Brittney White

Why are games with a customizable main character so popular?

by Brittney White

The “diversity in video games” conversation has of late gained a lot of ground and reached larger levels within the gaming community. A recent example of this is the hour long speech Manveer Heir, a Bioware developer, delivered at Game Developers Conference (GDC) 2014 about racism, sexism, and homophobia in video games. I didn’t attend GDC, so I unfortunately wasn’t able to hear his speech first hand. From what I read of it in articles though, it was truly amazing. What surprised me most was the fact that his speech didn’t just focus on one oppression or one marginalized group. He said himself that his speech was about “misogyny, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia and other types of social injustice”. Others in the industry have addressed misogyny, sexism, and racism before, but for him to mentions things like ageism, ableism, and transphobia blew my mind. I never dreamed those would be addressed within gaming any time soon.

Manveer Heir also did an interview with Adam Sessler of Revision 3 Games where he talked about his speech and also diversity in games in general. This 17 minute interview was very good as well. The one part of the interview that struck me the most was when Manveer Heir said

“they want to see themselves in a game”.

That is very true in my case and for many others. It’s why among the LGBT, people of color, and women gamers that I know, games with a customizable main character are very popular. We are able to create a character that looks like us. It’s one of the only times we get to see a person that looks like us saving the day and being a hero. For the few hours that we spend playing the game, we get to see someone like ourselves being loved, accepted, and praised.

My personal Shepard from Mass Effect 2

My personal Shepard from Mass Effect 2

It warms my heart to see that game developers, both indie and AAA, are actually having this conversation and paying attention to criticisms received about the lack of diversity. For once in my life, I actually have hope that games are heading in a better direction. This change is long overdue and I hope that this conversation doesn’t stall and that game developers are listening, taking notes, and working to make things better.

As LGBTQ gamers, gamers of color, women gamers, and gamers at every intersection of those groups, we criticize the industry because we love it and want it to do and be better. As game developers, in order to do better and be better, the industry needs this criticism. It especially need it from us; the often ignored and long stereotyped groups of society. We are the ones buying their games in droves. We are the ones pumping hundreds of hours into their games and we are the ones hurt the most when we see the same oppression we face in the outside world reflected in our video games.

A game series that comes to mind that has faced a lot of criticism by LGBTQ gamers and gamers of color is one that I love myself, Mass Effect. In terms of positive representation for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people and people of color, Mass Effect is one of the best games out there. Unfortunately, it still misses the mark in many places. One major criticism I’ve seen is the lack of romanceable characters for lesbian and gay player characters. For a lesbian female Shepard, there’s only one possible romance for the first game, three for the second game, and four for the third. For a gay male Shepard though, there are no possible same sex romance options until the third game. In terms of race, while Mass Effect and their developer Bioware are better than most they still miss the mark. One of my biggest gripes with the game is how it deals with one of the non-playable characters, Jacob Taylor. 

One of many problems with Jacob Taylor’s storyline in Mass Effect 2

One of many problems with Jacob Taylor’s storyline in Mass Effect 2

He’s a Black man and the only Black member of your squad and he has quite possibly one of the most racist storylines I’ve ever seen. His loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2 is to find his missing father. When you do find him, it turns out he fed his crew poisoned food that made the women docile and he turned the planet his ship crashed on into his own harem. The player character is able to romance him in Mass Effect 2 and it’s even possible to have him say he loves you. However, you find out in the third game that he starts a relationship with another person and his new girlfriend is pregnant. Given society’s stereotypes that Black men abandon their children and they’re cheaters, these two aspects of his storyline are extremely problematic.

Most white people and straight people who played the games found little to no issue with those particular issues. Gamers on the margins of society though spotted and called them out immediately. Our criticism of these games, their developers, and the industry as a whole is valid and necessary. No, we didn’t help make the games. We didn’t do the coding or write the dialogue, but we can help to make it better. We can help the developers make their next game better than the first. The mods we make, the fanfiction we write– we do it because there’s a void in our games. We feel the need to fill it with something that isn’t racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or a combination of all those things. We want to fill the void with the things that speak to us and our experiences. 

There’s a reason behind the things we do and say, we’re not nitpicking just to be annoying or just to get a rise out of people. We’re not doing this because it’s the “pc” thing to do. We’re doing it because we know that our games and the developers can do better. We want to push them to make that quality product we know they’re capable of making.

The one thing I don’t quite understand is why people are so resistant to the idea of having different types of people in video games. These are games that have magic, dragons, and time travel. Video games largely deal with a fantasy world; especially once you get into the realm of sci-fi games and typical role-playing games. These are games set far in the future where we can travel from star system to star system and meet (and even fall in love with) different alien species. They’re games on different planets but in medieval-like times, where you can talk to dragons and duel with ghosts. Why, in those settings, are the presence of people of color, queer people, and trans people all of a sudden “unrealistic”?

Why does the hero have to be heterosexual, cis, white men like Booker DeWitt or Nathan Drake? Why can’t we have more Black women save the day like Aveline de Grandpré or Nilin? Instead of giving a character like Jacob Taylor a stereotype filled and extremely racist storyline, why not give him a story arc free of the usual tropes and stereotypes? Why do these simple suggestions sound so far fetched to most people?

Aveline de Grandpré from Assassin’s Creed: Liberation

Aveline de Grandpré from Assassin’s Creed: Liberation

Representation is very important. It lets people know that they aren’t alone, that there are people like them out there and that it’s acceptable to love and celebrate the person that you are. Without video games, sci-fi TV shows, and fantasy literature, I never would have even questioned the person society told me I should be. I never would have had the courage to question my sexuality and I definitely never would have accepted it.

Video games may seem trivial to a lot of people but they have been, and still are, a big part of a lot of people’s lives. It’s important that this area of entertainment and culture represent the marginalized groups of society. Many games have metaphors for societal oppression in them, so why not put actual oppressed groups in the games to drive the point home?

Brittney White is a 25 year old wife, mother, gamer, and blogger currently living in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Most of her writing centers on racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of oppression and how they intersect with videogames, the gaming community, and other forms of media. She also offers commentary and criticisms on the mainstream feminist movement and how it interacts with differing oppressions. When not talking about activism or oppression, she can be found discussing music, movies, games, politics, and new technology. You can find her on twitter at @TheAngryFangirl.

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3 replies »

  1. The (generally white, straight) backlash against representation in video games is so confounding to me, PARTICULARLY in light of the customizability of player characters (which is pretty standard now). If the desire to see oneself onscreen is so unimportant and incomprehensible, then why do customizable characters exist?? The very same people who really enjoy making their char look like them right down to facial hair and moles will be crying to the heavens like, “omggg, why do POC care about skin color or whatever, what difference does it make??”

    HUH?

    You like when your char has the same eyebrows as you, but you can’t see how I’d appreciate if my char looked even *vaguely* like me? What even is that?

  2. I am studying to be a video game designer.I want to make games that include everyone and give the same sense of escapism and empowerment to everyone, not just straight, white males. Everyone deserves to play without constantly being made to feel like they are not a real part of the experience. It’s not really that enjoyable to think that someone has created an idealised fantasy world and you are not a part of it.

    Games for good, games for equality, games for all.

  3. This is a magnificent piece. It articulates why the greater breadth of representation in culture matters so much. And the case is stated with such arresting clarity.