This article appeared in Develop Magazine's December/January issue.
I first found Iran’s fascinating catalogue of games while researching propaganda in graduate school. The one that really stood out to me was Quest of Persia. The game centres on the ongoing conflict between Iraq and Iran. It was not the first time I’d seen Iraqis depicted as antagonists, but it was certainly the first time I’d seen Iranians as the good guys. As I continued to probe, I found that there were not only gamesdepicting regional conflict, but also games reversing the role of Arab and American.
The same ‘us vs. them’ narrative used in so many western titles where white men are good and brown men are bad was being used in reverse. And it makes sense; as a gamer you want to see yourself as the protagonist,
but what if you look more like the other team?
Women have recently been the focus of the ‘diversity in games’ conversation, but it’s not often that we consider diversity beyond gender. As sizable communities of colour and growing immigrant populations play more games, they provide game developers with new audiences and opportunities for engagement and revenue.
In mass entertainment media, minority representation has grown and been applauded, but the games industry – a bastion of innovation in so many areas – has fallen behind. If minorities are underrepresented in games, then the implication is that people like them are outsiders, and so they are outsiders in the gaming community, too. But why should developers care? The bottom line: their bottom line.
On the surface, it may seem unreasonable to task developers with changing perceptions of race and skin colour. Isn’t their job to make good games that offer compelling and fun experiences? It’s true that they are not solely responsible for changes to racial and ethnic perception, but acceptance is bred from representation. TV networks, production companies and record labels have increasingly incorporated and served minority consumers, understanding the growing profile of their audiences.
Through these efforts, women and people of colour like Mindy Kaling and Trevor Noah have reached out to new audiences while still resonating with white Americans.
The more people who feel at home in the gaming community, the more opportunities there are for monetisation.
Acceptance abets a stronger sense of belonging, and the more people who feel at home in the gaming community, the more opportunities there are for participation, engagement and monetisation.
The games industry still struggles to be taken seriously, and one way it is trying to change that is by aligning itself with other media. Games are not just about games anymore: gaming video content, eSports, brand participation, and virtual reality are all ways in which the industry has reached outside itself for a larger audience and an expanding presence of validity. But the greater its exposure, and the more diverse its audience, the more developers and publishers need to adapt in order to see a return on investment.
THE PERCENTAGE GAME
More than a quarter of US gamers are non-white, with the console audience boasting 31 per cent. Console games are the least likely to feature non- white protagonists and account for 18 per cent of the US market. But fewer than five per cent of big titles feature a main character who is not white, with most of those protagonists being African-American. Meanwhile, Hispanics represent the highest minority gamer group at ten per cent, while just eight per cent are black, and yet they are far underrepresented as protagonists and overrepresented as antagonists. If you dig even deeper, you still won’t find Middle Eastern protagonists whose ethnicity does not hinge on the narrative. In fact, Middle Easterners are most likely among minorities to be antagonists in combat gameplay.
Treating games as media serves to push engagement because the more involved gamers are, the more effectively they monetise. But limiting the access brands have to different demographic profiles limits advertising opportunities. Players of all backgrounds need to feel they are invited to participate in order to settle into a community, and until they feel a part of that community, they are less likely to invest their hard-earned cash.
I’ve never known what it’s like to play as a protagonist with my ethnic background. I’ve fought against Colombians and Lebanese, but never as one. I’ve never imagined that the pride I get as a woman playing as Elizabeth in Bioshock Infinite or Faith in Mirror’s Edge could extend to seeing my culture shine onscreen. And when I have the opportunity to, I’m definitely buying that game.