Representation is about showing potential, about being seen, about being told that it’s okay to exist. All too important in a world that not only tells marginalized people that they don’t matter, but also that it’d rather have them not exist.
In this I’m going to talk about representation and a lot of topics it touches on, especially as it relates to video games.
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.
This covers a lot of ground but doesn’t go all too far into depth. There is still so much that can be talked about. I am not an expert, not a researcher, nor can I speak for all marginalized people. Seriously, I have a lot of blind spots, especially on topics of race and disability and I would not be surprised if I was missing some class stuff too. This is all based on what I’ve learned through my own life experience and through listening to others.
Not all marginalized people are going to agree with all of it, and that’s okay — we need to listen to everyone. The important thing is that even when we (the marginalized) disagree, both sides are valid; as individuals with different lived experiences we’ll have different needs.
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.
It’s not just part of history, it’s still part of underrepresented people’s current lives. Even when it’s not physically enacted (because outwardly the person manages to conform to society’s expectations, despite difference), what is said about them is still felt, over and over and over again, leading for example trans people to have one of the highest suicide risks with a matching mortality rate. And those messages don’t just affect the person who is underrepresented, but also those around them. How is a person supposed to not react negatively or even violently towards a queer person, or a Muslim person, if all they know is the negative story or even no story at all?
H.P. Lovecraft, a man who later in life admitted to having been very xenophobic over his life (while still very racist by our standards), shows us with his own work how the unknown and unfamiliar puts us in a state of fear and hostility towards it. Going further: How do you expect this underrepresented person to not react violently or become radicalized when all they keep encountering is hostility? How is a marginalized person supposed to keep up their strength and self-confidence in face of overwhelming negative messaging that inevitably gets internalized?
The first time I realized how systemic racism is, was one of the summers I stayed at my grandparents’. A black family had moved in a couple of houses over. I met the kids and we had fun together, but when my grandparents noticed, they asked me over and told me to better stay away from THAT family. Now, my grandparents were the sweetest people and weren’t strangers to people who look different or even were from different cultures. Yet, they couldn’t come up with reasons, just that it might not be safe. I had met the family, they were like any other family. But how were my grandparents going to learn that? They wouldn’t meet them and the media they consumed definitely didn’t show them otherwise about black people. And the media definitely could’ve taught them better. For instance, later in their early 80s, my grandparents watched a morning show that had a young trans woman on and her only supporter, her grandmother. From one moment to the other my grandparents grew from mistrusting and hostile to supportive of trans people. Of course, systemic racism goes much much further, as in how our actual societal systems are set up against people of color, but here I’m focusing on how representation affects it.
Let’s go over what a trans person sees in the media (also very well shown in the documentary Disclosure):
2000s: trans created stories emerge on the internet — maybe you can … exist. If lucky, with an ambivalent volatile family. (e.g. a variety of early internet webcomics, sites with fiction written by trans people, etc.. The internet was a refuge. 1999 also marked the release of Boys don’t Cry one of the first big movies about a trans person played by cis person of a different gender. Based on a true story and the trans character meets a tragic end.)
2010s: Maybe you can… co-exist? But the only thing that will matter is your transition. Not your life, not you. Honestly, you’re a footnote in other, more important people’s lives. (e.g. a single minor character each in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, and Horizon: Zero Dawn. On TV there was Orange is the New Black with a trans person in the regular cast and a couple of documentaries)
That’s why it’s important to show a multitude of stories about the multitude of people. I can only recommend the talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian woman, called “The Danger of a single story”. She talks about how if you tell only one kind of story about a group of people, it becomes the singular story. It’s what will build people’s entire image of other people. Also, try to notice what your mental image is of Chimamanda and her life after my sparse description of her. I’m not judging, just pointing out that without the information you can only build an image based on what you know, and when what you know is limited, it’s going to be wrong or at the very least widely inaccurate.
If we don’t tell more stories about underrepresented people, this is what happens. It also leads to the stories we tell about them (even if incidental) to be shallow and repetitive, as we have to start from the basics every time. And not only that, it means we need to try to make our one story the “right” one. One that isn’t damaging to the disadvantaged community and somehow true to most of them?? With more stories you can bring in nuance, you can have different kinds of people who are of that community. And when I say stories, I don’t mean THE story we’re telling, but rather part of it. The story of NPCs, or (dare I dream it?) the protagonist’s story without being the game/book/movie’s story. What makes a person belong to an underrepresented category doesn’t have to be the point of the story or even their existence.
