2014: The Critical Turning Point of Representation in Games

If there was one important theme to pick from the last 12 months, it would be: “Don’t you realize? Everyone’s a gamer!”

Now, this is a two part statement. In one aspect, it succinctly highlights the demographics of the video game community, using the term “everyone” as a way to illustrate exactly who plays video games today. It also acts as an assessment of cultural awareness; a reality-check if you will. The question “don’t you realize?” challenges any form of neglect or dismissiveness in order to re-orient those who choose to remain resistant to progressive diversity. And while signs of industry growing pains have been present throughout the entirety of 2014, game makers have clearly listened, ultimately making significant adjustments as to who is represented in our games.

At last year’s PAX East, I attended a talk and spoke with Shawn Allen, a black/biracial game developer who heads up NuChallenger, and is currently working on the successfully-crowdfunded Treachery in Beatdown City. He spoke about the evolution of game development by comparing its diversification to the rise of hip-hop as a music genre. Game creation first started as a technical development process practiced almost exclusively by white and Japanese males. Over the years, tools for game development became cheaper and more accessible, much like how hip-hop grew on the use of affordable instruments in urban communities. This availability of game development tools then allowed those of different affiliations and identities to take what inspired them about video games as a medium, and turn it into their own forms of expression. Today, we have platforms such as Twine and RPG Maker that allow even the most technically unexposed minds to create the most profound experiences such as Mainichi and Depression Quest.

The interesting thing about both Mainichi and Depression Quest is that they’re both made by women: one white and battling depression, and the other a black transgender. I felt it was appropriate for me to mention the fact that the developer of Mainichi is black and transgender because it’s an autobiographical game about none other than Mattie Brice. Depression Quest, on the other hand, isn’t as explicitly illustrative of its creator Zoe Quinn; however, it’s no less empirical. The two are crucial examples of the state of the gaming industry today, an industry where a games critic and a struggling artist can use simple tools to convey powerful messages.

Both of these games are incredibly personal. In a sense, they’re a form of self-journaling that’s strung together by mechanics of choice, consequence, and player agency. However such perspectives are in the minority, so in order for these experiences to have a greater presence, other artists need to pitch in.

Allen, who has been unapologetically critical of the absence of proper representation in games, has gone public in urging developers who wish script the stories of the “other” (racial minorities, gays, women, etc.) to either conduct thorough investigations of their culture, experiences, and behavior – or bring on board someone who’s representative of that very demographic.

Take Michael Block, of The Men Who Wear Many Hats fame, who hailed from Sheboygan, Wisconsin and then made his way to Chicago’s North Side in Lake Shore Drive. After a fruitful early career in game development, which included the viral success Organ Trail, Block wanted to create something more meaningful; something more personal.

The idea of a biographical game surfaced, though Block was initially unsure as to who it should be until he was inspired by Alex Kotlowitz, who wrote the book There are No Children Here and produced the film The Interrupters. Both of these works highlighted the culture of Chicago’s underclass and gang violence from the ’80s to the present day. However, it wasn’t until coming across the documentary Louder Than a Bomb, and attending an urban poetry reading from a high school student dreaming of a life living in his neighborhood, that Block had come to recognize his economical contrast to those just ten miles away.

Following roughly a year of charitable work in Chicago’s urban community, Block ran into fellow volunteer, youth mentor, and recording artist “Solo Xquisit”, also known as Sean Young: a 27 year old Chicagoan who was raised on Chicago’s South Side, while facing gang violence through ten years of his youth. He would then help Block shape his longed-for biographical game: We Are Chicago.

Steve Gaynor followed a very similar path. And while he didn’t aim to convey a story of economics, race, and violence, he put just as much distance between himself, his gender and his sexual orientation.

In an episode of The Brainy Gamer Podcast, Gaynor describes going to an Indie-cade event a few years ago while attending a talk given by indie developer Anna Anthropy. He had then asked her: “Can a straight male authentically write about a character that’s neither straight nor a male?” The two then carried the subject after the talk; however, their points of view had come to an impasse. While Anthropy believed that such a work would be a failed attempt to ally with a particular demographic, Gaynor believed in his idea of telling a story about a particular character.

Enter Gone Home, 2013’s indie love child that tilted the “is it a game?” conversation and resonated with so many from the LBGT community.

As a former level designer at 2K Marin and Irrational Games, Gaynor was conditioned to research. This conditioning went as far back as Bioshock Infinite’s early development, when he pitched an idea to Ken Levine about a quest involving repairing a zeppelin. Levine grilled him, “Have you researched zeppelins? Do you know how they work? Do you know how they stay up in the air?” It was this level of intricate investigation Gaynor applied to writing Gone Home. He read blogs, fiction and non-fiction books on queer women, and interviewed women about their own experiences – including their soon-to-be 3D artist, Kate Craig.

