Entertainment industries have the demanding task of creating content that properly reflects the communities that consume it. Movements such as #OscarsSoWhite have spawned important conversations about diversity in film and television, and while there is a long way to go, audiences are seeing a greater variety of actors and stories on screen. The gaming industry, however, hasn’t seen as large a push for diversity and representation within videogames.
What differentiates the gaming industry from other entertainment industries is the audience itself: “gamers” are still viewed as predominantly straight white men. While at one point this generalization may have had some degree of accuracy—due in part to the industry itself largely focusing on that one demographic throughout its history—today’s gaming audience is continuously diversifying. Women make up close to half of the people who play games, and about 10% of gamers are within the LGBTQ+ community, according to last year’s Nielsen Games 360 Survey.
A major, growing rift within the community was exposed by GamerGate in 2014, which was a large contributor to a rise in alt-right ideas among gamers. Women in games, from developers to critics with progressive ideals, were subject to sustained harassment from misogynists, trolls and reactionaries who felt that women were altering the videogame industry in a way they disagreed with. This incident was a revealing look into the mindset of a community that feels entitled to the entire industry itself, and it exposed a rightward political shift within the community that was a direct retaliation to diversification. Pushback to progressive ideals have since continued within the community, and these incidents do not exist within a vacuum.
It has also been clear for years that developers and major companies within the industry haven’t properly recognized the change in their audiences, which can be attributed to the toxic behaviors that take place within the community. Besides online lobbies being notoriously hateful towards women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community, companies also face backlash from fans for the tiniest of in-game changes that symbolize progression.
Just a few weeks ago, following the Horizon Forbidden West gameplay reveal, many fans were upset that Aloy lacked “feminine features’’ and said that she should be “prettier.” Games that feature LGBTQ+ characters are also prone to receiving hate online. Reactions such as the pushback to Aloy’s appearance could make developers more reluctant to create diverse characters.
The industry is moving slowly, and it can feel as if these companies are cosigning the behavior of toxic and hateful audiences rather than uplifting the less often heard voices within their community. Despite a large part of the backlash being aimed towards LGBTQ+ characters, videogame franchises such as The Last of Us and Borderlands represent change. However not all characters have their sexuality revealed explicitly, and it is often hidden. This in part may be due to backlash, but for LGBTQ+ fans, it feels as if these characters’ identities are being purposefully hidden. One example can be found in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Players have a short quest where they are accompanied by a hunter. If they ask a correct series of questions, players discover that the character is gay. If they don’t ask the correct questions, it’s never revealed. LGBTQ+ characters, while often having their identity overshadowed, are also typically smaller characters within the story.
Diversity in-game is an extremely important aspect of creating representation within the community, but other aspects of development still lack variety as well. According to a 2018 survey published by the International Game Developers Association, 74% of workers in the industry identify as cis males, and 61% of them are white. This lack of diversity translates to the in-game content.
With the mainstream games industry lagging behind, smaller developers are working to represent minority communities. Itch.io currently has 488 indie games listed under the LGBTQIA tag and is featuring a Queer Games Bundle for Pride Month that features games, software and zines from over 190 queer artists. The larger industry should be looking to developers like this, not just for an example of how representation can work in games, but as talent who can help shape the blockbuster games of the future.
Representation means that those characters can not simply be token members of the game experience included for the sake of being diverse. Creating games that properly represent your audience means not only including characters that are diverse, but portraying them in an accurate and honest way that is conducted by a more diverse set of developers. Gamers want to be able to see parts of themselves as they play and deserve to have their lived experience represented in-game, and it’s in the industry’s best interests to provide that for them.
Katherine Long is an intern at Paste and a rising senior at American University. She loves hyperpop, roller skating and videogames and can finish a sudoku puzzle in 43 seconds.