Pixels That Matter: Representing Marginalized Groups in Video Games
Diversity & Inclusion in gaming have been a hot topic for the last few years. Diversifying the production teams as well as tackling toxicity issues in gaming communities have increasingly become pressing concerns in the industry. Games themselves are also scrutinized, from the political messages they convey to the representations they depict. Following numerous conversations about female representation, video game companies started to expand their reflection to other groups of marginalized people (BIPOC, LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities…). In this article, I will give an overview of the reasons why we should include more diversified representations in our games, and provide some insights on how could we do it.
WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT?
“Diversity”, “inclusion”, “representation”… Do these words have the same meaning? What does each of them imply in the context of gaming?
Diversity is the variety of profiles within a group in terms of geographical origin, social category, religion, culture, physical condition, age, gender, education, sexuality, physical appearance, neurological condition…. It is about quantity.
Applied to game content, inclusion refers to the plurality of characters, gameplays and stories prone to appeal to wider and/or different audiences (i.e. players who are not the “usual suspects”). Building an inclusive game also consists in offering different ways to participate, according to the playstyle, motivations, skills and abilities of the player. Contrary to diversity, which describes a situation, inclusion implies an intention.
What about representation? I really like this quote from the actor Riz Ahmed that I found enlightening:
“[Diversity] sounds like the fries, not the burger. You know? It sounds like something on the side — you got your main thing going on — and yeah let’s sprinkle a little bit of diversity on top of that.
That’s not what it’s about for me. It’s about representation. […]
We all want to feel seen and heard and valued so I prefer to talk about representation.”
Whereas diversity is a question of quantity (“how many different types of people are in a given group?”), representation is about quality (“are these people depicted in a way that makes them feel valued?”). Inclusion refers to the overall approach/mindset (“how do we make these people feel valued?”). In that sense, designing an inclusive game goes far beyond representation issues. To be inclusive, you also have to deal with accessibility, toxicity… I have planned to write another article on this subject, so stay tuned ;)
People like to see themselves in the cultural products they consume: books, movies, TV shows… and video games. With this in mind, let’s focus on the player’s expectations about representation in games.
WHAT DO PLAYERS WANT?
In a survey released by EA in 2018, 56% of the participants (in a sample of 2252 interviewees) declared that gaming companies being more inclusive towards diverse audiences was important to them. It is particularly true for the youngest generations: in the study called “SuperPowering girls”, among the 2431 respondents, 85% of female participants aged 10–19 and 69% of males from the same age group stated that they wanted to see more female heroes in media.
People from marginalized groups express even further the need to be represented. In the same poll, 65% of girls aged 10–19 declared thinking that there are not enough relatable characters of their gender, versus 40% of boys. Interestingly, boys care less about playing as a male character as they age, whereas girls care more about playing as a female character as they age. Girls might become aware of the lack of female representations as they get older and might seek out relatable characters in response.
People don’t crave for more representation in entertainment only. The same is true for social media: people of color tend to use more “racemojis” than white people to refer to themselves.
“It’s not surprising to me that people are not opting to go lighter, even if that’s closer to what their skin tone is, because they’re kind of represented by the default anyway”, said Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguistics doctorate.
The yellow-skinned emoji is the default invested by white users in their virtual conversations. In gaming, the “default” character is the famous Brown-Haired White Guy. A certain representation is not problematic in itself. It is its repetition. Repetition becomes homogeneity, and homogeneity ends up acting as a norm. Thus, other types of representations become deviations from the norm. This is why people from dominant groups express less the need to be represented: they are already everywhere, considering that the default options represent them. It also explains why diverse representations provoke strong reactions in marginalized groups: they crystallize the expectations of an entire social group, which is necessarily heterogeneous. It is very well analyzed in this article by Riley MacLeod about Lev, the trans character portrayed in The Last of Us 2:
“The fact that there are so few transmasculine characters in games means Lev carries an immense weight, which extends to all the people who created him and to those of us trying to write about him. His characterization and portrayal take on an outsized importance because of their rarity.”
