Video games allow players to walk a mile in the shoes of somebody who has lived a completely different life to them. With this comes the chance to create more diverse and inclusive media. So how does the gaming industry represent these minorities? And is it going to get better or worse in the future?
In the early years of video game development, character diversity was limited due not to race neutrality, but technological limitations. 4-, 8- and 16-bit resolution left developers with little choice but to design all characters in similar styles. But as the years progressed, so did the power of video game engines, and game designers and artists now have the opportunity to create more lifelike and diverse character designs.
And perhaps this would be happening if there was more racial diversity within the industry. In 2017, the Independent Game Developers Association (IGDA) found that people who identify as Caucasian, white or European make up 68% of the gaming industry. In all creative industries, artists and designers are more inclined to create content they feel they relate to more closely. And so naturally, racial diversity isn’t seen in video games as frequently as it should be.
Adam Campbell, the co-founder of POC in Play, agrees that “there’s a long way to go. Representation [in the games we play] still feels incomplete and inconsistent. ‘Diversity’ is the exception rather than the rule.
“White characters are in the majority, and we tend to see the full range of Representation: personality, style, background, even superpowers. The portrayals can include leaders; they can include criminals; they can include complex personalities and struggles. This range is often missing when you see how other races are depicted in games.
“Black characters, for example, have traditionally been shown as quite big and aggressive. Similarly, with Hispanic characters, drug cartel references abound. East Asian characters, especially women, may be presented as more submissive or infantilised. South Asian characters are barely represented at all.”
The “Assassin’s Creed” franchise has been including racially diverse characters in their games for over a decade now, and gameplay and story beats are frequently designed to incorporate the character’s cultures. If such a popular franchise can be so successfully diverse, then there is no excuse for the rest of the gaming industry to follow suit.
“Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice” is an indie action-adventure horror game released in 2017. It was critically praised for its immersive story and gameplay and won multiple awards for its audio design and performances. It’s also one of the few games whose main playable character has a disability, specifically psychosis.
Physical disabilities have only just begun to be explored in video games, and examples are far and few between. Games are more likely to include characters with a physical disability, as these are easier to be “fixed”, such as with a robotic prosthetic limb.
Accessibility expert Ian Hamilton says “Representation of characters with disabilities is still rare. It is often simply not on people’s radars. And when it is, fear of handling it badly can put people off.
“Moreover, games are often guilty of furthering the myth that a disability is rare, with all the impact that has on broader prejudice and discrimination.
“There’s still a great deal to be done. The world is wonderfully diverse; humanity covers a very broad spectrum. Why should games not reflect that? The same mindset that pushes for higher resolution textures and more accurate physics on a belt should be pushing for Representation too.”
One of the few Triple-A titles leading the charge on disability inclusion is “Overwatch”, with their inclusions of characters such as Junkrat (who has a prosthetic leg), Ana (who is missing an eye) and Symmetra (who has autism). “Overwatch” makes an effort to not only include these characters in their cast but utilises this as an opportunity to normalise these disabilities within the industry. After all, if game developers are willing to make their gameplay accessible for those with disabilities to play, then they should have just as little issue in including characters that have these disabilities.
Diversity within video games, while improving slightly, is still painfully minimal. Most playable “heroes” in games are still delegated to be the Cis, straight, white male archetype. Not only can this alienate players who don’t fit this mould, but it means that developers are missing out on great stories and gameplay that could be used in their games. Women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ and BAME communities have all experienced different forms of adversity, and realistic portrayals of characters in these communities could add fresh and exciting opportunities to video game stories.
Instead of being treated as a nicety, diversity should be treated as a necessity. Everybody deserves the right to feel heard, respected and included, and it honestly wouldn’t be that difficult to incorporate these minorities into video games. With a few minor adjustments, the next ten years in gaming could easily become more diverse. In reality, diverse people are everywhere, why shouldn’t they also be in the games that they themselves play?