A new report by Currys PC World into diversity in the gaming industry has found that whilst there has been a positive shift in the representation of race, gender and disability in video games over the last twenty years, there remains “a distinct bias in favour of the young, white, straight male”.
Using a bespoke methodology, the report’s authors analysed “Games of the Year and E3 standouts” and awarded points for equality-positive features, such as female protagonists, LGBTQIA+ characters, disability, and positive representations of black, Asian and minority ethnic characters.
The study concluded that where video game stories are inclusive of disabilities, they are usually presented as physical impairments, and whilst there has been an uptick in the number of games tackling complex issues such as mental health, “nuanced issues, like anxiety and depression, are far less prevalent in games than physical disabilities”. The report also concluded that characters with a physical disability “are often ‘fixed’ in video games”.
However, The Joker in BioWare’s Mass Effect series has Vrolik syndrome (brittleness of the bones), while Grand Theft Auto V’s Lester has an unnamed wasting disease. The report states that despite these disabilities, “both men are fiercely independent in spite of the challenges they face and are not defined by their disabilities”.
“This notion that people with disabilities are broken and need to be fixed – a concept known as the medical model of disability – was rejected and abandoned in the 1970s, yet still persists in media and in games, often through the trope of medical conditions being replaced by superhuman powers or superhuman prosthetics,” added accessibility expert Ian Hamilton. “Moreover, games are often guilty of furthering the myth that a disability is rare, with all the impact that has on broader prejudice and discrimination.”
Ethnic minorities, too, are still underrepresented in games, but things are improving. However, when there are choices to customise playable characters, the default is often white. And though other ethnicities are presented, “it’s also common for them to be type-cast”.
Only 3 per cent of Game Award nominees during 2003-2018 have featured a person of colour as a default protagonist, with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and The Walking Dead being the only games where a playable person of colour is in the story from start to finish.
“The diversity that is applied to white characters is something that is often missing when other races are depicted in games,” said Adam Campbell, co-founder of POC in Play. “Representation still feels incomplete and inconsistent. We’re still also hard pushed to find those protagonists that are not the stereotypical Indiana Jones or the tough, bald, male type, so ‘diversity’ is the exception rather than the rule.”
Despite a reported 189 per cent increase in games featuring playable female characters across the period, fewer than a third of game covers feature a woman in a “prominent position” and when they are included, they are “often sexualised”, such as San Andreas’ cover.
“Female characters have historically been hyper-sexualised for the male gaze in gaming,” says Jay-Ann Lopez, founder of Black Girl Gamers. “You can observe this with the various representations of Lara Croft. I do not believe there is an inherent problem with women being viewed as sexy. However, when it is the only version of women shown, it strips us of our depth and limits us to serving as purely visual objects. Still, there are more and more holistic and nuanced female characters appearing within games.”
However, game covers chiefly promote men, with only 11 per cent of the games surveyed featured women.
In terms of LGBTQIA+ themes, there is better news, as these themes are being explored in gaming narratives more now than ever before. The report highlights both Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) and The Sims (2000) for allowing same-sex partners, but only 11 per cent of GOTY nominees and E3 winners offered “significant LGBTQ+ storylines”, with 2 per cent of these games actively portraying negative representation of LGBTQIA+ people and/or same-sex relationships.