Marginalized players want to be represented in order to feel welcome in a medium that has forgotten to include them for decades. The issues related to representation are not limited to the screen: pixels have an impact on our flesh-and-blood lives.
FROM PIXELS TO REAL LIFE
Symbolic representations of the world are learned through exposure to models, either real or fictional. People rely on such acquired knowledge structures to perceive others and interact with them. Consequently, repeated exposure to stereotypical images triggers access to thoughts, preferences, and evaluations, ultimately predicting discriminatory behavior.
Research found out that exposure to video game’s images displaying sexualized women increased the participants’ tolerance to sexual harassment. In another study, women who were assigned highly sexualized avatars internalized the sexualized aspects of their avatar’s appearance, which led to greater self-objectification.
These findings about the influence of fictional images on sexism are also true for racist stereotypes. A study showed that playing a violent video game as a Black avatar increased White participants’ implicit attitudes that Black people are violent. In another analysis, college students were faster to identify weapons after watching a video game with Black protagonists than after watching a sequence portraying White characters.
The conclusions of these academic papers may not be very reassuring, but they still demonstrate that the images we are exposed to influence the way we think and behave.
Yet, exposure to stereotyped images seems to affect short-term attitudes only. A study followed teenage gamers for 3 years and concluded that their attitude about sexism remained stable throughout the years.
Several possible hypotheses can explain the results:
• Factors like personal experience, education, family and peer influences affect the development of discriminatory attitudes more strongly than any fictional media content
• Stereotyped media images may not generate sexism or racism, but repeated exposure fuels and reinforces negative attitudes
• Exposure to in-game stereotyped images could have a direct effect on player behavior in social interactions. For example, it could foster and increase toxicity
Even if stereotyped images in video games only affect short-term attitudes, it does not mean that they are innocuous, especially in a society where images are omnipresent. The duration of the exposure’s influence does not matter, since repetition turns it into a long-term influence anyway.
On a more positive note, fictional images also provide role models, especially for younger audiences. Role models have the power to help legitimate possible realities. A survey revealed that girls’ participation in archery doubled in 2012 after the release of Hunger Games and Brave, two movies featuring a female archer protagonist. Among the fictional archers that influenced most the participants, Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games), Princess Merida (Brave) and Susan Pevensie (Narnia) were cited.
More recently, I read this testimony reported by Neil Druckmann, the director of The Last of Us:
“Ashley [Johnson] shared a story with me where someone came up to her and told her that The Last Of Us gave her the courage to come out to her family.
It’s amazing that a story was able to do that. Those stories are inspiring to say, ‘Look, when we tell varied stories, they can have a real impact and effect on people.’”
What an inspiring story! It demonstrates the incredible strength of video games. Their potential to empower people, to make them believe in themselves, and at the end of the day, to help them lead more fulfilling lives. Speaking of LGBTQ+ people, games are actually an amazing tool of expression and a testing ground for identity. A significant part of transgender and queer players consider avatar creation systems as a means of self-discovery and self-expression. Gaming is indeed a useful way to express one’s experienced gender identity in a safe, non-threatening, non-alienating, non-stigmatizing and non-critical environment.
For instance, some people can use gaming to “come out” to other people, by initially coming out in the online community, which is perceived as a safe environment, and then gradually come out in real life. The article written by Isabelle Davis, that tells the story of a Stardew Valley’s player, illustrates this point.
After dwelling on why representing marginalized is important, let’s have a look at some levers developers can use to make their games more inclusive.
AVATARS VS CHARACTERS
For the sake of the demonstration, I will make an (arbitrary) distinction between “Avatars” and “Characters”.
