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Diversity in video games: the best (and worst) examples of representation

 (Rockstar Games)
(Rockstar Games)

Over the past few years, every industry has become more aware of the responsibility to improve diversity within its ranks, from race and ethnicity to gender and sexuality. For some areas, like gaming, this doesn’t just include who companies hire, but also who appears in the content that they create.

Though the industry is typically described as white and male-dominated, that’s certainly less true than it used to be. Statistics released by industry body Ukie revealed that in 2021, roughly 50 per cent of UK gamers were women; inside the industry itself, 28 per cent of workers are female and 10 per cent are from an ethnically diverse background. Not great, but certainly better than it used to be.

However, in the 100 top-selling and major games released between 2017 and 2021, nearly 80 per cent of all main characters are men, while nearly 55 per cent are white.

Obviously, this could improve. In order for video games to be more representative of the world we live in, the gaming industry itself must also be more inclusive.

Yet it’s not all bad. With the new trailer for GTA 6 promising a Latina female protagonist, here’s a look at how women, the LGBTQ+ community, and those from diverse ethnic backgrounds are portrayed and represented by mainstream studios and games, highlighting some of the best – and worst – examples on the market right now.

Representation of women in video games

It's great when we see powerful female characters in the spotlight who aren't just on-screen to be sexualised (looking at you, Lara Croft).

An excellent example of meaningful female representation, which by the way very easily could have been just another male character, is in Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice. Senua isn't written and designed specifically as a female character; she just happens to be female. This is an extremely important distinction: in Senua’s story, there is nothing gender-specific in her character arc. Similarly, Aloy from Sony’s Horizon: Zero Dawn franchise is a smart, resourceful warrior, capable of fighting just as well as (and better than) many men. She just happens not to be one. And that's before we mention Lucia, the newest protagonist from GTA 6, whose arc (and relationship with her male partner in crime) looks to be the focal point of the newest game.

Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was the big winner at the BAFTA games awards (Ninja Theory)
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice was the big winner at the BAFTA games awards (Ninja Theory)

Which is good, because even today there are plenty of games which throw us back centuries in terms of their representation of women. Soul Calibur, Dead or Alive, and Dragon's Crown, to name just a few prime offenders, go out of the way to create hyper-sexualised female characters, masquerading under the guise of ‘strength’. And let’s not forget Tomb Raider, whose main character Lara Croft is best known as a sex symbol rather than for her prowess with weaponry.

The issue is less of a problem than it was. In 2016, a study of 571 games released between 1984 and 2014 found that the sexualisation of female characters was at its height between 1990 and 2005, but despite the documented decline after 2005, it would be insulting and false to say the issue doesn’t exist any more.

Representation of people of colour in video games

Respawn Entertainment, the studio which missed the mark so hard with its Star Wars titles Jedi: Fallen Order and more recent follow-up Jedi: Survivor (which we’ll discuss later), managed to hit a wonderfully inclusive note with its battle royale Apex Legends. While Apex doesn't take place on Earth, it still gives much-needed airtime to a diverse line-up of characters, and that is a breath of fresh air.

There’s Bangalore, an all-round badass soldier with a killer attitude, and Lifeline, the undeniably cool combat medic. Both stand out in Apex because these are two nuanced black women represented in a cast of 13 and their skin colour is not what defines them.

Bangalore is a strong Black character in Apex Legends (Apex Legends/Respawn Entertainment)
Bangalore is a strong Black character in Apex Legends (Apex Legends/Respawn Entertainment)

Shout out to another legend, Bloodhound, who is non-binary, having no canonical gender at all. You never see Bloodhound's face and the voice (recorded by the wonderful Allegra Clark), is robotic. Not to mention, of course, everyone's favourite big boy, Gibraltar, who is clearly intended to be of Maori descent (and, is canonically gay). Did you ever think you would see any of this in a video game?

