The question of representation in video games is not a new one, and continues to spark all kinds of discussions that range in topic and intensity. On one end of the spectrum, there are individuals and groups who advocate for the most possible diversity in gaming when it comes to representation of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, and other identities. On the other, there are camps who posit that there is no issue of representation in video games, or that it’s not a worthy topic of discussion. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find gamers who either don’t have an opinion on the subject, or are happy to see equal representation where appropriate, but not at the sake of other gameplay-related concerns.
One useful way to look at conversations about representation is through the lens of the theory of modern social imaginaries, put forth by political philosopher Charles Taylor. Taylor suggests that we think about a “modern social imaginary” as “the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations” (1). This explanation is a long way of saying that as human beings, we tend to agree upon shared meanings for larger social processes. So, when I say to someone, “I can’t believe FOX cancelled Firefly,” I’ll expect the appropriate response to be, “totally, I named my firstborn Malcolm Joss Serenity.” There’s an implicit understanding in this exchange that illustrates that we both agree that Firefly was a great show, and that a television series can provide such a strong component of identity formation that we might consider - even jokingly - naming our children after its characters.
There is, of course, the less obvious aspect of a social imaginary that results in the perpetuation of stereotypes, of which we may or may not even be aware. It’s common knowledge, for example, that women are paid around seventy cents to the dollar compared to men, yet we may hold unrecognized stereotypes about women in the workplace. Often, examples to this effect may be cited as men who are outspoken and forthright are considered to be visionary leaders, while women who exhibit the same qualities are found to be “bossy.” By the same token, we might have other long-standing stereotypes about others based on race, class, religion, and other identities that are perpetuated and reinforced through a particular process called narrativity.
As the term suggests, narrativity is the process by which narratives are created and disseminated, most clearly represented in the various types of media to which we subscribe. Taylor’s theory hinges upon this narrativity (2), and it’s easy to understand with a little explanation. Let’s say that there’s a certain political or ethnic group that are stereotyped in news and popular media to the point of absurdity, like the Soviets during the Cold War. Not only do the portrayal of Soviet political leaders in news media support and inform similar depictions in films (see Rocky IV, The Hunt for Red October, and every other movie ever), but they also reinforce a particular narrative about the Cold War and underlying relations between the United States and the West in general with the former Soviet Union. In this case, the act of thinking differently about the Soviets, or any identity group that is marginalized, becomes novel, as it forces us to work against narratives that draw upon long-seeded stereotypes that are, often subconsciously, agreed upon in our social imaginaries.
Video games are similar to media like television and films in that they have the potential to reinforce or disrupt the stereotypes and narratives that exist in our social imaginaries. For better or worse, if all of the characters in a video game emulate the same kinds of characterizations that we see in other forms of popular media, it’s likely that such a game will continue to perpetuate standard and sometimes harmful norms. If all of the protagonists of all RPGs, for example, were to be heterosexual, white, able-bodied males, they would reinforce the subconscious notion that heterosexuality, whiteness, and ableness are tantamount to superiority. Likewise, if all of the antagonists were to be of a particular gender or ethnic group, we’d be perpetuating the same deeply-rooted beliefs, and asking individuals from those groups to go along for the ride.
It is at this particular juncture where the most damage is done: when a member from a minority group is required to speak out against their marginalization, and is subsequently told that they’re being overly sensitive or out of line. On the one hand, they’re working against decades, if not centuries, of commonly-held stereotypes and narratives, and looking to carve out space where they feel represented in the video game world or elsewhere. Yet on the other, they’re told that their voice is either unimportant or somehow infringes on others’ enjoyment, which is a kneejerk reaction.
In many ways, MMORPGs represent the most clear example of modern social imaginaries in video game form, and with them come the best and worst of the lot. Supporting the framework of most MMOs are certain hallmarks that most of us agree upon implicitly: world building, religious pantheons, political factions, and social systems like player economies. Adding in the RPG elements lends an aspect of personalization that allows players to customize appearance, gender, race, class, playstyle, and other elements. MMORPGs could, in effect, be considered to be a type of “technological imaginary” (3), which is a digital representation of our modern social imaginaries. Thus, if all of the women in an MMORPG are scantily-clad, or if all of the characters belonging to one race are caricatures of real-world stereotypes, they can reinforce the same types of narratives that do harm to minority groups.
The well-being of minority groups in gaming, both as characters and themes in video games themselves and as the people who create and promote them, affects everyone. Stereotyped narratives carry across all types of media, including video games, and can result in minority groups encountering resistance to inclusion in every circumstance imaginable. Lisa Nakamura posits that queer females of color have the “highest difficulty setting” (4) when it comes to looking at real life in video game terms. When our social imaginaries reinforce stereotypes of and marginalization against people of different minority groups, video games serve as an especially unique medium to disrupt such harmful narratives. Recognizing the importance of and supporting equal representation in gaming then becomes a revolutionary act, that can be a leading example for gamers and non-gamers alike.
Where do you stand on representation in video games?
- Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 23.
- Ibid., 177.
- Martin Lister, Jon Dovey, Seth Giddings, Iain Grant, and Kieran Kelly, New Media: A Critical Introduction (London: Routledge, 2003), 60.
- Lisa Nakamura, "Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is? Gaming Rhetoric as Gender Capital," Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology, no. 1 (2012), http://adanewmedia.org/2012/11/issue1-nakamura/.