Indie developers are leading the way for better representation in gaming

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By Asha Swann

While television and film industries have begun in recent years to address the lack of diverse characters in their stories, some gamers are concerned that the growth of the video game industry isn’t keeping up with an accurate representation of their diverse player base.

Last year, the video game industry expanded in value to US$300 billion, exceeding both the movie and sports industries, according to a report by Accenture. The billion-dollar industry has churned out popular games like Animal Crossing, Valorant and The Last of Us that have introduced new players to the world of gaming—many of which are BIPOC who don’t get to see themselves as the main characters.

First-year Ryerson philosophy student Alison Air said she has played video games her whole life. She grew up drawn to role-playing and narrative-based games with a strong focus on characters and their emotional backgrounds. As an Asian woman, she said she struggled to feel represented through the games she played as a child, though she wasn’t sure how to express it.

As a result, she was drawn towards indie games, where the developers were often bold enough to create unique themes and the type of representation she could relate to.

Video games gone wrong

In 2018, she noticed that Electronic Arts, the studio that produces Battlefield, received substantial online pushback when the company revealed that the next game in the series would feature a woman main character. 

“The rampant problem of bigoted attitudes dominating gaming makes it a lot more difficult for queer people to really get into it,” said Air “With indie games, the community is more tight-knit and there’s more of a sense of an ‘I’m actually playing with people rather than random 14-year-old kids that are gonna yell slurs at me.”

Though characters of colour are sometimes featured in mainstream games, these characters are not always accurate depictions. Games like Grand Theft Auto Online and Outriders have been called out by players for their bleak customizations of authentic Black hairstyles compared to non-Black characters.  

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, created by Infinity Ward, a subdivision of one of the world’s largest gaming companies, Activision, came under fire for racism in the game’s portrayal of Pakistan. One of the game’s maps features the real city of Karachi, Pakistan. However, the game inaccurately shows Arabic as the language of the region, with all storefronts showing signs in Arabic. The official language of the region is actually Urdu, with census data showing that Karachi has the highest Urdu-speaking population in the country.

The people that make Thirsty Suitors have a different vision with a different budget

Games released by major gaming developers—also known as AAA games—are productions with multi-million dollar budgets coming from studios like Sony, EA, Nintendo and Riot, that are dominating the gaming market. 

Game design professor at Ryerson Kristopher Alexander said independent games are more inclusive and vastly outnumber mainstream ones in the variety of authentic storytelling. 

Indie developers with a bug for better representation

Alexander plays one indie game every year with his students called Virginia. This award-winning game has the user playing as the main character, a Black FBI agent investigating a missing person’s case in a small town in the state of Virginia. 

Though the graphics seem simplistic, the game is complex; with intricate plot points and emotional character growth. He said the game brings students to deep emotional levels because it incorporates experiences that reflect the realities of being a Black woman in the southern U.S. 

These are the types of games that Alexander has always prioritized. He said he doesn’t think it is an issue of whether accurate representation exists in video games, it’s just that not many people are aware of what indie games have to offer. 

Out of the over 10,000 new games released on Steam in 2020, less than 100 came from mainstream producers. Alexander said through indie games, diversity and representation have been thriving because they offer more flexibility and don’t have the same pressures from investors.

“The people that make Thirsty Suitors have a different vision with a different budget,” said Alexander. “[Major developers] have so many angel investors that are trying to get a return on investment, of course they’re going to have [bigger] a marketing campaign.”

Though games from mainstream developers bring in the most money, Alexander said because gaming is a relatively new industry, as more people from all backgrounds start studying game design, it’s only natural that games will soon reflect the diversity of the people who make them. 

Technological advancements in 3D animation and character design mean creating characters with unique and diverse stories is easier than ever. Though justifiably criticized in the past, some 3D artists are looking to Disney as proof that diverse stories can be a financial success.

Yusra Shahid is an American-based visual developer in animation who has worked for the likes of Nintendo, CBS and Disney. As a content creator with both Muslim and Indian heritage, she said creating diverse characters is about telling stories that represent the millions of people of colour, like herself, that are consuming them.

She said it’s essential for people working in any type of visual development to understand that accurate representation shows a range of looks—no matter the race.

“Mainstream games made by big companies are playing safe and going with the character models that are the most popular”

“A lot of people don’t really understand the diversity within races. That can be quite overlooked,” said Shahid. “If you were going to design an Indian character, it would be really great if they could have an actual Indian character designer designing it.” 

Shahid praised how far animation has come in recent years. With the success of animation films like Moana and Coco—both of which feature characters of colour and together have grossed over $1.4 billion worldwide—it’s clear that diverse stories also have an international audience

A study by the Creative Artists Agency and Parrot Analytics found that the demand for new content featuring diverse casts has more than tripled since 2017. Despite the growing demand for diverse content, Shahid said she notices a gap. 

While huge studios like Disney and Pixar have prioritized making better culturally-representative stories, the biggest gaming studios aren’t consistently making the same traction. 

Challenging the status quo in gaming

From 2017 to 2021, the top-selling games by AAA developers primarily featured white male protagonists, according to an analysis from DiamondLobby. Some developers, like Electronic Arts, have made strides in creating diverse content that has been well-received by players.

EA’s Apex Legends has been praised as a new industry standard for its non-sexualized portrayal of female characters, openly LGBTQ+ characters and varying skin tones and hairstyles. With over 100 million players worldwide in 2021, Apex Legends exists as proof that AAA companies can make successful, well-loved, diverse games.

As gaming expands, so do the ways in which players not only consume content but interact with others in the community. 

According to a 2019 study by the International Game Developers Association, 65 per cent of respondents said they feel there aren’t equal opportunities for all in the gaming industry.    Community members have criticized the lack of accountability in promoting diversity in Esports and on Twitch—a streaming platform that gives content creators of colour like Kasen Patterson (@CupAhNoodle) and @DarkMimi a platform to highlight both popular and indie games to their viewers. 

Jes Do, a second-year RTA new media student and member of the Ryerson eSports team, said they observed similar patterns of mainstream developers leaning towards archetypal character options. 

“Mainstream games made by big companies are playing safe and going with the character models that are the most popular, hence the lack of diversity,” said Do. “But with the [gaming] community fighting for more diversity, no doubt we will see more [character] styles in the future.” 

Independent developers like Annapurna Interactive and Variable State are more powerful than ever, with countless pieces of technology available at their disposal. Unreal Engine, the world’s most advanced 3D creation software, which was used to create the Bioshock series—Borderlands, Gears of War and countless others—is available for free. 

Once only available at a premium, this resource has been used by the same AAA companies that make mainstream games. Indie developers, Alexander explained, are the diverse creators that gamers are looking for.

For Air, she said she’s looking forward to playing games with unique perspectives that are both indie and AAA.

“The demographic of the gaming population is slowly changing to be more inclusive and to be more accepting of diversity,” said Air.

Gaming companies that only focus on appealing to a certain demographic of players to make profit, she said, would see more loyal gamers if they were willing to prioritize diversity in gaming.

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