We Don't Want to Sacrifice the Macho Man on the Altar of Diversity
We consider why gaming as a whole would benefit from greater inclusivity and representation.
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.
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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.
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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.
"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."
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.