Why Representation Matters

By Josh Snyder

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Pictured: The protagonist of nearly every video game.

In the 2001 film Waking Life, director Richard Linklater explores the nature of dreams and consciousness, often with a healthy dose of arm-chair philosophy. The film meanders from topic to topic, often with a surreal approach. In one particular scene, two characters discuss the concept of collective memory – the belief that, once an idea is “out there” in the world, we all subconsciously become aware of it, even if we have never been directly exposed to the idea.

I’ve never given much weight to these theories on collective memory, or collectively sharing a consciousness, but without them I am at a loss as how to explain three recent developments in the video game industry. At first glance, the release of Nintendo’s Tomodachi Life for the 3DS, the debut trailer for developer 3D Realms latest Bombshell, and the unveiling of the poster for Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4 have little in common. Three completely different games, each with their own unique setting, and with gameplay that couldn’t be any more different. Yet it’s as if Nintendo, 3D Realms and Ubisoft all subconsciously shared one vision, and that vision was to, yet again, put forth a product that either excludes various groups of people, or uses them as props for the “real” characters.

Equal representation in video games matters, and it’s time the medium embraced this concept.

I (Wish) I Saw My Reflection

The idea that video games should be an inclusive medium is not a topic I take lightly – my thoughts on gender dynamics in games are well documented, as well as how developers often use female characters as sexual objects for the satisfaction of the straight-male-gaze. But in those essays, I focused specifically on the way female characters are portrayed. The sad fact is that representation in video games is lacking for every group that is not part of the 18 to 49 straight-white-male-demographic. In other words, well under half of the human population is represented in nearly all of the video games produced today.

There are many reasons as to why we should be thinking about representation in video games. The medium gets stronger when more voices and viewpoints are added – every aspect of game design changes in new and exciting ways when more points of view are considered. It also gives under-represented groups a hero to look up to, someone to relate to. And following that logic one step further, it means that those players never have to feel alienated because every game on the market consists of a white male hero who shoots away all of his problems.

But perhaps the best way to demonstrate just how important representation is would be to see why there were controversies surrounding Tomodachi Life, Bombshell and Far Cry 4, three games that seem to miss out on the understanding of why representation matters.

Tomodachi Life – Sharing My World With (Some) of My Friends

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Have fun and throw down in a rap battle! So long as you are straight.

Nintendo has, for years, encouraged gamers to be more social. Their online services may be woefully underutilized when compared to Xbox Live or Playstation Network, but franchises like Animal Crossing make great use of unique online implementations such as Street Pass, a feature of the 3DS system that can detect when others systems are in range and can exchange information. This track record makes the upcoming release of Tomodachi Life a no brainer. Marking the first time the series will be released in Western markets, Tomodachi Life is basically a lighter version of Animal Crossing – the game takes place on an island populated by Miis, Nintendo’s brand of avatars, who can interact with other residents in a variety of odd ways, such as musical battles, as well as more traditional interactions, such as forming friendships.

But what doesn’t make sense is for Nintendo to release a game that embodies their vision of social gaming, only to limit who can participate. Despite the fact that this isn’t the first entry in the series, the latest version still does not include the option to enter into a same-sex relationship. This was seen as a flaw in the original version in Japan, and gamers took the matter into their own hands – gamers found a glitch that allowed for the creation of a male Mii that could be labeled female, therefore allowing for at least partial same-sex relationships. But instead of embracing what gamers clearly wanted, Nintendo simply patched the game, removing the glitch and effectively removing same-sex relationships from the game.

I hope it’s clear where the controversy is heading, and it amazes that Nintendo didn’t see it coming. The ability to engage in same-sex relationships is still missing from the upcoming Western release, and again, Nintendo’s initial response was not encouraging. When the story first broke, Nintendo’s response was that they “never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of Tomodachi Life.”

The problem is that Nintendo didn’t see this as an issue of representation or inclusion, but as social commentary, when in reality including all forms of sexuality is simply a reflection of modern society. The need to unnecessarily politicize a facet of everyday life shows how exclusive one of the biggest players in the medium still is, and when an industry leader feels they can brush off an entire group of gamers simply because they can’t be bothered, it empowers other developers to follow suit.

Fortunately, the outrage from fans did not die down, and eventually Nintendo backtracked on their comments, and have stated that future releases of the franchise will include the ability to engage in same-sex relationships. By excluding an entire group of people based solely on that group’s sexuality, Nintendo was setting a dangerous precedence, one that is out of line with most of the modern world. If we want to see video games at the forefront of not just entertainment, but at the forefront of social commentary and high art, the medium needs to be inclusive.

