Playing video games has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. From becoming the Pokemon Champion in Red Version at 6 years old (while having to rely on my Haunter because I foolishly didn’t know trade evolutions were a thing), to guiding Cloud to his defeat of Sephiroth, to showing the Flood Master Chief isn’t to be messed with, to raiding leading Karazhan and Naxxramas with my guild, I have too many good memories with gaming to count. These fond memories are what it so painful to see so many other gamers having their experiences tainted by the communities of the games they enjoy.
With video games being so accessible now, many of which are online or have online features, we have the opportunity to engage with gamers we might not have if we solely had to rely on split screen or local co-op. Us gamers know that the friendships we have developed online are just as strong as the friendships we have established IRL (“In Real Life” for those non-gamer readers). Those friends can come from all across the country or the globe and that is what makes gaming so awesome. Gamers have the unique opportunity to engage with so many different cultures and talk to so many different kinds of people, helping make us much more well-rounded individuals. Yet for many gamers, gaming isn’t always relaxing or the escape from reality that it is for the rest of us. Gaming for some provides just another avenue for them to experience discrimination or harassment.
You don’t have to look any further than the comment sections on streamers pages, YouTube videos, or twitter posts. Gamers who don’t identify like myself (a straight, white, man) have a much harder time just enjoying video games. And that isn’t because of the games themselves but the gamers that play them. I cannot count the amount of times I have heard racist, sexist, and homophobic language in trade chat in World of Warcraft, the pregame lobby of a Call of Duty or Halo match, team chat in Overwatch, or in chat on Rocket League. The genre of the game doesn’t matter, the comments are always the same. Gaming is supposed to be a thing that can bring us all together, but all it has done is continue the divides that plague our everyday lives.
I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised though, when game developers are 76.3% male, 71.1% white, and only 7.66% are members of the LGBTQ+ community the games they create can only do so much in terms of storytelling and character diversity. Having so many developers with similar lived experiences means they typically operate from a specific worldview. Now this is not to say they can’t create well-written characters or stories that are different from what they know. It is just often the stories they create will often be surface level, without substance, or in the worst-case scenario, they reinforce stereotypes. One of the earlier depictions of a black character,
Bald Bull from “Punch Out!!”, shows how many of the early black characters were designed. They simply fell into the caricature of what a black person looked like. It also doesn’t help that many of the early depictions of black people in games were really only found in sport or fighting games, simply reinforcing stereotypes of black people, specifically black men. Fun fact, 1979 was when we got our first playable black character, a basketball player. The first game to actually feature an LGBTQ+ character was 1986’s “Moonmist” and it wasn’t until “Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh” came out in 1996 that we got our first playable non-straight character, Curtis Craig. Again though, the early depictions of LGBTQ+ characters again fell into their portrayals being stereotypical (only have lesbian characters be butch, the gay characters are just effeminate, etc.). The absence of diversity in game developer rooms can be felt in these titles and in MANY other videos games still today.
This absence of diversity in game development is a stark contrast to the actual players of their games. When 10% of gamers identify as LGBTQ+, 83% of black teens, 71% of white teens, and 69% of Hispanic teens played video games and women
account for 45% of all gamers, it is clear that gamers are not just straight white men. This means that game developers cannot just keep making games that simply cater to the straight white male. Their games need to be more diverse because their audience is diverse. Failing to make their games diverse would mean they are failing to connect to their whole audience. When video games simply use stereotypical portrayals of women, LGBTQ+ people, and racial minority groups, it reinforces the beliefs that people may already have for that group of people.
We can say that video games are just games but the messaging in these games influences our world view, just like any other form of media. When black and Hispanic characters are typically portrayed as gangsters or violent,
when gay characters are portrayed as far more feminine men, when lesbian characters are portrayed as butch or as a sexual fetish for the player, when Asian female characters are portrayed as overly sexualized, or when trans characters are simply there to be played for laughs, these depictions can influence how we interact with people of these identities in the real world. And this is why I said that video games have divided us. They, for a long time have done nothing to combat stereotypes or have continual positive representation of a majority of their player base.
