Diversity is Not a Stock Photo

Who’s to say that Gordon Freeman is not a homosexual? What about Link? The Cole Train? Queer. Miles Edgeworth? Gay. Claire Redfield? Lesbian. Lara Croft? Dyke.

I was watching Extra Credits today at the Escapist Magazine, where they’ve tackled the issue of diversity. Overall, their approach was pretty hackneyed and anemic. Diversity is good. Gaming stereotypes need to go. You know, this sort of thing.

I have nothing against diversity itself. What bothers me how people tackle this theme. Hell, our very own About Us section is an attempt to poke fun at the overstated notion that everything needs diversity and what that really means is that people need to get along with black people, Asians and a Latino every now and then (by the way, can you tell what group I’m part of?). That was how Extra Credits handled the issue. It defended that there is no gender diversity in videogames because the only kind of women who fit are the Lara Croft stereotype which litters the medium, and that there was no diversity of sexuality. The number of “realistic openly gay” characters was limited to 1 character: Kanji Tatsumi from Persona 4. Extra Credits then proposes two very elegant solutions for achieving gender and sexuality diversity: drop the boobs; get some more homo/bisexual characters – a solution not unlike placing a stock photo at your company’s website showing how “diverse” your team is.

Well, I’m here to defend boobies and the notion that it is possible that your favorite game character of all time probably is already gay.

To defend boobies, I’ll ask you the following: why does Superman have muscles? He certainly doesn’t need them, as his force isn’t derived from them, but from a yellow sun. In fact, considering how the action of Superman punching a hole in a wall probably takes the same amount of effort of me standing up and turning my TV on without a remote, I wonder why Super doesn’t have the same relapsed physique I have.

The answer for why Superman has muscles is simple. He is idealized. That why so many other super heroes have perfect six-packs, a chest large enough to rent space for a billboard and a costume so adherent to emphasize these muscles, it’s a wonder they can move at all. If muscles for superheroes are fair game, the equivalent for superheroines, big boobs, slender silhouette and possibly lower back pains in the future, are also fair game.

Women in videogames have ridiculous bodies sure, but so do the men! The problem is not just gender diversity per se, but also protagonist diversity: there are too many superheroes in videogames. Nathan Drake can probably withstand more bullets than Batman! Lara Croft fights dinosaurs! The reason for this is quite simple: superheroes are people of action and action is the main thing videogames have to offer. Action sequences are what videogames do best as they were the first things they learned. What we need are more games with less action (so leave my boobs alone!). More games like Phoenix Wright, Hotel Dusk and the gun-less segment of Half-Life 2‘s introduction. It’s not by accident I love these games, and that I anxiously anticipate Dinner Date: they are different – and diversity is holier than a flaming taco in the desert, right?

To Extra Credits’ credit, they go a little beyond the issue of diverse sexuality (but just a little), by making use of the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test is a shallow, but easily applicable method to gauge feminism in a medium: for something to pass there must be two (preferably named) women, talking to each other about something other than a man (Graham now would jump in to exclaim that Dragon Age: Origins would pass that test – and he would be right). But before you think that passing this test would solve the problem of women stereotypes in games, let me call your attention to the fact that most Barbie games would easily pass that test, while discussing shoes.

As for the sexuality diversity, Extra Credits ask us why there are so few gay characters in videogames while snidely dismissing Mass Effect‘s Female Sheppard as well as the dudes from Army of Two because they don’t count (why not?).

But the thing is that since sex – or even romance – in GENERAL is badly handled in videogames, there is rarely a point in defining a character’s sexuality in the first place. Extra Credits end up answering their own question: why add a bi/homosexual character in a game just for the sake of it? Why is it even an issue of a random character’s sexuality when neither gameplay nor plot doesn’t do anything about it? What makes one think that the once-silent Samus, the bear-fighting Zangief or the inappropriately topless Liquid Snake are heterosexuals in the first place? When the sexual orientation has no consequence in the rest of the game stating one’s sexuality is as superfluous as saying Marcus Phoenix likes Macs when there are no iPads in Gears of Wars.

My colleagues brought up the theory that a lack of ‘role models’ could damage a person’s psychological perceptions of themselves, similarly to what was discovered to happen to children in the experiments performed in the Brown Vs Board of Education case. But the thing is that, unlike skin color, sexuality isn’t something one can perceive just by looking at someone. Some degree of intimacy must be involved. So there is nothing in the way of establishing a character’s sexuality when his actions does not prove otherwise except one’s own personal bias. In fact, if we assume the hypothesis that people in fact do tend to project oneself onto game avatars to be valid, I’m willing to bet that there is a chance someone could project that 100% of all silent protagonists that are gay or lesbian. The issue of affecting one’s psychological perception is much more evident in the issue of unrealistic portrayals of women (and men), but in this case the problem is not the character per se, but what the game requires him to do. Sure, I could have a chubby middle aged woman instead of Rayne in BloodRayne, but that wouldn’t be consistent with the rest of the game and, therefore, wouldn’t be believable.

Extra Credits demanded less boobs and more believable gay characters, but what we need is more games that justify the need for non-superheroes and gay characters. The issue of diversity won’t be solved by adding these sorts of characters if they aren’t believable to begin with, regardless of whether that character is a homosexual Adonis or a flat chested woman. In fact, the chance for ruining a game’s immersion and relying on countless other stereotypes will increase if we follow Extra Credits’ suggestion.

We don’t need to ask for diversity in our games, but rather we need games that ask for diversity. There is a difference.


Update: Oh geez! I forgot about Alice Wake, from Remedy’s Alan Wake. Now that was a woman with a er… natural type of beauty.