But even when we make sure we depict more than one story, we need to stay aware we’re not creating in a vacuum. Our few stories don’t make up for the abundance of damaging ones. For instance, media over the years had created the single story of gay men being predatory towards boys. This is rehashed again and again, even appearing as the only personality trait of two gay men NPCs in Persona 5. Of course, underrepresented people can be just as reprehensible as well as well represented people, but underrepresented people get shown as such to a disproportionate amount. You have to make sure that your work doesn’t contribute to an existing majorly hostile attitude towards them. Be also careful with tropes in general, like the gay best friend in romantic comedies. There’s nothing wrong with it, we’re just so tired of just being the gay best friend for the plucky romantic protagonist.
Even if the story you intended to tell is based on a real one, you have to make these considerations. For instance, the 2018 movie Girl is inspired by the story of a real-life trans woman. But as real as her story is, it climaxed with a scene where the girl was self-mutilating the genitals she was born with. It contributed to the single (and false) story, that trans people will always want to change their genitals and that they mutilate them to change them. Neither is the case. Apart from that, there was an issue of framing, where the watcher’s perspective wasn’t inclusive, but instead voyeuristic.
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.
The gaze can be inclusive instead of othering. Consider kids’ movies where some jokes and asides are included which work only when consumed from the perspective of an adult. This is the movie trying to include both the child and the adult accompanying the experience of the movie.
You could also forego being inclusive to all, and instead use the gaze of the underrepresented person. While potentially alienating, it’s the best way to share the person’s perspective. There is an urge to include at least one character for the audience to relate to and learn alongside with, however, this leads to things like the white savior trope (where a white character learns the error of his ways and solves the minority’s oppression), the white samurai who learns to leave his own “disgraceful” culture behind, and even whitewashing of real-life events (e.g. the stonewall movie which depicts a white cis gay man throw the first brick at the stonewall riots, when in truth it was lead by trans women of color).
In truth, we all have the capacity to put ourselves in other’s shoes (as evidenced by the fact underrepresented people have been doing it nearly non-stop their entire lives), and games are especially brilliant at doing so. Of course, as mentioned, even if you center the perspective on the story of a minority and their own experience, the writing has to match it. You can think you are telling the moving and shocking story of a black trans woman’s experience and plight at the hands of a transphobic society, but it turns out you really just wrote torture porn, because that’s all you know and were interested in telling. You have to make sure it contains all the facets of a person’s experience, which might contain trauma but isn’t defined by it, and on a smaller scale includes in-jokes and little moments, which might otherwise go forgotten and yet are essential to making it real. It’s the difference between telling a person that they are a curiosity that is known to exist versus telling them that you actually see them. That they aren’t on their own, that their experiences are valid, That someone out there might actually understand.
You don’t have to represent every specific person in our audience, but rather it is about showing the common building blocks that make up their general experience. Show different full lives that are built on them. When you represent someone you very well might be speaking not just to the specific kind of person you’re representing, but far more people who see parts of their experience reflected.
The show One Day at a Time comes to mind for me. It’s about a Cuban-American family living in America. One of the kids is a lesbian. None of those traits apply to me, but I still feel seen as I recognize some quirks of that family from my own.
Of course the closer what you see is to yourself and your life, including all the details that others might not notice, the more powerful it is. What I mean is that the representation doesn’t only affect the people you’re representing, but also many others as well, who see at least some of themselves or the people they care about.
What you might already have gleaned, what you definitely want to avoid is to be sensationalistic. These are the basic building blocks of many people. You are talking about real people, and what you say is going to affect their lives in a very real way. By focusing on what is sensational, you also forget all the ways minorities exist. There are invisible disabilities which still are strong parts of people’s lives. Mental health isn’t a horror story. Trans people don’t have a specific way they look. Gay people aren’t all exuberant and sexual. Muslim people are not the terrorists they are stereotyped as. Black men aren’t inherently aggressive. And FFS stop fetishizing black women.
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.
