For many years, white men have headlined video games. When you think of the biggest games around, they nearly all feature pale skinned, Heterosexual, alpha males as their main character. Bioshock, Call of Duty, Dead Rising, Deus Ex, Doom, Far Cry, Gears of War, Half-Life, Halo, Hitman, Mario, Metal Gear Solid, Red Dead Redemption, Splinter Cell, Uncharted, The Witcher, Wolfenstein, Zelda, all feature Caucasian males as their lead characters. Over the years, there have been a few instances of female lead characters (Tomb Raider, Perfect Dark, Life is Strange, Portal) but they are absolutely a minority. So, in a world where diversity is a major concern, are video games lagging behind?
When the video game industry tries to respond to claims of white-washing and being misogynous they bring up games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, Saints Row, and many other games where you get to create your own character. These games allow you to be any ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. While these titles enable you to play as any type of character, is this just papering over the cracks and disguising a lack of diversity in games?
Last year saw African-American characters take the lead in a few high profile games. First off there was Mafia III, where you played as Lincoln Clay (a character of mixed race) who comes back from the Vietnam War and takes on the mafia in New Bordeaux. The game featured the same sort of collision of cultures that you would find in somewhere like New Orleans. Numerous ethnic backgrounds, religions, interests, and pastimes are all thrown together into one melting pot. Throughout the span of the game, playing as Lincoln Clay, you work to draw all of these differing groups into one cohesive unit to take down the organised mafia. In the game, Lincoln even comes up against several racist characters (of different races) but they are always frowned upon and never celebrated.
Last year also saw the release of Battlefield 1, which featured an African-American soldier in the majority of its promotional material. The game went onto highlight, in one of its narrative strands, the role of African-American soldiers in the Great War. There was also Watch Dogs 2, which featured an African-American protagonist in the form of Marcus Holloway. This sort of inclusion is important as the industry goes forward. There was no reason that the character in Watch Dogs 2 had to be anything other than a Caucasian, but equally, there was no reason why it had to be a Caucasian character.
It might seem that women have been given an easier time of things in the world of video games, but it hasn’t really been until recently that more ‘realistic’ women have been featured. Tomb Raider might have paved the way for female characters, but Lara Croft’s early notoriety was as much to do with her ‘natural assets’ as her badassery. Female characters were often prominent in fighting games, but again they either had huge cleavages or wore extremely revealing costumes. This exploitation of women is not acceptable in this day & age, and fortunately, things do seem to be changing.
The 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise featured a very different character model for Lara. She was far more athletic looking, way more realistic, and all the more impressive as a character for it. These changes fitted perfectly with the new tone and realism of the game. Lara was still attractive (you don’t get many ugly lead characters in games, male or female), but much more believable. This reboot also gave the character emotions that she had never really displayed before; things like regret, fear, and a sense of isolation. Lara still ended up being a pretty heartless killing machine by the end of the game (killing hundreds of people with very little regret), but the story, journey, and character were all believable.
Another strong, believable, female character is featured in Mirror’s Edge. The game tells the story of Faith, a runner in a dystopian society. This character could have been anyone, but the fact that Faith is a mixed-race woman is just a matter of fact, not a crux. She more than holds her own against the men, women, and anything her world throws at her. She is a character perfectly suited to what she does and how she does it. This is what should lead the visual design of a character, not what will titillate juvenile boys.
All of these games provide great examples of how to include diversity. Yet, these are a minority among the hundreds of games being released every year. In the same way that Hollywood seems reluctant to center tentpole movies around female or non-white actors, the video game industry seems slow on making progress here as well. As good as games that allow creation and manipulation of your character are in this respect, that does not solve the issue. In fact, white males largely dominate games development industry outside of Asia. I can think of a few prominent women in the industry (Jade Raymond, Amy Hennig, Bonnie Ross), but their fame comes partially from their rarity (the rest is totally down to their brilliance, creativity, and genius). I can’t think of any prominent African-American developers. In fact, from a quick Google search, it seems that only 2.5% of game developers are of colour.
Correcting this glaring omission may help to rebalance the diversity in games generally. Bringing more women and different ethnicities into the industry can lead to different ideas and more creativity. Developing games with strong female, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and Native American characters should be as common as Caucasian male leads are. Diversity should be celebrated not avoided by creating your own character.