How can we improve representation in games to match the audience?

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The gaming community is more diverse than ever, but the games themselves don’t often convey this. Developers discuss how ethnically diverse and non-cis experiences can be better portrayed in video games.

As the games industry continues to grow, there is growing recognition of its responsibility to create characters and experiences that represent the rapidly growing and increasingly diverse consumer base.

This becomes especially important amid an outpouring of solidarity against the movement for trans rights in the UK and abroad, and in a year which has seen a global reckoning with institutional racism through the Black Lives Matter movement.

However, gaming in its current form isn’t yet fully representative of the people who consume it. In the US, the stereotype that people who play games are predominantly white is increasingly obsolete, with Quartz estimating that within the next decade the majority of people under 30 playing video games will be people of color. Outside the US, as cloud gaming services improve accessibility to the medium in regions such as South America, the ethnically diverse gaming population will continue to grow.

Meanwhile, although a quantitative study calculating the percentage of people playing games that identify as trans has yet to be conducted, research suggests that transgender people use gaming as a way to explore their gender identity in online communities and through games in a controlled environment. High levels of gaming behavior have been noted in trans people attending gender services, suggesting that the number of non-cis individuals who play games, while small, is a notable and active subsection of the gaming community.

And yet over 80% of games centre on white cisgender male protagonists. Although a number of notable independent titles, such as Dreamfeel’s If Found, have featured non-cis narratives and characters, only one major release – the Microsoft-published Tell Me Why by Dontnod Entertainment – has featured a transgender protagonist. Lev in Sony’s The Last of Us Part II the only other prominent example of a transgender character in AAA gaming.

If the industry is to represent the people who consume its titles on a daily basis, change is needed so that more games champion the experiences of ethnically diverse and non-cis people. Using titles that have come before as a blueprint, the lessons learned from these releases can be factored in to form a guideline as to how developers can ensure greater levels of equality and a more diverse range of experience are featured in their titles going forward.

From speaking to several people involved or connected to the wider gaming industry, the view shared by all was that true diversity comes through a diversity of ideas and experiences, not just a character’s race or gender. For example, Tell Me Why was praised for its handling of Tyler’s trans identity as he seeks to learn the truth about his mother’s death and the loving but troubled childhood he and his sister Alyson went through before her death.

“I liked how his transness was present but it wasn’t belabored, and I appreciated seeing things like how on his calendar where there were reminders to get his T shots [testosterone],” noted Leon Killin, a gay trans man and founder of Balance Patch, a diversity, equality and inclusivity consultancy group. Although they noted that the experiences of Tyler may be less relatable to a trans person who wasn’t white, these minor moments were cited among many smaller details that allowed him to be seen as a relatable and down-to-earth trans character.

Dontnod went into creating Tyler with the aim of not just exploring the story they wanted to tell about the siblings’ childhood, but to reflect an authentic trans experience, and this includes exploring romance as a trans person.

While visible representation is important, it’s ensuring that lived experiences can be seen and experienced through games that can have a bigger impact. Gaming has the power to place a player, regardless of their familiarity with the subject matter, directly into events, allowing them to reflect on their own experiences or gain a new perspective. Increased diversity not only has the power to assure more people see and experience themselves on screen but increases the range of experiences and broadens the understanding of the person playing them.

On this point, Tanya DePass, founder of the non-profit group I Need Diverse Games, brought up Mafia III when asked about stand-out examples of diverse representation in gaming from the past 10 years.

“Not that Lincoln Clay is a ‘good’ character,” she notes. “He's a murderer, a gangster. But he was well written as such. The game also doesn’t shy away from the racism present in 1968 Louisiana and the US.”

Reflecting real-life experiences and exploring the concerns of the groups being represented, whether that be the trans experience or the black experience, ensures that representation moves beyond tokenism and towards a genuine attempt to broaden the gaming landscape. And these experiences don’t need to be limited to an authentic historical setting or modern-day social commentary. By moving beyond white as the default when designing games, classic stories can be given a new lease of life and new meaning.

One of the most successful recent examples of this comes from Supergiant Games’ Hades. While this roguelike takes inspiration from Greek mythology, what makes it so refreshing to play is not just the fun gameplay but how the game’s interpretation of the mythology differs from other explorations of the Greek Gods by eschewing the assumption that they were white.

As the team has discussed before, the Greek gods are known as such due to being worshipped in Ancient Greece, not for being ethnically Greek. With this assumption out of the way, the Gods can in turn become vessels to explore how their stories can be viewed in modern contexts, such as through the lens of an immigrant.

