Diversity! It’s good for a stock portfolio, it’s good for a diet, and it’s good for video games. It makes sense, as gamers are themselves a diverse lot. A 2015 survey by PEW Research found that half of all men play video games, while about half of all women game. Likewise, about half of all white people play games, while meanwhile just over half of all black people and all Hispanic people encantan los videojuegos. Gaming is the entertainment of the people, but still many games do not reflect this. Year in and year out it seems like we see the same recycled protagonist, a thirty-something white man with a tight haircut and five o’clock shadow, who just wants justice, at any cost.
Another survey, conducted by four universities, found that any given character in a video game has an 80% chance of being a white male and, if that character is the protagonist, it jumps to 85%. I don’t know about you, but if I walked down to the grocery store and encountered almost nothing but thirty-something white men with heavy stubble and nothing left to lose, I’d probably go straight back home and turn all the lights out. I’ve played this game before, and people like me almost never make it to the end. While diversity isn’t the only rubric that determines whether a game will be good or bad, successful examples give a breath of fresh air to an industry struggling to find originality.
Lately many indie developers have been addressing the issue of representation in video games, but not all attempts are successful, and not all successes find a wide audience. When bigger companies take a swing at diversity, the impact is often much greater, for good or bad. Here are ten big name video games that got diversity right and ten that didn’t quite hit the mark.
20 Got It: Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic
Knights of the Old Republic, by company BioWare (keep them in mind), is one of those titles that seems to come up as an example for many positive shifts in the gaming industry. It gave us the first really fulfilling morality system, more side-quests and in-game lore than we knew what to do with, and the first lesbian in both video games and the Star Wars universe.
Juhani is an alien cat Jedi who was almost cut from the game, but was restored late in development. For a time, she was a romantic option for both male and female avatars, but this was corrected as a bug and, in the final version of the game, she is only romantically available to women. While the relationship isn’t as explicit as with heterosexual romances in the game, the explicit inclusion of a queer character in a Star Wars game was a giant leap for 2003.
19 Didn't: Mass Effect Andromeda
BioWare, for its highs and lows, is the major company making the effort to be more inclusive in its games. The Mass Effect series has largely been successful at this inclusivity. To many, though, the character of Hainly Abrams, an NPC who reveals herself to be transgender, felt like a shoehorned inclusion. In a conversation with the character, Hainly reveals her birth name, often referred to by trans people as a dead name, as though it hardly mattered. For real life trans people, some will never reveal their dead name and few would share that information with a stranger.
After some dialogue with gamers who found the scene tone-deaf, BioWare announced that they will alter the conversation between Hainly and Ryder, so that she will “only reveal certain information to Ryder after they have developed trust and only if the player chooses to support her.” This is a sensitive way to accept and correct a mistake.
18 Got It: Telltale's The Walking Dead
While the show has at times been criticized for centering the action around, you guessed it, thirty-something white men with sandpaper face and haunted eyes, Telltale Games’ installment in The Walking Dead universe is one of the rare examples of understated representation. We’ve talked about how cool Lee is as a playable character, but it’s also amazing that he is a black man, depicted as a leader and a father-figure. And then there’s Clem, an ethnically ambiguous young girl whose development is more intricate and engaging than almost any other character in gaming.
Then there’s Michonne, enough said. In the current season, we play as Javier Garcia, a hispanic man. This means that out of four major protagonists, two are women, none are white. This is no small feat for any mainstream story and the game itself only benefits from this diversity.
17 Didn't: Resident Evil 5
Sometimes, context is everything. Capcom definitely didn’t take context into account when setting Resident Evil 5 in a village in Africa. Call it cultural ignorance, call it insensitivity, but playing a white man killing hundreds of native Africans didn’t exactly play well outside of Japan in the year after Barack Obama was elected President.
While the game does not precisely show racism, it definitely uses African imagery and black faces to threaten the player, and expects this threat to be met with violence. It was a poorly made design choice in a tumultuous moment and the game still makes our list for one of the most racially insensitive games of all time.
16 Got It: Overwatch
When Blizzard Entertainment decided to develop a game that would take place on Earth, they had the foresight to realize that Earth is just as diverse a place as Azeroth. Overwatch features considered representation. Of the 24 playable heroes, half are white, half are not, about half are women, about half are men, and there’s even non-gendered options. The character skillsets are not based on gender stereotypes and the queer character isn’t Zarya.
This game has gotten a lot of love since its release, and one of the major reasons why is that gamers who have never seen themselves represented as heroes are finally able to connect with a unique character. That the gameplay encourages these disparate characters to work together as a team is just a bonus.
15 Didn't: Watch Dogs
This game about contemporary cyber warfare caught some major criticism for its portrayal of people of color. The only important non-white character is a master hacker and blackmailer, but he ends up being nothing more important than an easy boss fight. His gang, the Black Viceroys, are depicted as violent thugs, a la The Wire. Unlike in The Wire, the racial and cultural context of gangs goes unexplored and so the Viceroys are left depicting a very bleak vision of blackness in America.
