Quarter-Slots & Joysticks: On Gender and Body Diversity in Video Games

Sims 4 allow players to make trans and gender nonconforming people in latest installment

In the world of video games players can be virtually anyone or anything in any conceivable atmosphere. The possibilities are endless where players can be space pirates, creatures, or ominous figures altering the paths of several characters.

However, the lack of inclusivity is concerning even in 2017 when we have a variety of platforms. Gaming culture is a phenomenon that is widely accepting globally.

Gaming has grown more widely acceptable and it not uncommon to enter a household in the global north that has a console present in the home. It makes me question the state of the protagonist. We’ve had characters as simple as Pac-Man to Link from the Zelda series to the various protagonists of Square soft/ Square Enixin the Final Fantasy series. We’ve gone from 8-bit, 2-dimensional side scrollers to immersive worlds that can be optimized with VR experience. However due to the internet age, the expansiveness of video games is an undeniable cultural force that influences comics, movies, and products. So I beg to ask why are the characters so numbingly the same? In 2017 there’s a lack of representation in gaming; in terms of gender roles, people of color and sexuality.

Video games as a medium is relatively young. The first video game originated in 1958 by American physicist, William Higinbotham. The game was introduced to the world October 18, 1958, in Brookhaven Lab, on a visitor’s day at the lab where he was working. The first arcades appeared in the 1970s, usually with pinballs the first widely known game was Computer Space,however the gateway game that attracted a larger audience was Pong,released in the summer of 1972. There was a resurgence of the first home console in 1972 with the “Magnavox Odyssey”. Later Namco’s Pac-manarrived, giving the world a video game’s first protagonist. Since then we have seen the rise of companies like “Sega” and “Nintendo”. We’ve seen the rise of console systems in the 90s (Nintendo 64, Playstation, Sega Dreamcast, and more )and handheld devices (Nintendo “Gameboy”, “Gameboy Color”) over the course of several generations. Video games which were once limited to local arcades and over priced consoles are now accessible on web browsers and most recently on cellphones. Video game consumers are no longer just among white males, but rather the target market has expanded with their audience which are now teenage girls, people of color, and people in the LGBTQIA community.

Growing up in the nineties with a father for a self-professed nerd, I was not unaware of the various gaming console systems. We had a Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and a Sony Playstation. I had been exposed to platformers such as Spyro The Dragon and Banjo and Kazooie. I sparred in, Soul Calibur, andStreet Fighter Alpha series with my family members. I readily played adventure games like Tomb Raider and the Pokemon Stadium series. Growing up I could be a Pokemon trainer, an archeologist, or the greatest female fighter in the world.

However, as I got older my relationship to gaming grew more complicated as the characters I had grown to love were rapidly changing. Female characters were prizes to be won and lusted after for their pixelated beauty. Lara Croft of Eidos Tomb Raider, who I grew up rummaging through jungles and deadly-trapped temples, became more “sexy” in skintight outfits. Tecmo’s Dead or Alive, had a diverse roster of female fighters that were overshadowed by the incentive cutscenes and outrageous mods.

Female fighters in Tecmo’s Dead or ALive series

Another genre that I find myself attracted during my teens was RPGs. My beloved Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts were my gateways.

My favorite protagonist Rikku, smiled coyly and always found themselves in trouble. Rikku classified as the thief in the respective series was cunning and swift, she made her debut as a bilingual mechanic in Final Fantasy X. However, with the Final Fantasy X-2 sequel, she became a bit ditzier and sported a very revealing outfit. Her desirability overshadowed her skillset which was once harnessed to the fullest in the previous game.

My love of RPGs had grown and I continued playing the genre, when I was old enough I got a copy of Fable. I fell in love with the open world of gameplay and the story. Although, I encountered an issue as my female protagonist couldn’t be unattractive without people adding that to her moral alignment. So how do you make them more attractive or in this case more “good”? You keep them healthy, which in this case means slim with an hourglass figure. You can choose an array of weapons in this game, but the lack of armor was unsettling. Like the aforementioned heroines, they’re all athletic and toned; a leather bustier and skirt is not gonna help me save the world on all occasions, I just wish we could convince game developers that. I am hopeful with the steadily increasing popularity of the series Overwatch, which has a roster of female characters that players can select that from varying nationalities, body types, and ages. This is a great step in the right direction to move away from the light skinned, slender, female archetype that is the norm.

