I would like to talk this week less about games themselves and more about a worrying sentiment that I see crop up constantly in the online gaming community. Mainly, this:
“Men are still the biggest majority in gaming. They are mostly the ones who make and play games. So it makes sense that most game characters are men, because it’s easier for them to relate.”
I want to make it very, very clear that this common sentiment is no way applies only to women. It’s an idea that rears its head in every conversation about diversity in games that I’ve participated in, but I do think it’s an especially prevalent and easy argument to make when discussing the lack of women’s representation in games. Usually, if the argument revolves around race (or, when it happens rarely, sexual orientation), the language is a little more couched — I think because people realize that thinking this way is a little racist.
But even though I think the statement itself comes up most when discussing sexism in games, I’m going to treat it as a broader concept and discuss discrimination and minority populations in general rather than sexism and women specifically.
So often, these words are used as a way to explain why a lack of representation is no discrimination at all. Or, even, why discrimination doesn’t matter. Ironically enough, the rebuttal to that lies actually within the very logic of the statement itself. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty.
I think the blatant hypocrisy of this sentiment is what gets under my skin the most. Most often, I see this idea espoused by the very white straight men that make up the majority of gamers, and the idea can so often be boiled down to: “I can’t relate to female characters as well as male characters, so I don’t necessarily want more female characters in games.”
Have those who say things like this ever taken their own ideas to their logical conclusions? If they like to play as a character that is similar to them, then wouldn’t others like that as well?
I really could have labeled this section “Hypocrisy and Selfishness,” because that’s what this attitude is. Rather than take that one extra step to empathize with another gamer that wants to play as a character that looks like them, they claim all games as their own. “I am the majority, and so everyone must cater to what I want.”
The desire to relate to a character that is like you is absolutely understandable. This is a common immersive tool in games, because it’s affective. One of the most basic reasons that I want more diversity in games is that I have a personal interest in being able to relate more closely to characters. This isn’t wrong, and I don’t condemn the impulse.
What I do condemn is the myopia that prevents people from looking past their own noses long enough to recognize the same desire in other gamers. Everyone wants the chance to recognize themselves in a favorite video game protagonist.
And if you can’t relate at all to characters that don’t look like you, that’s a real problem. I’m perfectly capable of playing as a male main character — I do it all the time — without feeling as if I can’t understand or empathize or seek wish-fulfillment from that game. I would guess that the “majority” would also say that they can do the same thing.
I often see the same people who bring up the male majority argument say things like, “Women will still play games if they are gamers and enjoy games. A lack of female characters won’t deter them.”
But, apparently, men won’t buy a game without a male main character, because they can’t relate (or relate as well)? So which is it? Can people rise above their own identity and enjoy a game with a dissimilar protagonist or will they only buy games with characters that resemble them? Is it really so far-fetched to believe that members of a minority population may look at certain games, come to the conclusion that those games weren’t made for them, and be turned off? (Lack of representation is compounded by how minority populations are depicted in games in general, but that’s another topic for another day.)
I’d ask anyone who is on the fence on this issue or who hasn’t really thought it through before to sit with these questions for a while. Try to put yourself in the place of someone who feels underrepresented in games, and try to imagine how that person might feel.
“We need more female developers.”
Yes, we do. We need a more diverse set of developers in general. You’ll never see me argue the opposite.
HOWEVER. I see people bring this up so often as a way to brush aside the current lack of representation of minorities in video games themselves. In discussions that are about games and not about the industry, I get incredibly frustrated by this argument.
Men can write good female characters. White people can write characters of other races. Same with straight people, cis people, etc.
This idea that we have to wait for a certain large enough percentage of any minority population to enter the industry before we have well-written games is absurd. I’d even say that it’s somewhat offensive to claim that current and aspiring developers that are white, male, straight, etc. are incapable of good writing.
Not only is that a disparagement of the effort, work, and talent that goes into the creation of games, but it’s a claim that we are all incapable of looking outside of our own experiences. Any semi-competent writer can write a character that is unlike themselves. Is anyone going to try to tell me that most game writers have ever been mages or aliens or a plumber who teleports through pipes and regularly battles a big, talking dinosaur? Do these writers all know what it’s like to battle a thousand foot tall monster or even driven a race car or fought in a war?
