What's The Big Deal About Representation In Video Games?
Politics and Activism

What's The Big Deal About Representation In Video Games?

Why is diverse representation in video games so important?

Rosie Wholihan

Elder Scrolls Online Fully Customized Female Dark Elf Character by Rosie Wholihan

Representation in media has been a widely debated topic for some time now. With the continually growing popularity of video games, the discussion on representation of gender, race, and age (and more) in video games has hit a boiling point in the last few years. It cannot be contended that cisgendered, heterosexual, white, adult men are overrepresented as characters in video games, and in media in general – we have cold, hard facts to back this up. It is, however, argued that this is not actually a problem, and that the people who are questioning this overrepresentation are overreacting. Our society is quick to jump on the influence bandwagon when it comes to media – such as blaming first person shooters and Marilyn Manson for tragedies like the Columbine shooting. For some reason, however, society has not been quick to answer the questions of representation and how it affects the lives of those who are not well represented in media. So why is representation in video games (and media in general) so important? What kind of public responses take place when these issues of representation are brought to light? Lastly, what can and are we doing about these issues?

First off, here are some of the cold, hard facts. After extensive studying of games made for the top nine game systems in the United States in one year, research found that “…males appear more frequently in games than females,” with more frequently translating to 85.23% of the time compared to females appearing 14.77% of the time. The same research discusses how since men make up 50.9% of the United States Population to women’s 49.1%, this is a major misrepresentation. Along with gender, there is also misrepresentation in race. “Whites and Asians are over-represented and all other groups are underrepresented. In proportional figures relative to their actual population, whites are 6.59 percent and Asians are 25.75 percent over-represented. All others are under-represented: blacks by 12.68 percent, Hispanics by 78.32 percent, biracials by 42.08 percent and Native Americans by 90 percent." While there is misrepresentation in many other areas, these two categories of gender and race give a pretty good example of the problems that are faced in all misrepresentation.

We know now that there is no contending that representation in video games is skewed, but just why is representation in general so important? One campaign for equitable gender representation has coined the phrase “If She can see it, She can be it." The Gina Davis Institute on Gender in Media is a research-based organization that works with all forms of media to push equality in gender representation. Their short Public Service Announcement-style video tells us that Jane (representative of all young women) “…makes up half the world’s population, but you wouldn’t know it by watching kid’s media. Onscreen, Jane is outnumbered by a ratio of 3 to 1… If [girls interacting with media] see Jane [onscreen], it is with little to say, few career options, and even fewer aspirations… To empower girls, we need to see Jane. If She can see it, She can be it." As this PSA relates to gender, it is important for all different kinds of people to see themselves properly represented in the popular media that they watch, play, and listen to. If people do not see others that are like them represented in popular culture, they can feel a lack of value attributed to their gender, race, age, ability, etc. Often times the representations of marginalized people in video games and media serve to Other those being represented. Jack Shaheen “…argues that the stereotypes he has found can lower self-esteem, injure innocents, impact policies, and encourage divisiveness." Not only is it important for there to be equal representation number-wise, but also in the roles that this representation takes the form of. Even when women are represented in video games, they are often in secondary character roles, or “typical” character roles for their gender. When it comes to different intersecting identities, certain groups may be completely not represented at all, such as women of color. Even though Latino children are documented as playing more video games than white children, they are not likely to be represented at all in the games that they play, and a Latina child is even less likely to see a woman of her descent as a main character in a popular video game. One famous example of how representation can have a major impact is that of Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi recounted the first time that she saw Uhuru on Star Trek, a woman of color playing an officer on the bridge. “Well, when I was nine years old, Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, Mum, Everybody, come quick, come quick! There’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!” I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be."

So what is the issue here? If there is proof that there is underrepresentation and misrepresentation in our video games, and proof that this lack of and misrepresentation is harmful to people, why have we not made some major progress toward fixing these problems? Some would argue that the public response is why there has not been major change in the video gaming arena when it comes to representation. One example of this public response is GamerGate, a movement that started (and largely takes place) on the Internet regarding women and their involvement in video games. Those involved in the GamerGate movement often state that the whole thing started as a response to corrupt video gaming journalism regarding a woman who supposedly slept her way to more exposure and positive reviews through a popular gaming site’s writer. Even though there was no proof of the alleged corruption, a large response took place through forums like twitter, reddit, 4chan, and other popular Internet communities frequented by gamers. Even without proof, this argument might have been somewhat believable if multiple other women from the gaming industry were not brought under fire during GamerGate’s heyday. Anna Sarkeesian was one of the main women who were targeted, due to her commentary on gender issues in gaming, part of which dealt heavily with underrepresentation of women in video games. The response that was seen all over the Internet ranged from name calling to direct threats of violence, rape, and murder of those who were being persecuted for supporting women in the gaming industry. During the high points of GamerGate, it was not uncommon to see tweets like “If you have any kids, they’re going to die too. I don’t give a f***. They’ll grow up to be feminists anyway." These women were also subjected to their personal information being released, including their phone numbers and addresses, causing them to leave their homes and call local authorities in fear.

Another common response to the call for better representation in video games and media in general is the PC Police argument. It is becoming more and more common for people to lash out at those who are requesting more equitable media representation by responding that our society is becoming too “Politically Correct” – as if trying not to oppress and offend others is something to be ashamed of. Another retort that is common in this argument is derogatorily referring to someone as a Social Justice Warrior, or SJW for short. The insinuation is that fighting for some level of social justice is something to be made fun of for, or that the person is a joke for arguing that changes need to be made in our society. It really seems to come down to change. Those gamers (and members of society in general) that are fighting against equitable representation in video games and all forms of media are vehemently opposed to change. The changes suggested will not even really affect them – there will still be a large amount of white male characters as the protagonists of many games, there would just also be more options to choose from in those games.

So will representation in media and video games ever be equitable? Will those with other genders, races, sexualities, ages, and the like be able to see people who characterize them in the video games that they play? There are signs here and there that our society is tipping the scales in the right direction. The highest grossing film of 2015 was the newest installment of Star Wars, which had a woman and a black man as its main characters. The third highest grossing video game in 2015 was Fallout 4, a game participating in the growing popularity of customizing the main character. Fallout 4 allows the character to be any age or race, and allows the choice of gender from the gender binary. World of Warcraft falls at number 4 on the highest grossing video games of all time, and also allows for customization of your character – including gender, race, and species, among other things. Many RPGs and MMORPGs have been following in the footsteps of World of Warcraft with the customization of the main character. Just last month, The Sims announced their newest update with (hopefully!) trendsetting gender customization options that push past the gender binary that is offered is most all other games. Although there are still kinks that need to be worked out (such as transgender issues, or sexuality being represented in video games for example), society is starting down the path to just representation in video games. While there is still a long way to go in making media reflective of our society, at least the scales have started to even themselves.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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