  1. David

    First, an aside: I laughed hysterically trying to envision Marcus Fenix in a Mac commerical.

    I feel like I always bring up Halo games as an example, but ODST does a pretty good job of giving us strong characters that are excellent warriors–but definitely not superheroes. Especially when the character you’re currently playing screams in pain/grunts when health is dangerously low (Nathan Fillion as Buck does a particularly good job).

    Another good example of an attractive character that still breaks stereotypes is Morrigan from Dragon Age. She’s really attractive, but her personality is definitely NOT the typical woman’s. Even the way you have to “woo” her in-game is rather odd at points.

  2. “We don’t need to ask for diversity in our games, but rather we need games that ask for diversity. There is a difference.”

    Isn’t Lara Croft a self-reliant archaeologist who routinely saves the world without help from a man? Why should she be considered anti-feminist just because she looks good in shorts?

    How exactly do you make a game that asks for diversity? There’s nothing keeping developers from making a game about a gay or black superhero. The problem is that most of the time these things are irrelevant to the game’s objectives, so doing so and going out of the way to show it looks like tokenism. This would only be worse in games which “demanded diversity” because the objectives and settings would have to be tailored to that character’s minority (imagine a game saying “you’ll find your next clue in the truckstop glory hole” ). There are plenty of games with non-superhero characters that don’t emphasize their sexuality because it would just be awkward.

    I think games have great diversity, considering all the characters that aren’t even human.

    • The idea is exactly to avoid tokenism. By “games that ask for diversity”, I mean exactly making the diversity relevant to the game’s objective, gameplay and/or narrative, just like Persona 4 uses Kanji Tatsumi sexual orientation to shape his personal dungeon and thus adding more depth to the character.

      Now, assuming we have content tailored to that character’s minority, that doesn’t mean it will necessarily be vulgar, stereotypical or immature as your example makes it to be. In fact, I believe that just adding diversity for the sake of it is way more likely to feature such stereotypical (and all the other adjectives) than in a situation where the diversity is justified. The reasoning is rather obvious: if there is something that demands and justifies the need of a sexually diverse character, this will already demand some level of awareness from the developer. The hole to this reasoning would only come if the developer him/herself is a prick that willingly and knowingly forces his own prejudices on his/her audience.

      But that’s a risk that would happen in any case.

      So 2 PSes.:
      – The issue of Lara Croft isn’t her sexuality or sexual orientation. She is used by Extra Credit (and, therefore, here as well since his is a response to EC) as an example of unrealistic portrayal of women. I never considered her to be anti-feminist. Quite the opposite in fact – but then again, feminism is still sexism. The whole superhero argument is about this unrealistic physical portrayal, rather than sexuality.

      – Isn’t a little far fetched to claim “diversity” as it is related to people on basis of imaginary entities? I mean, sure, elves are fairly well represented in games – but considering there are NO elves playing games, how is that kind of diversity any relevant?

      (A more personal (and irrelevant) question: considering the slogan, shouldn’t your site/username be “Aguirre” or something related?)

      • The “glory hole” thing was meant as an exaggeration. I’m still not convinced that there’s a pressing need for ethnic and sexual diversity in games. There aren’t too many elegant ways to go about it without making it look like you’re tossing the poor whatevers a bone.

        Even if the content of the game is tailored to a specific minority, the ultimate objective remains the same as just slapping an ethnic skin over a character written as white. Why bother at all if the ultimate reason is still just to promote an underrepresented group in gaming? It’s not quite affirmative action, but it’s still unnecessary.

        Game worlds are places of fantasy, they aren’t meant to reflect the world as-is. So yes, I would say that the diversity of elves, dwarves, blue hedgehogs, and intergalactic bounty hunters. For that reason also I would say that there is no way to get rid of “superheroes”. Even your beloved Phoenix Wright is a cartoonish comic hero in his own way, even if he isn’t in an action game.

        By the way, it’s a little silly to say that the problem is that games have too much action, as if all games where fighting is involved are one monotone sludge of lowest-common-denominator juice. There’s a big difference between River City Ransom and the Metroid series. One was mindless button-mashing, the other was about innovation, exploration, and the character revelation through environmental interaction as much as it was about shooting aliens. Action is not the antithesis of character.

        The slogan was added long after I registered the site. I just slapped it up there to get rid of the generic one that WordPress gave me.

      • Ethnic skin over a character written as white?
        1) I’m not talking about ethnicity here. I’m talking to gender and sexual diversity.
        2) What even makes you think the character was written as “white” (or “straight” in the first place).

        Game worlds aren’t meant to reflect the world as-is?
        1) Go and tell that to everyone that’s working on a new physics engine or new facial textures.
        2) On the same note, *facepalm* I’m glad the “poor whatevers” of gaming, the hedgehogs and dwarves were “tossed a bone”. I’m sure their fictional opinions about it will be heard. */facepalm* I’m not entering in this issue of “fictional minorities” anymore. I have more pressing matters, like determining which Care Bear is the best (hint: it’s not the lion).

        Action is not the antithesis of character?
        1) Never said it was. I’m talking about body portrayal here, not character. And yet both examples you cited, RCR being subjective to my abstraction, feature protagonist with slender, fit bodies, suited for the action requested of them.
        2) My beloved Phoenix Wright is a comic hero but not a comic superhero. He gets hurt, he doesn’t have super abilities nor has to fight bullets on a daily basis.
        3) I’m not asking to get rid of superheroes. I’m explaining the necessity of their presence considering what games ask gamers to do. I want to defend the boobs.