Diversity and Representation, two words that have been pretty much inescapable in media over the last few years. These words have penetrated every aspect of geekdom, from video games and comics to tabletop roleplay games, dominating conversations about everything from character creation and art style to story structure and gameplay mechanics.
When we talk about diversity there is often some confusion about how, as a concept, it differs from representation in the context of media. So with little ado and with only a tiny amount of the slightly self indulgent academic wankery that can sometimes be found surrounding these terms we’ll quickly take a look at what they actually mean.
Diversity refers to media having a range of characters encompassing dimensions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, age, physical abilities, religious beliefs, political beliefs, or other ideologies.
Representation refers to the choices that media make in their depictions of individuals or groups in media. This encompasses the signals used to highlight certain aspects, such as dress, speech, movement and prop placement, which the audience then decode to garner information and catagorise characters within short spaces of time. A representation is a construction of reality, a perspective on a screen, and is therefore never completely accurate. It can be as simple as dressing a character in scrubs to signify that a person works in a hospital, despite the fact that only certain people in hospitals wear scrubs. Where representation starts to get complicated is when people feel that the groups to which they belong are not represented enough, or that those representations are inaccurate or damaging.
So just how important is diversity in video games? Well that depends on your point of view. Some Geek media critics purvey this idea that people are only able to relate to characters that they share identity traits with, such as gender or race. Others blame lack of diversity in character designs for certain groups moving away from gaming. There then comes pressure on creators to meet demands for diversity, and accusations of bigotry if they do not comply, or worse, get it wrong.
Now there may be some truth to the idea that we connect more easily with characters that look like us, or that we share identity traits with, and that it makes it easier for us to imagine ourselves as part of the story. Truthfully I doubt it’s that simple. Connections with characters on the basis of identity traits are important to some, shallow to others. Am I supposed to connect with Lara Croft because, like me, she is a white British woman? Perhaps on a superficial level. However on the other hand in every incarnation of Lara she is also described as athletic, upper class, wealthy and highly educated, all things that I am not. On deeper levels we actually have very little in common and that also shapes whether or not I relate to Lara in the context of certain situations. Certainly in the current incarnation I can empathise with a young women struggling with uncertainty trying to carve a place for herself in the world, but the money and the desire to poke around old dangerous places to look for very old bits of tat? Yeah not so much.
Every character is a representation, a perception or interpretation based on the choices of the creator, it is also worth remembering that the audience then filters that character through their own perceptions, forming their own interpretation. We can be aware of what the creator intended and still perceive the character in a completely different way, imposing our own values and aspects of identity onto characters or stories in a way that it’s creators don’t expect. I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with that, it’s all part of being a fan and is the very basis for concepts like fanfiction and fanart. If a consumer chooses to diversify media that they enjoy by viewing it in the context of a character having a particular identity trait that the creator did not intend? That’s fine. However that’s a personal interpretation, and nobody else is in any way required to share that point of view. Certainly when all is said and done, and excluding player avatar based games, the gamer becomes the game character, not the other way around.
My perspective has always been that diversity as a concept is something of a double-edged sword. While it may seem simple enough on the surface, just throwing in what you would consider a diverse character and then nodding in satisfaction at your progressiveness is likely to do a lot more harm than good. Character diversity can widen the scope and variety of video game stories, helping to create rich and vibrant worlds full of interesting people to interact with. A danger of diversity established through creator coercion is that it can become pandering tokenism. Having black characters in your game can make it seem diverse, but what if those characters are nothing but massive stereotypes?
While having characters that encompass all of the dizzying varieties listed above in the definition may satisfy the demands of diversity is it really enough without character depth? A developer can give any character a minority status on a superficial level. They can just make them black or female or transgender in an attempt to placate those with the agenda of identity politics. But just having them there isn’t enough, each character has to interact with the world around them partly through the lens of that status. These are not just character ice cream flavours we’re talking about, these are fundamental aspects of identity. Basic identity characteristics are the very foundational building blocks of the individual self. I am a woman, that is not my entire personality but it is one of the major aspects of who I am and how I perceive the world around me. Therefore I would expect any character that is a woman to have that built into her being, again not the whole but one of the many facets of personhood. I would also expect this to reflect in her perceptions of the environment, situation and interactions within the world she inhabits. I may not relate to her any more than I would if she were not a woman but I would at least be enjoying a story with fully fleshed out and well rounded characters.
And that’s where we get to the meat of the problem, that kind of character depth and structure takes real skill to create. Diversity on it’s own is meaningless, it needs good writing to back it up and that kind of care and consideration can ONLY come from diversity that has come about organically from the creator. If a creator feels that they are not skilled or knowledgeable enough to incorporate diversity into their games at the level expected by media critics then is shaming them into including token diversity actually going to solve anything? This isn’t to say that any character considered part of a minority group needs any special attention or particular writing. ALL characters, regardless of their given identity traits or background, should be given the due care and attention required to be considered well written. If characters are unable to write the characters that they want without pressure from critics then isn’t that just censorship and bullying disguised in the festive wrapping paper of making gaming more inclusive?
The concept of diversity within geek media is by no means a bad thing, when done well it can be a very good thing for variety, enrichment of storytelling and helping gamers from minority groups feel more a part of the medium and community. However it MUST go hand in hand with the good writing, creativity and consideration that should go into writing any character. If game journalists and pop culture critics continue to use the concept of diversity as a cudgel to beat creators and their audiences with then they will continue to create divisions within the gaming community as gamers rally against what they see as the terrorising of developers and the suppression of their freedom to create the characters that they choose. This kind of divisive behaviour also runs the risk of scaring away talented creators from the medium. Game developers and writers currently walk the knife edge between satisfying gamers and placating game critics, risking commercial failure or media blackout and condemnation if they get either one wrong. As a community diversity is our asset, with the right encouragement that asset can be reflected in the games that we enjoy. Maybe we just need more of the carrot, and less of the stick.
Thanks for reading