Video game quest: Tackling diversity

This article is part of a special Cosmos series where our newsroom journalists follow up science from the archive, to find out: What happened next?

Australians want their video games to be accessible, inclusive, and reflect the diversity of the broader community, including everything from ability, age, race and cultural diversity, to gender and sexual orientation.

Cosmos previously reported on a 2021 landmark study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media analysing representations of gender, race, LGBTQIA+ individuals, disability, age and body size in the most popular video games and across 27,564 characters. Analysis which finds the majority of games lack diversity on a range of metrics – male characters outnumber females 4 to 1, for example. 

The report identified troubling themes: female characters were more likely to be sexually objectified, while male characters were frequently stereotyped in line with masculine norms (acting tough, a phenomenal physique, heterosexuality, homophobia, aggression, risky behaviours).

Yet when Cosmos spoke to Madeline Di Nonno, president and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute in August, she was feeling hopeful about prospects for the popular entertainment industry. 

So, what happened next?

Now, a new report from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media brings together the research and literature on games, diversity, equity and inclusion with recommendations for action.

Di Nonno says she has been heartened by the response from the video games industry. 

She says, a number of developers and publishers of mostly “Triple A” games (high budget, high profile) have already agreed to join an advisory council, to collaborate with the Geena Davis Institute on an online resource to tackle these issues.

And there’s an open invitation from Di Nonno to video games companies: “if anyone wants to know more, I’d love for them to get in touch,” she says. 

What can video game developers do to address diversity?

Diversifying characters and creating nuanced back stories, as well as countering stereotypes in gameplay, are just some of the 8 opportunities for video game developers and publishers to make their games more inclusive.

“Our first recommendation is really diversifying across your character types. Consider how different character’s identities will impact a player’s overall experience,” Di Nonno says.

The second is about creating multi-dimensional characters, she says, using an intersectional lens. Di Nonno says the concept of intersectionality, coined by Dr Kimberlé Crenshaw at Columbia Law School, explains how marginalised people (or characters in the case of a video game) can be impacted in overlapping ways.

“You could be a female character that is disabled, that is a person of colour, that is over the age of 50, with a larger body type […] It’s not just one thing. It’s really important to consider that, particularly when it comes to character development, a lot of work done for diversity, equity, inclusion, can be kind of siloed. But really look at the whole picture,” she says.

The third opportunity looks at understanding the ways a character’s identity might intersect with world-building, and how aspects of their identify might shape their experience inside the game for more authentic storytelling.

Next, the report calls for “incorporating game play mechanisms that can actively challenge rigid masculinity”, she says. 

“Is there a way to reward gameplay that isn’t violent? Could the hero use smarts and cunning to defeat a villain? Can there be more integration of empathy? Teamwork?”

The report identifies 3 gendered tropes that appear commonly in video games as ones to avoid. ‘Damseling’ is where the female character is in peril, and becomes an object for the hero, says Di Nonno. ‘White knighting’ is where a male protagonist goes to extreme lengths of personal sacrifice in order to rescue a female character who he perceives to be helpless. 

And then there’s the ‘fridged woman’ is when a male character’s backstory involves the violent murder of a woman he loved. That’s a problem, Di Nonno says, because “number one, it necessitates trauma for a female character, and also relishes in the hero’s kind of guilt over his failure to perform his patriarchal duty of protecting women.”

Countering identity-based stereotypes is also important, particularly when it comes to interactions with NPCs, or ‘non-player characters’.

The “big opportunity” identified in the report, Di Nonno says, is a specific call to reduce and eliminate sexualised violence within video games. “We would want to question the necessity of reinforcing or rewarding the domination of female characters,” Di Nonno says.

The final opportunity relates to the companies themselves, and the need to diversify the voices working on games. “We know that black game developers make up only 5% of positions globally, and women are only about 30%,” she adds.

The new report follows the Geena Davis Institute’s earlier work analysing diversity and representation in video games according to gender, race, LGBTQIA+ individuals, disability, age and body size (reported by Cosmos here).

Levelling up

The research is now underpinning further work – already underway – on a free online resource to support best practice, in partnership with a global gaming advisory council of industry leaders games developers and publishers, including Microsoft Xbox, Paramount Gaming and Activision Blizzard.

The resource is expected to be published in the first half of 2024.

Di Nonno says the overall goal is about supporting game developers, designers and publishers who are “looking to have more authentic representation in terms of characters or storylines, [and] how they can avoid pitfalls of tropes and stereotypes”.

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