If you opt for a character where that self-expression is possible, you need to accept that the characterization is now out of your hands. This is the same concept as when game mastering a pen & paper RPG. You have to choose if you want to tell a railroaded story that the players participate in or if you want the players to shape the story themselves. This “contract” has to be made early on (in the so-called “session 0”) and should not be broken throughout the campaign. If you give the player the space to express and then take it away, it feels like a violent move. Yes, I’m gearing up to talking about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. I personally can only speak for the experience of a bisexual Kassandra in a fully patched and updated game. For the most part, it worked for me, although I often had to wonder if my bisexual, mostly towards women leaning Kassandra wasn’t really the way she was because there simply were more romantic interests written for a straight Alexios. I couldn’t really tell.
I was prepared for the DLC where the character gets a child before I got to it. Still, I was shocked when the control was taken from me (even in the patched version). It didn’t come unannounced either as Kassandra was working alongside who I started seeing as a good friend of hers, but it showed all the signs of the story wanting a heterosexual romantic relationship, even if I didn’t see that for the characters. This isn’t a horrible failure on the part of the writing team (I mean, they DID make me feel things for the characters!), but simply how heteronormative storytelling has conditioned us.
I see this happening all the time. In a series, a new character of a different gender than one of the protagonists gets introduced. You start to like them (or not). The building camaraderie works (or not) and then the camera lingers just for one moment too long and you know “ah dammit. They’re just a designated romantic interest”. The equivalent for a homosexual couple goes more like “THEY’RE BLUSHING AT EACH OTHER!? Are they? Could they? THEY’RE KISSING!? Maybe there’s a chance!? It could go either way really!!?!??”, of course, same-gender kisses on screen are still kind of radical, so we don’t even get there often.
The uncertainty of gay relationships (or really any non-straight sexual orientation) comes from the fact that for decades stories were not allowed to explicitly say a character is gay. You had to look for the signifiers, the shorthands developed over the years. At best you’d get an intense relationship that wasn’t allowed to be depicted as romantic. Queer creators can tell you plenty of experiences where they were setting up a queer romance, but then they were told no. There was Legend of Korra which (SPOILER!) at best could give us Korra and Asami walking away holding hands in the last minute of the show. The new She-Ra was revolutionary in that it actually was allowed to depict stable and open queerness and yet they had to be incredibly careful at the start and only ramped up openly depicting queerness over the later seasons. In fact, did you know that one of the princesses introduced in the first season was planned as a trans woman, but they scrapped the idea because they were pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to actually do it?
There’s also the case of Jughead in the TV show Riverdale. The character had previously identified himself as Asexual in the comics, but there was no word on it for the TV show. The showrunner teased that Riverdale is an origin story and thus would be about the characters discovering themselves over time, and that’s why Jughead isn’t explicitly asexual at the start. That journey never happened. Asexual characters are always treated as Asexual until not. They are either physically sick, or it’s because of a mental health thing, or they simply didn’t find the right person yet (to be fair demisexuality does exist, but it needs to also be acknowledged as such). And when they do get “fixed” you can be sure they’ll be as heterosexual as can be.
Note, showing a queer character’s journey of self-discovery can be important, but should by no means be the focus nor does it even need to be shown every time. Shown with the wrong lens it can be voyeuristic, as mentioned before. This can be an issue with how trans people are depicted, reducing them to the narrative of who they were before their transition, as well as with an unhealthy focus on “The Surgery” (there isn’t just one, and a trans person might opt for none). Additionally, self-discovery isn’t always a complicated journey. It can just be a matter of finding out there is a word that describes what you already know about yourself, helping you stand against a world that tells you people like you don’t exist. And of course, if you reduce the character to their self-discovery or everything ties back into it, you’re reducing them to just what makes them queer. People have more facets, and sure they intersect and interact, but it doesn’t all originate in what gets them marginalized.
It can be pretty egregious too how, for exampl,e many times the words or even concepts of bi- or pansexuality aren’t mentioned at all in media, leaving a character to flip-flop between being gay or straight or starting to doubt their orientation because they are developing feelings for someone outside of their orientation. Somehow in those media bisexuality just doesn’t exist.
This is just to elucidate, why queer people can never be sure if what they’re looking at even is representation. That’s why there is a call for explicit representation, for someone to actually say the words. A wonderful example comes from Alex Danvers’ coming out on the show Supergirl.