However, some games do have diversity present in them. And with these improvements, we end up with more interesting characters and worlds. Take Overwatch for example. Despite the lack of story in Overwatch, there is all forms of representation. Overwatch is a game that operates with 3 different roles for players to fill; tank, damage, and support. Tanks are bulky characters that can take a lot of damage, block damage, and they work to create openings for the team to accomplish their objective. Damage dealers, as their name would indicate, deal damage to kill opposing team members. Support characters are there to heal damage their team has taken, increase their movement speed, and increase the damage they may deal, or weaken opposing team members. These roles all must work together to accomplish the objective. This type of game design isn’t new and it would have been very easy for the developers of Overwatch to place the female or more feminine looking characters into the support roles while placing the men or more masculine looking characters in to the tank role. While yes there is some of that (looking at Reinhardt and Zarya as tanks and Mercy and Zenyata as support), each role has a variety of different body styles, races, and gender identities. From the poster character of the game, Tracer, a lesbian, to D.Va, Lucio, Reaper, Doomfist, Ana, Pharah, Hanzo, and so many other, all of the characters in this game represent different racial backgrounds and don’t have them all falling into stereotypes or simply being caricatures of the identity they have. These characters are each different and their own person, despite some of them having similar identities. These characters are representative of the world we live in; a world full of different people who, even when they have similar identities, are still their own person with their own personalities. This diverse cast of characters has left it’s audience clamoring for more lore about these characters and as a result, many of these characters have been more fleshed out in and out of the game. As for one of my favorite video game franchises, Borderlands, since the first one they continue to be a commentary on our world and invest much of its story telling combating harmful stereotypes, racism, sexism, homophobia, and even things like corporate greed.
Video games provide opportunities to tell stories and make real world parallels to teach lessons, just like every other form of media. In making real world parallels, the characters in games need to be representative of all of us in the real world. Sure none of us look like Bowser or Bastion, but there are the Tracers, Zaryas, Hanzos, Bangalores, Livewires, Rolands, Tiny Tinas, Ellies, and Miles Morales’ of the world who have every right to see themselves in these games the same way the Soldier 76s, Bricks, Clouds, and Links deserve to be. When games include all different kinds of representation, the worlds they are based in become more vibrant and relatable. Games today aren’t becoming more “woke” they are simply becoming more representative of all of us who play games. And this representation is needed. Badly. When gamers are exposed to different identities than the ones they hold, it can start to build empathy for those identities. When the characters portray a wide array of personalities, backgrounds, and experiences and not just stereotypes, it makes it easier to see all people as individuals and not the stereotypes we have assigned them. This representation is not just useful for building empathy though. This representation is also so important for people who have had to go so long without having real representation of people like them in games. Anthony Burch, the lead writer for many of the Borderlands games says is best when it comes to representation in video games.
“It was really encouraging. For every dude that hated the fact Torgue says friendzoning isn’t a real thing or reacted against all the social progressive stuff that was in the game there would be somebody who was like, ‘Hey, I didn’t know I was trans till I played Borderlands,’ or ‘I didn’t know I was asexual till I played as Maya and found somebody to identify with.’ Hearing that you’ve allowed somebody to use fiction to learn more about themselves, to feel more empowered, is the only time you can feel like ‘Oh I’m doing a good thing by writing video games.’”
Some of us play games to escape from the real world but maybe there is a reason for that. Maybe video games provide many gamers the opportunity to exist in a world where they are not persecuted, harassed, and discriminated against because of their identities. Maybe video games give them a real opportunity to just exist how they are and have a place to feel safe. And this is why I have such a problem with the racism, sexism, and homophobia that so many of our fellow gamers experience. Not just because those things are wrong and shouldn’t exist but now we are failing them AGAIN. Each video game provides them a new opportunity to not have to deal with discrimination for a while. And EACH TIME they speak in team chat, or try to stand up for their community in in game chat, or just try to have fun and stream a game they like, they are discriminated against again and again and again. We need more representation in video games to help combat this discrimination but we also need gamers to realize that it is on us to make sure we are working to create spaces where ALL gamers feel safe enough to simply just enjoy the game they are playing and not fear being discriminated against for speaking in chat.
Having more representation in the games you play isn’t hurting you but it is helping so many others, and isn’t that what we should strive for?
1. Video game developer demographics and statistics : Number of video game developers in the US. Video Game Developer Demographics and Statistics : Number Of Video Game Developers In The US. (2022, April 18). Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://www.zippia.com/video-game-developer-jobs/demographics/
2. Lenhart, A. (2019, December 31). Chapter 3: Video Games are key elements in friendships for many boys. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2015/08/06/chapter-3-video-games-are-key-elements-in-friendships-for-many-boys/
3. Clement, J. (2021, August 20). U.S. Video Gamer Gender Statistics 2021. Statista. Retrieved June 16, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/232383/gender-split-of-us-computer-and-video-gamers/#:~:text=U.S.%20video%20gaming%20audiences%202006%2D2021%2C%20by%20gender&text=In%202021%2C%20women%20accounted%20for,women%20during%20the%20previous%20year