Progressive gamers, developers seek to eradicate stereotypes from industry

GamerGate culture war underlines changing attitudes among many, slow evolution of industry

Zachary Clemente starting gaming when he was 6, but in college he started playing less of “Counter-Strike” and other first-person shooter games because he felt they were too violent and aggressive.

He started looking for other games and in 2008 became engrossed with “Beyond Good & Evil,” a 2003 action-adventure game made by Ubisoft. It featured a female protagonist named Jade, an investigative reporter tasked with taking care of orphans while exposing an alien conspiracy.

“I wanted other stories, other perspectives that I could relate to or that were alien to me, so that I could experience something different. For the time period that she was made, Jade was a spectacular character,” Clemente said.

A few years later, he found “Journey,” an exploration game created by thatgamecompany in 2012 for the PlayStation 3. Lauded for its expansive scenery and unique storytelling, players interacted with each other online as genderless robed figures identified by symbols that could only communicate through chirps. The experience meant so much to Clemente that he got a tattoo of the symbol that represented him in the game.

Now Clemente, a 24-year-old IT services associate for Zipcar, is part of the burgeoning demographic of players looking to buck existing trends in the gaming industry by supporting a more diverse and independent development scene.

Game makers and players are growing up, and as the industry rushes to expand, they are hungering for diverse storylines that reflect the world around them. For some, the idea of playing as a princess breaking out of a castle is more appealing than saving a princess in a castle. Increasingly, gamers are vocalizing their desire to see minorities represented and not couched in stereotypes and female characters that are more than just eye candy.

Feiya Wang, 31, of Seattle, also grew up playing Super Nintendo games with her friends. She considers herself an active supporter of the independent gaming scene in Seattle, routinely attending local events like Indie Game Revolution.

“I feel that there’s a wave of people who are coming up through the ranks who are like, ‘I’m pretty sure there’s a large market out there of people — women — who want something different’ and [are] vocal about that,” she said. “Hopefully people will just send their money where they think change will be and buy games that are interesting and different instead of sticking to the next sequel.”

The Entertainment Software Association says that 48 percent of gamers are female and that most women over 18 have been playing for an average of 13 years. While there are no data that break down the demographics of gamers according to race or ethnicity, consumers’ willingness to explore different subjects is a marker of change in the industry.

Eric Starker, 38, found that mainstream games were not meeting his expectations for equal representation. About two years ago, he started a group in Seattle called Queer Geek for LGBTQ gamers. Keeping tabs on the industry helped Starker learn about games like “dys4ia” by Anna Anthropy, “Depression Quest” by Zöe Quinn and “Gone Home,” created by Fullbright.

“Gone Home” earned numerous accolades for its interactive story exploration that narrated the experiences of a young queer woman told through the perspective of her sister. Released in August 2013, “Gone Home” sold about 235,000 copies by the end of that year and, according to a recent article, is now up to 750,000.

“‘Gone Home’ was really moving. I loved that it was an exploration game that wasn’t about shooting and fighting things but just exploring this cool environment,” said Starker.

“Gone Home” and “Journey” are the latest markers of an industry trend that has existed for over 10 years, according to Frank Lantz, director of the NYU Game Center.

“Part of this process has been the people who make games, think about games and write about games discovering identity politics,” he said. He likened the transformation in gaming to the sea change film saw in the 1970s when critics and viewers were discussing feminism, bringing in concepts like the male gaze.

“People were talking about exploring the subtle connections between the quality of an art form and the complicated, nuanced, political [and] ideological aspects of culture,” he said. “That happened in literature. That happened in film. It’s now happening in games, so we’re just a little bit late to the party of discovering ‘Oh, there’s a political dimension to Lara Croft.’ Well, yeah, obviously.”

The industry has also developed fractioning subcultures as a part of its evolution. This includes GamerGate, a Twitter hashtag and movement strongly associated with online harassment, anti-feminism and anti-intellectualism despite trying to shed its appearance otherwise, according to Lantz.

The movement started with individuals catching wind of an account written by video game developer Zoe Quinn’s disgruntled ex of perceived collusion between her and games journalist Nathan Grayson of the video game news site Kotaku. Rallying under the banner of transparency and ethics in games journalism, a small minority of players who voiced displeasure over Quinn’s game “Depression Quest” made rape threats and “doxxed” her — releasing sensitive information — forcing her from her home.

