Why does it matter who you play as?
Well, one reason is empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. As a straight white man you rarely get the chance to exercise that ability, and if you don't use it you lose it. The less empathetic people become, the worse the world gets. Diversity both in front of and behind "the camera" leads to fewer stereotypes, fewer stereotypes lead to better representation, which leads to a normalisation of minorities - that is, you get more used to seeing us, which leads to less hate and harassment. Or so we hope. Like Christine Marie Jentoft, queer gamer and trans-activist, puts it:
"People mirror themselves in fiction. We like to see our strengths and weaknesses reflected in the characters we follow, and it helps that they resemble us in some way, even if they're blue elves from a magical kingdom. I think it's healthy to play characters that are different from yourself, especially if they're well written. Games have the ability to let us "see" the world through someone else's eyes, and experience someone else's daily life or situation that we otherwise wouldn't be able to experience."
Stine Thordarson Moltubakk, editor in chief of Spillpikene.no, who has a master's in Science and Technology Studies agrees, adds:
"Representation is including - it's a basic human need to feel included and seen. It gives the impression that I too am part of this world, I exist, my story matters in the medium I love - games. I would also like to emphasise that experiencing other people's stories has brought me immense joy. Like Firewatch. I'm not a white, bearded man in his 40s with a senile wife, but I still really appreciated the opportunity to be a part of his story."
Kristine Ask, senior lecturer at the Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies at NTNU and writer for Spillpikene.no, also points to inclusion as an important factor of proper representation.
"When the games we explore don't have people that look like us or think like us, it creates a sense of "otherness". A feeling of being abnormal and different. It's a deeply-rooted human desire to belong somewhere. So when the culture we immerse ourselves in constantly tells us that we do not belong there - that this is not for us - it ruins the experience for us. On the other hand, when we get to see and play as characters we relate to, we feel included. Engaging with the game gets easier, we're more invested in the avatar and the game world. Research shows that identifying with your avatar increases immersion, so it's a shame there are so few options available to us. Too often our only choice is a straight white man."
"Now, we don't need a character of the same gender, skin colour, or sexual orientation to be able to immerse ourselves in a game. The joy of playing video games is often experiencing someone else's world. The problem with poor to no representation lies in how extremely dominating one type of representation has become. When «scruffy white dudes» are the heroes by default, it is not only exclusionary by making a main character only straight white men can properly relate to, and thusly signaling that they are the target audience - this monotony also makes for boring games. It is incredibly limiting for games as a format to always have to create narratives and mechanics that fit the 'never showing emotions, always have a fun quip ready, capable at ass-kicking'- avatars."
"I thought what happened when Rust generated characters with different genders and skin colours at random was very interesting," Stine added. "That's how we enter this world - randomly. Game minorities have, for years, almost exclusively played characters that don't represent them at all, and it's been fine. But you tire of the monotony and start to ask for more variation. Why was the way Rust handled things such a big deal for the game majority? Was it because they were unable to identify with someone that didn't look like them?"
It's 2018 - is all this complaining really necessary now?
Let's rewind a little, and talk about numbers again. We asked Kim if things had gotten better since he wrote his thesis, and if the unequal distribution of queer characters had become... less unequal.
"We have gotten more games about queer characters or queer themes, and it's mostly indie games that are responsible for this development. Indie developers are typically not bound by the same norms and practices as the mainstream industry (which has a complex interaction between norms and money), and can more easily explore alternative stories (by which I mean stories and characters not often seen in mainstream media)," he explains. "The mainstream industry is moving more slowly, but I have seen some development. Bioware launched Mass Effect: Andromeda last year, and they continued with their romancing system (although the game received criticism for prioritizing the straight romances - giving the queer romances fewer dialogue options and scenes compared to the straight ones). So it has gotten marginally better. But it's still fairly disproportionate. It's still quite uncommon to encounter openly queer characters in mainstream games, and even more uncommon to get to play as them."
