The Straight White Guy Industry
by Brian Skahan
I am ridiculously privileged. Look at me. I'm a straight white guy. Nearly the entire game industry is built to appeal to me. Sure, there are games for a more general audience, such as Mario Kart, Animal Crossing, and Portal 2, but most of what goes into video games is tailored to get me, or someone else like me, to buy games. Everything from the idolized, macho men who always get the job done being on the game box’s cover, to the objectified, skimpily-dressed female side characters whose only role is their cleavage is meant for me.
Women, LGBTQ+ players, and players of color are often an afterthought, an asterisk, or a footnote.
These people don’t matter until the “core” gamer crowd is addressed. Oh, but don’t worry. Female gamers get Cooking Mama and pet games that end in the letter Z. At least LGBTQ+ players get BioWare games. At least players of color get side characters who get emotional deaths. That Assassin’s Creed spinoff had a person of color as the protagonist, right? Publishers don't owe them (or anyone, for that matter) anything, so why bother? A great portion of people, particularly the more vocal users of the internet who would probably choose a false interpretation of a fedora over any other kind of headwear, complacently believe we live in this mythical post-discrimination society, which simply isn’t the case, and the video game industry is a perfect example of this imbalance.
The problem isn't that there are tropes in gaming, it's which tropes the video game industry has chosen to fixate upon for the past twenty years.
The first popular games with anything resembling stories, such as Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda, followed the typical tropes of “hero rescues princess” and “man saves the day” because that’s how many stories have always been for thousands of years. Tropes such as these are sometimes unavoidable because everything is a trope. A buff macho hero is a trope, a defenseless princess is a trope, and a flamboyant gay man who can't defend himself is a trope, but so is a lead who is a strong lesbian woman who will shoot all opposition in the face while making immature jokes. The problem isn't that there are tropes in gaming—that's unavoidable—it's which tropes the video game industry has chosen to fixate upon and which tropes it has chosen to avoid for the past twenty years.
In a world where movies about Disney princesses who aren’t white make headlines for the character’s ethnicity, it isn’t too surprising that video games that don’t follow the unofficial rules of this straight, white, teenage boy industry are either panned, unsuccessful, or never even made.
Developers had to fight to get the protagonist to even stay a woman–they were directly told that the game would not succeed without a male lead despite nearly half of gamers being women.
Released in early 2013, Remember Me is a dystopian, futuristic third-person action/adventure game with combat similar to the Batman: Arkham series with dashes of Tomb Raider, among other things. The game stars Nilin, a female protagonist who is mixed race. Her race is somewhat unclear, but her name bears Indian origin, but considering a voodoo priest in voodoo-hell was the first black protagonist in a game, Remember Me is a huge step in the name of any sort of diversity in the video game industry.
Sure, there have been characters like Sheva from Resident Evil 5, Isabela in Dragon Age II, Daisy from Bioshock Infinite, and Sgt. Avery "Hold Me" Johnson from Halo, but people of color who are protagonists simply don’t appear in mainstream video games very often. As it turns out, Dont Nod Entertainment actually had to fight Capcom to get the protagonist to even stay a woman–they were directly told that the game would not succeed without a male lead. This is odd reasoning, of course, considering nearly half of gamers are women, and there are more adult women playing games than there are boys under the age of eighteen playing games.
Another example is the recent Call of Duty: Ghosts. In the entirety of the six-hour campaign, three people aren't grizzled white men: a female astronaut who dies within ten minutes of her introduction, a black soldier who dies within ten minutes of his introduction, and a female pilot whose helicopter presumably gets blown up off-screen after the only level in which she appears. In a game that supposedly involves the United States being crippled by their own weapons, leaving a ragtag group of soldiers, you’d think the resistance would be more diverse than White Guy #1, White Guy #2, White Guy #3, and Stephen Lang.
Bioware received great deal of flak and free press in 2011 for letting players make their characters gay, despite having a history of gay, lesbian, bi, and trans* characters.
