The Importance of Representation in Video Games

Representation is being able to see people similar to yourself in the environment you surround yourself in. This affirms our sense of identity, makes us feel like we belong, and is an essential element of being able to feel confident and happy.

So what does this have to do with video games?

A lot of our sense of identity is created based on the type of people and experiences we see in the media we surround ourselves with—whether that’s from books, movies, music, or video games. Being able to identify with people (real and fiction) in the media around us makes us feel seen, and is the basic principle of representation.

Representation in video games, whether in characters or even in the people we see playing, is important to create the most immersive and positive experience possible, and not exclude anyone from the joy that is gaming.

Representation Allows for Deeper Immersion

Playing as a character who is similar to yourself in a video game makes it easier to lose yourself in the experience of the game and project into the story. Sharing characteristics such as race, gender, physical ability, style, or even personality help people relate and can pull you into the game’s universe.

Some video game storylines might be unrealistic or leaning more toward sci-fi and fantasy narratives, so the argument against the urgent need for diversity and representation in characters does exist. 

If the world isn’t realistic why should the characters be? 

Well, what better way to make someone feel excited about playing a video game than for them to see a character who looks like them complete a top secret mission or win a race in a super fast car?

It’s important to note that many people who dismiss the issue of representation are doing so from a place of privilege—they may have no issue in identifying with mainstream characters in the media, so they might not see the urgent issue at hand.

When it’s hard to relate to a character, it can immediately take us out of the story. This disconnect with the narrative can make people feel excluded and discouraged from continuing to play the game.

Video Games’ Rocky History with Diversity

For being the art form that is arguably the most involved (combining visual arts with interactive storytelling and audio), video games have a history of being surprisingly narrow in their scope of representation and inclusivity. 

In recent years, strong, powerful, and inspirational female characters have been created, but in 2019 only 5% of games had a female protagonist. This may be due to an archaic idea that women aren’t playing video games—even though 46% of US gamers identify as females.

People of color aren’t being as fairly represented in video game characters either, although with facts like Black and Latinx youth are playing more per day than white youth on average, it’s difficult to come to terms with why.

The issue may lie-in who is creating these games behind-the-scenes. 

  • Only 24% of game developers are women.
  • A whopping 81% of game developers identify as white/Caucasian/European

A possible solution (or one that could at least get the ball rolling) is hiring a diverse staff at a leadership and development level, and bringing in diversity consultants before a game’s final launch to give feedback (Niantic does this, the company behind “Pokemon Go” and “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.”)

Importance of Representation in Streaming

Representation is also important when it comes to streaming. In this day and age, so many gamers are finding a large, enthusiastic audience through streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube. People tune in and watch online personalities play their favorite games from “Rocket League” to “Call of Duty” and more. This relatively new trend sees female-identifying gamers making up 35% of streamers on Twitch. 

For women, seeing real life streamers of their same gender can be arguably even more important than being able to play as a woman character—especially since many available female characters suffer from the impact of the male gaze and overt sexualization. 

Build Your Own Character Options

One way video games can do better is by broadening the options of “build-their-own-character” RPGs. Games like “Call of Duty: Black Ops” allow you to customize skin tone and gender, while “Fortnite” is well-known for their wide variety of diverse playable characters of all skin tones, races, abilities, and genders.  

Adding customizable trait options such as height, weight, skin tone, and physical ability can help further the goal of a more diverse video game culture. 

For example, in 2016 Xbox added an option to add wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs to their avatars in order to better represent differently-abled people. 

Video games can at least easily allow players to choose their own pronouns instead of being forced to choose between “she/her” and “he/him.” Popular games such as “Cyberpunk 2077” and “Temtem” already do this, while “Call of Duty” provides the option of male/he, female/she, and “classified”/they (meant to represent non-binary players).

If video game producers and creators are interested in providing an engaging experience that will encourage gamers from all backgrounds and abilities to get excited to purchase their games and play, they should be focusing on representation and diversity in their games—there really is no down side.

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