We put the same question to Shareef Jackson - STEM Diversity Advocate, game professor at the University of Wisconsin, and the creator of the YouTube series Gaming Looks Good - if anything has improved since 2015, and if the portrayal of African-Americans in games has changed in any way:
"Things have been improving somewhat. There have been more black leads but most have still been male and cis. More women of colour are needed as main characters. In addition, other characters of colour in stories still tend to lack depth and/or represent the stereotype of the sassy friend. Basically, all characters need depth," he said. "All popular media (books, TV, video games, etc) that is fictional can still affect people's perspectives on culture. The media should reflect the viewership, which is incredibly diverse. Also, not all video games are fantasy and make believe - some strive for realism, making these issues even more important."
"Not being represented has made me feel like I'm not wanted or respected inside of a culture that I participate in. Diverse groups of people have consumed various media for a long time, and that media should, in turn, represent us as consumers," he concluded.
"I'm not naïve enough to expect a slew of games with a lesbian transgendered main character, but when I get hyped just because a game makes it mandatory to play as a woman, even without romancing options, it feels a little sad, to be honest." - Christine Marie Jentoft.
Just play RPGs - problem solved.
Fortunately for us role-playing games, where we can make our own characters, exist. Kim, Christine, and Kristine all mention franchises like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, and Guild Wars, where they can make a character they can relate to, and get a taste of what it feels like to be included.
But here's the rub! Because gender, skin colour, and sexual orientation are optional in games like these, they have no bearing whatsoever on what happens to us in the game. Yes, we'll face trials and tribulations, but they will not happen because of who or what we are. Lee Williams, game critic and YouTuber, expresses it best in the article Black While Gaming:
"I've personally made Shepards with blonde hair and blue eyes, I've made black, indigenous American and Asian looking Shepards. But I've never considered them to be black, indigenous, or Asian. Cmdr. Shepard is a default character whose history is more or less identical, no matter what he or she looks like. In Mass Effect we have the physical representation of a black character, without any 'cultural blackness.' Because Cmdr. Shepard isn't black. Shepard's a multicoloured, dual-gendered placeholder for a white man's story, and completely devoid of cultural variance that defines race and gender."
Gender, skin colour, and sexual orientation almost have more consequences in a silly game like Fractured But Whole, where random hostile encounters are based on your stated gender and orientation, and where the difficulty of the game was supposedly connected to your skin colour. Role-playing games are all well and good, but in terms of representation and diversity they are a cop-out. To make the game industry more representative we need more characters written as women, as queer (hello The Last of Us), as people from different nations and cultural backgrounds, not to mention as people with physical disabilities or neurodivergences. We need our own heroes, written for us, written by us. We don't want to steal your heroes in the name of representation and diversity - we just want room to create our own.
It's a big world out there, filled with so many different types of people. The fact that most of us are invisible in one of the biggest entertainment industries there is, makes no sense. No one deserves to feel unwanted, invisible, unworthy, non-existent, alone. Not even you, dear straight white man. Diversity and representation is something that should be embraced and celebrated, not feared and opposed, because guess what: proper representation will benefit you too! Because you have your own stereotypes you have to deal with.
"Rambo: First Blood Part II for the Sega Master System in 1987 - The second player character, Zane, was a darker skinned palette swap of the Rambo character. That was close enough for me - it was the first game where I felt connected to a Black character. It felt great!" - Shareef Jackson.
"The gaming audience is much more diverse than the 'straight white man' stereotype, which in itself is a diverse group of people that get a very limited and often over-idealised representation of themselves, what they should be like, what they're supposed to be attracted to, things that may not fit at all with how the players see themselves," Kim says in closing.
Ultimately diversity and proper representation will only give us better games, more believable characters, and more interesting stories - what is so terrifying about that? What happened when a minority took over the Thor franchise? We got one of the best movies in the entire MCU! Not to mention the breath of fresh air Black Panther was. And to those of you out there who believe that because there will be more of us, there will be less of you - no, that's not how this works. That's not how any of this works. We just want equality - not revenge. You are included in the whole diversity concept because we know how terrible it is to be left out, and we would never do that to you.