Video games are the newest media going through a consumer renaissance.
Traditionally white male audiences are now sharing their favorite titles with people from racial minorities. The games themselves, however, have yet to match this trend.
Many games incorporate racial minorities not as the protagonis but instead as antagonists; the race as a whole being considered the “enemy” in games such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and other similar titles.
“I’ve yet to see a video game that’s portrayed Arabs, Iraqis, or Iranians fairly,” said a writer for VentureBeat. “Usually, anyone who is of the Muslim faith is portrayed as an insane lunatic that cares for nothing other than war.”
Many other titles have underrepresented racial minorities, either by excluding any characters who are non-white and straight or by limiting the few minority characters within the game to stereotypical tropes.
In Final Fantasy VII, a game developed by Square-Enix (Squaresoft at the time of launch) and released in January 1997, there is only one black character,Barret Wallace, who was written to be an almost campy representation of the African American community:
“The only black character in Square’s epic role-playing game had the tongue of a sailor and spoke in exaggerated Ebonics,” wrote Louie Castro-Garcia for VentureBeat. “No one else in the game was given this accent. Not the other denizens of the slums.”
To see if the number of minority characters in games correlated with minorities in gaming audiences, the University of Southern California issued a virtual consensus in 2008. The findings show stark differences between the numbers of minority players and how they were represented in games — for example, only two percent of video game characters were found to be Latino, while Latinos make up 12.5 percent of gamers.
“Studies of Latino children show they play more per day than white children,” Dmitri Williams, communication researcher at the University of Southern California said. “They’re a minority, but a very large minority.”
The consensus also found that while female players made up 38 percent of gaming audiences, only about 15 percent of video game characters were female.
Williams, who designed the virtual consensus, did not find any reasoning for the disparity between player demographics and character representations. He did find that many game developers — the majority of which were straight white males — would skew the game characters they were creating toward a white male audience, according to Livescience.
This was found to be true of foreign developers, as well. According to Livescience, many Japanese developers also skew their characters and content toward the same white male demographic.
According to Andrew Eisen, a YouTube gaming personality, this focus on the majority is not malicious; most developers are simply not used to an inclusive outlook, focusing instead on what they are familiar with.
“Straight white males don’t deal with issues of ‘erasure’ or ‘othering,’” Eisen said. “We’ve always been there.”
Eisen feels that the media and video games are a chance to push new ideas and “normalize things that are normal.” However, in the case of minority representation, video games have fallen behind media like TV and movies, which see demographics that much more accurately represent their audiences, according to Livescience.
“The people who make and star in video games have not reflected the diversity of the audience,” Eisen said, pointing out that many of the marginalized groups who would enjoy playing video games do not feel included. “Straight white men, like myself, are so used to things revolving around them are not used to — or scared of — something new being introduced.”
“Many different types of people play video games,” Samantha Wright wrote for GameSkinny. “Contrary to the old stereotype, it’s not just white male teenagers with nothing better to do. Racial minorities need to be represented too.”
One possible solution, according to Williams, is the growing number of video games with character customization. While there is certainly an extensive list of character demands that need to be met in order to represent all racial, sexual, and gender minorities, the simple freedom of personalizing a character gives one the opportunity to be better represented.
“The more player control there is, the more likely people will make characters that look like them — or that want to look like them,” Williams said.
With that being said, Williams argues that game developers have a responsibility to include lives and representations of people other than straight white males, stating that under-serving these minorities should be seen as a “missed opportunity.”
This all suggests a vast array of untouched video game stories featuring females and minorities,” Jeremy Hsu wrote for Livescience. “And the video game market has yet to tap this business opportunity.”