When researching for this article about what makes “good” representation in games, I asked survey respondents for characters that they considered positive examples of such video game representation. Unsurprisingly, the response was enthusiastic and varied, with over 400 total characters mentioned. Nonetheless, some trends raised further issues with the overall state of representation in games and the ways that fans respond began to show.
[This article contains spoilers for Life is Strange and The Walking Dead: Season One]
Firstly, popularly cited characters often had more than one marginalised identity, such as the gay man of colour Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition or the queer women Max and Chloe from Life is Strange. This is notable because it demonstrates again how intersectionality is key to creating believable and relatable characters, and for allowing characters’ identities to be realistically nuanced and varied.
However, some kinds of representation were conspicuously absent from the commendations, such as disabled characters and non-binary characters. This is not particularly surprising, due to their sparseness in games in general, but nonetheless disappointing as it means that large groups of people are essentially being left out entirely. Additionally, there were far more men of colour than women of colour listed (despite there being more women mentioned overall), demonstrating one of the ways in which the aforementioned intersectionality is not nearly universal enough.
Moreover, those characters who were popular as good representation can nonetheless demonstrate some issues with the current state of marginalised characters in games. Many had various iterations where some depictions were better than others, particularly those from long running series such as Zelda or Princess Peach.
These women might be able to hold their own in Smash Bros., but are often (though not always) damsels in the key games featuring them.
Unfortunately, these sorts of undermining stereotypes continue to be found in more modern IPs. For example, Max and Chloe’s story ends with Max having to choose between Chloe’s life and the lives of everyone else in her town. The former clearly falls into the ‘bury your gays’ trope, whose widespread application harmfully suggests that female couples rarely get happy endings.
The existence of the dual endings means the player can choose to avoid this fate for the women but nonetheless receives a tragedy via the town’s destruction, and moreover receives no closure about Max and Chloe’s relationship–the two only kiss in the ending where Chloe dies and if she lives there is a much shorter epilogue that simply shows the two driving away with no indication as to what happens to them later.
A fatal end also befalls Lee in The Walking Dead: Season One regardless of player choices, yet he was the most popular character as an example of good representation for men. And with good reason–whilst some seemed confused by the idea of representation for men, pointing out (correctly) that the majority of games feature male protagonists, others struggled to find positive examples among an overabundance of samey, hypermasculine white leads.
Lee stands out due to his caring and cooperative nature, as do other popular male choices such as Lúcio from Overwatch and Preston Garvey from Fallout 4.
In other words, whilst representation of marginalised people is vital to counteracting invisibility and oppression, even those who aren’t marginalised are flattened by the trends of games characterisation that present a one dimensional view of who can be a protagonist.
And these two issues can work in tandem; the examples given above–Lee, Lúcio, and Preston–are especially important because they subvert ideas of traditional masculinity and extremely negative associations between blackness and aggression. Yet they too come with flaws–Preston in particular is not exactly universally liked thanks to his unfortunate use as a mechanical quest giver rather than fully realised character.
Men too deserve better; to be able to know that a hero does not look or act a certain way, particularly when the common stereotypes for male game protagonists are so rooted in damaging patriarchal ideals such as pure physical strength and suppression of emotion.
Moreover, a variety of men is vitally necessary: men of colour, queer men, trans men, disabled men, mentally ill men, and more (and combinations of these) ought to be able to see themselves as heroes who are just as respected and strong–in a variety of senses of the word–as the muscled, gruff white men we see so often.
The narrow spectrum of who gets to be a video game hero does, then, have a good number of exceptions, but these are often marred by complications and they continue to leave out many. Moreover, their very existence as exceptions rather than the norm continues to exclude a great number of players of all kinds from feeling fully involved and welcome in a medium where the potential for self expression, storytelling, and representation is limitless, if we only choose to use it.