For many, this research paid off. Not only was Gone Home nominated for multiple Game of the Year awards – many of which it ended up winning – but many also validated its story, such as Polygon’s senior reviewer Danielle Riendeau, who wrote in her exceptional review, “I never expected to see myself – or such a strong reflection of myself and my own life – in a video game.”

It’s easy (or easier, I should say) for the indie scene to weave such honest and authentic projects, free from demographical focus testing and publisher pandering. However, it has been a formidable culture shock for the AAA space to steer their massive ships into uncharted waters.

And boy, did they strike some icebergs along the way.

Earlier last year, Assassins Creed Unity received its first set of bad press after Ubisoft mentioned in an interview that the reasoning as to why players wouldn’t be given the option to play as women in the game’s four-player co-op mode was a result of limited production resources, despite there being nearly a dozen teams working on Ubisoft’s most profitable franchise.

The publisher was also at the center of another controversy surrounding racial tension after a box art image of Far Cry 4 was issued in a press release. Though we’ve come to know now that the assumed races of both the protagonist and villain were incorrect, it was a provocative image nonetheless for a follow-up to a game that received much criticism for its portrayal – unintentional or otherwise – of white colonialism. But while Ubisoft caught themselves putting out multiple fires this year in regards to diversity, none were nearly as toxic as Nintendo’s.

Tomodachi Life (or in this case, Tomodachi Collection) for the 3DS broke onto the Japanese scene back in 2013 by garnering what they would consider unintended positive attention with its male-only gay marriage “bug”. Nintendo had followed up by announcing that the bug would soon be patched to address phenomena including “human relations that become strange”.

Upon its release in the States as Tomodachi Life just last year, Tye Marini – a 23 year-old gay male – started a petition called “Miiquality” to champion efforts to convince Nintendo to include gay marriages in Tomodachi Life. It was then when Nintendo stated: “Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life,” as if any inclusion of gay relationships is inherently social commentary, and avoiding doing so is not.

The attention surrounding all three of these controversies (gender, race, sexual orientation) is indicative to what players demand. Players want to have a chance to play as women. Players are concerned about racial sensitivity in their games. Players seek out ways in which they can simulate their own romantic experiences, whether that would be with man or woman, or both. But as embarrassing and downright cringeworthy as it was to see those in the AAA space drop their trousers to their ankles and fall over on their faces, we’ve seen some unexpected positive efforts from them in 2014.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare had one of the franchise’s most deliberate marketing campaigns leading up to its release. Yes there were gun-triggered explosions, soldiers shouting in your face, and yet another trailer showing the collapse of the Golden Gate Bridge. However, there was also a very subtle casting that was tucked away in almost every piece of footage. Activision and Sledgehammer ensured that everything between launch and reveal trailers, to extended pre-release multiplayer gameplay videos, had black people and women present. It was a subliminal way to express their recognition that as a multi-million dollar franchise, it isn’t just white males that enjoy their games.

As the only video game recognized by GLAAD for having one of 2013’s most interesting LBGT characters, The Last of Us had already done right by diversity. However its only story DLC, Left Behind – which was released in March of last year – brought upon one of the most authentic adolescent romantic stories I had ever seen, so much so that creative director Neil Druckmann mentioned in a recent interview that it was brought to his attention how the game inspired a player to come out to her parents.

Other accomplishments in AAA representation from 2014 include the ability to mix either gender with any attire in Sunset Overdrive, Toadette’s damsel role reversal in Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, and the gay sex scene with Iron Bull in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Of course, the subject of representation in 2014 extended far beyond PR missteps and the further normalization of diversity in some of last year’s most popular games. It also took form of a movement. With ostensibly ethical intentions, the movement also gave birth to venomous forms of hate speech and harassment that, tried as they might, attempted to push back and silence the vocalization and materialization of progressive diversity. Fortunately however, much like what has been seen in some of today’s global conflicts, this resistance was instead faced with an overwhelming support from all corners of games culture, including press and indie developers alike, and even top tier industry-men like Blizzard’s president and co-founder Mike Morhaime.

2014 served up as a crucial point in both the debate and the best practices in representative diversification in video games. The discussion around ‘who is seen in our games’ and ‘who plays our games’ has reached critical mass where developers are beginning to not only learn how to respond to the diversity question, but they’re also formatting their unveilings so that the question doesn’t have to be asked in the first place. They say that the best position to be in when it comes to diversity is one where it doesn’t cause contention or generate discussion; it just simply exists because that’s how things are. So here’s to an optimistic 2015, where we can see a queer minority character lead, and not even bat an eye.

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