Remember Us? Why We Need More Diversity in Video Games

It’s pretty undeniable that, not unlike other fan genres, there is a glaring lack of characters in color in video games.  The state of the characters of color that actually do make it into a video game is the same as it is in sci-fi and comics (though comics are doing decidedly better on this) – stereotyped, marginal, or  token.

But this sadly old news. And this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) had little to add in the way of diversity. We need to do better. And not just the indies. We need the major publishers to get on board.

The argument’s been made before that gamers are a diverse crowd and therefore games should reflect the people playing them. Though legitimate, this is not that argument.

Gamers of color aren’t gonna pass up the new Assassin’s Creed just because the main character’s a white guy. Just like gamers of all shades didn’t balk at Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation for it’s Black female lead. In fact, busting the myth that games with female leads don’t sell, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation sold incredibly well.

But then again Assassin’s Creed has a well established fanbase.  For newer games, daring to break the white male mold can actually unleash the ire of the fanlosers among our nerdy ranks, those who can’t imagine a female-led game that isn’t about cooking and cleaning (no seriously, people said that). Even when developers are ballsy enough to lead a game with a character of color or a woman,  publishers shy away in fear of sales lost, as happened with Dontnod Entertainment‘s Remember Me, which features a mixed-race woman hero Nilin. Happily, Capcom eventually boldly took on the title and released it this June.

On the race side of things, minority characters rarely fill the lead role and when they do they’re either the token minority selection in games where you can choose who you play as or they tend to be dogged by racist stereotypes. Leading Black male characters are pretty much relegated to sports games.

Barrett Wallace from Final Fantasy VII, looking like Mr. T..

Some defend themselves against charges of racism or sexism by claiming that they’re merely lamenting what they believe are just politically correct efforts at the expense of game quality. But why a character’s physical appearance should affect game quality is beyond me… No one is claiming that more diverse characters will increase game quality either.

Rather, the hate-filled reactions to games that do dare to incorporate diversity are sad reminders of the distance we have to go for real race and gender equality in the U.S. and elsewhere. Games might not seem all that important in such discussions; after all they’re just games, right?

But that’s just it. They’re games! Everyone loves games! Games are fun! After a long day at school or work, most of us don’t want to crack open a hefty gender studies book or engage in a diversity workshop, but games… games are always fun! And games can be a more powerful tool for change than we think.

So many people ranging in age, gender, race, nationality, and even class play video games.  And when we play, especially role-playing games, we connect with the characters, we identify with them and their causes. We more or less become them.

This isn’t unique to video games, of course. We identify with the protagonists of movies, novels, tv shows, comics… But games are pretty much the most interactive form of media you can get. The immersion is intense and you are more directly linked to the character you play. Studies have shown that we learn while we game, that even our morals can be influenced by games.

Maybe more opportunities to play an action RPG as an ass-kicking woman, will remind us that women moved far beyond the kitchen a long time ago. Maybe more opportunities to play minorities characters in futuristic sci-fi games, will remind us that people of color have a place in science, in the future, and as heroes… beyond Madden…

Faith from Mirror’s Edge – A woman…in a game…not cooking or cleaning…

Maybe gaming as and identifying with characters who don’t look like us can remind us that people who look different than ourselves are not some kind of unrelatable anomoly, that we can relate to each other on a deeper level than just our demographic identifiers. So, even if (maybe even especially if), as some maintain, the majority of gamers are white and male, it’s still important to have more diversity in games, because the world is not just white and male.  Besides, why would anyone want to play in a world where everyone looks just like you anyway? Boring!

If we make more games with more diverse non-stereotyped heroes, think of all the people who will play these characters, get to know them, follow them throughout sequels and sympathize with their causes. Think of how quickly such a revolution would spread to other mediums, diversifying movies and tv, without our having to shake our heads through the requisite online hate that always follows non-white-male casting choices.

Some developers are already on it. They’ve been inspired enough to think beyond the muscular white guy that graces most video games, and lo! the video game industry didn’t blow up when they did it.

In fact, Drinkbox Studio‘s Guacamelee!, featuring Mexican protagonist Juan Aguacate was released to wide acclaim and even managed to snag some awards:

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Telltale‘s The Walking Dead video game, with Black protagonist Lee Everett leading the game, made over $40 million in sales, and a sequel to the game was just announced at E3.

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Despite early mixed reviews, Mirror’s Edge, which introduced Asian female lead Faith back in 2007, sold over 2 million copies, and Electronic Arts just announced Mirror’s Edge 2 at this year’s E3 Expo.

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So, come on developers, it’s not so hard after all…