Recently, media has been littered with arguments about diversity, in a variety of forms. Gender, skin colour, culture and sexual orientation have all been something that people have been stating needs more representation. I agree with these statements, to some extent, and in different degrees, depending on the situation.
To put all the cards on the table, so to speak, I’m a second generation British African descendant, who has lived my whole life in England. This has caused me to always be a minority in my social circles, (except for family functions). Two of the things that I have always held dear to me are films and video games. I always felt an affinity with both. The ability to escape the real world and engage with a variety of experiences always enticed me. In both of these mediums there is an issue, but as this is a blog about video games, lets specifically talk about that side of things. I find that there is a distinct lack of diversity in this medium, in a multitude of ways.
Growing up, I never noticed how poorly represented the minorities were in video games, and in all honesty, it didn’t matter to me. I would play through games as the hero, usually a european male, covered in muscles, grizzled features or a pretty looking asian character, that NEVER looked asian, just another european character with a strange hairstyle. I would play the game, ‘clock’ it, then talk to my brother about how amazing it was. The realisation that I couldn’t choose any other kind of character never even crossed my mind, until I played Streets of Rage two.
I’m aware that this wasn’t the first game with an african descended character in it, but it was my first true experience of feeling like I actually connected with a character on a deeper level than, “He’s a badass!”. The character I’m referring to is Skate. Being me, I felt like I could actually be Skate. He was about my age, same cultural background, and he could do everything that the other characters could (apart from swing a pipe. He was terrible at that). I remember the excitement I had when I saw he was an option to choose. I would still choose Alex and Blaze from time to time, (never liked Max) but he was my go-to character.
This revelation of inclusion is purely hindsight. At the time, I didn’t even realise why I wanted to choose Skates, he just seemed like the coolest character I had seen in a game. This gets to one of the arguments of my post. When there is a lack of representation, aware adults are capable of seeing it. As you grow up, you notice that you don’t fit in certain places. You start to become more aware of the world around you, but as a kid, you just accept the world for what it is. If all the heroes look or act nothing like you, you just accept that as the norm. I think this is the main argument regarding diversity and inclusion; making sure everyone has some form of connection to the medium.
Another example. My passions being what they are, led me down the road of geekdom. Due to this, I have always toyed with the idea of doing some form of cosplay. I have had conversations with my equally geeky friends about the possibility of doing this, to only realise that my options of dressing up fall into a very limited choice. I either dress up as a character who has a mask, for example, Dark Souls characters, go as one of the few characters who are african descended, e.g. Barret, Balrog, Sazh, or go as a black version of one of the multitudes of european or asian characters. Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this is irrelevant at best, but nonetheless, there is a misrepresentation of the world we’re living in (i’ll get back to this point in a bit).
Considering the argument of a lack of representation, one could always argue that we have to look at who makes the games, which is an argument that I have heard from my fellow flame keeper also, but this lack of representation isn’t just present in video games where the characters are designed by the developers, it’s even present in games which allow you to taylor make your own character. The best way to highlight this is with the options for hairstyles in character creations.
In these modes (other than games such as GTAV and SA…which both had lead African American characters) your options are afro, cornrows, dreadlocks or a level-one to three cut, whereas you have a MULTITUDE of hairstyles for the asian and european counterparts. This situation gets even more dire when you try to create a female african descended character. Your choices are the usual curly afro….and that’s it. I get the fact that these games tend to be predominately made by european and asian people, but I’m sure there are some people of african descent in the groups. To return to the point I eluded to earlier, aren’t games, like all other forms of media, meant to represent the world we live. Sort of serve as a window into life?
I guess, to be analytical, I have to look at my own argument with the same judgement I look at the gaming world. There are, as I said at the start, many other ways that games are exclusive of minorities, but I’ve centered my argument on the cultural and skin colour angle, as that is the one that actually effects me. That doesn’t then mean that the other issues aren’t as important. Women not having equal representation in games, and falling into typical troupes is an issue in gaming, as well as there being a very low representation of LGBT characters in games, but these issues don’t actually effect me in the same way. I guess that’s the same issue that the games developers are considering. They create imagery that relates to them first and foremost, then consider including the other groups to either tick boxes or to look progressive. I get it, that is the way we humans function,but I believe it’s wrong.
I believe that the lack of diversity is also actually damaging to the industry. It alienates groups, stopping them from being able to partake in the medium to as high an extent as others. I’m aware that this is not as big an issue as it once was, as there are many examples of more inclusive gaming characters, that said, I don’t believe that the way it’s being tackled always works. There are always stereotypical caricatures of minorities dropped in games. Your typical, poorly spoken or extremely loud and brash african descended characters, such as Cole from Gears of War, your extremely camp, homosexual male, such as the brothers in God Hand, or the highly sexualised image of a female, such as every women in street fighter 5.
Diversity is about having a true representation of every person. It’s an easy statement to make and harder to do, but I think it’s still something that time and effort should be put into. This inclusion I speak of is dependant on the game and location obviously. I don’t want to play Yakuza and have a african descended lead female character, who is a lesbian…just because they’re trying to diversify, but when it’s a situation where it makes sense (or I’m given a choice to make my own character) it should be as equally possible for a character to be from any possible minority. This way, everyone can have an opportunity to be connected to the experience, as I was with Streets of Rage 2.
Regardless, I love games. Always have always will, I just want my children to be able to play games where they can feel like they also belong to the gaming community, not just joining into something intended for a different group. So, to me, yes, it does matter, it matters A LOT!