In recent years, other games have stepped up to the plate. Despite being critically panned upon its release, vampire-shooter game Redfall lets you play as one of four characters who come from a range of backgrounds. There’s Dev, who hails from South-East Asia; Remi, who is Latina; Layla, who is African-American and Jacob Boyer, the only white playable character.

Plus, let’s not forget the beautifully inclusive (and beautifully bonkers) video game Hades. Released in 2021, it lets the player (who plays as Zagreus, a warrior trying to escape Hell) romance both men and women and features supporting characters of all ethnicities and sexualities: Athena is a black woman, Hermes is East Asian, and Dionysus is South Asian. Hell yeah.

LGBTQ+ representation in video games

Trans representation in modern AAA video games is almost non-existent. There is one shining exception and that is from BioWare, when it introduced us to Krem from Dragon Age: Inquisition. Krem holds a high position in a mercenary company and has been hailed as one of the best trans video game characters so far. He's non-playable, but the detailed backstory is what makes Krem exceptional in terms of good representation.

Krem is hailed as one of the best-designed trans characters of all time (BioWare  / EA)
Krem is hailed as one of the best-designed trans characters of all time (BioWare / EA)

Despite being labelled as female at birth, Krem joined an all-male military so he could keep his family out of poverty. Because this is a criminal offence in Dragon Age, he was forced to flee when his identity was discovered, but was rescued by the mercenary group he heads up now.

This is another excellent example of a character who just happens to be openly trans and his experience is incredibly human – just like The Last of Us 2, which introduced gamers to Lev, another trans male whose identity was accepted by the people around him.

The Last of Us has form here: the game’s main character Ellie made history in 2020 as the first queer woman protagonist featured in a major blockbuster game from a triple-A video game studio. In the TV adaptation of the game that aired earlier this year, the tragic story of secondary characters Bill and Frank was also fleshed out into a meaningful gay romance with a happy ending, in an episode that was received rapturously by critics.

It certainly seems as though the tide is turning, even in major game studios. In May, main character Aloy from the Horizon: Zero Dawn franchise was given a queer romance in the DLC for the franchise’s most recent game, Horizon: Forbidden West. It shouldn’t come as a shock to fans – in the main game, it was revealed that Aloy’s genetic parent Elisabet Sobek was in a queer relationship with another woman – but the game was still review-bombed (flooded with negative reviews as a means of trolling) upon its release (as was The Last of Us 2). Sigh.

Representation hasn’t come nearly as far as it should

Gaming is changing: that much is clear. With a more diverse customer base than ever before, games are no longer being made purely by – or for – white men. However, there is still more to be done.

Consider recent games like Hogwarts: Legacy, which trumpeted the flexbility of its character design when it launched in January 2023. With players able to choose their own body type, voice, features and even whether they were a witch or wizard, the gamers promised that people from across the spectrum, including trans people, would be able to see themselves in the game.

However, this in itself poses a problem by putting an onus on the player to create that character, instead of including a fully fleshed-out trans character in the game itself. When the game launched, many social media users pointed out that the only person who fits that description is never explicitly labelled as trans: a woman called Sirona (to add to the drama, the name itself also came in for criticism for including the word ‘sir’).

In so many games, including this one, LGBT people find themselves relegated to the role of side-quest or supporting character, with their queerness left deliberately vague or only explained when a specific dialogue choice is made.

Consider as well, characters like Cal Kestis from Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, who are seemingly considered the norm. Respawn could have meaningfully designed Kestis as literally anything other than just one more white male protagonist – and indeed, explained that they thought about having an alien or female protagonist – but Kestis was ultimately used because they didn't want to “alienate” the player.

Why are characters like Cal Kestis always the ‘default’ for video games? (Respawn Entertainment)
Why are characters like Cal Kestis always the ‘default’ for video games? (Respawn Entertainment)

While the video-game industry undoubtedly still has some way to go, some of the positive representation covered here shows that there is certainly a market for more diverse characters.

With studios like Naughty Dog more on board, and the socially motivated Gen-Z generation of gamers becoming old enough to back their values with disposable income, we can hope for even more positive change in the years to come.