Somewhat similarly, when BioWare released Dragon Age II in 2011, they received a great deal of flak (and free press) for allowing players to have their characters be gay, despite same-sex relationships being possible in Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and even Knights of the Old Republic (though Mass Effect didn’t allow male same-sex romances until the third game). BioWare stuck by this decision and made same-sex relationships possible in all future titles since, such as Mass Effect 3 (and presumably Dragon Age: Inquisition, which is due for release late 2014). BioWare even revealed characters who were previously thought to be straight as having fluid sexuality, with same-sex relationships now possible for some, such as in Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3, though some can only be romanced by protagonists of a specific sex despite their orientation.
There’s nothing wrong with BioWare doing this.
Representing gay, lesbian, bi, and trans* characters in a positive light is rather progressive, especially for the video game industry, but only BioWare seems to be doing this. If you were to ask the common gamer to name five games with possible LGBTQ+ protagonists, it would be next to impossible for them to not mention a few BioWare games. Yet another frustrating part of the matter is that nearly every depiction of members of the LGBTQ+ community in games, even in BioWare games, is a caricature of some stereotype inserted for the purpose of comic relief (particularly with the depiction of trans* characters), such as Wade, Haren, and Serendipity.
The most frequently targeted demographic—straight, white guys—don’t even notice any of these issues or tropes.
Possibly one the most unfortunate and easily remedied aspects of this entire situation is that those in the most frequently targeted demographic—straight, white guys—don’t even notice any of these issues or tropes. I recently played Resident Evil: Revelations, a delightful, stupidly convoluted horror game from Capcom. The game mostly stars Jill Valentine, who has been in the series since the first game. Jill wasn’t nearly as sexualized as she could have been, with the biggest issues for her being the unnecessarily low-cut wetsuit and how she wears a wetsuit as opposed to more tactical clothing (though it suits the setting, since the game takes place on a ghost ship) while her male counterparts wears more loose-fitting clothing. She remains as strong a character as always, and is more than capable of killing zombies as effectively as her male counterparts.
Players are used to the hyper-sexualization, objectification, and dehumanization of women in games.
While Jill is slightly excusable, Revelations also features Jessica and Rachel, two hyper-sexualized characters who barely have any depth beyond legs and breasts. Jessica’s wetsuit features a missing pant-leg, all in the name of showing more skin (and high fashion, I guess), while Rachel’s wetsuit is arbitrarily unzipped down to below her bellybutton, revealing cleavage that's more akin to games aimed at teenage boys who are just entering puberty, like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. At first, I thought, “Well, it’s just Capcom. They’re a bit weird,” but that reaction shows just how used players are to the hyper-sexualization, objectification, and dehumanization of women in games—it's industry standard.
Women are also objectified in games after the developer has already finished them.
A great number of mods for popular titles feature obvious changes to female characters, such as mods that give female characters skimpier armor in Skyrim and Alyx more pronounced features in Half-Life 2, just to name a few. Players also take it upon themselves to change promotion art to make female characters bustier. For the plot, of course.
"But men are objectified all the time. Look at their muscles!"—a somewhat reasonable assessment, though fundamentally flawed. Male characters are generally seen as muscular and resilient, which not all men are. The female characters are sexualized and objectified while male characters are idealized. Gamers are meant to want to be like Master Chief, Adam Jensen, Silent American Soldier #5, and Ezio Auditore. Gamers are meant to want Jill Valentine, Lara Croft, Miranda Lawson, and Chun-Li. Male characters are generally ideals for the gamer while female characters are generally rewards for the gamer.
It's understandable why video games are made this way.
Appealing to the demographic of straight, white, teenage boys is a low-risk way to make easy money. Just look at Call of Duty and Halo—they star macho men who kick the crap out of opposition all in the name of honor, heroics, and badassery, and the games sell unbelievably well. Same with Killzone and Assassin’s Creed. Being a badass sells—nobody is saying it doesn’t (or at least I’m not).
