Representation in Gaming: Why is it important?
The need to be seen and acknowledged is a fundamental part of our psyche. It validates us, it tells us that we matter and we belong. This feeds into our sense of identity and our self-esteem, determining how secure we feel in our environment.
Much of our sense of identity comes from the media we consume – books, music, films, TV, video games. They shape how we perceive the world around us. Some of them tell us how we should look, how we should talk, how we should act. If we don’t see ourselves in these forms of media, then we feel invisible, like we don’t belong. This is the basic principle of representation; being able to see people you can identify with in a variety of media.
Regardless of the type of media, representation is key for us to be able to lose ourselves in a story. Particularly in video games, the deepest level of immersion occurs when we identify with the character that we’re playing as. This means that for the duration of the game, we effectively become that character. The more traits we have in common with this character, the more seamlessly we project ourselves into their shoes. These traits can be pretty much anything – sex, race, gender, physical or mental ability, sexuality, family history or personality. This is a reflection of our ability to empathise with and represent the minds of people in the ‘real- world’. The more they look, speak and act like us, the easier it is to understand them.
Conversely, when we struggle to identify with a character – i.e. when we don’t feel represented, it causes a feeling of disconnect with the game that you’re playing. It makes it harder to integrate yourself into the narrative – it doesn’t feel like ‘your story’. It’s as if the story was written for someone else; that you’ve been excluded.
Unfortunately, particularly in the gaming industry, the stories told tend to predominantly feature one specific type of character. Straight, physically-abled white men. This has changed in recent years, with some powerful and inspiring female characters emerging into the mix. However, 46% of US gamers identify as female and at E3 2019, only 5% of the games presented had a female protagonist.
Similarly, we’ve seen limited progress in terms of representation for Black or Asian gamers, LGBTQ+ gamers, or those with disabilities. Given the increasing diversity of the gaming community, it’s important that representation catches up with the times.
But what’s causing it?
Part of the reason for the tardiness in this area is lack of representation in the industry itself. In an international survey of gaming industry employees, 74% identified as male, and 68% as white/Caucasian. In a UK census, 70% of industry employees identified as male, and 10% as black, Asian or other minority ethic. There’s a pleasant surprise here for LGBTQ+ representation, which reaches 21%, but this isn’t consistent worldwide. I wasn’t able to find any data about disabled employees, but the employment rate in this group is dismally low worldwide.
There’s also been significant resistance in some areas of the gaming community. This is possibly due to the rapid expansion of gaming into the mainstream over the last decade or two. In 2006, males accounted for 62% of the gaming community, but in 2019, they accounted for only 54%. A general downtrend in this ratio has happened since the 1990s, when video games were nearly exclusively marketed towards males.
Ironically, the people most opposed to equal representation are those that clearly understand how important representation is. When faced with a protagonist they can’t identify with (i.e. female, non-white or LGBTQ+), they quickly become disillusioned, feel excluded, and threaten to boycott the game. This happened recently with The Last of Us 2, where – SPOILER ALERT, the main character identifies as a lesbian. There was a massive backlash from areas of the community over this (and over the supposedly ‘unrealistic’ physical shape of another female character). Many of these were straight white males who couldn’t identify with a character that was so clearly different from them. Of course, it’s not just white men; women can be just as guilty of this type of knee-jerk reaction.
And yes, it’s not all white male or female gamers – but the ones that do hold these views tend to be ones that have platforms, and who can shout louder than everyone else. It’s a pretty toxic combination that spells catastrophe in the Twittersphere when anything remotely related to representation rears its head.
There’s even a backlash against optional features
Curiously, even the broadening of options in ‘build your own character’ RPGs can be met with hostility. There was outrage and accusations of pandering when Cyberpunk 2077 developers announced it wouldn’t have traditional gender options. Similarly, the internet kicked off when Temtem allowed players to choose their pronouns. These options in no way restricted the ability of people identifying with traditional male/female roles – but simply provided options to people who didn’t. In Temtem, if you identify as female, you can just opt for she/her pronouns. No-one is forcing you to use they/them pronouns if they don’t apply to you. Similarly, Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t intend to remove the concept of gender. It will likely just provide a spectrum of options versus the traditional M/F boxes.
But why is there so much resistance to these completely optional features? It’s one thing to resist representation when you feel you’re being excluded. It’s another thing entirely to reject options for inclusivity that in no way affect your ability to play a game. This highlights a wider and more pervasive issue that is reflected in society as a whole. An intolerance of diversity to the point of exclusion.
I think a lot of this is due to fear of the unknown – a primal instinct that allowed us to survive back in our caveman days. There’s also fear of change. For a long time, straight white males were the main demographic in gaming. Now they’re slowly being outnumbered by a diverse and ever-expanding gaming community. No-one likes change, especially when it feels like they’re losing out, or like they’re no longer the target audience for their favourite games. One of the main issues people have had with inclusivity is the so-called re-distribution of wealth. Here, focus and resources are seemingly stripped away from the demographic atop the pyramid and shared equally between community members. However, this viewpoint just demonstrates that there is an imbalance of resources that needs to be corrected.
Representation is critically important for all members of the gaming community to belong and feel included. It’s not something political, it’s not an agenda – it’s a principle based on simple and basic fairness. That everyone should be able to see themselves and their experiences in the games they play, regardless of their sex, gender, skin colour, sexuality or ability.
If you can’t identify with a gaming protagonist and you’re feeling disillusioned or excluded – there’s good news – you’ve just found out why representation is important. You deserve to be seen, and so does everyone else.
Make sure you stick with Countr Cultur for the latest gaming news, reviews, and features from around the world. To receive updates on all CC posts, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Also, come and chat with us on Discord!