On the one hand, you have avatars. Avatars are empty shells that allow players to:
• Fit a desired role within the game (ex: being able to heal other players)
• Fit the game’s fantasy, tone or context (ex: avatars in dating simulators are usually made more attractive than in other types of games)
• Form social relationships in games
• Project their identity into a virtual environment
• Explore their own identity
• Play with different forms of identity (ex: gender swapping to hide one’s actual gender)
Avatar creation and customization foster player expression. Avatars are often found in RPG games (ex: Fallout 4) and MMOs (ex: WOW). In multiplayer games, they enable players to stand out from the crowd and to differentiate themselves from one another.
Then, you have pre-defined characters, that can be unique (ex: Horizon Zero Dawn) or plural (ex: Overwatch). A pre-defined character has its own name, identity, personality and (back)story.
In context of the representation of marginalized groups, it appears that either choice does not have the same implications.
As Adrienne Shaw wrote in the essay Gaming at the Edge:
“Pluralism gives players the option of seeing marginalized groups represented only if a player so chooses, and therefore, it cannot fulfill the socially progressive goals of media representation. Diversity in video games necessitates that all audiences are confronted with different types of characters”
Pluralism is the choice given to the player to embody characters from marginalized groups (in terms of gender, sexuality, ethnicity…). Diversity promotes difference by normalizing it.
Pluralism acts like filter bubbles on social media; it encloses players in their worldviews at the expense of alternatives, whereas diversity enables them to experience alterity. Some players had strong negative reactions when they experienced random avatar allocation in Rust. You could be a white dude and be “forced” to embody a woman or a Black avatar. Experiencing alterity is far from being obvious for some categories of players, especially for those who belong to dominant groups. They are used to be represented. It leads some of them to feel uncomfortable when they have to embody a character that does not resemble them.
On the one hand, avatar creation & customization foster pluralism by offering players from marginalized groups the opportunity to express & represent themselves. It’s like giving them a mirror so they can see their own reflection. They can identify as their avatars. This is what I call “Player Expression”.
On the other hand, pre-made characters promote diversity by confronting the entire audience with underrepresented types of characters. You give all the players a magnifying glass that shows them individuals (with a unique identity, story…) that they didn’t choose. Players can identify with their characters. It is the concept of “Meaningful Representations”.
In one case, developers leave representation to the players’ responsibility. In the other case, they undertake it themselves.
HOW TO BE MORE INCLUSIVE
According to several studies on avatar creation, a match in gender and ethnicity influences identification. Since they are key components of an individual’s identity, they are the most important features to include in a customization tool (which does not mean that you don’t need to represent disability, age or physical features like scars, vitiligo…).
Here are the features that appear to be very important for players:
• Skin tone ranges
• Variety of body types
• Non-restrictive options
Hair style and color are the most important features for players. Why does hair matter?
First, hair is a form of expression: it is a malleable part of the body, used in real life to control and build one’s appearance. Hairstyles like dreadlocks can be used as identity markers and express belonging to a social group:
As Jeffrey Rousseau analyzed in his article:
“Hair is a major form of expression, for everyone not just people of color. As a Black person, I would argue that it’s more important to people of color. Its art, generations of culture, and visual cue-yes I’m here- all in one. So, in the terms of games yes hair is a big deal.”
Hair is also the most visible feature in games. It allows the character to stand out when its body is covered with equipment (that looks identical on everybody), and because other face features can be hard to distinguish.
The beauty industry is a great source of inspiration to improve avatar creation and customization in video games. For example, developers can tap into the different hair types classified by Andre Walker to design hairstyles. A very frequent issue is the representation of black hairstyles. Aside from the lack of choices in customization tools, some black hairstyles are depicted like a solid, uniform (and unrealistic) mass. The Monster Hunter World’s customization tool is often cited as one of the best for rendering of black hair styles and texture.
Cosmetics are also valuable to grasp the variety of the skin tone ranges (see Rihanna’s Fenty line). Providing more skin tone ranges is key to enable players to express themselves authentically, without making compromises.
Quantity is not sufficient. Quality matters too. Many articles pointed out that games regularly fail to light dark skin properly. In Skyrim, the black characters’ skins have the same hue no matter the environment. How shadows play over skin and clothing does not vary alongside changes in location. In Black Desert, you can’t really see the black characters’ faces because the use of lighting is mainly made to showcase paler skins.
