Representation: Make Your Own, Vote with Your Wallet
Here’s a comic that I drew up to explain my grievances with these counter-arguements I’ve seen popping up. I’ll write more in text here.
I don’t want to stop anyone from making their own games. Making games is a hard, incredibly rewarding creative task, and you should never stop making games, ever. You want to see a game that is totally your thing, your own brainchild go out into the world for people to enjoy? Do it. Make that game, and share with the world more culture than ever before. There is nothing stopping you from making your own game except time and effort.
But one person’s games, that’s just one voice in a million. As a gay person (and I cannot speak for anyone else but my own gay self), I grew up without any gay protagonists, with the constant background radiation of “Straight Is Normal”. Every romance, every love interest, every single character who wasn’t a joke or a villain, straight. I couldn’t share a part of me that was vitally important to me, and nobody knew what being gay meant, since there were no positive gay characters in the media we were consuming. If I made a game with a gay main character, that would still be one game in tens of thousands. It wouldn’t reach a wide audience, and there wouldn’t be the presence in media that is sorely required. I would need to have a marketing campaign, and millions of dollars I don’t have to reach the audience who really needs this representation.
Because this isn’t about one game, this isn’t about any particular game. This is about culture in general. Children will grow up playing straight leads and create straight leads in their own games. They won’t think “Hey, maybe I should make this lead gay” because that’s not what they grew up playing. We imitate what we’ve learnt, and we create building blocks with which we craft stories. The gun toting veteran soldier is always male, the princess who needs saving is always female, the hero is always straight and always gets the girl.
But what if we made sure that wasn’t the case? What if the hero had a gay love interest, what if the princess was a dude, what if the gun toting vet was a lady? What if we explore these avenues, construct a more complex narrative and not just rehash the same narratives we ourselves played as children?
We shout loudly for this to happen, decry wasted opportunities because we need to. Because if we don’t bring it to the attention of the people making the games, nobody will. We cannot remain passive consumers - “only play the games you like” only counts if there are games that represent us - and if there are parts of those games we find hurt us, we can still love those games and recognise the hurtful bits. I do not want to boycott games with problematic elements - that will ensure only bad games get made. How do you make money speak the necessary things we have to say?
(As a footnote, I will explain how money talks. Money is a language all of it’s own, and it is a very simple language. If you give someone money for doing something, you are saying “I support the thing you are doing”. If you do not give them money, you aren’t really saying anything, as it could be anything from “I don’t support this at all!” to “Eh, I wasn’t invested enough to lay down money” to “I wanted to support you, but I couldn’t.”. Now, if someone made a really really good game, but it had an insulting or degrading depiction of your group inside it, and you really liked the game, would you buy it? Would you not buy it? If you bought it, you are supporting the status quo - they will continue to do anyway. If you didn’t buy it, they might think “Wow, we need to not do a game like this ever again” and not even consider that the problematic elements were the problem. Money is too crude of a language to get this across.)
So, we are left with the only avenue that is viable for us: Actual Dialogue and Critique. Where we are free to say “I really liked this game, but it had problematic elements in it”, and discuss the things that went wrong in the game. Now, critique is not the same as censorship. With censorship, you remove the media from the public’s eye as soon as possible, so that their eyes are not offended by it. I do not want this. I cannot stress enough that I do not want this. Censorship is a regressive and counterproductive tactic, which does not help us learn from our mistakes and missteps. If we censored every piece of art that had mistakes, we would stagnate.
Critique, on the other hand, is the honing of skills and behaviour through discussion of the implementation of such behaviour. Just like an artist can recieve critique on anatomy,a writer can recieve critique on representation. A poor artist draws what they think something looks like, a poor writer writes what they think something acts like. And just like a poor artist can avoid drawing body parts they have no skill in drawing, a poor writer can avoid including people they know nothing about. Representation is simply another way we can improve the quality of our games - with proper representation comes richer, more varied casts.
I want to stress again that critique is forward thinking, not backward thinking. When we say, say, that Assassin’s Creed: Unity has four identical white males and that’s boring and samey - it is a critique of the game itself. It is a flaw that perhaps Ubisoft can learn from, and if we didn’t point it out, they would be none the wiser about it. Ignoring flaws is just as bad as censorship - both ways we learn nothing about it. Would you like to see a game industry filled with nothing but grizzly Doom Marines? If nobody pointed that out, the industry would blindly make more Doom Marines, because that’s what would sell. But once we’ve pointed out the samey Doom marines, or the four white lads, future games can be made that have an eye to this critique, and it can only benefit everyone. Sure, there will still be problematic games, but we are only human, and we are still allowed to enjoy those games. But I think the game industry can be better, and it needs to be told where it is going wrong. Those games that it creates, they will still exist for you to enjoy. They will always exist, and they will be fun.
I know you want creative freedom, and I do too, but the industry makes a profit from creating games geared with marketing and not just a little cynicism. By having better representation, we open up avenues for more voices, more varied creators to have their say, not just the ones that “sell at the moment”, as executives, the ones that are really in charge of the creative decisions, are a frightened and conservative lot. If we show them that no, we won’t stand for this lack of representation, they will have to reconsider their cynical and conservative marketing avenues. And we can’t do this by money alone. Money can only take us part of the way there, and for the rest of it, the vast majority, we need…
REAL FUCKING DIALOGUE.
I bet even some of you out there are still skeptical, like, why do we even need better representation, games are fine as they are. I’m not here to tell you that you can’t enjoy games. I’m not here to tell you that games aren’t important, or aren’t art, or should be a lame minority rainbow, or that all games should be Captain Planet and the Planeteers, where social consciousness is the deal of the day, all day, every day. I think that would be terrible. But what I do want? I want gay heroes to be just as normal and ordinary as straight heroes. I want black heroes to be unnotable and accepted. I want female heroes, I want trans heroes. I want characters that stick in people’s minds as normal. There is no “Special Snowflake Patrol” wanting to make every hero be an intersection with every marginalised group.
I just… want to be normal. I don’t want to have to shout, or campaign, or point out Straight White Male Protagonist #6753 as being yet another wasted opportunity.
I want to be normal. I want to be able to walk down the street with my boyfriend, holding hands, without people recalling all the regressive stereotypes that they have seen in the media and informed themselves about my sexuality.
I want to be normal. I want to be the hero sometimes, I want to be the villain sometimes. I want great gay romance, I want terrible gay romance. I want to pick up a straight-to-DVD animated movie and sometimes see gay characters just existing, being gay, without it being notable or anything.
But that will never happen if I just make my own media and just passively consume the media that most closely fits me. Not existing in media I enjoy is not good enough for me. I refuse to be a passive consumer. This solution needs
And if we need to get a little loud to be heard over the roar, well, that’s just what we’ll have to do. Why not join in, so that we can fix this problem sooner, and we can all rest and enjoy making our own games, while enjoying games made by teams of people with far more money than we’ll ever see in our lifetimes? After all, it must be great to see a big budget game with a romance that you can connect with. I wish I could play one!
And even though I’m gay, and not a person of colour, female, or transgender, I still want them to feel the same thing I’m striving for. That’s what equality is all about. I’ll help them, they’ll help me, and if you help as well, to strike up dialogue, to critique, to discuss and deconstruct, we’ll get there.
We’ll get nowhere just passively consuming. Let us
UPDATE: My good friend Samael inked the comic for me! It looks much better now!