What is perhaps more frustrating, is the gaming community's vitriolic reaction to anyone who addresses this obvious imbalance.
Unfortunately, addressing this inequality is difficult, at best.
Take the release of Grand Theft Auto V, for example. GameSpot reviewer Carolyn Petit criticized GTA V for misogyny throughout the game. She still gave the game a 9/10, stating almost everything positive everyone else has said about it. Despite giving a near perfect score to Grand Theft Auto V and only using three sentences in the nine-minute review to make the point about the female characters, the army of the internet decided that her reasoning was flawed because Grand Theft Auto is obviously infallible, and proceeded to post hateful messages demanding that Petit both be fired for her review and be ignored because she's trans* (both of which are still showing up today). When a community reacts this violently against any sort of dialogue about imbalance, it's no wonder why game publishers are scared to publish anything but the norm.
"But that's the way things are. They won't change."
"But that's the way things are. They won't change." It's an easy conclusion to make, and it's even a justifiable one. If a publisher has the choice between a macho man shooter and an emotional story starring a woman doing anything that doesn't involve her cleavage, it's obvious what will happen. The publisher will spend years working on the shooter and its multimillion dollar ad campaign as it's sold by the millions, and the other game will maybe be a downloadable title, if it ever exists. It's clear which one is more profitable.
If the internet loses its mind over people criticizing Grand Theft Auto or a new MOBA, is it really a wonder why publishers don't experiment with new ideas and stories? They're scared. Considering game critics get as much backlash as they do, publishers and developers would only get more (and they do). The only way gamers can get the games they want, games for the entire gaming community (especially for those not in the straight, white dude demographic) is for publishers to take the financial risk of allowing developers to do something different.
As mentioned above, the recent Call of Duty: Ghosts was about what you'd expect. Women barely show up in the single-player campaign, and it stars a bunch of white dudes fighting against people who clearly hate America. In multiplayer, however, players can actually play as women. The female characters have just as much protection as the men, their hitboxes are the same size as the men, and they are just as tall as the men. The change is purely cosmetic.
Those who play multiplayer will notice a decent number of players sporting female soldiers—not a lot, but some—not because of some strategic advantage, but because they can. If players of what is arguably the most popular video game franchise in history don't bat an eye and actually want to customize their female characters' appearance, it makes one wonder why other franchises don't follow suit.
But gamers can help.
People like me—straight, white guys—don't understand the difficulties of not being appealed to in nearly every medium, platform, business, institution, and community. We probably never will.
It is possible to drown out the furious, men's-rights-screaming cries of the players who get mad when they feel uncomfortable because a male character is hitting on them, when the protagonist isn't a grizzled space marine, or when a female character just refuses to sleep with their own character. In truth, people like me—straight, white guys—may not be the best people to be making these changes—at least not alone. As much as members of privileged groups might like to understand the difficulties of not being the most powerful and appealed-to demographic in nearly every medium, platform, business, institution, and community, they don't, and they probably never will.
Straight, white male players are constantly validated and catered to with the constant flow of white macho men starring in games.
Players of color, female players, and LGBTQ+ players, on the other hand, hardly ever receive anything close to this level of validation, if they even receive it at all, which can be emotionally devastating. When people use the term "privilege," this lack of devastation is what they mean: the privilege to not need to understand because it doesn't disadvantage you. That does not mean that those with privilege should feel guilty for their privilege, but they should be aware of the obvious advantages of being privileged, particularly with their influence in the eyes of game publishers.
