By Rowan Kaiser | Indiewire July 20, 2014 at 4:32PM
The most successful video game developer in history recently apologized. Blizzard Entertainment, creators of wildly popular game series like "Starcraft," "World Of Warcraft," and "Diablo," has turned almost everything it's touched into gold for nearly 20 years. But they've come in for a great deal of deserved criticism in recent years for lack of diversity and poor representation of women in their more recent games. Mike Morhaime, one of the company's co-founders, responded and apologized: "And we know that actions speak louder than words, so we are challenging ourselves to draw from more diverse voices within and outside of the company and create more diverse heroes and content."
Notably, this wasn't even the close to the biggest controversy surrounding representation of women and minorities in games this summer. These flare-ups are a regular occurrence in game culture. Every other week, a company or a developer or a celebrity says something to reinforce the standard that games are played, created, and especially star white men. But there's much more pushback against this idea, and game companies are starting to realize that they can't just dismiss the concerns of traditionally underrepresented groups.
Every summer, the video game industry gathers in Los Angeles to celebrate and advertise itself at the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3). There, the biggest games, systems, and accessories for the coming year are advertised, and the video game press earns its keep by passing that news along to the waiting mouths of information-hungry fans. This year, however, one of the biggest pieces of news wasn't a product launch, but a controversy. When Alex Amancio, creative director of huge publisher Ubisoft, was asked by a journalist why there wasn't a playable woman character included in the next installment of the multi-million dollar Assassin's Creed series, he responded that it would "double the work." This was not well-received.
Amancio and Ubisoft had, perhaps unwittingly, plunged directly into the Representation Wars, one of gaming's -- and the wider media culture's -- biggest issues. White men are consistently the heroes, protagonists, or subjects of much of our media. In film, for example, a year ago NPR's Linda Holmes noted the near-total dearth of female subjects at the movies. Those blockbuster comic book films embody this: both Marvel and DC have years-long plans to build massive, interconnected cinematic universes; every single one of those announced so far has a white man as its central character.
Marvel's unwillingness to deviate from this, given that they have one of the most bankable women in Hollywood, Scarlett Johansson, as the Black Widow, and a large stable of excellent non-white male heroes like Black Panther, She-Hulk, Carol Danvers, or most of the Runaways seems particularly egregious (although their supposed 14-year plan offers some hope). Meanwhile, films centered on female protagonists like "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games" may be ridiculously successful, but much like romantic comedies before them, these are shoved into a "Young Adult" corner and not treated as being as serious as, you know, real movies about men in spandex punching each other.
Video games, however, add an extra layer to this. Since players control the main character, instead of merely observing, the assumption is that players are their character. The term "avatar," made famous by James Cameron's film (but initially popularized by the incredibly influential Ultima game series), is often used in games to indicate how much players are supposed to identify with the character they control. "Assassin's Creed: Unity"'s Arno isn't the star of the game, he is you.
The problem with that logic is that "you" are always a white man in blockbuster games, according to a consistent set of game releases. Straight, white, male, stubble, early 30s, and a bit of barely covered anger and sadness. It's a cliché now, and one that has come in for well-deserved criticism. Critic Samantha Allen, wondering why the recent blockbuster release "Watch_Dogs" had another stubbly white male hero, said "At this point in the history of video game representation, publishers need to be put on the defensive and asked to justify their inclusion of another straight white male protagonist when there have already been so many."
It wasn't always like this. Classic gaming is filled with examples of woman heroes, like Alis Landale of "Phantasy Star" or Laura Bow in her adventure games. Meanwhile, a decade ago, there was a generation of classic games starring women: The "Tomb Raider" series is the most famous, but also cult hits like "No One Lives Forever," "The Longest Journey," and "Beyond Good And Evil." But through the middle of the decade, that came to a halt. If there's been a big-budget game since 2007 where the hero was pre-created for you, the video game industry has made almost totally certain that they're white and male.
The first excuse they trot out is the one that Ubisoft used -- it's too much work to add animations—which is bullshit -- a former Ubisoft animator suggested that it would take a day or so to add the animations. Meanwhile Ubisoft's claim that they didn't have the time because they had nine studios working constantly on the game and couldn't spare any of those resources rang especially hollow given how decadent the idea of nine studios working on a single game sounds. The second, more common one, is that video games are a business, and the business suggests that woman heroes don't sell, so what should the publishers do? Yet as the Penny Arcade Report researched, this wasn't a rational business decision, but was instead ideology treated as rationality thanks to a self-fulfilling prophecy: video game companies mostly stopped making games with woman protagonists, and almost totally stopped marketing them. Last year's "Tomb Raider" reboot, which was heavily marketed, and which ended up selling six million copies, provided further evidence.
The problem faced by woman and minority-starring video games is largely the same as the problem facing traditionally underrepresented groups across all forms of representation: their failures are treated as definitive, and their successes are ignored. Dozens of white man-starring video games have underperformed, but their failures are treated as specific to that game. Every woman-starring game, though, has to bear an unfair burden, just like "Bridesmaids" was treated as a referendum on the very idea of woman-centered ensembles in theaters.
