You’re valid: Seeing yourself and others in media

Butterfly Soup, by Brianna Lei (2017)

The Preamble

We’ll start with how negative or a lack of representation affects our society, as well as how it largely can be an issue of perspective. We’ll then take a look at what this means for putting representation in games (with a detour over what other media do), a trip back in history to explain why it doesn’t contain much of it, and finally, the good representation does and how we can contribute to it.

Orange is the New Black, by Jenji Kohan(2013), photo: Ali Goldstein

The Dangers of Under-representation

I can’t stress enough how many times underrepresented people get told that they shouldn’t exist. Women get told that they shouldn’t exist in many spaces and paths of life. Gay people famously have a history of being mistreated. Even this year, trans people face legislation in some countries like the UK that makes it impossible to live in them. Poland, meanwhile, is declaring whole parts of the country as LGBT-free. And Australia is considering a bill that would make any acknowledgment of queer people in education punishable. And we are probably all aware of the police brutality and wide-spread racism towards people of color and notably black people.

Persona 5, by Atlus (2016), screenshot: Video Games Source
One Day at a Time, by Gloria Calderon Kellett & Mike Royce (2017), photo: Adam Rose/Netflix

The Gaze

The Gaze is used to describe who is watching the story unfold, not the viewer themself, but the perspective offered. This is reflected in what the camera focuses on, on what it lingers on, but also the writing itself, as in the focus of the subject matter. When having a specific perspective different from the one of the subject, usually the subject becomes an object. They are there to be observed, analyzed, perhaps even desired. They are dealt with as an Other, different from the viewer.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, by Ubisoft (2018), screenshot: Fishbone76

Representation in Games

Representation can be found through main characters (would be nice to have that more…) and NPCs (and of course the game design itself, although that is a whole further topic). There is not much of a difference with how to do representation with NPCs in sandbox games versus ones with set protagonists. However, the protagonist has to be handled a bit differently. A game with a set protagonist can be more powerful as you can focus on getting the writing just right and craft scenes with details and character interactions that really speak to the underrepresented person and reflect their experiences. In a game with an open character, it’s harder. You don’t have the resources to create involved scenes that affirm every possible element of identity. What you need of course is to allow actions that allow the player to express themselves, even if it’s just petting a dog. Another element (which most players appreciate) is for that expression (and actions) to be acknowledged and reflected back. If the world doesn’t acknowledge the expression, it feels hollow, as if it didn’t really happen, and honestly makes it feel as if allowing the self-expression might not have been intentional, but instead just an afterthought.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, by Noelle Stevenson (2018)
Life is Strange, by Dontnod (2015), photo: Dontnod
On the Terrace at Sèvres, by Marie Bracquemond (1880)

Representation in History

About historical accuracy: Simply, what you know about history is wrong or at the very least inaccurate. History is written by the victors as well known (aka, those in power, not the small folk, not the underrepresented) and gets continually reinterpreted and rewritten by the understanding of those with say of each subsequent age.

One Night, Hot Springs, by npckc (2018)

Representation Matters

I wish I could show you all of the videos of kids excited to see a hero who looks like them in a movie. Look for them. Look for the people excited to see Black Panther.

Beyond Good & Evil, by Ubisoft (2003)



Tech Artist @Ubisoft | Co-organizer @FemDevsMeetup | She/her | Opinions are my own

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Joana Almeida

Joana Almeida

Tech Artist @Ubisoft | Co-organizer @FemDevsMeetup | She/her | Opinions are my own