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The Curse of the Scruffy White Male: Why Representation Matters in Video Games

The Curse of the Scruffy White Male: Why Representation Matters in Video Games

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
in recent years for lack of diversity and poor
of women in their more recent games. Mike Morhaime,
one of the company’s co-founders, responded and
: “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. 

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

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
s. 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
— 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.

READ MORE: Microsoft Shutting Down Xbox Originals is Bad News For More than Just The Now-Unemployed

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

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
, 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.

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