In the Nintendo 2020 annual report, it was revealed that there are almost 3.1 billion gamers across the globe. That’s about 40% of the human population. Considering the sheer volume of players, and the fact that many video games are either a simulation of real life (The Sims), or at the very least set in the same planet that we occupy (Watch Dogs: Legion), you would think that the inhabitants of video games would be as diverse as their living counterparts – us.
Unfortunately, this is often not the case, and progress has been slow until recent years. Since the early 2000’s, independent game companies have been leading the way in representation, whilst larger developers and triple-AAA games fell behind, primarily targeted at a cisgender male audience, which historically, has been the dominant consumer.
However, times are changing, and it is estimated that the male to female ratio of gamers is now split pretty evenly down the middle.
As Generation Z and Generation Alpha are born into a slightly less prejudiced world and exposed to a variety of demographics from a young age, there is now more demand than ever for true representation within video games, be it race, gender or sexuality. Afterall, if a community does not feel represented within a game, they are much less likely to invest.
In this article, we’ll be talking a look at a variety of intersectionalities and how each are represented – or not represented – within games of the 21st century, and how game studios can work to improve this when planning a new project.
After the tragic events of 2020 shed light once again on the unjust treatment of people of colour (POC), it perhaps comes as no surprise that ethnic minorities are misrepresented in video games too, if at all.
In a study conducted by Tech Talk, it was found that only 30% of all video games nominated for a Game Award between 2003 and 2018, enabled a user to play as a POC. In contrast to this, White characters were the default for 61% of them.
Adam Campbell, founder of POC in Play, has elaborated on this, explaining that “white characters are in the majority, and we tend to see a full range of representation: personality, style, background … they can include complex personalities and struggles. This range is often missing when you see how other races are depicted in games”.
Unfortunately, it seems that characters of colour fall into cliches, and stereotypes of years gone by. For example, Black characters especially have traditionally been shown as intimidating and aggressive (think Barret Wallace in Final Fantasy 7) which, Rico Norwood of Wired explains, “speaks to an underlying structure of racism, patriarchy, heteronormativity and other forms of systematic oppression”.
Similarly, Hispanic characters often come with an abundance of drug cartel and gang culture references (think Grand Theft Auto V), and Asian women are either submissive, infantilised or hypersexualised in fan service games (think Kimora Lee Simmons, Def Jam: Fight for New York).
Whilst representations of ethnic minorities have increased in recent years – a notable milestone being the 2020 release of Marvel’s Spider Man: Miles Morales, the first time a black character led the charge into a new console gaming era – developers must remain diligent in how these characters are represented and avoid stereotypes derived from racist attitudes.
Gender and Gender Identity
Unfortunately, the hypersexualised features of Kimora Lee Simmons extend way beyond herself it seems, to women in games as a whole. Jay-Anne Lopez of Black Girl Gamers writes that “female characters have historically been hyper-sexualised for the male-gaze in gaming” with full breasts, thin waists and curvaceous hips, to appeal to a male audience. Lara Croft is the infamous epitome of this and reduces her to a purely visual object with no personality or background.
Thankfully, developers have gradually moved away from this in recent years, as the market has opened up to a broad female audience who do not respond to being belittled for the satisfaction of others. In fact, over the last decade or so, the number of female gamers has increased by an astronomical 189%, though you may notice that the majority of game covers are still targeted towards men with a typically ‘male’ colour palette and visuals.
What about those outside of the binary though?
For members of the trans community (including transgender, transexual, non-binary and gender-fluid) representation in any industry is significantly narrowed in comparison. In the gaming industry, the case is no different, and the little representation that exists often demonstrates harmful stereotypes of the past.
When Tell Me Why was announced in November 2014, DONTNOD Entertainment introduced a breath of fresh air. Developed alongside Xbox Game Studies, with the assistance of GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation, it was the first video game from a major studio to feature a playable transgender lead character – Tyler. A trans man, Tyler is a fully developed and multi-dimensional character rather than being reduced to simplistic trans tropes, and one that hopes to set the benchmark for other triple AAA games in years to come.
As mentioned earlier, independent game developers have been leading the way in terms of broadening the representation of minorities, and this is especially the case when it comes to sexuality. Thanks to improved access to development tools and distribution methods, more and more independent developers – often from diverse backgrounds – are able to tell a story from their own perspective, resulting in a more diverse range of video games.
Meanwhile, the largest games from triple AAA developers often don’t acknowledge LGBTQ+ themes at all, with 73% of the games tested in Tech Talks’ survey failing to provide any representation at all.
However, in the same report it’s noted that there is a gradual improvement in the representation of diverse sexualities, “but it’s still slow and largely incidental”, and is taking many years. For example, the window between 2009 and 2018 saw an increase of 300% in the number of games with proper representation when compared to the previous period. Some video games have been the figureheads in this change, most notably, The Sims, which famously has the most progressive stance to sexuality. There is hope that this attitude will be adopted across the industry.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, physical disabilities are portrayed much more often than mental disabilities, with game play sometimes including burn victims, amputees and wheelchair bound characters, for example, Lester Crest in Grand Theft Auto V.
This is a relatively recent development though, with physical disabilities first introduced to video games in the early 90’s, followed by mental disabilities as late as 2009. Of course, on the one hand this is a positive development and can only mean the industry is taking into consideration the representation of minorities. Unfortunately, on the other hand, developers often fall into harmful stereotypes and negative connotations in the same way they do for hyper-sexualised and passive women, for example.
A report by Tech Talk found that video game characters with physical disabilities are the most likely to get ‘fixed’ during gameplay. Ian Hamilton, accessibility expert, explains that “this notion that people with disabilities are often broken and need to be fixed was rejected and abandoned in the 1970’s, yet still persists in media, and in games, often through the trope of medical conditions being replaced by superhuman powers or superhuman prosthetics”.
When it comes to mental disabilities representation lacks altogether, at only 3% of games surveyed, so there is still a great deal of improvement to be made when it comes to disability in gaming.
We know that this is a very complex topic and there is a great deal to it, so it’s understandable if you have some questions. If you’d like to query something with us or know more about how you can represent diversity through voices, click the link to read our dedicated article. Alternatively, give us a call today. You can reach us on 0203 744 3558.