Gaming’s diversity and representation problem

Stories of harassment in creative industries dominated headlines in 2017. Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds were the spark; ever since there have been countless exposés uncovering deplorable behavior in film, TV, technology, and journalism. Gaming hasn’t gotten as much coverage, but that doesn’t make the industry less culpable. In some ways, it’s even worse. As Xbox head Phil Spencer noted in his recent GDC keynote, if the industry isn’t willing to make changes with regards to diversity, inclusion, and harassment, it risks its survival over the long run.

Representation in-game is a weak spot. Only a handful of the top rated Metacritic titles from last year feature a woman or person of color in any significant role. LGBTQ characters are effectively non-existent. And that trend continues when examining the best selling games over the past five years. Admittedly many games don’t feature a human-like protagonist. You’re playing as an anonymous avatar, a vehicle, or a sports team. But for those that do, diverse representation continues to be a rarity.

The diversity of film actors shows how far gaming has to go. Last year, many critically acclaimed films featured diverse casts: Lady Bird, The Florida Project, Columbus, The Shape of Water, The Big Sick, Mudbound, and Get Out. And several international blockbusters star women and people of color. Wonder Woman, Black Panther, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi each generated 700 million or more at the box office.

TV is arguably even more welcoming and inclusive. Mainstream network shows regularly star Asian, Latinx, and African American actors (Fresh Off the Boat, Blackish, Jane the Virgin). When you dive into streaming and cable, the picture looks even better (Atlanta, The Handmaid’s Tale, Transparent, Orange is the New Black). Again, gaming’s representation pales in comparison.

Then there’s the aspect of audience diversity. When we look at who consumes TV and film, both at home and out at theaters, it’s a wide audience spanning ages, geography, and background. Some genres of TV and film attract toxic fans, but for the most part, filmgoers of any race or sexual orientation go to movie theaters and concerts without harassment.

Gaming is spreading to an increasingly wide audience, but that hasn’t stopped toxicity from being a problem. Playing online often presents an outright hostile environment for women, LGBTQ folk, and people of color. Racist and sexist slurs abound on chat. And while Gamergate is behind us, women and minorities are regularly targeted and harassed across social media and streaming platforms. That’s a problem when online multiplayer is increasingly central to PC and console gaming. Of NPD’s ten best-selling games from last year, at least four are multiplayer online only or predominantly online. All except two (Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey) include an online component.

Some might question why gaming should be singled out given systemic discrimination across industries; the TV shows and films listed here are still the exception, not the rule. White men dominate gaming studio management and engineering staff, but the same is true for film directors, producers, and cinematographers. AAA game studios usually rely on ripped Caucasian guys for their central cast, but so do TV shows and movie blockbusters.

Others might see such critiques as needlessly pessimistic when console and PC gaming businesses are doing so well. The PS4 sold over 76 million units. Nintendo is mounting a big comeback with the Switch. And Steam sales generate billions in revenue each year.

But abhorrent behavior in other industries and a bull market for PS4s doesn’t give gaming a free pass. Gaming shouldn’t require public outrage to take similar introspection. There’s a long road ahead, especially when we examine the makeup of in-game characters and online communities. If gaming wants to grow, to be treated with the same reverence as other critical media, change isn’t an option, it’s essential.