An Open Letter to the Community I Love: Representation

The word representation can carry a lot of weight in every industry. Mainly because it brings the industry into the spotlight for having a lack of diversity, or perhaps calls into question how much diversity matters to certain people. In the gaming industry, it can be hard to speak fully to the idea of representation, because for many, video games are an escape from reality. However, this doesn’t mean that diversity or representation is any less important.

More often than not, the people searching for representation are people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and women. That is because, the fact of the matter is, most main characters in video games are white men.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, it is simply a hard to swallow pill. It is the truth. Another hard to swallow pill? A 2009 study published by the University of Southern California showed that the number of characters that show up in video games who are black and/or African American are proportionate to the population in America. However, black characters mainly show up in sports games or games that reinforce their stereotypes.

If you’re reading this thinking “how do games reinforce stereotypes?” I’m just going to point out the following character:

Barret Wallace from Final Fantasy VII.

A big, hulking black man, with a gun for a hand and nothing but expletives coming out of his mouth. Cool. That’s just what I was looking for in a series I love.

Granted, that is a Japanese game, and Japan isn’t always so forgiving with their representations of black people. But, that’s neither here nor there.

Let’s take an American made game instead as an example. If the first character that popped in your head was CJ from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; or Franklin, from Grand Theft Auto V, you’re already seeing the point. Instead, however, I’d like to use a different example. 2005’s True Crime: New York City.
Arguably, the True Crime series has a lot more wrong with it than just the representation of a black police officer. True Crime: NYC uses the stereotypical, cliche of gang member turned Police Officer. Surely, it is probably a better story to have him go from gang member to police officer. But, would it have been as interesting if the game’s protagonist, Marcus Reed, was a white gangster turned police officer? It’s just as much of a cliche, and it still would have been interesting, right?

Normally, we use the “would it be the same if,” argument if the character was white and we wanted to insert a person of color. But, instead, I want to look at it in the opposite direction, because it does go both ways.

Would Grand Theft Auto V be as interesting without Franklin there as a mentee to Michael? Or, what if Franklin was white?

Ultimately, I am asking the question of game developers: what influences your decision on race? Is it that when you look around your studio, you see a majority white development team? Is it that when writing the story you just see a white guy in the role?

Notice how I’m not calling anyone out, by the way, for being close-minded or unfair to people of color. I don’t think that’s really the issue.

On the development front, I think the issue goes back to one of the questions I asked. I think when you don’t really have input or insight from black, or other persons of color, your characters come out one-sided and based off of popular culture. Marcus Reed, CJ, Franklin, Barrett, they’re all based off the idea that black men are incredibly hyper-masculine, violent, and otherwise--for lack of a better word--ghetto.

That all being said, if you’d like to see other representations of black men that aren’t cliches or stereotypical, I would ask that you direct your attention to Marcus Holloway of Watch Dogs 2. Certainly that he is a criminal, and that the game he is portrayed in is inherently violent, but he himself isn’t hyper-masculine or a cliche of a black guy in San Francisco. He truly feels like an organic black male character.

Now, I don’t want to make this about just black males or black characters. There are tons of other ethnicities and other groups of people who could absolutely use some representation in gaming culture. I chose to zero in on black males because I am one. And I am far from some hyper-masculine walking stereotype.

I also recognize that it could be worse. There could be some serious Jim Crow-era representations out there. Thanks for putting that in my head, Childish Gambino.

That being said, it is because of these stereotypes--the angry black man, the campy, comedic gay--that representation in video games is important.

Whether we like it or not, we learn and absorb so much through popular culture and media, video games included. In order for people to see that there is such a thing as a non-angry, non-violent black man. Or a serious, stoic gay main character. Or anything and everything in between, we need to be unafraid to show it in our popular media.
Show me a Farcry with the same amount of violence, but a gay character.

Show me a Grand Theft Auto with a female protagonist--and I mean a main series Grand Theft Auto, not one of those PSP ones.

Show me a nerdy, non-violent black character.

Mind you, I’m not arguing that every game ever be replaced with non-white, non-male, non-hetero characters. I’m simply saying that we could use more of what we now consider the norm.

So, the next time one of your Facebook gaming group members ask “Does representation matter?” think about this article. It doesn’t have to matter to you. But to people like me, who just want to see a little of myself in a video game, or who wants to see a little less of the typical. It does matter. And it matters a lot.