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On Representation: It Does Matter
When I was in preschool, I would often play Cowboys and Indians, something many children are known to do. The rules are simple: using the powers of imagination, Cowboys are equipped with pistols and the Indians have bows and arrows. As far as themes go, Cowboys and Indians is one of those old tropes that children pick up in school and hold on to until college. Many aren’t terribly perturbed by it so adults who may not see it as an issue aren’t going to engage children who are too young to understand those social implications.
I was always on the side of the Indians. My arrow never hit the mark and my friend’s aim was never true. That’s the obnoxious thing about children’s games: kids tend to make up a reason for why their abilities are better than yours. There can be no equals and this was the case every game, though I’m certain he would have pulled the same shenanigans playing as the other. To be honest, it was never that I didn’t want to play as the cowboy; I just wasn’t allowed to. Because as my friend at the time said, “there aren’t black cowboys”. It would be a couple of years and a trip to the Black American West History Museum here in Colorado before I learned this wasn’t the case.
As it turns out, we let our media shape our relations, and vice versa. We become accustomed to seeing people from specific backgrounds in very specific roles, and deviations to that become different, even abnormal. For the people who are largely depicted, the absence of those other characters isn’t realized too often, but for some such as myself, those presences and absences are something of note.
Of course, I am talking about representation. The depiction of people of different skin colors, genders, sexual orientations, faiths, and ability. This is by no means the full list, but some of what I’d like to really dwell on. I’d also like to communicate that I’m by no means speaking on behalf of some sort of collective. These thoughts are what currently is my summary on the importance of an increasing representation of various groups of people in gaming, both in terms of industry and the stories we tell, specifically on the representation of PoC, or people of color. It’s a point of reference that I’m more comfortable with discussing because of my relationship with it. That makes it easier to write about without imposing my perspective unto a lived experience that I do not have.
I’m sure many of you might have drawn skepticism from this conversation. “Why is it that women and PoC keep bringing up race? Why does it always have to be about race?” On an interpersonal level it seems that we’ve decided to sequester ourselves in a space in society, ungrateful for what we have and reluctant to let go of the past.
Let me reiterate what many have said before me: it isn’t that in the slightest. Our pasts tend to lend insight towards our futures. In terms of representation, PoC are most often complimentary. They’re the villains, the sidekicks, the bystanders. In some cases they even become the hero or join the cast as one of them. More often, however, they serve as a vehicle to further the protagonist along his (occasionally her) quest.
Growing up, I’ve always been told by many people that race doesn’t matter. Issues like race and gender don’t matter. That is, until they do. Relying on tropes and stereotypes may be enough to communicate a main idea, but it is also lazy storytelling. The black person as the useful sidekick or dangerous criminal seem to be the idea I see in games, in shows, and in books. In entertainment would be a more appropriate term. It’s hard to keep these ideas focused specifically in gaming because they aren’t exclusive to gaming, anyway.
People normally grow up with this innate sense of what they want to become in this world. We, as keepers of that narrative often fail in this regard. We let our media dictate where a person is welcome and where they are discouraged from, even when not implicitly stated. In games, it tells us who the game is made for. Sometimes people from other groups are still strongly encouraged to play. In others, additional demographics are a happy coincidence. The game industry is another aspect of society in which these lines are regularly crossed. The industry may not heavily inspire its younger players to participate because the players can relate to the hero, but the impact of diversity still holds an effect even into adulthood.
That isn’t to say that the industry isn’t making the effort to really think about who is playing; even if reactionary. The game developers are listening, and this is important. The past few years have served as better examples. While the first Tomodachi Life does not feature same-sex relationships, Nintendo has upped their commitment on creating a more inclusive space for gamers. It is a lifestyle simulator after all, and one would imagine that adding more lifestyles can only increase their player base.
Additionally, it would be difficult not to mention neither BioWare nor Bethesda. Both in some way or another seem to be invested in letting their players have fun in that space.
When it comes to character creation, variety is again the spice of life. In the fantasy vein we become creatures of myth. In Tamriel, we can remain human or join the other species on our quest to destroy evil. This is actually one of the greater strengths of the franchise, albeit a given. Games with a complex character creation allow us to create a basic avatar for the world we’ll be entering, and those slight permutations such as gaunt or nose height allow us to come even closer to the representation we hold in our minds’ eye. The best part? We all become that character. I’m simply Shepard or the Dragonborn, not a black version. This may come off as contradictory, but it is more of an argument about being given space when possible, not being relegated to a position of support. BioWare even goes one step further in forging a space in the game industry for more kinds of players.
A few years ago in 2011, a disgruntled gamer commented on BioWare’s forums, lamenting that they had neglected their straight male demographic by including the option to pursue a gay relationship in Dragon Age II and argued that the gay or female player is a marginal demographic at best. David Gaider, the lead writer for the franchise responded to him, informing that romance options in Dragon Age are “for everyone”. Gaider was also quick to point out that is it unfair for the majority to impose their opinions on all as well as unfair for this player to conflate his own opinion with that of his general demographic. Additionally Gaider argued that the demographic of other players were higher than the commenter was projecting.
If you were to look at gaming as a whole, Gaider certainly is not wrong. Recent data shows that the current gaming climate splits gaming down to 52% men and 48% women. And that’s gender binary as a mechanism for measurement.
This isn’t to say that other studios haven’t recognized these trends. Titanfall came in this year with the spectacle of giant mechs, each of which punching and/or shooting at one another until the soft and squishy pilot inside is terminated. Respawn’s quick-paced shooter certainly isn’t to be associated with subtlety.
That is, until you look at the characters. Shooters don’t allow for too much in the character customization field, but it was still pleasant to see another gender represented on the battlefield. As Susan Ardent pointed out, Titanfall’s release trailer not only featured the male pilots, but female as well. The trailer didn’t tout the studio as performing some act of social good by deciding to include women. Rather the female pilots blend right in with their male counterparts. A first-person-shooter like Titanfall probably won’t have as many players wanting inclusion as say a role-playing franchise, but the effort made by the development team was still greatly appreciated.
As Susan Ardent pointed out, the inclusion of people of other backgrounds doesn’t mean that the lack of those backgrounds renders a game unplayable. In fact, quite great games can further entice those who may have been on the fence about playing already. In the case of Titanfall, a cosmetic change that had no bearing on gameplay mechanics made the game better because it gave people more options to choose how they wanted to appear in game.
I have spent a lot of time writing about the pros of adding more people from different spaces into the foray of the gaming industry. The current system by no means creates unplayable games because of that lack of variety. The market has so many wonderful and compelling stories to play and I similarly do respect developer’s choices for how they tell their stories. I would argue that it’s important to question the “why” of those decisions. When those choices have come from the same developer often enough, we get articles such as the Ubisoft Game Review
Representation matters not just because it lets people know “We’re here!” or something to that effect. It communicates that we are here in the capacity of our choosing. It allows all of us to remove ourselves from that compartmentalization. None of us come down to a rigid set of social motivators and we shouldn’t be content in being depicted as such. And in having more people present from different backgrounds we can even examine how we tell our stories and what those stories even are.