Now you might argue that it’s just not natural for there to be that many diverse people at once, but that’s not true at all. It might just be about the environments you tend to be in, or they simply kept what makes them underrepresented from you, because they know that it’s simply not safe to be open about themselves. Before I came out I would’ve told you that, yeah, diverse people are rare. After I came out I found out that there were a lot more around me than I thought. And the thing is, if you unequivocally prove yourself to be safe, people might start telling you or at least not hide it from you. And underrepresented people tend to flock together as they seek people they can be open with. Trust is very hard-earned though.
Now, just because it might seem accurate to have many underrepresented people together, you have to make sure you’re doing it with care, or else you’ll end up with something like a white man in Africa killing scores of “frenzied” black people.
Well represented people underestimate how much representation they have: Their parents, their family, their friends, the people they meet as they grow up. And almost all of the media they consume. Of course, you’d feel less of an obvious need for representation.
And yet they still have a very strong need to see themselves reflected in media, going by how vehemently well-represented people fight against diversity in media.
It doesn’t mean that they’re fully represented either! The concept of Intersectionality sees people as a conflux of identities that interact and overlap in unique ways. Everyone has different traits that make up the person and their current life. It is possible that a couple of those traits/identities ARE under- or badly represented. Age, class, parenthood (motherhood! Often fetishized and put on a pedestal… that’s not representation), disability (including invisible disabilities!) mental health (badly understood, often used for horror elements, or in sensational ways. Split, A Beautiful Mind, etc.), body type, and so on.
Underrepresented people don’t necessarily notice the effects of being underrepresented either. Honestly, they might not be bored yet of our rather homogeneous offerings (I wasn’t for the longest time), but it’s also a thing that wears you down over time and is only noticeable in retrospect. It’s also possible that an underrepresented person just wasn’t as affected by something that would make others feel underrepresented, because they, for one reason or another, conform better to society as it is. More likely is, that they simply bought into the cultural narrative as described by the more represented people. For instance among girls this can manifest as “I’m not like those other girls”, distancing themselves from a popular (but denigrated) idea of girls, and adjusting to whatever is depicted as more accepted among their common culture (while stereotyping other girls as not more than that denigrated idea of girls). This happens in all kinds of underrepresented groups and leads to a lot of simmering self-hate that will be difficult, but necessary, to deal with later in life. It’s understandable though, as mentioned, since they usually only hear of a single kind of narrative, a single point of view. I myself have grown up with the same narratives and now have some bigoted views ingrained in myself, even towards people who are of the same communities as me. These prejudices are ingrained in our society. That’s why it’s so strange to see people vehemently deny being racist. The important thing is to notice it and stop it before it can have an effect on how you treat others. And if you mistreat others you accept it and apologize. I’m told How To Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi covers this idea and much more.
You might have noticed a lot more diverse games being released lately. We’ve got games like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last of Us Part 2, Life is Strange and Overwatch. It might give you the feeling that we’ve solved the issue, but it’s not quite the case. There’s a phenomenon that when you are used to things being some way, any change to it, even if you are aware of the need for change, looks like it’s enough or even too much. When it comes to gender, even I get the feeling that we now have so many female protagonists in games, but when we look at the actual numbers, for example for games at E3 2019, it’s clearly not the case. There are far more games that give you a gender selection (which doesn’t say anything about which gender is depicted as the main or default one), but when it comes to games with a fixed protagonist, we’re still looking at 5% female, 2% “ambiguous”, and 22% male characters (stats from Feminist Frequency’s yearly analysis). That doesn’t reflect real demographics nor the demographics of our audience.
When it comes to LGBT+ representation in games, I don’t have any specific numbers. The problem is also that often queerness is left ambiguous and often just as part of a certain villain archetype. There is a whole history on queer-coding, especially as villains, stemming from the ban on depicting actual queer people. It was a way to get around the very strict censors. When it comes to movies (GLAAD 2019 overview), we finally reached about 18% of movies with any queer character at all (not necessarily in a major role, just, at all). From this 18% (20 movies), only 3 had bisexual characters and none at all with a trans character.
