Why Representation Is Important in Video Games
We live in an incredibly diverse world, where people from different ways of life and culture can meet on a regular basis. The vast majority of people may not have had this much interaction with those of different origins in the past -- certainly not to the scale the modern world can achieve. Considering that video games are now even more popular than other entertainment mediums such as film or TV (four out of five US households own a device used to play video games), having greater diversity and representation of a variety of people is an especially prevalent and pressing issue with respect to video games.
Given the wide range of people that video games are accessible to, the lack of representation of diverse groups of people is shocking. In recent years there have been more females and people of color serving as primary characters in video games, but the statistics are still overwhelmingly negative in terms of diversity. Recent games such as Uncharted: The Lost Legacy feature two female protagonists who are both women of color. Most importantly, these characters break certain tropes and stereotypes, which makes their character development and story even more important.
Diversity and representation aren't simply about throwing women and people of color into video games. You don’t want a female character who is simply a guy coded as a female character; there needs to be a subtlety and skilled writing for these characters.
Women in Video Games
Many of us can see with our own eyes that there aren’t as many female characters in video games as there are men. Forget historical accuracy and those arguments for a second, and focus on the pure statistical representation statistics. There is a roughly even split in the world between men and women, so that should be represented in video games.
According to a 2007 article from Monica K. Miller and Alicia Summers, "of the 49 games included in the[ir] analysis, 282 male humans and 53 female characters appeared," translating to roughly 5.3 men to every 1 female character. Other research has found large discrepancies between the number of games in which men are playable and those in which females appear as playable characters. The excuses of old (e.g., women simply don't play video games, so it's a male-oriented environment) aren’t viable anymore. In fact, a 2015 study found that women make up 44% of gamers. This is a staggering figure compared to the overall representation of women within video games.
It isn’t simply lack of representation that harms people’s view of the gaming industry but also the many ways in which women are presented in them. A 2009 analysis found that "fifteen percent of (M)ature games also included characters that were coded as being naked," and "of the characters coded as 'naked,' 88% were female." That is an overwhelming figure compared to the presentation of men.
As a gamer, you may have heard the term the “Lara Phenomenon,” which researchers Jeroen Jansz and Raynel G. Martis coined to describe "the appearance of a tough and competent female character in a dominant position." It is worrisome enough that it was known as a phenomenon to start with, suggesting the lack of female characters who ascribe to this description. However, in recent years, I believe we have moved further away from the two drastic stereotypes of the “Laras" or "damsels in distress." The importance of representation is to present realistic and depth-filled characters that audiences relate to. Although the Lara type is strong and powerful, seeing a depth to a character is much more constructive to a storyline; this is shown in the most recent reboots of the Tomb Raider series.
Overall, the position of women in video games is becoming stronger. To me, it is about what powerful and emotive characters bring to the story. Women in games undeniably tend to be beautiful, and it’s not about changing that perspective but rather adding a new dimension to these characters other than being just eye candy.
Ethnicities in Video Games
This is another aspect of video game representation that is seriously undervalued. It can be as ridiculous as the French Arno in Assassin's Creed: Unity having a British voice actor or even different ethnicities or cultures completely missing from games. Once again, we are seeing a slow improvement in this representation, even from the Assassin’s Creed series. Adaptations of Egyptian history and tales tend to be acted by white actors in these scenarios, so it is brilliant to see Assassin's Creed: Origins bringing in accurate depictions of those who live in the region.
However, there are massive disparities when it comes to the white versus ethnic ratio of characters in video games. Karen E. Dill and her colleagues in 2005 shared that within their research, "68% of main characters and 72% of the secondary characters were white.’" This is astounding considering the vast world we live in and the variety of inhabitants in it.
Other studies have shown that black, Asian, and Hispanic characters make up much smaller percentages of character, and considering that these can include secondary characters, it appears that some game developers just be throw in those of different ethnic backgrounds as a token gesture.
There is a recurring trend in the way those who are gay or transgender are represented in video games, with many shown as villains or something to be disgusted with. In the video below, MatPat of The Game Theorists looks at the disturbing representation of those who belong to the LGBT community in video games.
There are approximately 8 million people who fall into the LGBT category in the USA alone, but in recent years, a study has shown that only 12 characters were depicted as being LGBT. There are tons of people crying out for this representation that isn’t being given the light of day.
In a 2014 interview, Lucien Soulban, an openly gay lead writer for Ubisoft, stated that it will be quite some time before we see a gay character make a meaningful impact in a video game: “So when are we going to see that gay protagonist in a AAA game? Not for a while, I suspect, because of fears that it’ll impact sales.”
Rhianna Pratchett, the lead writer for the Tomb Raider reboot, appeared slightly optimistic in an interview with Motherboard on the possibility of greater diversity for LGBT characters: “I think folding them in as regular secondary characters who are just part of the fabric of the world will be how things progress,” suggesting she believes that the LGBT community will be represented but at a relatively slow pace.
The awful truth is that many LGBT characters, even when present in video games, are portrayed in a completely disrespectful light. Even recently, characters such as Trevor in GTA V are expressed as openly gay -- but Trevor’s character is a complete psychopath. This doesn’t provide a rounded view of gay characters, and why is this type of character reserved for the openly gay Trevor?
In the end, the gaming industry has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. Gamers want to see themselves in the video games they play and not feel demonized even when they are.
What are your opinions on representation in video games? Are there any games that you believe represented different types of people well? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.