In many games, like in The Surge 2, black characters are light-skinned. It enables to overcome poor lighting issues, but it contributes to perpetuating colorism.
This conversation is not limited to gaming. The Vogue’s cover featuring Simone Biles created a controversy due to the poor lighting of the athlete’s skin, resulting in dull and unflattering images. At the opposite, Moonlight and Insecure were acclaimed for their remarkable work on lighting.
As mentioned above, the plurality of body shapes, albeit not very exploited, is also key so players can express themselves. Transgender and queer respondents of a survey were asked: “What would need to change for the average character customization to better represent you?”
“A larger variety of body types” was the most frequent answer. It is worth noting that variety is more often seen in male characters.
Many dev teams aim for a roster of “healthy” characters with “athletic” bodies (especially when the game’s universe implies that the character is in good shape, like military settings). But athletic body types, either male or female, are far from being standardized.
Alongside the multiplicity of body types, LGBTQ+ players outlined that removing gender labels from body types was crucial for inclusion.
To the question: “What made the character customization in those games stand out as particularly good?” they answered that they enjoyed games that did not restrict customization options according to the avatar’s gender.
For example, The Sims 4 players can set their character’s physical appearance, clothing and bodily functions regardless of gender. Unlocking options would actually benefit all players by giving them more freedom and flexibility.
These elements are — of course — not exhaustive. These are the most salient features from player feedback in a selection of studies and articles. The lowest common denominator, if I may say so. Other customization options should be explored as well (selection of one’s pronoun and given name, inclusion of prostheses, choice of the avatar’s size…).
Player motivation heavily depends on their emotional connection with the game, and how meaningful this connection is to them. With this in mind, narration has a role to play to create this connection.
As an example, a paper showed that participants who played a first-person shooter game that included a narrative experienced more identification with their avatar than those who played a non-narrative version.
It is worth recalling that representation is not just about a character’s appearance. A character’s background, attitudes, beliefs and experiences matter. In that sense, diversity can be “invisible”.
Players don’t only care about what characters LOOK LIKE. Designing a game with a “diversity checklist” might lead to shallow characters, which induces surface level identification. This is tokenism.
Players also care about what characters DO. Even if gender and ethnicity are key components of identity, people are way more than that, hence the importance of creating good characters above all.
Not only can we identify with characters who don’t look like us (because they experience a situation similar to ours, or because their journey mirrors universal human struggles…), but character attachment goes far beyond identification. Trevor is a fan-favorite in the GTA series, and I’m not sure that players love him because they identify with him. The character is strong enough, deep enough, complex enough, to make us want to know what will happen to him.
Narration is key to normalize the representation of marginalized people, and there are more than one way to assess it: how many diverse characters (main character + NPCs) are in the game? Are diverse characters leads? Are they multidimensional? Is the diversity presented intersectional? Is the character a narrative trope? If yes, are they limited to that? Does the trope reinforce stereotypes toward a social group? Etc.
All of this can be analyzed quantitatively and qualitatively. It goes without saying that the diversity of the profiles working in the gaming industry is fundamental to achieve good levels of representation. Games reflect the values, perspectives and experiences of the persons who created them. Representation in content and diversity in the workforce are two sides of the same coin.
You won’t be able to represent everybody, so design decisions should stem from the creative vision of your game. After all, a video game is a fictional work, necessarily subjective. This is why representation topics should not be seen as damage control issues, but more as creative opportunities enabling the depiction of new characters and the telling of new stories. The most important thing is to keep an overall consistency between the different game elements.
Approaching the diversity question like a checklist often leads to misrepresentation or clumsy depictions. Players (whether concerned, favorable or hostile to the representation of marginalized groups) can have strong reactions to oppose tokenism.
Building more diverse teams that can bring refreshing perspectives will multiply the opportunities for players to take on different roles, making video games the most powerful empathy tool that humanity has never built.