I don’t get to play as myself in games. Really, most Hispanic or latino/a people find it hard to find themselves there. By now, news of the lack of proper representation in gaming should be no surprise. Games have long had a diversity issue, but this hits particularly close to home for me. As a Cuban-American, I’m already a niche minority when it comes to media. In games? I might as well be a unicorn.
In 2009, a group of researchers published an article in the journal New Media & Society serving as a virtual census in videogames. Of the top 150 best-selling games between 2005 and 2006, Hispanic characters made up 2.7 percent of all characters. Compare that to the 12.5 percent of the population, and you’ll see the tip of the problem. Furthermore, the vast majority of that 2.7 percent of characters were side characters or blink-and-you-miss-it NPCs. This trend is a sad reflection of other forms of media; Latinos represented less than 5 percent of lead TV roles over the past 5 years. It’s increasingly hard to swallow the idea that Hispanics can’t be placed in leading roles, especially when games have such potential for representation. Still, even when we do show up, it’s distressingly stereotypical.
Quick, try to think of named, clearly Hispanic characters. Did you think of King, the masked luchador from the Tekken series? Was it El Fuerte, the masked luchador from Street Fighter IV? Perhaps you like indie games and your mind jumped straight to Juan Aguacate, the masked luchador from Guacamelee! Suffice to say, there’s a bit of a theme. Now, I won’t try to argue that luchadores aren’t the greatest things ever, but that’s why it’s difficult to explain precisely why characters like that sting so much. I’m not Mexican, but this incredibly specific picture of Mexicans is the only thing video games seem to want to engage with.
Growing up in Minnesota as a Cuban was an interesting experience in stereotypes. The kids in my high school hadn’t had much experience with different types of Hispanics, so if I got trouble thrown my way, it was Mexican stereotypes more often than not. I got called the gambit — wetback, wall-jumper, taco kid, etc. Sure these insults burned, but it was almost worse that it was the wrong racism. The idea that they’d act so hateful without caring anything about my actual identity? That was worse in the end, and it’s exactly the way I feel when it comes to Hispanic characters in games. There is an incredible diversity amongst Hispanic identities, yet the luchador well is the only one getting drained. Fighting games may be the most blatant example of this sort of creative sinkhole, but it’s found among all types of games.
Over the next few years, more games would push these boundaries of representation. Characters like Gears of War’s Dominic Santiago and Just Cause’s Rico Rodriguez took prominence in popular games produced by major publishers. Overwatch hit the scene, and gave two Hispanic and Latino characters, later adding a third. And yet, something is still missing. For instance, before Sombra, the ostensibly-Latino Reaper and Lúcio had almost no reference to this part of their identity. Lúcio still doesn’t have a single voice line in Portuguese — the only way you’d guess is that he wears the colors of the Brazillian flag. Reaper’s even worse: the only reason we can guess he’s of Hispanic descent is his last name (Reyes, though not found in-game) and the fact that one of his skins dresses him as a mariachi performer. Again and again, we see the shallow kind of representation that, more than anything, leaves us hungry for more. Sombra was a welcome step in that direction, but she’s also Mexican — I hope Blizzard understands there are more than two countries where Hispanic and Latino/a people reside.
While meagre representation is at least something, it’s amazing how little people take notice when we’re excluded entirely. Just from recent memory, let’s take a look at Xenoblade Chronicles X, released December 2015. With everything I’ve argued to this point, it might not be a surprise that there are no important Hispanic characters in the game. The closest you could manage would be to create one yourself as the protagonist, but the game will never acknowledge it. Now, the Xenoseries has missed out on representation in the past as well, but the previous games took place in other dimensions, or places where the earthly construct of “Hispanic” doesn’t even exist. Chronicles X has no similar excuse. A major plot point is that humans escaped the earth on colony ships, and the game focuses on what’s happened to one of those ships in particular. Our ship? New L.A. Let that sink in. Xenoblade Chronicles X somehow manages not to have a single Hispanic character in New Los Angeles. Today, L.A. is 48% Hispanic or Latino! This was about as disheartening as you’d expect, and had I known about this beforehand, I might not have ever bought the game. Yet, not a single review or preview I could find mentioned this. Are we so used to the invisibility and non-inclusion of Hispanic characters that this can go without comment? It was childhood all over again- no one seems to care about us enough to notice.
This may be the current state of diversity in the games industry, but it doesn’t have to be this way. I implore developers the stop and think when they make decisions that lead to these problems. Are you planning to add a Hispanic character? Great, just take at least some time to craft them to be something more than a tired old stereotype. Hispanics and Latino/as are a huge demographic, and we’re being left behind and let down. We want to play games, we really do, but as far as I can tell? Games don’t want to play with us.