What's happened to blockbuster video games is a sort of Marvel-ization of their stories. Just as every Marvel movie moves toward a bland, competent sameness, most big-budget video games refuse to take chances. They aim for a solid B+ that will probably earn them their budget back, and rarely attempt any kind of formal daring, let alone presenting a hero who exists outside of conventional perceptions of power. I.E., it's all white dudes.
The irony, in both cases, is that as soon as you move outside of the too-safe center of the massive-budget films and games, you see an explosion of diversity. This Vulture piece, for example, details the support diverse groups of superheroes about given by Marvel comics, as their films continues to play it safe.
Meanwhile, for video games, any step taken away from the big-budget games like "Assassin's Creed" leads toward more diverse games and game protagonists. Mid-sized publisher Telltale has released two "seasons" of their "Walking Dead" games (which receive more acclaim than the inconsistent show) -- the first of which starred a black man, the second, a mixed-race teen girl. "Journey," a gorgeous game about an abstracted religious pilgrimage, hides the player character in a scarf rendering their identity irrelevant; "Papo & Yo" is a magical realist game about a South American boy dealing with his father's alcoholism.
A huge part of the problem is that blockbuster games tend to fall into a specific category of game: the single-character, story-based, cinematic action-adventure game. These are games that want to be the new "Indiana Jones" or "Pirates Of The Caribbean" or "Star Wars."
The only other game genre to receive the same level of marketing support is the role-playing genre. But those kinds of games have a history of allowing players to create their own character. In the mega-hit "Skyrim," players can build humans or elves or even lizard-men or cat people, customizing them however they want. The cult hit "Dark Souls" series is similar, but includes a binary choice for character sex and a slider for the character's gender, subverting and queering choices or impositions from other games.
Or there's the case of the "Mass Effect" trilogy. In these epic science fiction games, the player character, Commander Shepard, is given huge amounts of dialogue and ethical choices for the player to make. Shepard -- based partially on Jack Bauer from "24" -- was originally presented as yet another scruffy, hyper-competent dude. But the game developers included character customization, including the ability to change gender and get the dialogue spoken by a woman voice actor.
Playing "Mass Effect" as a woman -- known in fan circles as "FemShep" as opposed to the male "BroShep" -- almost accidentally provided the far superior experience. First, the voice actress, Jennifer Hale, put in arguably the greatest voice acting performance in video game history, giving all of Shepard's lines across three huge a confident sneer and personality that seems impossible given how many of Shepard's lines -- and thus personality -- are player choices.
Second, by keeping almost everything (some romances change) about Shepard's dialogue and animation identical to the male version, FemShep manages to subversively queer the idea of the male action hero. She literally does everything a man can do in what's traditionally a male sphere, and thanks to Hale's performance, does it with far more flair. Almost by accident, the developers of "Mass Effect" created a shining star of female representation in gaming.
Or to take it even a step further, there's no reason for the dominance of "avatar"-based games. Many, many games don't have a single main character. In strategy games like "Civilization" you control the embodiment of a nation-state-empire who may have a name like Bismarck of the Germans or Catherine of the Russians, but you're really controlling a full political apparatus of cities and military units, and rarely see your supposed "self." Another strategy game, "Crusader Kings 2," puts you in charge of a medieval dynasty, and whichever character you play depends on the succession laws of your kingdom.
In the recent role-playing release "Divinity: Original Sin," you create two characters, and build their personalities by having them argue or agree with one another -- neither is inherently supposed to be "you." In the zombie apocalypse game "State Of Decay," there is no specific "you" in-game -- you're a sort of disembodied guide of a community of survivors, planning them building home bases and communities and taking control of individual people to go explore and fight. By not having a single main character, "State Of Decay" can introduce all kinds of diversity -- the first four characters you play are a black man, a Latina, a white man, and a gay man.
The "State Of Decay" example shows the biggest problem of representation in blockbuster game development -- there is literally no reason to have a single character be the only controllable character throughout the game. The best-selling "Call Of Duty" series does this in its story mode (although that's usually ignored in favor of online multiplayer). Even 2013's Game Of The Year (by consensus), "The Last Of Us," pulled a sensational twist in the middle of the game when it temporarily switched, for a widely acclaimed sequence, from stubbly white antihero Joel to his teenaged ward Ellie.
It's the unwillingness to take risks with multi-million dollar games that leads to this lack of creativity from game publishers and developers. They think they have to have a single hero, and that single hero has to be representative, so they almost always represent conventionality and power by choosing a white male hero. The only thing holding the game makers back is their lack of creativity or courage to take even the tiniest of steps outside of normality, and that's why they're fighting -- and losing -- the Representation Wars.
Rowan Kaiser is a freelance video games and television critic who's written for The A.V. Club, Ars Technica, The American Prospect, and more. He tweets about his cats @rowankaiser and is currently writing a book on the Mass Effect games.