A Midyear Resolution: Diversify Your Gaming Experience with One Simple Trick
I have played video games since I was three years old, when my mother brought home an Apple IIe computer, and loaded up Pac-Man for me. From there, I went from playing a range of games like Tonk in the Land of Buddy-Bots and the Monkey Island series, to console titles such as Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed and Halo.
But here’s one thing I’ve noticed: my favorite games will, more often than not, have a protagonist that looks nothing like me. Where games have a single playable character, that playable character is likely to be a man. A white man. Maybe he has a beard, maybe not. He’s probably also straight–perhaps he also has a wife or child or someone close to him who’s died or been kidnapped at the start of the game as a plot device, and he’s probably armed with some sort of gun or melee weapon or both.
This bothers me. A lot.
As a female Asian gamer, I can count on one hand the number of playable female Asian protagonists that I’ve come across in my 30+ years of gaming. Maybe it’s two hands if we just count any playable female Asian characters.
Diversity is lacking in games often enough that things like gender orientation can be added as an afterthought (like the infamous “gay planet” patch in Star Wars: The Old Republic), or female characters only become playable when children spot the issue as problematic and write op-ed pieces to the Washington Post. Diversity is also so absent in video games that publications consider it “diversity” when they can name the few AAA titles that have people of color or women as protagonists. But–and let’s be real here–this isn’t deserving of a cookie. I can’t even begin to count the number of grizzled white dudes who have graced my TV screen or computer monitor. But to consider three games featuring–not even starring–women of color as an achievement? Great. Of course, this is better than no games featuring women of color, but if this is the starting point then… hoo boy. We have a long way to go.
So, maybe in virtue of sheer numbers, most of my favorite game franchises do end up involving grizzled white dudes shooting bad guys in the face. And, despite their problems, I love games, and it’s okay to be critical of things that you love. But I also want to play games where my character isn’t so distantly removed from me and my experiences. I want to be more aware of the media I consume, and I want to be able to shine a light on games that are stepping it up in terms of having diverse, playable characters.
So, for the rest of the year, I’m not going to play any video games where the protagonist is–or is presumed to be–a straight white male. Specifically, if the playable character is not expressly described to be a person of color or a woman, then I’m not playing it. At least, not until 2018.
I am providing some clarifications on this stipulation:
- Character selection: If I have a range of characters at the character selection screen, I will default first to a woman of color character. If all the options for character selection involve white men, or the only option is a white man, I will not be playing the game further. If the game switches between characters (such as Grand Theft Auto V, where the player follows the narrative of three male characters, one of whom is African-American), I will not be playing it if the gaming experience is predominantly from the white male perspective.
- Character creation: If the game allows for me to make my own character (or modify one based on existing presets), I will default to making a non-white, non-male character. I say this as opposed to saying a “woman of color” because sometimes character creation tools often will intentionally reduce the emphasis of particular skin tones or facial features. Bonus points if a game has specific race presents outside of just skin tone: I was absolutely delighted to find that Mass Effect: Andromeda had nine women presets, and you had to scroll down until the third or fourth option to find a white character.
- Presumptions of whiteness or maleness: Sometimes in games you never actually see the protagonist. For example, in Firewatch you never see the character you play as, but he’s presumed to be a white male (as evidenced from his naming, voice acting, etc.). Likewise, if I have the option to play as a non-human character, that would be acceptable if they’re fully-fledged characters that aren’t simply white male characters reskinned as a cat or a robot. For example, the Khajiit are a race of anthropomorphic cats in Skyrim, but they have their own history, culture and language, so this would be acceptable.
- Plot devices: The upcoming Assassin’s Creed game is set in Egypt, with an Egyptian male protagonist. So while that’s technically okay on this account, the Assassin’s Creed story often involves a different character in the present (a white male, for the majority of the franchise), who is tapping into his past. As the story is focused on the experiences of the past character, I would consider this acceptable for playing. Conversely, in the base version of The Last of Us, while there is a section of the game that is played from the experience of Ellie, the female character, the vast majority of the game is from the viewpoint of Joel, a white man, so that’s not on my to-play list.
This may come across as a challenge in terms of finding games that I can play. If so, I accept it willingly! I’d have to do more research into what would be playable, and there will be otherwise amazing games that I will miss out on. I am sad that, under this rule, I wouldn’t get to experience a game like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, had I thought to implement this rule earlier in the year. However, given the range of games I’ve played with women or PoC playable characters, plus ones that are slated for release in the future, I’m optimistic that I won’t be missing out on too much. And, at the same time, I’ll get to expand on my gaming experiences and discover more amazing content.
So, dear reader, if you feel the same way as I do about representation in games, or want to find other ways to diversity your gaming experience, I wholeheartedly invite you join me on my quest. Share with us what you’re playing, or post below with your game suggestions. You don’t have to do it for as long as I’m planning to–even if it’s for a few months, or for the rest of summer, you might discover some amazing new content and see games differently, when you see someone that looks like you being the hero of your story.