People have asked me before something in the line of ”what, are we going to have a black gay trans disabled granny as a character next??”. Maybe? I mean, it sounds kinda cool and I really haven’t seen that story before! But you have to consider, this isn’t about marking off categories in a checklist. We’re not talking about keeping a list of traits we should put in a character. We’re just thinking about who we’ve been forgetting, whose stories haven’t we had the privilege to see yet. Also, all those traits aren’t add-ons that weigh down a character. We don’t start from a base character and then add on diverse traits that fill up a diversity meter. Black gay trans disabled Muslim granny is just as plausible as a white straight cis non-disabled Christian-raised adult man (I just described Nathan Drake. Also a lot of other characters. Look there’s a ton that fit the exact same description. How likely is that?). Just make sure they don’t become the dumping ground for all diversity. Don’t make them the token diverse characters and definitely don’t make what makes them marginalized the only thing about them.
Now when is enough? Hard to tell. We need to make up for several decades of none or damaging representation. And that’s just for modern art forms. There are centuries of damaging fiction about various groups. Take minstrel shows which were horribly racist and influenced a lot of future art, including animation. Well represented people, like white straight cis men, have a ton of culture to lay back on, but underrepresented people have had their histories and culture erased and discouraged. We need to build them up nearly from scratch. But at the very least it would be nice if we at least had numbers equaling what the world population looks like.
Why all the hurry? Well, it’s not really a hurry. Mass media have existed for a long time, and underrepresented people have been waiting and trying to get these stories made for just as long. Many people have passed away before they ever got to see a movie that they see themselves in. Even worse with games, where people have been pointing this out for decades. How many lifetimes is slow enough? Conversations about underrepresented people and attempts at their portrayal have been going on since the start of each medium, it just seems sudden because it’s the first time you’re hearing it.
In fact, we had already made gains before which we only started achieving again in the past decade. For instance, Germany had the Institute for Sexual Research, which shared knowledge about what we now call LGBT+ people, and gave support to them. Transgender people for example could find the professional assistance they needed right there. This was in the early 20th century. Nazis destroyed the institute and all knowledge they had built. Many cultures already had the knowledge and acceptance, but European colonizers crushed it as they forced their own culture on the people they colonized.
You might wonder how more diversity might affect you, the potentially better-represented person. Put simply, we all get fewer rehashes, more original stories, new ways of looking at things. Remember when established male developers started becoming fathers and we started getting games about dads and often their relationship with their (sometimes surrogate) kid? Telling stories about a previously underrepresented group in games (fathers in this case) was a breath of fresh air and expanded what games could be about. This is the intention. I know there is concern about our audience not wanting to buy a game featuring someone different from themselves, but not only has that never been the case with marginalized people but doesn’t seem to be any different with the target group we’ve been aiming for, even if they put a lot of value on playing someone like themselves.
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.
There are many examples: A grave interpreted as a revered warrior, marked as male because it was a warrior, but later is found to be female. A grave of two lovers: marked to have been people of different sexes, but when they discover a century later that they are both female corpses, people start proposing all kinds of friendship ceremony theories. We call that gal palling. Still happens to me and my girlfriend while we’re talking with a person and even after we already told them we are in a relationship. People insist that black people didn’t exist in Europe until modern times, despite art depicting black people having long existed in Europe. Heck, people insist on depicting Jesus as white even though he was middle-eastern. The bible itself says where he is from. Don’t forget a lot of our understanding of what history looks like comes from famous European paintings, which often are paid for by wealthy white patrons. Even if they depict real events, at best they were sketched at the moment and completed later, but how is a painter going to include vast diversity when painting after the fact, if they have a scarce reference. Often the history is actually well documented but ends up reinterpreted and/or simply not taught. On the other hand, some groups, while they have always existed, their history is often destroyed or simply never revealed by the people themselves, like the couple in the documentary A Secret Love who had to keep their relationship a secret until so so late in their lives.
Underrepresented people have made plenty of art in history. It’s not uncommon even in modern times for women to use aliases or letting others take credit for their work simply because it’s the only way to get published (Note about Reclaim Her Name: It’s a wonderful project that however has to face criticism too as in some cases it’s not respecting the author’s wish or even identity. This is again something where intersectional issues become obvious). As loathe as I am to mention her, a famous example is Joanne Rowling (noted transphobe), who not only goes by JK Rowling (gender neutral) but also Robert Galbraithe (male). Even famous Frankenstein by Mary Shelley was at first published anonymously, with a preface by her husband and a dedication written to her father. A lot of work by underrepresented people also simply gets destroyed. Sure there were the Nazi book burnings, but other groups also destroyed art and culture, heck white Christian people are notorious for it in history. However we also have people destroying their own works, works being repurposed (someone else reusing the canvas), or simply things never released (Vivian Maier, Emily Dickinson). Further, for a work to become part of our “canon” it needs to be highlighted by history’s equivalent of influencers. Again, usually, people with more power, built on an already existing base of power. Some of our currently famous books were elevated by a very homogeneous group of people who were respected for their taste, and their taste was passed on to people who respected them, who passed it on to people who respected them, and eventually those books land in schools and lists as “essentials”. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t important and good works by underrepresented people, but rather that historical “influencers” simply didn’t come across them or it just wasn’t to their taste (which is fair!).
