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E3’s 2017 Expo Shows That There’s Some Hope for Diversity in Video Games

Gamergate exploded just three years ago. Here’s what’s happened since then.

The gaming community is no stranger to issues with regard to representation, in terms of games themselves and in fan communities, game development, and journalism. Gamergate was a chaotic controversy involving backlash against a perceived push for excess progressivism and forced diversity in gaming and game journalism that began in 2014, and has since been a stain on the gaming community. Nonetheless, it brought to light to some of the harmful ideologies that are present in gaming culture and elsewhere.

Diversity, in this case, I define as nuanced representation of people of a race and/or gender outside of white and male without adhering to tired, creatively lazy, and ultimately harmful stereotypes and pigeonholed roles that have plagued representations of minorities in all manner of entertainment. For example, in a 2009 survey conducted by University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams, 10% of playable characters in the survey were black. Although this number reflects numbers close to American demographics, the majority of these were either athletes or gangsters. Both quality and quantity, in this case, are of importance.

Findings published by the Pew Research Center in late 2015 show more equality in the gaming community than may be apparent; around 50% of men and 50% of women play video games. Dmitri Williams reports similar results: of the video game players within his study, 60% were male, 40% were female. Despite this, the demographic breakdown of primary characters was around 90% male, 10% female. A probable cause of this discrepancy is the lack of diversity within the development sphere. Professor Williams’ 2009 study explores the developer demographic as the most relevant cause of the lack of diversity in characters; the game developers polled in the study were 88% male and 83% white. Things have seemingly improved in the past 7 years, however; as of 2016, roughly 23% of those working in the games industry are women.

2017’s E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), whether due to the political and social climate in America and abroad or simply a desire to give consumers something new, showed signs of positive change. Some exciting trailers that have been released this year have shown that diversity and social criticism in art need not come at the cost of creativity and free artistic expression.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins

Assassin’s Creed: Origins has responded to long-running fan desire for a game set in Egypt. After a year-long hiatus following several somewhat disappointing entries to the franchise, Ubisoft has returned with what appears to be a visually gorgeous game set in dynastic Egypt, and a new main character, Siwa. Ashraf Ismail, who directed the well-received Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, is directing Assassin’s Creed: Origins. It’s exciting to see a person of color as the face of the development team of a major game, even moreso a game featuring a protagonist of color.

Beyond Good and Evil 2

Beyond Good and Evil 2 is a long-awaited sequel to the 2003 game Beyond Good and Evil. Its cinematic trailer was visually marvelous, and shows off a futuristic, cosmopolitan city of the 24th century that seems to takes inspiration from Indian, Chinese and Khmer architecture. The trailer also showcases a varied cast of characters, including a black woman (with natural hair!) and her human and animal-human hybrid crewmates.

Director Michel Ancel said of the game and its characters in a Gamespot interview: “We wanted to showcase the fact that they are very different. Some are animals, some are humans and that’s the message behind that trailer…whatever is your skin color, origin, if you are a hybrid, you are part of the same team and you will share the adventure. That’s a very important message for us.”

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy brings back two characters from the Uncharted series, Chloe and Nadine, in a standalone expansion to Uncharted IV. To see two women, both women of color, banter, explore, and fight alongside each other is exciting, especially considering the morally grey nature of the two.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, in a similar vein, marks the return of Billie Lurk, a beloved character from the first two Dishonored games, now a primary character in her own standalone game.

Anthem and Skull & Bones

Anthem and Skull & Bones also used female characters in their trailers, despite being games that will likely allow characters to customize their own characters, which refutes the idea of male characters as the default. This is a welcome change from the slew of white, chiseled, five-o’clock-shadowed archetypes that are usually used as the default characters in video game trailers and demos.

It is fair to feel wary of pandering or of companies’ use of diversity as an easy selling point rather than a genuine choice, but these trailers feel neither preachy nor shallow. The ability to connect with varied audiences across age, gender, and race, is the mark of timeless art. Art is at its best when it is truly creative, in this case in terms of gameplay, themes, narratives and aesthetic choices. This creativity should also extend to a game’s characters, who should be crafted in a nuanced way that ideally doesn’t isolate large sections of a consumer base that wants nothing more than to be immersed in an ever-changing form of entertainment.

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