Over the years, video games have been nearly everywhere, from post-apocalyptic worlds, to the deep depths of space. As an entertainment form they’ve covered a lot of ground, but when it comes to characters, apparently the role of the straight, white, male protagonist has become the norm.
In the media, there seems to always be an argument of overrepresented demographics versus those who are underrepresented or not represented correctly.
This is not just a problem in mainstream media, as the absence of diversity can be a problem with game developers as well.
In 2005, the International Game Developers Association’s Game Developer Demographics Report noted that out of the nearly 6,500 developers surveyed, the most overrepresented racial demographics were Caucasian and Asian. This number is a problem, as it demotes other groups to secondary characters, or nonexistent.
Video games’ status as an interactive medium gives it the capacity to tell a narrative to its audience that the player can become engrossed with for a much longer time than with television or movies.
Sadly, the type of narrative that is told through games end up with less variety when all the player sees are straight, white and male protagonists. It’s the same case if the games has one type of game play or one type of environment, it’s confining.
The lack of diversity is not just a moral argument, but a situation that could affect what kind of games are played in the future.
Developers have a hard time creating compelling, successful content, so adding the issue of whether a game is racially diverse enough is just one more thing to worry about.
Over the years, however, game developers have created a way to have players create the characters they want to see in their games.
The aspect of character customization has grown in popularity in modern games, as the feature allows for players to create their own main characters from scratch, choosing everything from gender, skin color, to voice type.
Though used in popular games such as the Mass Effect series as well as Saints Row, it’s just a first step towards offering different experiences.
A lack of racial diversity in game characters also limits the range of stories for the player by restricting the kinds of experiences protagonists of different backgrounds can bring to the table. It also tempts game writers to fall to easy stereotypes when creating characters, instead of fleshing out three-dimensional people.
For games without character customization, developers have tried the age-old approach of having an assembly of characters from a melting pot of background. Such as the Gears of War series, whose main four characters are from various racial backgrounds.
While the game tries to show a sense of unity between the characters, regardless of race, it still trips itself up by falling into stereotypical tight casting. Most notably this happens with Augustus “Cole Train” Cole the game’s token black protagonist.
In the game, Cole is an ex-athlete with a loud, arrogant personality and falls into the typical “coon” stereotype that comedians such as Eddie Murphy and Tracy Morgan have made so famous over the years.
Though the argument can be made that all of Gear’s characters are so cartoonishly exaggerated that if they were real people they physically wouldn’t be able to put their arms to their side due to the mass of their muscles, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t break the mold when it came to characterization.
While not as much of a hot-button issue as sex or violence, racial controversy is not something that is completely ignored in the game industry.
During the early days of its release, Resident Evil 5 was under heavy scrutiny for its apparently racist themes. The game, which takes place in Africa, stared Caucasian character Chris Redfield as he fought off waves of Africans.
Though earlier iterations of the game had explained that the zombie-virus had originated in Africa, game trailers showcasing a white man shooting hordes of black men in African tribes rose more than a few eyebrows.
Even his partner Sheva Alomar, a woman whose background is never fully explained, appears to be a woman of mixed race. Her “tragic mulatto” stereotype was also canned, and her skin appeared to be lightens on various game art related products
Though images can be perceived differently, there are few choice scenes in the game that shows the racial-tense undertones. Scenes like shady black men kicking what that appears to be a body in sack, gives the implication that these people were “bad” even before they were zombies.
Even small parts like seeing a horde of zombie black men dragging a white woman into their hut gives off an implication of the threat of black men to white women.
Interestingly enough, the game’s developer, Capcom, is from Japan meaning these issues are not just Western issues, but span globally.
Nevertheless while racially diverse characters are underrepresented, there are other types of characters are basically nonexistent. When it comes to LGBT characters in video games, it’s very difficult come up with main characters who are openly gay, and not playing a stereotype.
Even in modern games, male gay characters are still portrayed as a sissy character with effeminate mannerisms, dress, and speech. Though fighting games have several gay characters, and several secondary characters are supposedly gay, they usually fall into obvious molds.
Once again, it’s the Role-playing games that are at the forefront of integrating sexuality into games. Games like the Fable series, Skyrim and BioWare’s various titles have allowed characters to participate in same-sex relationships and have positive gay characters.
However, not every type of game is a Role-playing game that allows for players to customize their characters’ race, sexuality or even gender. Many games still have iconic main characters who flagship their series.
Now that doesn’t mean that Mario should be changed from a white man to a black man, but that developers shouldn’t be afraid to dip their toe into exploring the lives of different kinds of people.
Games are meant to be fun and inviting, so why not widen the scope and make them fun and inviting for everyone?