This influence is why players who are members of the straight, white guy demographic need to voice that they too want video games to be welcoming to players of every demographic, while players of color, female players, and LGBTQ+ players continue to enter the industry and sound their voices. With this lies the responsibility of privileged gamers to understand that there is a considerable difference between speaking out for the sake of a group and speaking over a group—gamers must work to not unintentionally silence their peers. Silence is simply no longer an option for every member of the gaming community. Gamers of every demographic need to work together with publishers and developers by saying that they want games for a more diverse audience—an audience that wishes to maybe be a mature adult someday instead of a blithering racist on Xbox Live.
An awareness of other demographics and a willingness to not instantly repel those demographics are both necessary to make gaming appealing for all players.
Does this mean that game developers and publishers should have a checklist so each demographic is depicted?
Of course not—no medium should. Making sure that each demographic is represented is well-intended, but also easy to do wrong. This can frequently lead to one-dimensional characters and not address the core of the problem: a lack of effort. Publishers need to develop an awareness of the massive pool of character traits and personalities they can pull from to create diverse casts of interesting, believable characters and actually create these characters. This starts with remotely diverse groups writing the games, so there are less unwittingly creepy, offensive plots that developers almost miss, and more plots that don't outright disgust and repel gamers.
Not every story has a place for a gay character, a woman, a white man, or a soldier, and the subject of diversity is not always relevent to criticism of a game, but a willingness to see what other characters are possible in a given situation is necessary for interesting stories, and this willingness will open up new story possibilities that haven't been explored in games. Today, it is more possible than ever for gamers to get the games they want made—developers will listen and publishers are too scared to go against the gaming community.
It can happen.
The privileged need to actually listen and learn from those who are affected by this discrimination.
But before any rational discussion can happen, those who are privileged need to learn to actually listen to those who aren't privileged. The privileged don't understand what those who are discriminated against go through on a daily basis. They can sympathize to a point, but they probably don't understand and probably won't ever have to. The only way they might ever understand is to actively listen and realize that arguments that attack ideas—ideas that have been reinforced their entire lives—are attacking just that: their ideas, not them as a person. Ask questions. Pay attention. Learn. I consider myself somewhat informed, but admittedly, I'm ignorant and uninformed about many things. I constantly try to learn and understand, and by doing so, I (shockingly) begin to learn and understand, at least to a point. Both sides of the conversation need to actively try to allow an environment of learning and progress to exist. Only then can a productive discussion ever occur.
It’s encouraging to see games emerge that depict women and people of color as strong protagonists, such as Gone Home, Tomb Raider, and Telltale's The Walking Dead, and games with characters of the LGBTQ+ community who aren't obvious caricatures, such as Mass Effect 3, but these games should not be notable for these reasons or be just emerging—they should be standard. Change is coming to the gaming industry. Slowly, but it's happening.
There are obvious differences among everyone in this community—there are men, women, people of color, people who are straight, people who aren't, people who are in between, people who don't care, people who are grandparents, people who are in high school, people who are religious, people who aren't sure, people who only play shooters, people who only play indie games, people who overlap on several different identifiers, and many, many more that I couldn't possibly name. What unites us all, however, is that we are gamers—all of us. Maybe players will eventually live in a world where a character who isn't a white guy starring in a game won’t turn heads or make stock holders panic.
Until that day, you owe it to your fellow gamer to fight for it.
* Author’s Note: Some people use different terms for different groups, all of which I couldn’t possibly name. Inevitably, it’s possible that I used incorrect terms or omitted other terms to classify some groups, orientations, races, or identities, for which I apologize if I offended members of these groups. I know that I'm obviously not the ideal candidate for this subject considering my race, orientation, sex, and gender identity. The purpose of this article is to ignite a discussion about the obvious inequalities that exist surrounding the demographics depicted and targeted by video games. If you would like to take part in a thoughtful discussion, please comment below and bring others into the discussion to keep the conversation going.
I'd also like to extend a special thank you to Milo Price, Tracy Sherwin, Amy White, Amy and everyone else from Tumblr, anyone else I'm missing, and especially Chan Benicki for helping me complete this feature. This would not be the work that it is without you. Thanks.