people, always seen through the same cultural lens, then the narrative stagnates and we're stuck with the same regurgitated cud year after year. Reboots, remakes, remasters, over and over and over again. Like Derek Manns, a game designer at DeVry University in Illinois, and Marcus Montgomery, a 20-year veteran in the video game industry, wrote in the article The Video Game Industry's Problem With Racial Diversity:
"If you have more diverse storytellers, they will start to bring their own perspectives and try and attack different avenues that have not been explored before."
"There's always going to be a critical nuance that's more explored if you are from a particular demographic," says Montgomery. "Like, I'm a heterosexual male, I have no idea what it's like to be a lesbian woman. I don't think any kind of research is going to allow me to get the right nuance."