Bombshell – Little More Than Meets the Eye

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This photo is one of the rare shots from the Bombshell trailer that shows the title character’s face.

Best known for the Duke Nukem franchise, 3D Realms recently announced their latest title, an action RPG by the name of Bombshell. Players will take control of Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison, a mercenary who is also an expert in bomb disposal.  According to 3D Realms, Bombshell also enjoys “kicking ass, motorcycles, kicking ass on motor cycles.”

While the last part of the description sounds like something only the developers of Duke Nukem would consider solid character development, nothing else immediately jumps out as being possibly problematic. Bombshell sounds like a strong female character on paper, but that’s before getting to watch the reveal trailer, which makes it a little clearer what real purpose Bombshell is supposed to serve to the audience. A quick breakdown of the trailer reveals the following:

  • The first shot of Bombshell is a panning shot of her sitting in a chair, the camera starting at her feet, slowly working up past her exposed midriff before lingering on her barely-covered breasts
  • Before Bombshell’s face is ever shown, the camera will flash three shots of her chest
  • Finally, Bombshell gets onto a motorcycle, which she has to lean over, giving the camera an even clearer view of her cleavage

Beyond that, nothing about the plot, gameplay or character are explained. Bombshell the game seems to exist merely to give straight male gamers the pleasure of starring at Bombshell the stereotype.

One of the biggest mistakes developers make is including non-straight white male characters, implementing them in ways in which they simply serve the needs of straight white males. It’s great if a developer makes their protagonist a female, but if that female has no personality, no objectives, no goals, and is shown in a way in which value is clearly placed on the lack of clothing she’s wearing, it more than erases any progress. Video games, such as Bombshell, do nothing to help encourage young women to enter into the male-dominated sphere that is gaming, and for what? The ability to see yet another scantily clad woman? Even if depictions of women in video games as sex objects were rare, it still wouldn’t be worth the loss of inclusion.

But Bombshell’s portrayal of women is also guilty of committing one of the biggest sins related to under-representation in video games, and it’s one that developer Ubisoft is no stranger to.

Far Cry 4 – Propping Up the World with People

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The poster for Far Cry 4 which has caused controversy in gaming spheres.

Far Cry 3, regardless of what Ubisoft claims, was problematic because of the way the game handled race. The protagonist is a young, rich, white male who is on an endless vacation, using tropical paradises where people live and call home as personal playgrounds. When he is captured by Vaas, one of the best villains in recent video game history, he and his friends are tortured, held as prisoners. He manages to escape, but the only way he can save his friends is to learn the mystical properties of the indigenous peoples of the island. Why they cannot use this power themselves that they already possess is never explained, but what is shown is that the white man can learn oh so much from the natives, and he, being white, is in the unique position of actually being able to help them. And, for good measure, the player gets to experience a first-person sex scene with the leader of the natives, a young, attractive woman who might as well be named Bombshell.

It is in this context that gamers viewed the poster for Far Cry 4, which features a light-skinned man sitting on a throne, his right hand placed atop the head of what appears to be an indigenous person, who happens to have a grenade in his hands. It’s clear that this man on the throne is the villain, and that he most likely is a racist tyrant hell-bent on killing the local population. That aside, many levied accusations at Ubisoft that, yet again, they’re delivering another racist piece of entertainment, one that uses subservient minorities as props for powerful white people.

There are plenty of things wrong with this poster that, again, alienate people and perpetuate gaming to be an exclusive world, but the biggest issue may be in Ubisoft’s response, which seems to indicate that the developer learned nothing of the controversies from Far Cry 3. To quote creative director Alex Hutchinson: “Just so it’s clear for those jumping to conclusions: He’s not white and that’s not the player.”

Oh, he’s not white. I guess that makes it alright?

Regardless of the race of the villain, the poster is still, in the context it presents, using minorities as props. There is little one can gather from this image, but one line of thought the promoters of Far Cry 4 seem to want the player to take is that the player character must yet again go into a mystical foreign world and save the natives. That Ubisoft is missing this point and focusing solely on the “fact” that the villain isn’t white (he certainly looks white, but perhaps not of European descent, for whatever that’s worth) only further illustrates how out of touch they are with representation in video games.

But what is most infuriating about the poster is not that it hints at possible difficult topics the game will address – I am firm believer that video games are uniquely poised to tackle difficult topics in ways movies and books simply cannot (the level No Russian in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and the entirety of Spec Ops: The Line are testaments to this). But it’s the idea that Ubisoft thinks that a poster is the best place to begin that conversation.

