We spoke to founder and director of I Need Diverse Games, Tanya DePass, on how the gaming industry is failing to be representative – and how we can all do more to bring change.
Games can be a great tour through escapism from the pressures of real life. We have to deal with day to day drudgery; whether it’s work, the job centre, errands and the general overwhelming and mundane expectations that come with every week. Games can transport us into different lives, and sometimes different galaxies. We can be humans, aliens, droids and even animals. We can solve puzzles and go on epic quests, which is far more entertaining than what a retail shift offers. The possibilities can seem limitless – except, for when it comes to representation.
In 2013, Spil Games reported there was an estimated 1.2 billion gamers worldwide. That’s an enormous number of players that is only set to increase as more apps are created, VR comes into its own and the number of platforms rises. Gaming products themselves often undergo huge scrutiny for what they depict; any sex and violence tends to raise eyebrows among conservatives and yet, the real stories that harm people playing barely get any attention. Gamer spaces still aren’t safe for women and people of colour. ‘Gamergate’ was one of the most shocking hate campaigns in recent history, that even caught the attention of the FBI. Through it all, there have been activists who have tried to push for more diverse content from creators and also who have tried to make gaming a safe space for all people.
Tanya DePass is the founder and a director of I Need Diverse Games, a non-profit organisation working to make gaming a safe space as well as promoting diverse creators within the gaming industry. With so many people playing games, the content and industry should be reflective of its audience.
“I Need Diverse Games came out of a frustration with gaming in fall of 2014,” Tanya says. “Around the time that women are too hard to animate [claiming women were difficult to animate was Ubisoft’s excuse for its lack of women in its games], and that we were inches from playable women in Far Cry 4. I was also tired of another slew of cis, straight white protagonists.”
In September 2014, it was found that over 50% of gamers were women. This may provoke consternation from the boys club of gamers, but women and non-binary people have often been forced out of gamer spaces. Games delivered on app systems are often dismissed as not being ‘real games’. When women express an interest in gaming they’re often subjected to a barrage of questions to assess whether they pass an arbitrary test and are ‘true fans’, and anyone with a feminine sounding voice, or a non-Western accent, is at risk of receiving sexist and/or racist abuse through their headsets. While gaming audiences tend to be diverse, the loudest voices are cis white men, and the industry is choosing to listen to them. Game content and the industry jobs are filled predominantly with cis white men.
“Diversity is still met with resistance, vitriol and hatred,” says Tanya. “Any deviance from the expected norm is met with the usual hatred and claim of inserting politics into what should be fun, etc. There’s not enough people of color, queer, women and others in positions of authority; that are also visible to make a difference to anyone seeking to enter. It’s still a very male, very white presenting industry; as well as the products of the industry that we see all day, every day. Even those who share games are still a majority white and male presenting.”
“Diversity is still met with resistance, vitriol and hatred”
The gaming industry itself seems to seek to uphold white supremacy and gate-keep marginalised people and bar them from accessing any positions of power. In 2015, a report by Creative Skillset showed that people of colour only made up 4% of UK gaming industry workers. In 2017, TIGA found that 14% of the UK games industry workforce was made up of women. In short, diversity behind the screens is abysmal.
While the audience may be more diverse, the loudest voices are often those screaming against inclusivity. Cis, white gamers build their careers and profiles playing and commentating upon games. Their voices are the ones most heard. PewDiePie is perhaps one of the most famous gaming vloggers, and he’s both used the n-word in videos and recorded a performer holding a sign that read “death to all Jews”. PewDiePie faced some backlash (Disney severed ties with him) but his career largely remains intact with his fanbase staunchly supporting him. PewDiePie is a symbol of gaming culture, not an exception. Many marginalised people will have experienced casual racism, racist slurs being dropped during chats as though they don’t matter and often misogynoir, sexism and/or transphobia. The ‘anti-PC brigade’ is as strong within the gaming community as it is within the Republican Party.
Tanya agrees that more should be done to try to make audiences feel safe from hate.
“It’s not just about content but about making audiences feel safe. Definitely, spaces are not inclusive or safe. They don’t do enough to help ensure that everyone’s voice can be heard and regarded equally when they call for inclusion. There is no place really to have a good discussion, comments on articles are a toxic cesspit, Twitter is a trashfire and even personal posts are not off limits to those who aren’t ready to have the diversity conversation.”
There are many platforms with which gamers can access. Twitter has been roundly criticised by the public for failing to tackle hate, but there are gaming forums too where there should be more proactive moderating systems in place. It’s why organisations such as I Need Diverse Games are vital. Marginalised gamers can come together and connect, they also have access to an organisation working to empower them if they are trying to get into the industry. There’s even a scholarship program to support people to access the Game Developers Conference. In a climate of hate, I Need Diverse Games are giving hope. Tanya herself is optimistic that change to the gaming world will eventually come.
“I am hopeful that we can get behind supporting diverse creators, inclusive and well-rounded content that can be distributed without a small war of attrition just for wanting to have a non-white lead, or a queer character,” she says. “It will eventually get to a point where a character that isn’t a white dude like BJ Blasacszowicz (from Wolfenstein) can be the lead and we won’t get histrionic headlines like SJW’s take over gaming from certain quarters. It’s just taking a very long time and it’s tiring to see the same cycle over and over.”
“I am hopeful that we can get behind supporting diverse creators, inclusive and well-rounded content”
Tanya also emphasises that gamers themselves can bring change. It shouldn’t have to be incremental. All gamers can make a difference.
“Speak up, share that [positive representation],” Tanya says. “When they see stereotypes and tropes speak up as well. It’s not enough for those affected to speak up and say when things are not done well. Everyone who sees a poorly written or presented character should speak up, so creators can realize that the effort is worth it even if they make mistakes along the way.”
Even escapism can be a privilege. Not everyone can see themselves in games, recognise themselves in characters, climb the career ladder in an industry they’re right for, or even be able to safely talk about their passions. Everyone who enjoys games – whether it’s Candy Crush, Super Mario or Metal Gear Solid – can try to make gaming accessible for everyone. Games are built on creativity and yet they’re being stifled by insecurity and prejudice. There’s far more to stories than cis white straight men. It’s a universe where we should all be allowed to be heroes.