Representation in Video Games: Does it really matter?

Representation in Video Games: Does it really matter?


In recent months, the representation of minority groups in video games has been a HOT topic across social media – and for good reason. There have been huge swathes of both support and criticism for games such as Overwatch, Battlefield V, and even a game that many would never expect to be caught in the crossfire; The Sims 4.

I am going to break this down into 3 key areas – LGBT+ representation, Ethnic representation, and Female representation in games. You may think that this is going to be a huge rant about how studios need to please everyone; it isn’t. So try and leave your pre-conceptions about gaming to the side for a moment, and let’s head into the rabbit hole together.

LGBT+ Representation

Overwatch is going to feature in this article a lot, for both good and bad reasons, so be prepared for that! But with LGBT+ representation, Blizzard’s upgraded and updated TF2 style title has introduced us to 2 (confirmed) LGBT+ heroes, Tracer and Soldier76, via their back stories and ‘lore’. It came under heavy criticism when Soldier76 was revealed to be Gay in January 2019, with many players claiming that Blizzard were “pandering” to the LGBT+ community and that it didn’t make sense for Soldier76 (aka Jack Morrison) to be Gay due to his overly macho appearance and voice lines. Tracer’s lore reveal met with significantly less confusion and criticism, but none the less it was claimed at the time that Blizzard did not need to confirm characters’ sexual orientations in a game that is, ultimately, a shooter game.

Overwatch Soldier 76 Confirmed as Gay

There are, of course, LGBT+ characters in many other games; Life is Strange, The Last of Us, Mass Effect 2, and more. There are also many games where gender and/or sexual orientation are treated respectfully but with diversity in mind; The Sims 4 is a perfect example of this. You can create transgender Sims, and without player input Sims are essentially Pansexual.

Ethnic Representation

I am going to start this with a question; How many lead characters can you name that are Powerful, non-White, and non-Asian? How many of those characters are from non-Sports titles? If you still have any characters left, how many are stereotypes of their ethnicity, and how many are considered bland/boring? I am willing to bet that you have few characters left.

For it’s part, Overwatch (I said it would be on the list again) has characters that are diverse in both Ethnicity and Race (and yes, they are different) such as Sombra, Ana, Mei, and Doomfist. There has been some criticism of Blizzard on this issue, which may surprise some of you, following their introduction of a playable white character (Ashe) into the game after showing her with a much deeper skin colour in mock-up sketches. What’s the issue with that? I hear you asking. There are no playable, Black female characters in the game.

Mass Effect 2 Jacob Taylor

Let’s look at some of incredible Black characters. Jacob Taylor from Mass Effect 2. Some may call him a support character, but I’m going to call him a lead as he has an incredibly in-depth storyline. Unfortunately, Jacob is not a playable character – which, is part of the problem. Sam & Henry from The Last of Us, are another NPC example of great characters that are simply left as a ‘nice touch’ rather than making a larger impact on players. Lee Everett from The Walking Dead is possibly the best lead character that I can think of that is both well written, playable, and given a personality and story line that is not a stereotype of his race or ethnicity.

Female Representation

We are all aware of the stereotype of women in video games, and I think we can all agree that it is starting to get old. There are some characters that are overly sexualised, scantily dressed without any real reason, and even some that are just outright ridiculous. I’m talking about games like ‘Dead or Alive’, where women are dressed in bikinis and lingerie whilst battering each other to death, or Ivy from ‘Soul Calibre’ who’s outfits and physique defy the laws of gravity and sensibility.

There are women in games that are less stereotypical, for example Mei from ‘Overwatch’, Aveline from ‘Assasins Creed 3’, Shepherd from ‘Mass Effect’, and Ellie from ‘The Last of Us’. These women, or girls in Ellie’s case, are usually what most would consider to be strong, well rounded female characters with good back stories and fleshed-out personalities. They also go against the typical ‘Damsel in Distress’ trope that a lot of female characters over the years have been resigned to (Princess Peach anyone?).

The Last of Us Ellie

But let’s not forget that when EA released game art and trailers for Battlefield V in 2018, there was some serious push back from long-term fans of the franchise about the inclusion of many playable female characters in a WW2 shooter, even leading to Oskar Gabrielson of EA DICE to tweet that the female characters would be staying in the game to celebrate the diversity of not only the people who fought during WW2, but the diversity of players of the game.

Why does it matter?

So, now we’ve explored each issue separately, let’s bring it all together. Why does it matter? Who does it really benefit? Who cares? Well, we all should in reality.

I could shout about the fact that the gaming industry rakes in an astonishing $140 Billion year, and that the money that Developers and Studios make on their games is often recycled into more projects, or into updates and expansions of existing games. Obviously, this would mean that your favourite game could get a sequel, or funding for more development. Who doesn’t love that idea?
But, in reality, the reason that we should care is because the industry is limiting itself. Whether it’s limiting itself financially from not offering all players a character that they can enjoy playing more, or limiting itself from pockets of the market with lazy designs based on a decades old stereotype of what a gamer is, or even limiting itself by not giving playable characters richer and more inclusive back stories, it is not doing itself any favours.

Nobody wants token characters, so we can all agree that placing a jarring, poorly created LGBT+ or Black or Female character into a game just for the sake of it, or to pander to a minority, is not good for anybody. But, with the world being as diverse as it is, why wouldn’t games follow suit? If you have never felt under-represented in a video game, ask yourself; would it really make a difference to me if the character I was playing was Black? Or Gay? Or a Transgender person? Or a woman?

On a wider look at the industry as a whole, including creators and streamers into the mix, there is a huge range of diversity that is not limited to what is considered the bulk of a game’s audience (White, Straight Male aged 18-24) with some of the biggest influences in the gaming industry being Black, Asian, Female, LGBT+ and Disabled. There is no getting away from the fact that the audience of video games has changed drastically since the 1970s, so isn’t it time that the games we play reflect this?

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