Illustration by Nicki Diacik
Over the years, games have taken strides to implement more diverse stories and characters, reflecting the growth of the industry in the forms of tolerance and inclusion. In 2019, it’s much easier to find a playable character of color, a strong female protagonist, and stories of non-heteronormative relationships. Games like Overwatch, Street Fighter and the recently released Apex Legends have large rosters of colorful characters with diverse backgrounds and identities.
That being said, these games are only a small slice of the entirety of games on the market and even then, these games that “champion diversity” outwardly, seem to lack diversity on the internal development side of the game. How can a game get “pats on the back” for a strong black, queer female protagonist when it is straight white men who are responsible for creating the story, look, and feel of the game? It isn’t necessarily “false advertising”, but it reeks of deception either way.
To me, this is the real problem.
Games like Overwatch can add a line in a character’s bio that reveals their sexuality without it affecting gameplay at all. Other games have boast expansive stories full of “player choice”, but the choice of race and gender play no role in the game itself beyond the aesthetic representation of the player character. Creating a “diverse” cast of characters doesn’t seem necessarily difficult or uncommon nowadays, but this form of “diversity” rarely feels genuine and almost never serves a narrative or thematic purpose. A game can have an amazing cast of playable characters, but if the people creating those characters come from the same background and think the same way, is that game really made with “diversity” in mind?
I’m going to throw a few numbers at you but I promise to explain it, so stick with me, please.
There is more to racial diversity than the black/white racial binary, but for the purposes of this piece, let’s compare these two demographics. White people make up 60% of the population in the US and 67% of US gamers. Within the games industry, 68% of developers are white. This is fairly consistent in terms of the proportion of whites in the overall US and US gaming populations with a slight increase in the developer population. When looking at the black percentages, we make up 13% of the US Population, 12% of the gamer population, and a measly 1% of developers. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA) conducted a “Developer Satisfaction Survey” in 2017 and the results are less than surprising. Among the respondents, there is a clear majority of straight white men in the games industry (74% male, 68% white, 81% Heterosexual).
When people ask, “Why aren’t there more fleshed-out female/black/queer protagonists?” this is why.
I truly believe games have become (and will continue to become) more inclusive as the years go on. That said, this all has to start with developers and publishers emphasizing diversity and inclusion in their hiring practices. I’m not saying every white developer only wants to tell white stories, but I do think it would be easier on the team if they didn’t have to “black fact check” everything with the one minority in the office.
I am a proud nerd and a proud gamer, but sometimes I wonder if that’s something I should be proud of. I know developers put their time, sweat, tears, and in some cases, their livelihoods into making the games that I play every day, and I love and respect every one of them for it. But as a proud black gamer, I’d like to see someone that looks like me give a speech at The Game Awards.