If you aren’t familiar with the ways that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been advocated for in video games, chances are that you probably aren’t a big gamer to begin with. Well, diversity in gaming has been lacking and we demand a change.
But if you are a gamer and aren’t familiar with DEI advocacy as a concept on its own, its importance, or its relevance in recent years, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Before we get into things, I need to say that I am a straight white man. I did not have the same sense of pride or belonging from seeing the late Chadwick Boseman’s portrayal of a Black superhero in a major blockbuster movie. I am innately unable to sympathize with the feelings felt by the Black protagonists in Jordan Peele’s Get Out or understand the nuanced references of segregation and oppression in shows such as Lovecraft Country, though as a descendant of Jewish Holocaust survivors, I was able empathize with them. Yes: there’s a difference.
In this article, I want to offer a brief synopsis of the following topics with examples included:
Visualizing the importance of DEI in video games
How developers can make an award-winning game with DEI
The industry DEI disconnect between games and gamers
Visualizing the importance of diversity and inclusion in gaming
A quick disclaimer: the following content contains spoilers to the game The Last of Us Part II.
I still remember my own sense of wonder the first time I encountered a Black video game character that wasn’t an “enemy” or marketed as that year’s hottest sports star. It was 1998, and my grandparents had taken me to see The Prince of Egypt in theaters — a movie that, while animated, thankfully portrayed the biblical story of Moses in the Book of Genesis free of Hollywood’s tendency to whitewash historical accounts.
That wonder was a feeling I did not feel again until over two decades later with the release of Sony’s release of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales (MM). At that point, as a man of 30, something clicked for me like a long-lost key turning in a rusted, age-worn lock in my mind. Suddenly, I was able to understand that just because those characters in those games (Jax and Miles Morales respectively) did not look like me, there were billions of others my age and younger who they did look like. It was a vital turning point for me as a lifelong gamer.
I breezed through MM, going so far as to scout every hidden mission, secret, and item to receive the game’s platinum trophy on my PS4. Part of this was due to the upcoming release of The Last of Us Part II (LoU2) hardly a week later — another game that I and many of my non-white and non-cisgender/heterosexual friends had been patiently waiting for since the release of the game’s predecessor, as the game’s leading character, Ellie, is identified as a non-cis/het female.
Trusting the vision delivers positive results
After getting my hands on a copy of LoU2, I was blown away by the intricate storytelling. As I saw it (and how many I knew did, as well) Naughty Dog — the game’s development team — had gone above and beyond to connect the dots between detailed elements of the game, its characters, setting, and plot to its predecessor.
However, many other straight white male gamers did not feel the same way. The game and its plot focused on telling the stories of two women: Ellie, who players had followed in the first game, and Abby, a new anti-hero whose light-hearted introduction belied her vengeful intentions. Their stories are told parallel to each other, leading up to the game’s finals moment in which Ellie and Abby ultimately find themselves fighting one another in a bleak, brutal, all-out climactic conclusion: the two characters representing opposite sides of the same post-apocalyptic coin. The story was a gritty and realistic (albeit fictional) take on the aftermath of a deadly virus ending civilization as we know it, and how the survivors are left to reform a semblance of society. Yet, rather than appreciate the game for its elements as they were, the game, its developers, and even its female voice actors were barraged with an onslaught of hateful remarks.
Even so, LoU2 went on to become the most awarded game in history, winning 300 of nearly 600 annual industry-recognized game awards, and even going so far as to win the official 2020 title of “Game of the Year.”
Ignore the noise and hate from DEI-adverse gamers
In a time when our society is more conscious than ever of the borders and barriers that separate us along lines of race, religion, gender identity, sexuality, culture, and more, games like MM and LoU2 were a refreshing breath of fresh air.
The portrayal of Abby’s character as a tall and muscular woman with unwashed hair and no makeup fighting to survive in a post-apocalyptic world was far more realistic than Hollywood’s traditional (and let’s be real; more marketable) portrayal of the slim, white, size-zero supermodel-esque heroine we are so often bombarded by in media.
Swinging around Manhattan as a mixed-race teenager in today’s world was an incredible new take on the Spider-Man games I was raised on, where you’re forced to play out Peter Parker’s origin story time and again. For those wondering – yes, I would rather learn ASL through the game’s cutscenes than be forced to watch Uncle Ben getting gunned down ad nauseam.
Though I’m admittedly not nearly as “big” of a gamer as I used to be (queue a shameless self-plug for my platinum trophies in Bloodborne and Sekiro), these two games last year felt refreshing to me and millions of other gamers because we were shown something new. We were allowed to experience these virtual worlds as someone other than who we may have originally expected and were rewarded with two back-to-back gold medal titles.
The industry’s disconnection between games and gamers
The reality of the video game industry is that they market to billions of people around the world each year — consumers who, despite their varying ethnicities, race, religion, gender identity, or cultural background are united in their love for gaming. Yet, many non-white and non-American people are still widely underrepresented in video games.
As one 2009 study reported, of the 150 most popular video game titles at the time, Black characters only comprised 10.7% of all video game characters. The stats are much lower for Black protagonists in video games. For Latinx representation, the numbers were far worse representing not even 3% of all video game characters.
These statistics are even more disparaging when we consider them in comparison to the sheer amount of Black and Latinx gamers. According to one study from Northwestern University, younger Black and Latinx gamers in the U.S. spend more time on average each day playing mobile and console games than their white peers. Another report from Quartz states that, within 10 years, people of color between the ages of 6 and 29 will comprise roughly 57% of all U.S.-based gamers.
As the numbers show us, the video game industry still has a long way to go in terms of its DEI advocacy work. It is my hope – and that of many non-white gamers – that developers will learn from both MM and LoU2 as examples of games that can foster DEI values while delivering award-winning gaming experiences. Despite the hate and negative reviews both games received from more DEI-adverse gamers, the love and support they generated proved that there is indeed a place for DEI advocacy in the multi-hundred-of-billions-per-year gaming industry.