The Game Industry and its Influence on Contemporary Activism

By Eric-Ross McLaren

For years, there has been an utter lack of racial representation within the game industry. With emerging protests, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, video game companies such as Electronic Arts, Epic Games, and Sony released statements proclaiming their alliance with the screams for racial equality. But, although companies state they are progressive, change lies deeper than simple words. There needs to be internal change, alteration to their workforce and the way the industry makes video games. Racial representation also ties in with the need for more inclusion of sexuality in games, such as creating same-sex narratives and implementation trans-friendly character customization options. 

To understand racial representation in the gaming space, we must first understand a sliver of the game industry from a historical context. One of the first games to include a black character was Heavyweight Champ, publicated in 1976 with a remake in 1987. This was a boxing-esque game, giving rise to sports genre confined black characters. Around this time, another game emerged titled Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), which features a grotesque representation of a character named Jim. UGO Networks ranked it as #4 of the most racist games in history. But the industry has not only seen problematic games. Games such as Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, iconic, spearheaded the industry, making gaming into a hobby, which then lead to the release of the Gameboy. 

However, as time went on, the game industry grew, with more designers from racial and economic backgrounds joining the rosters of video game companies. However, this growth does not reflect the world we live in. According to BBC, The Creative Skillset Survey, conducted in 2015, revealed only 4% of game designers in the UK come from black or Asian backgrounds, down from 4.7% in 2012, below the national average of 10% across the gaming sector. With the industry rapidly growing, being worth well over $100 billion, which has overtaken the film and music industry combined, it is core to put more diverse individuals at the forefront of game production. An all-white team nowadays is unacceptable, especially those who implement a black or Asian character within their games then stating, “Job Done.” Chella Ramanan, journalist and game designer, says we need more developers who come from minority backgrounds to create a balance of representation.

Historically, video games have been marketed to white teenage boys, who became white middle-aged men, potentially becoming white male game developers, stifling diversity by creating protagonists that reflect themselves. Another study, conducted by the Pew Research Center (PRC) in 2015, revealed that 83% of non-Hispanic Black teenagers play video games compared to 71% of Caucasian and 69% of Hispanic teenagers, emphasizing the need for more diverse teams of game designers. 

Recently, there have been grand steps in racial representation within video games. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, another addition to the Uncharted game franchise, garnered attention not only because of its IP (intellectual property) but due to the protagonists: Nadine Ross, a black South African, and Chloe Frazer, who is Indian. These are two powerful female characters of color who made an appearance in the action genre of gaming following the release of Horizon Zero Dawn: featuring another powerful female protagonist, Aloy, in a post-apocalyptic world. There also titles such as Assassins Creed Origins, set in Egypt and featuring an African protagonist, and Star Wars Battlefront II, who’s central character is voiced by Janina Gavankar, who holds part-Indian heritage.With new advances within the game industry, veering away from the absence or invalidation and demeaning stereotyping of Black, Asian, and LatinX within games due to intentional or unintentional bias, designers are making games that sell without catering to a specific group of gamers. Quartz notes that “57% of video games of 6 and 29 will be people of color in less than 10 years.” Race should not be seen as a drawback, but an opportunity for further creative, imaginative freedom. As Rashad

For years, there has been an utter lack of racial representation within the game industry. With emerging protests, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, video game companies such as Electronic Arts, Epic Games, and Sony released statements proclaiming their alliance with the screams for racial equality. But, although companies state they are progressive, change lies deeper than simple words. There needs to be internal change, alteration to their workforce and the way the industry makes video games. Racial representation also ties in with the need for more inclusion of sexuality in games, such as creating same-sex narratives and implementation trans-friendly character customization options. 

To understand racial representation in the gaming space, we must first understand a sliver of the game industry from a historical context. One of the first games to include a black character was Heavyweight Champ, publicated in 1976 with a remake in 1987. This was a boxing-esque game, giving rise to sports genre confined black characters. Around this time, another game emerged titled Tom Sawyer (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), which features a grotesque representation of a character named Jim. UGO Networks ranked it as #4 of the most racist games in history. But the industry has not only seen problematic games. Games such as Super Mario Bros, released in 1985, iconic, spearheaded the industry, making gaming into a hobby, which then lead to the release of the Gameboy. 

