Since its origin, gaming has come a long way towards being a universal pastime. The sheer variety of games currently emerging into the mainstream, from blockbuster first-person shooters and RPGs to indie puzzle games and visual novels, means that the appeal of gaming has never been broader. Not only that, but popular consoles such as the Nintendo Switch have helped to promote a gaming world that is family-friendly, social, and fun-for-all, targeting not only seasoned players but casual and first-time gamers, too.
However, just because gaming has become a popular hobby, doesn’t mean that the industry and its games cater to everyone. Problems with representation and accessibility are rife. Even now, marginalised groups are constantly misrepresented or neglected. Gaming has opened its doors but, not all are welcomed through. If you play games and are part of a marginalised community, you may have noticed the cracks which smiley, diverse advertisements alone can’t repair.
We’ll start with ‘ladies first’; in the past, women have been relegated to limiting secondary roles in games where they only exist as subordinates of the male protagonist. Damsels in distress have long allowed the heroes to exercise their strength and skills in rescue missions. Then there are women as romance options from which the male protagonist can pick and choose; often it’s as simple as selecting a romantic dialogue option, and she’s yours, never mind her input on the matter.
However, in recent years putting women at the forefront has increased, according to tech site ‘Wired’, with 18% of protagonists in 2020 releases being female compared to a measly 5% in 2018. But, this doesn’t solve everything as female characters and players still struggle to find respect in games. Sexualisation, stereotyping and unrealistic standards are rampant in the industry’s depictions of women: one look at any mainstream fight game tells you everything you need to know. Even the latest instalments of Tekken and Mortal Kombat present female fighters in sexualised and impractical costumes, with bodies built not to inflict damage but to have the player’s gaze inflicted on them. The appearances available to female characters across all genres are equally as limited: symmetrical, flawless features and approximately one slim, toned body type.
For some, this range of possibilities isn’t narrow enough as mods have been created to allow users to make a character’s looks more conventionally feminine and attractive, and, in turn, less realistic as well as to dress them in ever more revealing costumes. Unconventional-looking or masculine female characters often cause backlash from players, who are so attached to the Lara Crofts and Nina Williamses of yore that they’ve forgotten that there are other models of femininity to explore. How will we ever break this disturbing trend which tells us that perfect computer-generated fantasies are preferable to the flawed and varied beauty of real-life women?
People of colour are also frequently misrepresented in games, from the use of white voice actors to the poor design of skin tones and hair textures to straight-up cultural insensitivity and racist depictions. The assignment of minor and stereotypical roles has long relegated people of colour to the sidelines, often using them as a backdrop for urban and violent games. Meanwhile, fantasy RPGs are often seen to exclude people of colour, cultivating a world of whiteness supposedly supported by historical accuracy (though this excuse never quite manages to explain the dragons).
Other genres of games fall short, too. The Sims 4, a game often praised for its open player sexuality options and, more recently, its gender customisation, has proved lacklustre when it comes to the in-game creation of people of colour. Mod creator Amira Virgil led the charge for a broader and better range of dark skin tones otherwise absent from the game as well as other custom content such as realistic Black hairstyles, to which the game itself eventually responded with an expansion of its character creation options. Though the proactiveness of individuals in the gaming community is admirable here, the creation of such mods should not be necessitated by professional developers’ neglect. If the game’s basic features aren’t adequate for everyone, they aren’t adequate at all!
Representation of LGBTQ+ identities in video games is also less than thrilling. The repertoire of representation seen in a lot of games throughout history consists of harmful stereotypes, such as predatory, villainous, or laughing-stock characters, and unconfirmed or later revealed LGBTQ+ bit parts. If you don’t agree, go onto the LGBTQ Video Game Archive website and look up a long-running major franchise to lose faith in; try to guess how many (or how few) wildly offensive or completely inconsequential queer characters might be listed.
Though many games offer love interests of multiple genders, also known as ‘player-sexuality’, pre-existing LGBTQ+ characters are a rarer occurrence. Only a few years ago in 2018, Sam Greer, writing for GamesRadar, found only eight titles where the protagonist was written as queer (and only 83 with playable queer characters overall). As for the concept of ‘player-sexuality’, although it gives possibilities to queer players, it also paints a picture of identity as entirely dependent on romance rather than an unalterable part of oneself (a harmful myth that continue to haunt queer people). Shameless queer representation is often overcome by the need to please everyone and, though sexually ambiguous and opt-in queer characters can provide much-needed representation, they shouldn’t exist as the be-all and end-all of LGBTQ+ presence in games.
It must be stressed that marginalised groups in the video game industry are made either harmfully hyper-visible through stereotyping and sexualisation or made to feel invisible and ignored. The latter problem is one keenly felt by people with disabilities, as they have often been majorly neglected within the gaming world. I refer here not to the in-game representation of people with disabilities (which, like all other types of representation discussed above, leaves a lot to be desired) but to accessibility for disabled players.
Implementing such essential features as subtitles, haptic feedback, visual display settings and alternate controls should be one of the most basic priorities of game developers yet, time and time again these features have been overlooked or poorly delivered. How can a deaf person become immersed in a game which does not provide adequate visual cues, subtitles and controller vibrations? How can a person with a cognitive disability feel rewarded when the difficulty settings aren’t suited to them or are put forward in an ableist manner which makes their playstyle seem inferior to other people’s?
The website ‘Can I Play That?’ brings awareness to the lack of provisions for disabled players, even in the most current mainstream titles. One example is Resident Evil: Village, the latest instalment in the survival horror franchise which has – according to the site – had historically bad accessibility. Problems such as barely readable subtitles and a heavy reliance on sound for atmospheric effect means that deaf and hard of hearing gamers are unable to engage. If only a fraction of the time spent on Lady Dimitrescu’s character design had been dedicated to accessibility considerations, this could’ve been avoided.
The game industry needs to change, and thankfully, this change has already begun. Personally, my faith lies with the indie developers. Due to their contributions, we have more stories featuring underrepresented people than ever. I’ve found the most profound echoes of my own identity in indie, story-based games, which are not afraid to tackle issues and feelings which are considered taboo by mainstream game developers.
Furthermore, praise must be given to organisations dedicated to improving representation and opportunities in the video game world such as the charity, ‘Represent Me’. This charity started by advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusion in games and has since broadened its focus to other marginalised groups. Alternatively, organisations such as ‘Special Effect’ are pushing for improved accessibility by developing new technologies to allow disabled players to engage better with games such as, allowing gamers to play using only eye movements and adjusting controllers to make them more suitable for those with mobility issues.
But ultimately, the key to solving the gaming industry’s problems is to dig through to its foundations and plant the initial seeds of representation there. Recent Assassin’s Creed games have included a disclaimer stating the diversity of their development teams, which is a reassuring step in the right direction but is unfortunately not true of all developers. Neglect of marginalised groups in games is symptomatic of inclusivity issues throughout the industry, which is primarily white, straight, non-disabled and male behind-the-scenes. Creating more opportunities for women, people of colour, LGBTQ+ people and disabled people to work in the gaming industry will in turn give everyone better experiences with gaming.
The battle for inclusion is nowhere near over. But as representation and accessibility are improved one game at a time, it becomes easier to envision a future for the gaming industry where we can all enjoy playing to the fullest.