Writing in games may not be universally good (it’s not), but there have been some wonderfully evocative stories told in the history of the medium. And many of those have very little bearing on reality at all. And yet, somehow, those developers were able to tap into something human enough to captivate their audience.
I’m sure they can handle writing a woman or a gay character.
Not to mention the fact that an influx of minority game developers wouldn’t necessarily change anything. Even putting aside obstacles to getting into the industry in the first place, executives and publishers have enormous influence over what games are made and released. I’ve posted this article about Remember Me before, but it’s relevant here as well. The developers had to fight to have a female main character at all. Aspects of the industry are resistant to the inclusion of minority characters for other reasons than a lack of minority population game devs.
“Video games are a business, and having male characters is more profitable.”
Here’s another article I’ve linked before from Penny Arcade about the possible reasons this is true. Mainly — although there isn’t much data available — that there seems to be less of a marketing push for female-centric games from publishers. And marketing dollars often translate directly into sales.
But even putting that aside — what about all of the games that do do well with a diverse cast or a minority main character? Look at Portal or the Metroid series or even The Walking Dead. These games didn’t achieve “despite” having casts of minority characters (and I doubt anyone would make that claim). Instead, they’re good games. They’re fun, they’re engaging, and their characters have become video game icons. (Maybe not The Walking Dead so much — but maybe one day!)
Good games will sell, and I believe gamers will play a game with a unique, exciting character no matter what that character looks like. But who knows — I could be wrong. If you don’t feel that way, feel free to let me know.
I also find this claim somewhat amusing, in a depressing way. Since when have gamers ever sided with what’s most profitable for publishers and developers for the sake of… well, profits. I constantly see gamers clamoring for new and expensive innovations in games. But diversity is one step too far?
Most of us are not part of the business side of the industry, and we don’t have to justify business decisions. Especially if, like me, you feel that some of those decisions are poor. The next time I see the same people who make this argument rail against DLC or DRM policies that they dislike, I’ll be sure to remind them that both are more profitable for game companies.
We are the consumers, and we are allowed to want different things from our entertainment. Gamers clamor for Half Life 3, but we can’t ask for more black protagonists?
We’re all gamers.
Minority populations play games too.
I’m not going to trot out that study that says women play 47% of games, since that’s constantly manipulated to make it seem as if women only play social games on their smart phones.
(Which, by the way, is obnoxious. It’s snobbery, through and through. A lot of people’s bitter, elitist streak comes out in these debates, and it’s often centered around who is “really” a gamer. Apparently, women who play The Sims or a little too much Harvest Moon might as well be playing Tic-Tac-Toe on their phone. I’ve seen it extend to other genres as well. I’ve personally been told that I’m not a hardcore enough gamer — which is code for “I don’t have to listen to your opinions” — because I enjoy JRPGs. Occasionally, I’ve wondered whether genres that become dominated by women — which is code for “I notice women play these games” — lose their status among the “hardcore” crowd. But I’m really getting off onto a tangent here. This is really a topic that deserves more attention.)
But women do play games. There’s no question about that. And what about your fellow gamers who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t cis, who aren’t a million other things?
Because we are your fellow gamers. We read the same news you do. We hang out in the same forums. We play the same games. We’re not some encroaching force trying to steal your games away. We can’t steal them — they’re already our games too.
And what many of your fellow gamers are trying to say is, “Please. Listen to me. The way many games portray people who look like me, who grew up like me, is hurtful to me. I want to be able to fully immerse myself in a game in the way that you already can. And all I’m asking is that you be supportive of that. At the very least, don’t stand in the way and shout at me like I’m an outsider.”
At least, that’s what I would like to say. I can understand how the argument and appeal to the idea of the “male majority” can make sense when you first think about it. But I ask you to please look past that and try to understand what the people you disagree with really want. Don’t ask your fellow gamer to do something that you aren’t willing to do. If you aren’t inclined to play a game with a female lead, why should a woman want to play a game with a male lead? And if you don’t think this way, then why do you think so many other gamers do?
I think we all have a common goal: we want games that are more exciting, interesting, unique. What better way than to break out from the current clichés of the medium and to have characters of all different backgrounds and types? We have a huge range of stories available to us, but we’ve only skimmed the surface so far. Personally, I have faith that we’ll eventually reach a time when games are more inclusive, and I’m excited for the possibilities that I don’t think we can imagine yet.