Representation matters. Seeing ourselves and others in media shapes our self perception and how we see the world at large.
This is becoming a widely accepted reality, yet attempts at improving representation often fall flat. In games especially, problems such as homogeneity, tokenism, and stereotyping make it difficult for players to find a variety of believable, meaningful characters that reflect themselves.
But the definition of what actually constitutes “good” representation can be nebulous. So I set out to question those to whom it matters, asking what they considered good representation to be and for examples that they personally considered positive depictions of marginalised people.
It is worth noting that one of the key messages from survey respondents was that representation is only effective in aggregate. We need a wider variety of people represented in games, of various genders, sexualities, races, ages, abilities, appearances, and more, and they need to be present often. Until this is achieved, other issues that were raised, such as stereotypes and tokenism, will be exacerbated, since any one character from a marginalised group cannot demonstrate the variety found within every one of these groups in reality.
The solution here is simple; create worlds with a wide spectrum of characters, ensuring intersections between marginalised identities. Inspiration for this is all around us–it’s how real life society is, after all. Yet games often present a far more monotonous image of the world, relegating diverse characters to minor roles, if they are present at all.
This can come in many forms. Damseling female characters so that they aren’t present for much of the game has a long history stretching back to the original Mario and The Legend of Zelda games and beyond; as does having female playable characters outnumbered by male ones, such as in Borderlands, Mario Party, and Left 4 Dead.
Last year, Dragon Age: Inquisition and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate were praised for including trans characters, but both Krem and Ned were given minor roles rather than being prominent companions.
Even games with good representation in some areas can stumble in others; for example Life is Strange features queer female characters front and centre, but has very little racial diversity. Life is Strange also falls into another commonly cited problem: a diverse cast must not be harmful to the groups that they are supposed to be representing. This means avoiding or subverting harmful stereotypes and tropes is key.
Moreover, this is especially important until a wide variety of representation becomes commonplace, because underrepresented people will seek out any characters that they can find, and this becomes troubling when, for example, the queer Max and Chloe are unable to have a happy ending, as happens to so many female couples in media.
Using representation in ways that is painful or damaging to those who see themselves in the character is obviously counter-productive.
Conversely, giving a wide array of characters their own arcs with both meaning to the plot and personal character growth can allow marginalised characters to become both relatable for the people they reflect and the wider audience. For example, Overwatch’s newest character, Sombra, is already a fan favourite due to the twin shorts that were released alongside her reveal; showing both her origin story and more recent adventures. Not to mention that the latter of the two, Infiltration, starred four women and one man of colour, with Sombra herself meaning a woman of colour was front and centre.
As well as the arcs, the characters themselves should, of course, be written well. Nuanced depictions that give them both flaws and strengths prevents them from being tokenistic.
It is also important that whilst their marginalised status should be clearly stated within the text (no more Dumbledores, please), it should not be their defining feature, but part of a wider overall identity. For example, whilst Dorian from Dragon Age: Inquisition has personal quests that hinge on his sexuality, he is also a major part of the main plot, as well as being an activist and scholar, giving him more depth.
All of this might seem tricky, and it’s easy for anyone to make mistakes, so the key is feedback! Speak to–or preferably employ–members of the groups that you want to represent and listen to what they have to say.
It’s easy to get lost when you’re down in the weeds of game development, or any kind of writing, and an outside voice can be extremely helpful. Moreover, input from marginalised groups is flat out necessary in creating well-realised, diverse representation; but with this input and a careful consideration of the issues above, the games industry can continue to improve its inclusion of diverse characters and players.