Understanding gaming’s minority underrepresentation

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Despite making up more than half the human population, women are underrepresented in the gaming industry, and as a result, the medium reflects a straight, white male-dominated culture.

The Electronic Software Association (ESA) collects data from dozens of game developers and publishers. In its 2016 report, the ESA found that 59 percent of gamers are men while 41 percent are women Despite these numbers, women are consistently underrepresented in games with a narrative focus.

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In 2015, there wasn’t a single female lead in the top 20 best-selling games, according to an original analysis of the games’ content. Meanwhile, 13 of the top 20 games featured male leads, with the rest being games where players can pick their gender. Similarly, nine out of 20 protagonists in the top 20 were white, one was Hispanic and one game, “Grand Theft Auto V,” has three male protagonists, one of which is black. Many games in the top 20, particularly sports titles like “Madden” and both “NBA 2K” titles, feature character customization where players select their gender.

Based on the top 20 games, there’s greater diversity in race than gender; albeit, most racial diversity in the top 20 comes from games that let players choose race rather than a character designed by developers. At the same time, the data suggests there aren’t any mainstream games that feature a distinctly female narrative.

Elizabeth LaPensée is an indigenous game designer who has spent the past few years creating games that tell Indigenous stories. In her experience, she said the game industry, much like other media, struggles to get beyond character and narrative design stereotypes.

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“The best path for accurate representation is to hire consultants and more directly involve indigenous people during the game development process in meaningful roles such as writers, artists, designers, sound artists, and programmers,” LaPensée said.

Renee Nejo, an independent game developer who has spent much of the past six years working on a Jane Austen massively multiplayer online game (MMO), said that video games being seen as a boy’s activity is based on the origins of stocking games at stores.

“Toy stores were gendered,” Nejo said. “They had boys’ and girls’ sections, and didn’t know where to put the games and consoles. So, they just put them with the boys’ stuff. Literally no more forethought other than ‘yeah, this feels right.’ Once it was basically accepted that games for boys, marketing, being the reactive machine that it is, began advertising content towards young boys.”

According to Nejo, in 2005, 11 percent of developers were women, and by 2015 it was up to 22 percent. While doubling the amount of female developers in a decade is a great beginning for the industry, this still means nearly four out of five developers are men.

Cody Mejeur, a doctoral student at Michigan State University with a focus on game narrative and cognition, said stories surrounding straight, white men are a result of a reciprocal relationship between consumers and game publishers.

“It’s a white, straight male dominated industry,” Mejeur said. “Developers and publishers see their audience as these straight white males. It’s a feedback loop that’s hard to break. We can break this by having more voices on the table so we can present voices that aren’t always told. It has to be a conscious decision from developers.”

When men dominate the industry, it’s unsurprising that they feel the most comfortable telling stories about their perspective. While it could be beneficial for creators to make games about a perspective they don’t identify with, Mejeur says this treads close to “the ethics of representation.”

That is, it might be hard for a group of straight, white males to write a story about being a woman, being gay or being a different ethnicity. And if they do choose to tell a story about a character they can’t identify with personally, can they represent it fairly?

Kamen Kessler, a senior at Michigan State University who majors in Media and Information with a minor in game development, said that minority leads aren’t always at the forefront of he and his peer’s minds in the classroom.

“We never really sit down and say, ‘Okay, let’s make the lead African American,’” Kessler said. “Instead, it’ll come up kind of organically in design, but we do try to be careful about how we portray people that aren’t like us.”

An Xbox One controller

An Xbox One controller

The only way to break the cycle between the industry and gamers perpetuating straight white male narratives or botching the presentation of minority groups is to incorporate a diverse pool of people in the process and take creative risks.

One such risk was developer Fullbright’s “Gone Home,” which smashed the status quo in gaming when it was released in 2013. In the game, the player controls a young woman who just returned to her childhood home after a year abroad, only to find no one is home. Instead of using violence or sex to push player progression, the developer hid little notes and diaries from various family members throughout the house that told stories of her parents’ failing marriage and her younger sister falling in love with another woman.

When it was released, the game was well received by critics but suffered slow adoption from gamers. In its first six months, Gone Home only sold 250,000 copies. While this would be detrimental to bigger studios, Fullbright only had three employees at the time. Since then, the game has gone on to be released on next-generation consoles.

“Indie games like Gone Home represent voices that have been ignored,” Mejeur said. “Narrative content is very slowly changing to be more diverse and include unique perspectives, and that’s a good thing.”

Mejeur, Lapensée and Nejo agree that the industry reflects culture and culture reflects the industry  While the industry and gamers in general have a long way to go when it comes to presenting minority points of view, Nejo said discussion is a good first step.

“We are having conversations,” Nejo said. “This is half the battle. The other half is active listening. That gets tricky. Demanding that people just ‘shut up and listen’ is like pulling the rug out from under them and telling them not to remark or flinch. Even though that is a necessary part for tearing down the echo chambers, it is not an easy thing to ask of someone or even do.”

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