“Another more specific observation I relate to personally as an immigrant to the United States is that Hades himself immigrated to the Underworld, so his son Zagreus is a first-generation chthonic god, who to some extent is caught between cultures,” noted the game’s creative director Greg Kasavin. “Ultimately, the idea that they're different from one another not only is authentic to the source material but simply more interesting than the alternative.”

Improving diversity, when combined with gameplay that complements the experiences of the groups being represented, can also deliver all-new gameplay experiences. Dreamfeel’s If Found is an example of a game that ties its thematic core of coming to terms with one’s gender identity by confronting family and moving on from the past to live authentically as their true self. Gameplay is integrated with this as the visual novel-like experience is progressed by the player physically erasing the pages of a notebook that act as a way to erase Kasio’s past as she confronts, resolves and moves on into the future to be the person she wants to be.

Gameplay, themes and characters should inform one another so as to create the best experience for the player, with each element informing the game’s structure. On this front, Dreamfeel studio head Llaura McGee, who also served as writer and designer on the game, noted that Kasio wasn’t initially trans when the game was first conceived.

“If I started out to make a trans game I don't know if it would be like this,” she says. “But we were making a sad game about someone erasing and ultimately starting again and midway through development it was like ‘oh damn, she's trans.’ As a trans person, if I wrote anything else after that it would have been fake.”

By considering the story the team wanted to tell and the gameplay chosen, the thematic ideas of the story evolved into a place where exploring the trans experience came naturally.

And yet, while all of these examples of strong games centered on non-cis and ethnically diverse experiences and characters, it’s still an unfortunate reality that few of these titles exist on a larger scale, while those in the indie sphere can sometimes fail to reach a wider audience. True representation will only be achieved when these stories are effectively and authentically explored in games of all sizes.

This brings us back to the disparity between the gaming population and gaming protagonists. Similarly, this divide exists within the industry itself. 72% of developers are male, and in senior positions at major companies, those with power are predominantly cis and predominantly white.

“Thankfully there are plenty of LGBT folks making games, even in AAA studios, but we usually only get to make games about ourselves on smaller scales,” notes McGee. “The industry suffers from a lack of imagination, and the only games that can be funded are the ones like those that already exist.”

A development team that doesn’t represent the gaming community will struggle to develop characters that represent their diversity. As DePass puts it: “They don't know identities outside their own so they often fall back to and rely on stereotypes instead of getting diversity consultants at the bare minimum. Too often Black characters are thugs, speak in what they think is ‘street vernacular’ or thug lite, and it's so cringy. Or if you get a queer character, their whole identity revolves around how miserable they are being queer.”

And this doesn’t mean a story centering on these experiences or featuring a diverse cast will be for everyone, nor should it be. Communities are diverse with a range of lived experiences, and as a result the white trans story of Tell Me Why may be less relatable to Asian or black trans people, but they may find more relatability in the non-binary narrative of Anu in If Found, or Lev in The Last of Us Part II. That’s why the creation of more stories is important.

“We’re now starting to see now, developers realizing that this cannot persist,” says Killin. “If you’re supposed to be a cutting-edge industry you need to be moving with the times.”

This sentiment perhaps best summarized the current reckoning the industry is facing as it tries to better represent the world we live in. As strides have been taken to improve representation in gaming, we’re still not at a point where the games we play are representative of the people who consume them.

Change starts from within. Even when non-cis and ethnically diverse identities are represented, their scope can be limited. If Found’s Anu is a rare example of a non-binary character when a majority of non-cis representation revolves around binary trans experiences, as well as an even rarer exploration of these experiences from a minority perspective. Meanwhile, the representation of native Tlingit culture in Tell Me Why is far from the norm when stories about native people are disappointingly rare within the gaming medium.

Diversity in games relies just as much on the diversity of the team making the game and, also, if consultants are brought in to assist in guiding teams on this topic, the diversity and experience of those brought in to assist on these topics. Only by listening and wanting to listen to underrepresented groups and their experiences can their stories be effectively explored. At the end of the day, without a will to improve diversity in your titles, and without a willingness to include people from these groups and listen to their voices at all stages of development, nothing will change.

The key is to diversify, diversify carefully, and don’t stop diversifying.

As Mcgee summarises: “Hire LGBT people and people who aren't white to help tell the story. To lead the story. And throughout all the roles. The world is a big place, I'd love to see more stories from everywhere and from everyone.”

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