Una Conexión Hispana, Part 4: Fandom, Media Criticism, and a Better Future

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Una Conexión Hispana, Part 4: Fandom, Media Criticism, and a Better Future

This is part four of Una Conexión Hispana, or A Spanish Connection, a letter series we’re running this year in celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month for Paste Games. The goal is to accomplish a rare feat in games: have two Hispanic writers in conversation about the state of their representation in the industry and their hopes for the future. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.

Hey there again Moises,

So, you last asked me if I think this space, videogame journalism and the industry more broadly, feels welcoming to Hispanic folks. In general, I think many people are doing great work right now critiquing games on their representation of marginalized identities. Quite a few sites seem willing to greenlight pieces diving into portrayals of social identity. While this cultural/critical work generally remains in a separate bubble from things like reviews, it feels much easier to find articles like this than when I first got into reading and writing games criticism.

Still, despite this, I don’t see nearly as many bylines of Hispanic folks as I would like, and there must be some causes for that. It feels to me that many of the freelance-oriented outlets are friendly to those of all backgrounds, but I don’t have enough personal experience to say if this is true or not for all of the larger sites. Another problem is that depictions of Hispanic folks in games can be so rare that it’s hard even to find content to critique (although it’s certainly possible to admonish this absence).

However, another problem is that even if more people were writing about Hispanic and Latine representation, we exist in a media climate where criticism of beloved properties is met with increasingly militant backlash. The rise of fandom, and with it the conflation of self-worth and media franchises, means many don’t respond well to having the stuff they enjoy analyzed. I think it’s important to understand that it is possible to both love something and pick apart its shortcomings or issues, whether they be technical flaws or thematic ones.

Hell, I’m a Star Wars fan, which means constantly enduring terrible output (Episode IX is a trainwreck), reckoning with the series’ weird chosen one bloodline stuff, and trying not to lose my mind over the endless misogyny and racism exhibited by some corners of the fandom (or from the work itself). Being critical of something doesn’t mean you’re not still a fan, and I believe many would realize it’s cathartic to accept that the things we love aren’t perfect. Discussing these elements can be rewarding as long as we don’t take it as a personal affront.

I bring all of this up to say that while I think there is a lot of excellent critique happening right now, which allows us to have conversations about topics like the state of Hispanic representation in games, and there is an audience for this kind of writing, a significant percentage of people seem increasingly inoculated against having these kinds of conversations because they don’t want the things they like portrayed in a negative light. While the status of media consumption is only one small part of an environment that continues to ignore and misrepresent Hispanic people in games and elsewhere, I do think this unwillingness to have these kinds of conversations makes it difficult for these works to improve. Having healthier relationships with the properties we indulge in would make it much easier for creators to respond to and potentially internalize some of these considerations.

However, to avoid being overly navel gaze-y about media criticism, I also want to talk about the concrete ways the game industry needs to change so it can better represent many identities, including Hispanic characters. While I talked about this a little last time, I’d like to end our letter series by expanding on this more because although I think critiques can help influence and shape the stories being told, at the end of the day, it will take people working in the industry to actually enact change.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers, as there are many reasons why Hispanic characters and other groups remain symbolically annihilated or poorly represented. But to name a few, these problems can be caused by writers non-critically regurgitating stereotypes, a lack of interest or awareness in representing certain identities, an absence of creators who feel qualified to tackle these topics, higher-ups that deny representation out of the misguided belief it will make the game less profitable, and labor issues and imbalances of power that leave creative decisions up to a select few higher-ups who are primarily white men.

Each of these has additional layers to unpack, but the simplest solution is to hire more diverse faces who could hopefully leverage their experiences in the games they make. In particular, if this were to happen more at smaller studios, these developers wouldn’t have to fight as many layers of management or backward shareholders, making it more likely for them to have enough creative control to write characters that come across as genuine.

At the bigger places, though, and even many of the small ones, there also needs to be structural changes. Big-budget games are only getting more expensive, leading publishers to make increasingly risk-averse decisions, such as attempting to cater to certain demographics by featuring only white protagonists. However, if workers had more leverage, such as through unionization, they would potentially have more freedom over creative decisions, which could lead to more representation. And on top of this, it’s possible unions could address abusive work conditions, which often disproportionally affect those of marginalized groups and are likely driving away many prospective developers.

I can speak to some of this from personal experience. Going into my freshman year of college, I was a game development major. While I kept game dev as my minor, I eventually switched to focusing on computer programming, partly because I was discouraged by the videogame industry’s constant scandals and poor working conditions. As corroborated by some of the news stories at the time, I remember thinking these issues would be even more keenly felt as a minority. Both of the previously mentioned tasks, getting more diverse folks in at studios and challenging existing power structures, are herculean endeavors. But I believe substantial changes are necessary if we want to see more types of representation and a better game industry.

In your last letter, you asked, “is this somewhere worth belonging to?” Representation in media isn’t anything close to the end-all-be-all of social justice. It is only one tiny facet in a far more extensive set of complex issues. Kurt Vonnegut had an acerbic quote about this which underlines that consuming media is not activism, and representation shouldn’t be viewed as a replacement for protest or other forms of direct action.

But at the same time, I think back to growing up isolated from my culture, desperately hoping to see myself reflected in the digital worlds that kept me company. Stories can deepen or even challenge our beliefs, help us see things from different points of view, and affect our relationships with identity. Of my many hopes for the future of videogames, one of my greatest is that the medium will eventually tap into the diversity of experiences found in the real world. Maybe then Hispanic folks, and those of many other identities, will finally see themselves when they pick up a controller.

Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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