As media consumer in the age of Black Lives Matter, who is an African American, I have been more increasingly aware of how pervasive media is distributed worldwide. In transparency as an adult, I am not only beginning to completely understand that videogames are not exempt. While there are countless of racist tropes still found within all styles of games, I am only going to highlight a few.

The “savage” archetype; this character is often bestowed some magical power, the race is assumed to be aboriginal/indigenous/African. Dark in skin complexion, wearing clothes that are reminiscent of tribal people and often adorned with lots of jewelry and tribal face paint. These characters utilize magical powers tied to natural elements. Their role may be a shaman or priest.

Black characters in video games are always seen as concerning, hypersexual or hyper aggressive. A stereotype prominently seen in video games is male black characters are usually hyper-aggressive while their female counterparts are hypersexual. Both types of characters harp on comic cliches like the brute and the jezebel seen in a blaxploitation era. See; Barrett from Final fantasy 7, Tiger Jackson and Christie Monteiro from Tekken franchise.

It should be noted that Asian characters by default are either Japanese or Chinese. Orientalism is normalized with the prominence of Asian characters fulfilling the roles of Kung-fu/ninja warrior, schoolgirl, or seductress. See: Asian character’s in Tecmo’s Dead or Alive series and Namco’s Tekkenfranchise . These three tropes are commonly seen in fighting games. A reminder that video games as a whole has a white male protagonist problem. If there are characters of color they are either pushed to the margins or have story arcs that are not well developed.

The tropes stated above also go hand in hand with racism and sexism which has a large historical context often seen in contemporary aspects of media.

Sheva Alomar’s tribal costume in Capcom’s Resident Evil 5

Another thing that alarms me about video games is that the lack of gender diversity and non-heteronormative sexual orientations. In most life simulations, role playing games or adventures, the first step in the game is to create your character. The ‘create your character’ screen gives you several attributes to design your virtual avatar that you will play the game. Games that have this feature are the later installments of Grand Theft Auto, Pokemonhandheld games, and The Sims. These three series only allow players to play humanoids. Either be male or female, which is very binarism. Binarism in the body types, facial structures, and hair lengths. For an example; until the most recent install of EA’s The Sims franchise, people could not create characters of varying gender expressions. With this latest update, all clothing and hairstyles are gendered neutral. As we are making more steps towards more inclusive medium, game developers make the gross assumption that players want to play with heterosexual characters. While LGBTQIA issues are being championed globally, only few game titles reflect that you can have same-sex marriages in The FalloutThe Sims, and Fable series. These series all allow you to create families, gaming over there still has ways to go in terms of nonmonogamy and compulsory heterosexuality. While marriage is not the be all-end all of LGBTQIA issues it would be nice to see non-hetero characters normalized, as straight relationships are incentivized often in game play and media.

In conclusion, gaming has a long way to go in terms of diversity, with new Kickstarter campaigns and accessible tools. It’s great to see gamers everywhere take a shot at game programming and development. Indie games of the recent years have gained prominence. We’ve seen games take a turn from disc-based to being available through online shops via console or web browser. Content creators do not have to wait to be published by game publishers to fit any archetype of what is mainstream. I hope with that we see more content that is anti-racist, queer friendly, and body positive. That’s the beauty of the medium of videogames is that you can create any reality and the inhabitants. I do not want to assume that game developers are racist or sexist because they made poor development choices. I do believe that mainstream developers underestimate the demographics of their audience, often being overwhelmed with sales. I hope that content creators feel empowered to make games that do not fit the norm of whiteness, heteronormativity and slenderness.

Author: Brittney Maddox

Editor: Ammaarah Mookadam

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Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a med student tuned Executive Director of Off Colour!

You’ve probably seen her on Twitter and TikTok, both @MxKantEven, or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels.

From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.

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