Representation in Games

We are fortunate to live in an incredibly diverse world with opportunities for people of various faiths, creeds, and orientations to interact and learn from each other. As technology has progressed, so too has our ability to flourish and interact with society’s treasure trove. Nevertheless, considering the wide-spread appreciation of games, it is shocking to see the lack of representation, or even the advancement of stereotypes in them. While it is true that in recent years we have witnessed progress in efforts of inclusion, there is still an overwhelming proportion of games whose protagonist fit the basic mold of the white, cis-gendered, heterosexual male. Moreover, when we find characters who do not fit this mold, they fall into the trap of tokenism, and leave a meaningless experience with them. If not, reinforce the stereotype altogether. For example, it is no coincidence that Muslims, particularly Arabs, are routinely depicted as the enemy, members of the LGBTQ+ are routinely depicted sexual deviants, and African Americans are routinely depicted as either athletes or gangsters. Games act as an extension of society’s understanding of one another. Hence, representation has an importance beyond simple cosmetics, as it delves into the psyche and mindset of the player. To obtain a better understanding of the concept of representation, I interviewed 10 people from various and differing social identities.

In choosing a character for a given game, some had said it was as simple as choosing a color, while for others, they envisioned themselves in these protagonists. Rachel, a black cis-gender female, says that she chooses the character that most aligns with her. Whether that be physical appearance or qualities that she aspires to be. Rachel continued stating, “If my character was thin or attractive, then these are qualities that I want to see in myself.” Britney and Elizabeth, two white, gender fluid females, echoed a similar sentiment. Britney expressed a goal of choosing a character that represents who she aspires to be seen as: “I might gravitate towards some more androgynous characters, or if there is a gay/lesbian character I would pick them so I can feel like I am being seen and validated. While Elizabeth desired a character that represents who she aspires to become: “Sometimes a guy character when I’m feeling more masculine so I can muster more confidence in myself for not conforming to the hyper sexualized female characters that I have no resemblance with.” For both Rachel, Britney and Elizabeth, their reasonings were clear. They chose characters based around their identity and qualities that they aspire to emulate. In doing so, that character has become more than just about playing a game, but rather a symbol of the possibilities they see in themselves.

For others, however, choosing a character mattered less about what the character looked like, and more about the character’s background and psyche. Bram and Harry, two white, cis-gendered males both agreed that they didn’t pay much attention to the cosmetics, but they wanted a game that humanizes the protagonists with both positive and negative representations. They wanted them to be relatable and not the tired ploy of hero versus villain. Bram continued by stating that one particular quality that he gravitates towards in a protagonist are those who are shy and friendly but are willing to overcome challenges for the sake of a greater purpose as these are qualities that he sees in himself. While physical appearance is not as important to them, Bram and Harry find their connection by relating to the protagonist’s beliefs and actions.

When asked about the impact of positive representation of social identities in games, those that I interviewed had mixed responses. Dion, a black cis-gender male, believes that positive representation in the media is important because games are something we do as an outlet. For many people such as Dion and Britney, games represent a space where they can tap into their future aspirations and visually see the person who they want to be. For Bryan, a white cis-gender male, representation in games acts as a mirror to our own world: “I think there is a story to tell when the only games most people can think of with a person of color on the front label are sports games or Grand Theft Auto. If we are to believe that games mirror society’s ideals, then what does that say about us?” Bryan brought up an interesting point. Why do we see certain communities pigeonholed into certain roles?

Bill, an Asian cis-gendered male, believes that representation is important, but believes that there should be a focus on mixing both positive and negative representation. Humans are not perfect. They make mistakes and unethical choices, nevertheless, humans also learn and grow. Explaining his response for negative representation, Bill say, “Compliments tend to make me uncomfortable, and if you show negatives there’s more room for self-reflection. If a game is supposed to reflect society’s vision, then it should not hide the negatives and force the player to reflect on them through an engaging story.”   

Games act as an extension of society’s understanding of one another. Their purpose serves beyond enjoyment, but as a tool for social engineering. Specifically, to influence the social standings of those who do not fit the mold and to mend any unjust, bigoted, or racially biased understandings. Accurate and positive representation in games affords the opportunity to act as a symbol of representation for minority youths, which in turn, allows those youths the encouragement to aspire, and achieve, greater successes. Moreover, positive representation in the hands of a historically underrepresented, or marginalized, community can create the ideal that one’s identity should not subtract from one’s capabilities.