Context is critical, and when crafting a villain gamers need more than an image of a white man treating a brown man as a prop. Look to any great villain in cinema – they were all presented with the context necessary to make the audience rightfully hate them. For example, in his 2009 film Inglorious Basterds, director Quentin Tarantino spends the entire first chapter of his five chapter film establishing why the audience should hate the villain, Colonel Hans Landa, and that villain is a Nazi. If there was one group of villains that needed no context for the audience to hate, it would be Nazis, and even with that context working in his favor Tarantino felt he still needed to devote the first twenty-percent of his film to establishing why the audience should hate Landa.

That Ubisoft felt they could accomplish more with one image than what Tarantino could accomplish with a 20 minute scene shows not only arrogance but a lack of understanding of just how destructive this trope is. Minorities, women, or anyone for that matter who is part of a traditionally oppressed group should never be used as props based solely on their status as a minority.

Moving Past Exclusion

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This costume is an unlockable item, meaning the player is encouraged to unlock this “outfit” and use it as a reward.

It’s clear that the video game industry still has issues with representation in video games, and it is important that all sexual orientations, both genders and all races be represented in a way that does not alienate or exclude members of those groups. Video games should be inclusive, end of story.

But it’s more than simply making your protagonist female and calling it a day. There are considerations that must be taken to make sure developers avoid repeating the same mistakes. It all starts with creating characters first – crafting people who have personalities, goals, dreams, fears. Of course, a person’s sexual orientation, gender and race factor into their character, but developers simply shouldn’t make blank characters that check off items on a list or fulfill a publisher’s quota without putting in some thought into the character. If not, characters like Sheva Alomar from Resident Evil 5 become a reality, instead of a bad idea left on the cutting room floor.

There are two games that serve as solid examples of how to craft a diverse cast of characters. Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead comes to mind first – it’s clear they created characters first, and didn’t worry about gender and race. The second is Beyond: Two Souls, a game that casts actress Ellen Page as the protagonists, and never makes a big deal about the fact that she is a woman. Developer Quantic Dream crafted a character first, and cast that character second.

This method is one that was recently put forth by actress Geena Davis, who leads the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. In an article for the Hollywood Reporter, Davis outlined a simple two-step process to make media less sexist. From the article:

“Step 1: Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names. With one stroke you’ve created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they’ve had a gender switch.

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, “A crowd gathers, which is half female.” That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don’t gather, I don’t know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.”

If this seems simple, that’s because it is, which makes the fact that movie makers and video game developers rarely utilize this method all the more frustrating. This isn’t rocket science – it’s common sense.

Another method is the Bechdel Test, a set of rules which were created by Alison Bechdel for an issue of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. In order for a film to pass the Bechdel Test, it must successfully do all of the following:

  1. The film has to have at least two women in it
  2. The women must talk to each other
  3. They must talk about something besides a man
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One of the strongest characters in Borderlands is reduced to a damsel in distress for no apparent reason.

Again, what seems like ridiculously low standards are, in practice, difficult to implement. Take a look at both a recent example of a popular video game with strong female leads, and one franchise that historically has been praised for its female lead. In Borderlands 2, the character of Lilith is more than capable of handling her own in a fight, but nearly all of her dialogue centers around Roland, who repeatedly gets caught by the enemy and messes up missions, and is straight up murdered by the villain. And what becomes of Lilith? She saves the resistance and deals major tactical blows to the enemy, but is caught because she wants to get revenge for the murder of her boyfriend.

And then there’s Metroid, a game that many point to as being the prime example of how women should be portrayed in video games. Except Samus Aran never speaks, especially not to another woman, meaning that the player knows next to nothing about her character. Another famed video game franchise that fails the ridiculously simply Bechdel Test.

Inclusion

I truly believe that video games are meant to be the medium which tackles and explores some of humanity’s darkest issues, a medium that can handle the most mature of subject matter. But as long as games like Tomodachi Life exclude large portions of the population for “convenience,” and as long as games like Bombshell and Far Cry 4 use women and minorities as props for straight white men, that future will never come.

We can’t have it both ways – we can’t demand respect from those outside the industry and then produce games like Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. We need to take this issue of representation much more seriously. Because if we don’t, then the vacuum video games will exist in will only grow smaller and smaller, shutting out all creativity and innovation. Because chances are, the next great video game, the next Mario franchise, is being developed in the mind of a young woman right now, and she should be able to share that vision with the world.