By Chad Stewart
It’s almost too easy to create the hashtag, #videogamessowhite. In a 2009 survey that measured primary characters in video games, 89.5% were male and 85% were White. Mind you, the survey is probably dated and the statistics represent sales rather than the actual percentages. Regardless, the data holds water. The numbers shed a light on who the video game audience is and what AAA developers — those with the largest platform to promote their games — are giving them—White people and White characters.
The 2016 E3, Electronic Entertainment Expo, challenged that entire notion. E3 is the place where new games are shown and announced; a place where developers show that arm-hair physics, virtual reality, and cutting-edge engines are much less complicated than placing a minority character in a lead role. This year was different.
Mass Effect Andromeda debuted their “default” female main character. Mafia III, the third iteration in a historically White/off-White crime franchise, now follows the story of a Black mobster in the era of civil rights. Battlefield 1 features a Black protagonist working with the Harlem Hellfighters. Watch Dogs 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, ReCore, and Dishonored 2 all feature people variant from the White male template. Shonda Rhimes didn’t crawl out of the Wii U’s corpse, but it damn sure looks like she did. The gaming industry appears to have transcended “Nathan Drake” characters—brooding, scruffy, blue-eyed, porcelain-colored 30 something year olds. The industry looks progressive.
But who creates these games? According to the 2015 IGDA Developer Satisfaction Survey, straight White guys dominate the development process. According to the IGDA survey, 67% of developers are White, 3% are Black, 7.3% are Latino, and 18% of developers identify within the LGBT community. Picking minority leads can be risky in the high-stakes world of game development.
In Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar Games, gamers assume the identity of a White man in the Wild West—who at certain points—kills hordes of Mexican enemies. In Grand Theft Auto V, we get the option to play as Franklin, a Black man and a criminal. Given the limited featured roles for Black characters in gaming, characters like these can be extremely damaging—not to mention the twelve year olds who added “n***a” to their vocabulary. Build-your-own characters avoids backlash, but “re-skinning” provides another alternative.
A “re-skin” is when minority characters are given the stories of White characters—placing minorities in positions that don’t correspond with their identities. This option provides diversity without representation. For example, inFAMOUS: Second Son’s Native-American protagonist was just an edgy teenager who happened to be Native American. His race and outlook on life didn’t seep into the narrative. Another example would be Ellie’s queer relationship in The Last of Us DLC (Downloadable Content). She was in love with a girl, and the only people who had a problem with it were zombies.
On one side, these vanilla forms of diversity seem humanizing—allowing characters to abandon the strife that comes with their identity. These stories appeal to the dominant audience and provide escapism for the featured group. Stripping marginalized groups of their struggle avoids crucial opportunities for awareness. Re-skinning While not inherently bad, should not be the only narrative that gamers experience. Games like Bioshock Infinite, Sleeping Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag Freedom Cry encourage conversations about race and class and we need more of them.
Why does it take so long for video games to get there? Interactive storytelling and electronic gaming are fairly new art forms, albeit rapidly developing ones. The pioneering generation still plays a significant role in the marketplace. The target audience — straight White gamers — doesn’t demand diversity. In video games, White characters don’t put Black ones out of work; diversity is an illusion. Voice actors breathe life into a pixelated imitations of human beings. As a result, people underestimate the power of video games and the urgency for different faces.
Diversity and representation benefit every audience. In our current social climate, empathy is in short supply. At its best, art teaches us about the people around us and ourselves. We can’t demand diversity and representation without being concerned about the people working on the project. We need members of the featured community to be a part of the creative development. Are their voices being heard? Is their creativity facilitated? Asking for diversity without concern for the developers will only lead to botched stories and misrepresentation. This is not to say that White developers can’t create games out of their culture, of course they can and they should. But, if they ever want to do justice to those stories, they will have to do their research and if need be, “pass the mic”.