Since then, GamerGate spawned a flurry of harassment and threats of violence against other industry women who have taken stances against sexism in gaming and the GamerGate movement, which has been widely reported on in the past three months. Some GamerGate supporters have attempted to sway the conversation away from the vitriol by denouncing those threats. But for the most part, GamerGate remains a fuzzy coalition of gamers pushing for ambiguous ethical changes in the gaming industry.

“[GamerGate] has become an endless maelstrom of noise,” said Lantz. “It’s the part of games, when we’re trying to become something appropriate for adults, that is the most embarrassing and childish.”

Many say that even with the number of progressive-minded gamers, the industry has a way to go.

“Today gaming's fan base is more diverse than it’s ever been, but the makeup of the industry itself doesn’t yet reflect that diversity,” said 26-year-old Anthony Burch, writer for “Borderlands 2” and “Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.”

“A lot of that comes from marginalized gamers and young people only see a certain type of person” — generally white, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical males — “represented in the press or at award shows or what-have-you, so they have a harder time seeing themselves in those roles,” he said.

Some in the industry are holding on to outdated stereotypes to sell games, according to Evan Narcisse, 42, a writer and critic at Kotaku.

“It changes nothing for most video games to, instead of having Nathan Drake [of the ‘Uncharted’ series] being a standard issue white guy from central casting, if you made him Latino or Polynesian,” he said. “The reason that this doesn’t happen more often is the notion that if a woman who is not sexed up is on the cover of a video game box it is not going to sell, a black dude who is not all thugged out on the cover of a video game is not going to sell. And these are the kind of things I think that a lot of the decision makers in the video game industry still believe.”

Game changers in the industry like crowdsourced fundraising and low-cost development tools like Twine and Unity have become more widely used, allowing game makers to explore sensitive issues like race, gender and the intersectionality of diversity on their own terms. It’s a trend that some bigger companies have picked up on, with mixed results.

“Now that we're seeing more diverse games and a more diverse audience for those games, we're seeing a lot of friction — some helpful and necessary and some considerably less helpful,” said Burch.

Soha Kareem, a 26-year-old game writer and experimental designer, said it’s notable that the big-budget “Borderlands” series includes minorities portrayed in an ordinary way.

“In ‘Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel,’ there are queer female playable characters. It’s not the typical white scruffy dude who is telling the story.” She said Burch, who is of Caucasian, Thai and Indian descent, delivered convincing “badass characters that you would see in any other story but who also happen to be diverse in some way. There’s a joke even in ‘Pre-Sequel’ about the ‘friend zone’ being misogynist.”

While some big budget titles like “Borderlands” have normalized diversity in their game play, other games like Ubisoft’s popular “Assassin’s Creed” series have not had the same success discussing sensitive usage of issues like slavery in a historical narrative, according to Narcisse.

For all the good things I have to say about [‘Assassin’s Creed IV: Freedom Cry’], it also has some major flaws. The biggest one is that you go throughout the levels and free slaves, and that means you’re taking them out of a context where their lives were being used as currency,” he said. “But then the game basically has you doing the same thing — ‘Free 300 more slaves to get a machete’ — and it’s like, wait, there’s a bit of dissonance there that is really stupid and regrettable.”

Narcisse says that these kinds of issues are indicative of the formulaic restrictions in games that reward players for achieving objectives rather than exploring a different world.

One developer who is trying to address that is Shawn Allen. With his upcoming game “Treachery in Beatdown City,” he uses video games as a medium to tell a story that echoes his experiences growing up poor in New York City. His characters are people of color fighting a corrupt city run by a billionaire mayor who replaces normal law enforcement with his private security force.

“One of the characters kind of looks like the mustard spray guy [from the U.C. Davis Occupy protests] and has a mustard spray attack, and I wrote him as kind of a coward,” said Allen. “I’m making these characters that are based on these real world things.”

He said brainstorming for these types of games helps him cope with current events. “Me and my programmer, we sometimes joke about giving a character a chokehold that kills you — and it’s a joke because we’re angry,” he said, referring to the July case of a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo, killing an unarmed black man, Eric Garner, on New York’s Staten Island using a chokehold. On Dec. 3, a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, sparking nationwide protests.

But for all the sensitive topics that have been tackled, games are only now just exploring the same critical standards that other mediums are held to, according to Allen.

“You don’t look at a movie and say, ‘Oh, this is just a documentary, but it has this really great theme, which makes it a better documentary,’” he said. “I feel like a platformer that’s about something, even if it’s not the newest platformer, well, it’s a game about something. You have to look at everything that goes on. I feel like we’re getting to a point where people are accepting that there are games that are meant to be played by people and be enjoyed and also be saying something at the same time.”

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