However, as time went on, the game industry grew, with more designers from racial and economic backgrounds joining the rosters of video game companies. However, this growth does not reflect the world we live in. According to BBC, The Creative Skillset Survey, conducted in 2015, revealed only 4% of game designers in the UK come from black or Asian backgrounds, down from 4.7% in 2012, below the national average of 10% across the gaming sector. With the industry rapidly growing, being worth well over $100 billion, which has overtaken the film and music industry combined, it is core to put more diverse individuals at the forefront of game production. An all-white team nowadays is unacceptable, especially those who implement a black or Asian character within their games then stating, “Job Done.” Chella Ramanan, journalist and game designer, says we need more developers who come from minority backgrounds to create a balance of representation.

Historically, video games have been marketed to white teenage boys, who became white middle-aged men, potentially becoming white male game developers, stifling diversity by creating protagonists that reflect themselves. Another study, conducted by the Pew Research Center (PRC) in 2015, revealed that 83% of non-Hispanic Black teenagers play video games compared to 71% of Caucasian and 69% of Hispanic teenagers, emphasizing the need for more diverse teams of game designers. 

Recently, there have been grand steps in racial representation within video games. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, another addition to the Uncharted game franchise, garnered attention not only because of its IP (intellectual property) but due to the protagonists: Nadine Ross, a black South African, and Chloe Frazer, who is Indian. These are two powerful female characters of color who made an appearance in the action genre of gaming following the release of Horizon Zero Dawn: featuring another powerful female protagonist, Aloy, in a post-apocalyptic world. There also titles such as Assassins Creed Origins, set in Egypt and featuring an African protagonist, and Star Wars Battlefront II, who’s central character is voiced by Janina Gavankar, who holds part-Indian heritage.With new advances within the game industry, veering away from the absence or invalidation and demeaning stereotyping of Black, Asian, and LatinX within games due to intentional or unintentional bias, designers are making games that sell without catering to a specific group of gamers. Quartz notes that “57% of video games of 6 and 29 will be people of color in less than 10 years.” Race should not be seen as a drawback, but an opportunity for further creative, imaginative freedom. As Rashad Redic, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Brass Lion Entertainment puts: “Telling these stories isn’t as nice as people think it is. Look at Black Panther. The content is defined by whether it’s entertaining, period.” One example of this is Naughty Dog Studio’s The Last of Us Part 2, which features characters from many different walks of life, which feels natural and refreshing to players. In this game, characters’ races are not the plot point, they are just normal people trying to survive in a Zombieland.  The Last of Us is perfectly implements characters of all races without forcing underlying progressive enforcement by not presenting stereotypical trauma or hate crime due to each character’s background.  

In connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, games such as Animal Crossing: New Horizons became a hub for protesting. Players created BLM shirts, signs, and organized virtual protests. “For those unable to gather outside for in-person demonstrations, the game offers a way for people to still show solidarity virtually,” according to Business Insider. Through organizing protests, players also raised money for six different charities including NAACP, the National Bail Fund Network, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. It is interesting to consider how virtual spaces can become new outlets for generations to express themselves, especially over social media. Another milestone in the gaming industry to note is Warner Brothers’ Avalanche Studio implementing trans-friendly character customization options in their highly anticipated game, Hogwarts Legacy. This abrupt change responded to J.K. Rowling’s statements against transgender people, feeding into the ever-evolving developing representation within the game industry. 

The game industry influences activism and social issues, especially regarding character representation. Rather than focusing solely on the film and music industry from an economic standpoint, in considering the diversity of artists, we must also understand the greater importance of the appearance of people of color within video games. Industries are booming, and we need to make them more diverse. 

“The Views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.” 

Image Source: https://gameluster.com/black-lives-matter-protests-held-in-animal-crossing-new-horizons/ 

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