Race and Gender in Games– a super-short problem statement

Dr. Phill’s Commentary: Why Race and Gender Remain a Problem for Games

The game industry, decades behind American culture, doesn’t really want to embrace change. In spite of what demographics tell us, many in the gaming industry believe their audience is still almost all white teenagers. As such, the move to be more inclusive strikes some as foolish or scary.  Here are thecommon refrains you will hear from people in/around gaming:

1) We’re just doing what the audience expects! — this is the simple default response from people embedded in the stereotype. It’s a terrible argument, but one people will try to make. The audience expects games to lean white and male because they always have. Once baseball was all white. Then there was that Jackie Robinson guy.

2) Look at Lara Croft! — or some similar heroine. Well, then, prior to the last few games, let’s look at Lara Croft.

Quick, how many of you have class with anyone who looks even remotely like that Lara Crofts here? The early Lara Croft was a combined version of what some of you expertly pointed out about the Zelda-as-hero story (just making the male lead a woman and not changing anything else) and the problem of Wonder Woman (a female hero made by a man with a fetish issue). Lara Croft in the early games was just Pitfall Harry (or Indiana Jones) in skimpy clothes. In fact, Eidos even hyped the “jiggle physics” of her… ahem… chest as one of the game’s features.
The same argument can be made by saying “look at CJ or Franklin from GTA!” The characters have to change to reflect that they are different

3) A game isn’t the place for “that sort of argument.” — my response to that would be “then where is?” Games are meant to reflect our lives, to be immersive, enjoyable experiences that shine a light on the world we live in. How can the gamescape remain mostly white when that’s not the reality of our world?

4) It doesn’t matter to gamers. — Does it not matter, or are game companies blissfully ignorant because no one is asking how gamers feel? This same argument was made by comic book creators in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, in the next month, Captain America will be black and Thor will be a girl. To know what the audience wants, sometimes questions have to be asked.

5) But we do things with race and with gender! Look at your character creation options! – And look at how they impact the game. This gets back to issue #2 here in many ways, but orcs and dwarves don’t really do much for racial diversity, and usually gender changes on characters in RPGs and the like are cosmetic and not generative.

What we need to think about is how games can truly include “othered” populations in significant, sophisticated ways. Keep that in mind as you read and respond this week.


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