Watch Dogs was also called out for its misuse of female characters as plot points. Of five significant women in the game, four die in order to further the plot. Watch Dogs brought the concept of hacking and technology in games right to the present day, but sadly its pessimistic viewpoint did little to actually bring it up to date.
14 Got It: Watch Dogs 2
The sequel, however, shows how a diverse cast can really bring a game to life. Watch Dogs 2 takes quite a nuanced approach to its representation of black characters, not least by casting the protagonist as a black man. The game derives some of its more incisive moments by confronting Marcus with racism, at one moment having a car AI tell him his skin is too dark to scan. What it nails is shifting the viewpoint to show the effect of subtle racism on a person of color.
The game also features an incredible range of young people from different backgrounds, many of them minorities or disadvantaged, coming together under a similar ideology to change the world. Watch Dogs 2 might not be a perfect example of representation, but it is one of the first games to really consider how minorities actually make up a large part of any resistance movement.
13 Didn't: Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto is like the South Park of video games. You expect it to be crass and offensive on all fronts. It relies on the old comedian’s defense, “I don’t hate [insert type of person here], I hate everybody!” It’s a hyperviolent satire, after all, of our culture. After a review of the game sparked a huge internet debate about GTA’s violent treatment of women, ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community, gamers were left divided and frustrated.
The cultural fallout of a Grand Theft Auto game is a good touchstone for the state of gaming. I remember when I was GTA III was dominating news cycles, when San Andreas came under fire for the infamous Hot Coffee mod, and GTA IV for drunk driving. While some may argue that the inclusion of a particular group represents growing diversity, Grand Theft Auto is not interested in any positive representation and certainly doesn't seem to need it.
12 Got It: Sleeping Dogs
As if to prove that open-world crime games don’t have to be horrible to people, Sleeping Dogs draws from the vibrant violence of 1980's Chinese action movies to inspire its Hong Kong set game. This game, like GTA, is full of satire and parody, but it represents one of the most underrepresented groups in video games, Asian Americans. Peppered with references to Chinese culture, such as the recurring use of the number 4, Sleeping Dogs does a very rare thing in respecting not only its source material, but the people playing the game who are perhaps seeing parts of their culture celebrated in a video game for the first time.
While the game is still hyper-violent, it does a pretty good job of respecting both Asian and Asian American cultures, as well as exploring the differences between the two.
11 Didn't: Punch Out!!
Now, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! was released in 1987, a whole thirty years ago. It’s well known for using some pretty reductive stereotypes for its fighters, as well as a character model for Trainer Doc Louis that is definitely derived from racist imagery. It was a sign that times have changed when the game was remade for Nintendo Wii, with the only fundamental change to the characters being the removal of final boss Mike Tyson, who turned out to be a rapist.
The Escapist’s 2009 review of the Punch-Out!! reboot calls out this stagnant use of stereotypes the majority of us have progressed from. The French fighter, ready to surrender, the effeminate Spaniard, the Japanese boxer who shouts nonsense Japanese between fights, the Indian in a tiger skin, the drunk Russian, all seem much more obviously offensive in the same year that Resident Evil 5 was provoking new discussion about how video games represent race and culture.
10 Got It: Guacamelee!
Guacamelee! was released in 2013 and you might have missed it, despite its 10/10 rating on Steam and 9.1 from IGN. It is a pure celebration of Mexican and Southwestern culture, drawing not only on the aesthetics of luchadores and Dia de los Muertos, but on the deep mythology that underlies these cultures. Many of the jokes seem tongue-in-cheek, Spanish language puns abound, but many jokes and references in the game only make sense if you understand Spanish, and some of them even require an understanding of the culture.
While the development team of Guacamelee was primarily Canadian, they put a lot of care into actively representing and celebrating a culture that does not often see itself celebrated in video games. The game stands with a number of other successful indie titles as a good example of how to respect source material when engaging with other countries’ cultures.
9 Didn't: Final Fantasy VII
We’ve already talked about Barrett as an incredibly problematic character in Final Fantasy VII, but that’s not the only thing that everyone’s favorite RPG gets wrong. Late in the game, depending on some player decisions, Cloud goes on a date with another character. While it is unlikely, Barrett is a possibility. At one moment, Cloud and date are named the 100th couple of the day, and go on to act in a play that lets Cloud be a dashing hero. If Barrett is the date, that whole sequence is skipped, because who would play the damsel? Then Barrett accuses Cloud of being a pedophile out of nowhere, getting really awkward, and shooting his gun.
Also, remember the kinda non-consensual gay orgy? If Cloud picks the Group Room in the Honey Bee Inn, a bunch of men force Cloud to “bathe” with them. When one of them asks how it feels, the only options are “...” and “It hurts.”
8 Got It: Life Is Strange
Life is Strange is really unique for a game in that it mostly involves relationships between young women. While a lot of the entries on this list have made progress in representing different cultures, none of them have done much service by women. The relationship between Max and Chloe is complicated and ambiguous, and has been the subject of much interpretation. The game also directs a lot of the player’s attention to bullying, sexism, mental illness, and violence against women in a way that games very rarely take time for.
That’s not to say the game is spotless. It steers clear of ever making the lesbian tension explicitly romantic unless the player has decided to sacrifice that relationship for the good of the town, and the school in which the game is set is white as a sheet of paper.
