Towards more responsible representational practices in games
22. 2. 10.
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Towards more responsible representational practices in games
How we talk about a medium reveals a lot about who we consider its target audience or user and what purposes we attribute to their engagement with the medium. The public discourse on digital games in both Europe and North America, have for many years been characterized by the idea, that digital games was, roughly speaking, for young, teenage boys, who spend hours upon hours painted by the luminescence of the computer screen and immersed in mindless entertainment. This was of course never true.
Recently, however, many people have begun questioning this stereotype gamer and exploring the diversity of people who actually play games. But who are these ‘other’ players then? They may be toddlers who play their first game on their parents’ smartphone, the retired woman immersed in a game of Wordfeud, the ‘granny gamer’ playing CS: Go with their grandchild. But they may also be gaymers socializing around a game of Fortnite, or the young mother playing on her Nintendo Switch while her baby sleeps next to her and so on.
Critiquing the norms of game culture
Digital games are of course not played by stereotypes but by actual players who experience the games they play in unique and individual ways. During the last 10 years, game journalists, cultural critics and scholars have discussed the issue of representation of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, and bodies and in mainstream games. Although these discussions took off with the greatest intensity in North America, they are now also gaining speed in a European context under the heading of norm critique.
The discussions about representation in games are essentially about three things: First, how does games portray different identities or aspects of peoples’ identities, if at all. Second, what is the representation of marginalized people in the player base of different games. And third, how are marginalized people represented in the game industry and under what conditions are they working. These three things are often intertwined in public discourse. It is often assumed that if a game represents someone, e.g., women, in a negative way, female players will generally turn away from the games. It is also often assumed that better representation of marginalized people in the game industry will result in better portrayals of these people in the game. Although there is certainly some truth to this, game scholars have also pointed out, that reality is much more complex than that.
Games addressing serious topics
Several studies have revealed a long-lasting imbalance in the number of female game characters, their roles and function in the game, and found that in their visual appearance, female characters have typically been highly sexualized. An analysis of over 500 games released between 1983 -2014 shows, that the sexualization of the female body peaked in the late 90’s and have been declining since 2006. This decline may mark a slow change in the way that the overall game industry thinks about their own games and its ability to address and raise awareness of serious topics. When British game company Ninja Theory, for example, released their game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in 2017, creative director of the company, Tameem Antoniades, explained in an interview that they wanted the game to be more than just entertainment, as they tried to offer an experience of how it is to suffer from psychosis, that would feel true to player. Similarly, Forgotten, a Danish indie game demo released in 2018, aimed to represent what it feels like to suffer from Alzheimer disease. The game is currently under development by Autoscopia Interactive. The European indie game industry has also started considering how to tell stories from the perspectives of socially and economically marginalized people. Bury me, my love, developed by French game company The Pixel Hunt, tells the story of a Syrian refugee as she makes her way through Europe to Paris. When another British AAA-game company, Playground Games, released the fifth installment in their racing game series Forza Horizon in Autumn 2021, it reached the headlines of mainstream media, that the character creation module in the game allowed players to choose gender-neutral pronouns to their character, as well as fit their characters with prosthetic limbs. Although much debate focusses on the representation of game characters, inclusive game design is of course not limited to this specific issue. The emergence of the indie game industry also sees an increase of games that delivers experiences that go beyond the well-tested model of the AAA-industry and offers modes of play that catered to players who cannot afford sitting several hours fixed in front of a computer. This is particularly true in Denmark where the game industry is mostly comprised of small-scale, indie developers, except from a few bigger studios such as IO Interactive.
*Forgotten is a short game that aims to convey the experience of how it is to live with Altzheimer’s disease. In the image, the faces of game characters are blurred to give a sense of memory loss and disorientation.
Expanding the player base
This slow change can in part be explained by the second issue – the diversity of the player base. It seems that the game industry is becoming increasingly willing to try to reach a new target audience and in different ways cater for the diversity of the player base. Research shows that there is no direct causal relation between the representation of marginalized identities in games, and the diversity of the player base, and that marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ-people, have played games despite negative portrayals of LGBTQ characters in the game. As even mainstream media have gained an interest in the problematic portrayals of marginalized people in games, it becomes increasingly difficult for game companies to continue to reproduce these negative stereotypes. On the other hand, this public discourse also serves as an incentive to the game industry to latch onto new target demographics with strong spending powers. However, negative portrayals of marginalized identities in games only account for half of the problem. Many marginalized groups still experience bullying, discrimination and abusive behavior when playing especially online games. Here, it is interesting to note, that when it comes to the marginalization of players, the discourse in Europe primarily revolves around the experience of (young) female players. The conditions of other marginalized groups, such as various ethnicities, socially- and economically marginalized people, and so on, are still lacking in the public discussions. This means, that while game have begun to tackle the issue of how to respectfully convey the stories of these marginalized identities, the game industry, have still not grasped the potential of addressing these groups as players.
Improving working conditions through unionizing
The marginalization of people in the game industry have received considerable attention in the last couple of years. Although this issue already attracted attention ten years ago, when marginalized workers, and especially female workers, of the game industry began spreading stories of discrimination, sexism, and harassment under the hashtag #1ReasonWhy, these issues have made the headlines again the last couple of years, as toxic work culture, sexual misconduct and abusive behavior have been exposed in the European AAA-industry. In the context of North Europe, scandals of a similar magnitude have yet to be exposed, although media stories have documented some cases of abusive conduct. Trade unions appear as obvious institutions to tackle such issue and better the conditions for marginalized workers. But even though the Scandinavian countries generally have a strong tradition for unionizing, it should be noted that worker in the Scandinavian game industry are still not by large unionized. Therefore, while many discussions are ongoing in the public discourse about how games responsibly represent marginalized people and how to provide an inclusive culture for players falling outside the normative stereotype of the male gamer, the is still call for a change in the organization of the game industry.