For instance take impressionism, where the subject matter and style no longer required knowledge that women had been barred from. In fact, women had already been painting the quotidian life, leading many to become prolific impressionist painters. Yet only a few had been included in the big exhibitions, limiting their exposure. In turn, they were included even less in historical material about impressionism. Largely this only changed with Tamar Garb’s Women Impressionists in 1986.
What underrepresented people have to say often gets misrepresented. While quite a more complicated history is behind it (Mary Shelley herself revised the book after 13 years, changing heavily the moral), still let’s still look again at Frankenstein. Of course, we know, Frankenstein is not the actual monster but can be seen as a monster himself. Did you also know the monster was not animated by electricity? The monster was in fact even extremely beautiful, although with an… unhealthy pallor. He even learned to speak eloquently. Largely his monstrousness comes from the lack of identity and being an unnatural synthetic life (okay, he’s also really really big). Things get changed to fit the prevailing narrative, a reinterpretation, instead of boosting the original meaning.
You don’t need to ~UNDERSTAND~ what underrepresented people (who are different from you) are saying. You have to reflect on what they are saying, not interpret it. You won’t be able to find issues in your experiences that are equivalent to the ones they face. There might be similarities and common ground (which is why the LGBT movement is united and keeps adding letters for instance), but it’s still different experiences built on different bases. Accept what they say at face value and properly listen. And don’t start about explaining things to kids. They take things in stride. It just goes wrong if they were already taught to be prejudiced, or they go home, tell their parents who they met and instead of affirming the existence of those people, the parents teach bigotry.
We also cannot forget that we taught our audience wrong. Not necessarily us ourselves, especially if we just started out, but media. We learned from the media and we repeated what we learned there. If we don’t keep repeating it, people will think we got it wrong. Shotguns have a negligible range and a wide spread, silencers are completely silent, quivers are worn on the back, to avoid being hit you roll around, armor for women has to have visible breast cups, women’s clothes work like body paint, women look like barbies and can’t be buff. That’s why they complain when we try to go for diversity. It’s just not how things in games are. We taught them this, so we might as well teach them more and better. Sure, let’s leave the shotgun as a short-range wide-spread weapon, it’s cool for game design, but other things really don’t need perpetuating. We helped create this situation, let’s do something about it. After all, we already put a ton of research and realism into other topics, like military hardware and locations.
You might have heard complaints about non-minority actors playing the roles of minority people. You might think that it’s a call for actors to not be allowed to act as someone different than they themselves are. It does seem like that, but it’s more nuanced. The important thing to look at is the fact that minorities (apart from a few notable exceptions) aren’t afforded the big roles. In the excellent documentary Disclosure, almost all of the interviewed trans women tell of getting the same role and storyline over and over again. Bit parts in TV shows where at best they were hospital patients whose transitions were killing them, at worst sex workers who were murdered for being trans. In turn, you have high budget movies made with consideration for Oscars which have trans characters in large roles, but invariably cast cis (read: non-trans) actors to play them, netting, for example, people who are very much men (like Jared Leto and Eddie Redmayne) Oscar nominations and wins for playing trans women. It’s not that I dislike them in the roles. Eddie Redmayne did a brilliant job as Lili Elbe. It’s just that minority people who already don’t get roles in big movies aren’t even afforded a chance to play people of the community they belong to. They might be unknowns, but that doesn’t mean they lack talent. And there isn’t a lack of unknowns who were given a chance at acting in big oscar-bait movies. You should know, if Hollywood could still do blackface, they would for these movies.
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.
Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund said: “It’s hard to be what you can’t see”. It’s a fact. People learn what they can be, by observing the world. Sure, watching Back to the Future isn’t going to lead you to invent time travel, but it might just get you interested enough in quantum physics to ignite the spark that will lead you to become a scientist. But kids also notice that the people doing those things on the screen don’t look like them. Instead, people like them on screen might be criminals, a danger to society or simply considered disgusting. It doesn’t go unnoticed. It is internalized. Now the message no longer is “you can be anything you can imagine”, but rather “Other people can be anything you can imagine, you meanwhile have to try to not be a burden on society. You will fail”. This weighs on a person’s self-esteem and makes it even harder to achieve the dreams that still might be there. In a part of the book Reel Inequality, Nancy Wang Yuen collates various studies that show just that.
Sure some people might feel that the representation was forced, that it’s not natural, but can you imagine the elation an underrepresented person feels when seeing someone like them kicking butt (literally or metaphorically) and just being all out awesome?
So what shape could this inclusion take? You could take a look at indie games as many of these already focus on minority lives, or at the very least include them in an authentic way. The itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality has many excellent examples, additionally, for queer representation you could check out the site queerlyrepresent.me. There are so many, so here are some favorites (mostly queer :P) people have picked:
You could try Night in the Woods which does its diverse cast justice. It has many queer characters and even deals with mental health, and from all I’ve heard, it does so respectfully.
The NSFW Ladykiller in a Bind not only is unreservedly queer but also does an excellent job at presenting consensual kink.
Meanwhile, there’s Butterfly Soup, a sweet and fun love story between two Asian-American girls who grew up with conservative families. Also baseball.
For trans representation, on the one hand, you’ve got games like One Night, Hot Springs, a visual novel which tells a short story about a trans woman navigating a situation that would’ve been otherwise harmless, on the other, there are games like Dys4ia which uses a WarioWare-like series of minigames to visualize an autobiographical experience.
Outside of indie, you might also take a look at how The Sims 4 handles gender in character creation. It’s not about gender but your specific combinations of voice, actions your character can take (how they use the toilet, what their role is in pregnancy if any, etc.) and body type, which is one thing where diversity is so obvious and common in real life, and games reduce to male or female. Maybe you get a very limited fat or muscle slider.
I also recommend Life is Strange, which seems to be solidifying into an inclusive and representational series, although not perfect. I’m very curious about their other new game Tell Me Why, but since it’s not out now by the writing of this I’ll be cautiously optimistic about that one.
Overwatch still occasionally falls into some of the less inclusive patterns of character design, but it has to be acknowledged for the growing cast of diverse characters. Personal details are scarce in the game itself, but the simple fact that two of the “image” characters, Tracer and Soldier 76, are gay has been so uplifting to many. The ethnic representation across the globe has similarly been well received and loved. In general hero games like this seem to do well as they keep adding new characters, where each has to be distinct and interesting in their own right.
And heck, we at Ubisoft have had great characters too. Think of Jade in Beyond Good & Evil who was well-rounded as a reporter with a love for photography, who raises a group of orphans and fights fascists.
Of course, AAA games are under far more scrutiny, but that’s because it’s something that actually matters, and will be less difficult the more representation we have across our games. This is just what the conclusion of Riley Macleod’s article I Have Mixed Feelings About The Last Of Us Part 2’s Trans Character is. Each new character is just a step closer to not needing any single character to represent every single person in a group.
It would be ideal to have someone of the group you want to represent on the team to make sure you get the portrayal right, but even if you do, they are only one person with one experience. Do the research (which you really should do for everything), if it’s a big element of your game, hire consultants and make sure you listen to them (Do more like Ninja Theory with Hellblade, less like Adam Sandler with Ridiculous 6). Heck, hire consultants anyway, they might help you figure out something you didn’t even expect about a minor character.
I’m not really touching enough on various topics like race here, because I honestly don’t know much about them. I can recommend some scholars on racial representation because I’ve been recommended them in turn: David Leonard, Kishonna L. Gray, Dean Chan, and Jong-Eun Roselyn Lee. And further, I care so much about accessibility, and yet I know even less about the representation of disabled people.
I myself only have my own point of view and experience, which might not even align with that of people with similar backgrounds, so at best I can listen to and amplify other people. Look for minority people. Listen to them. Don’t overwhelm them with questions, as with the experience minorities have had, it might feel threatening, and they are already exhausted and backed into a corner.
In short: Underrepresented people are effing tired, man.