7 Didn't: BioShock Infinite
People got very excited when BioShock Infinite seemed to be a critical examination of America’s racist history, particularly after the original's searing look at capitalism. Booker Dewitt participated in the massacre at Wounded Knee and his participation in the overturning of Columbia’s racist society allows him to atone for a part of those sins. But many feel that Infinite shows a cartoon of America’s racist past, a pastiche of 1950s conservative values and actual slavery. By doing this, it reduces racism to a backdrop and doesn’t really engage with the material it is bringing up.
Critics also point out that Elizabeth is not able to fight, except to kill another woman and is only marginally more developed than a princess locked in a tower. The other point, which follows, is that if Elizabeth is so good at picking locks, why does she even need Booker?
6 Got It: Undertale
Undertale does diversity as a matter of course. The game casts no judgments on characters who are attracted to characters of the same gender and indeed the protagonist remains famously ungendered, being identified only as “a kid.” The Underground’s leading scientist is a queer woman dinosaur, with a crush on the (also female) general. The game explores the ethics of violence and genocide.
Undertale has been a boon to progressive gamers partly because it does its representation without expecting praise. Creator Toby Fox tosses in journal entries for a ghost that read as similarly to transgender narratives, plays with the romantic attraction across gender, and he doesn’t care if you notice. This type of effortless representation is a new benchmark for games and has created one of the most passionate and diverse fan-bases on the internet.
5 Didn't: Spanish For Everyone
Some of the games on this list have missed the mark, but this entry uniquely backfires as it is a game that ostensibly teaches a language, while simultaneously being super racist against the people who speak that language.
Spanish for Everyone begins with a young blond white boy playing games who has his brother’s Nintendo DS accidentally stolen by Miguel, who gets into his dad’s limo and crosses the border back to Mexico, followed in close pursuit by two cop cars. Then a predatory aunt pops up and offers to drop off this kid in Tijuana and leaves him to learn some Spanish from a talking bull and a guy named Tio Juan who is definitely involved with a drug cartel, the boss of which is Miguel’s father. The depiction of Mexico in this game is outrageously offensive, especially for what is supposed to be a child’s educational game.
4 Got It: 2064: Read Only Memories
If you have heard of 2064: Read Only Memories, you probably have an opinion already. This game was attacked by some for its heavy-handed social commentary and explicit pro-LGBTQ content, but the inclusiveness of this game provided many young people comfort and validation by creating a world that is less violent towards queer people.
Players are asked to provide their personal pronouns from a list of he/her/they/xe/ze and also allowing a custom pronoun. Many characters in the game are some manner of gender nonconforming or otherwise queer. The game, which was funded on Kickstarter, is very pointedly queer friendly. The plot, however, is a cyberpunk neo-noir that explores what the tangled relationship between humanity and technology in a world of biohacks and cybernetic implants. This takes the fore, allowing the LGBTQ community to feel actively represented without excluding gamers who are looking to the game for a solid story.
3 Didn't: Super Mario Bros.
It would be easy enough to argue that Mario games reinforce stereotypes about helpless damsels who bake cake upon being rescued. The Legend of Zelda series has featured capable female characters for decades, after all. Or to argue that Daisy would have been super cute as a person of color or that Mario Party is a secret tool to tear people apart. But really, my major issue is Birdo.
Birdo, you may or may not know, is one of the most maligned transgender characters in video game history. Birdo’s first appearance was in Super Mario Bros. 2, in which the manual said of her, “He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called Birdetta.” While Nintendo has eventually made up for haphazardly creating a transgender character, Birdo is still not referred to by her preferred name. However, Nintendo has made some progress. In Mario Golf: World Tour, she uses the women’s lockers.
2 Got It: The Sims 4
The Sims has been a cultural mirror for many years now. It is a game that seeks to replicate life, in a way, and is made for an audience as diverse as life has to offer. As players began to ask for more options, the developers worked to incorporate them. Now players can create characters of any ethnicity, body type, sexuality, and gender. In 2016, The Sims 4 team released an update that allowed a full range of gender expression within the game.
The Sims is not meant to simulate reality, though, and what it provides is an escape from the injustices of society. There is no racism, misogyny, or homophobia in the game beyond what you bring to it as a player. The Sims has no message, because it is devoid of real-world conflict, and so while it is an incredible success as far as diversity goes, it actually does surprisingly little for representation.
1 Didn't: The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time
I know, didn’t I just praise LoZ a couple of entries ago? This game is pretty good, right? A kid explores the world outside his bubble, makes friends from many different cultures and brings them together to protect Hyrule from pigmonster Ganon. Zelda was Shiek the whole time, so it’s even kinda feministy.
Yeah, but remember the stealth section where you escape from prison by murdering a bunch of lady thieves? They are the only only human looking characters in the game outside Castle Town (and Kokiri Forest) and they clearly have a culture and society of their own, but Link doesn't have time to worry about that. This section feels super strange to play, particularly because those you leave alive will become your allies later in the game, once you have a token that absolves you of all your heinous murders. Hey, every game has its problems, right?