Honest Conversations About Minority Representation in the Game Industry

Junae Benne

I am a huge fan of gaming and technology. And it’s no secret that I am a first-generation Jamaican American Black woman. As a fan and minority of the gaming industry, I love being the bridge for other minorities. It’s important to me to encourage youth and anyone else who was an inkling of interest in STEM into the community. These spaces are predominately white. So, on my journey of gaming expos, I decided to ask other minorities how they feel in these spaces.

After meeting women who are really into gaming and tech especially Black and Brown women, I notice there is a conversation that keeps coming up. It’s usually about being the only woman in the space. Not only the only woman in the space but the only dark skin woman. Or being the only first-generation American woman in the space. There are levels and sublevels to being in a predominantly white space and we’re going to take a deeper look at all of these levels.

We are going to see four levels, being different a race or nationality, then being a different sex, then being a person with or without a disability.

The first one is being Black and it’s negative connotations. I should know, I was Black before I was anything else. Sometimes being Black in these spaces means so many negative things. A few of those things are lazy, thieves, thugs, uneducated, and extremely athletic. A few examples are CJ from Grand Theft Auto, BD Joe from Crazy Taxi, and Balrog from Street Fighter.

These characters are extremely stereotypical. Balrog was directly molded after Mike Tyson which there is nothing particularly negative about it. This just speaks to the unoriginality of creating Black characters. If we reflect on older movies what does the typical Jamaican look like? Exactly, you already have the depiction in your head. The level of being Black consists of people not thinking you belong there or having the impoverished persona cast upon you. As in, you’re here but you’re lucky to be here – the token character. Just recently the true traits of being Black are born into the industry via representation in gaming. Like Bangalore from Apex Legends being a total bawse, reliable, a team player, strong, supportive, and a leader. Same thing with Nessa from Pokemon Sword & Shield. She is gentle, tough, competitive, and a good sport. We need these representations because sometimes it’s the only interaction with Blackness some people get.

Let’s move on to the next level, being a woman. What does it mean to identify as a woman in the gaming industry? Stereotypically, it means to be sexualized, not taken seriously, sub-par knowledge, and skill on all things gaming, attention-seeking, a pro “wench/groupie”. These stereotypes come from the female representation within video games and advertisements. For so long games were marketed toward white males and no matter what the age is, sex sells and no one sells sex better than women. For example, remember that Burger King commercial with the girl in the revealing outfit washing the car and eating the burger?

This commercial’s purpose is to sell these beefy “manly burgers” to men. Just like in Dead or Alive (DOA) the breasts had their own realm of physics.

Like fan service in Anime which promotes the sexualization of girls within a younger age range. Even Fornite portrayed this when they added the new character, Calamity.

This includes games where the women wear less armor, but stats portray they are “fully” protected.

Recently, Loba arrived in Apex Legends. She is expressing her sexuality but not be oversexualized or made for the male gaze. It’s important to portray all women, not just on or a bunch of stereotypes. Since women are mostly portrayed one-sided it is hard to get people to change their minds on how they view women and change their strategy on how women are marketed.

With these expectations, it’s hard for women to do things like cosplay without being scrutinized. If you don’t have the body type of skin color for Lara Croft from Tomb Raider you really get to see the ugly side of the fandom. Many games are covering up their female characters. Which is helping the narrative of, ‘she’s only as good as her looks,’ dissipate.

This is an example of a simple Yu-Gi-OH cosplay that drew negative attention because she wasn’t…cartoon colored.

Mortal Kombat 11 has done a great job on the characters, their outfits, and facial features. Apex Legends does a great job of having its female characters in realistic combat gear. These are great examples of representation moving in the correct direction. I believe a few big pushes were minorities speaking up. People also put their money where their mouth is by saying, ‘I’m not buying this media unless I see myself accurately.’

On top of being a woman, being a dark skin woman is another level. I know in the 90s dark skin women were portrayed a lot more. Then the trend seemed to die down a bit until recently. When Lupita Nyongo made her debut then it opened a door for more dark skin women in every medium. Which is why we see a push of dark skin women in games. The idea of including a dark skin woman in a game as a protagonist and not just an NPC or working girls in Grand Theft Auto was foreign. Being of a darker tone in tech and gaming spaces means being overlooked. This narrative is also changing. As seen in Xbox’s avatar, Mass Effect, South Park Fractured But Whole, and Pokemon Sword/Shield the skin tone options are much better. We can be brown-skinned and not green or ashy, hint, hint Skyrim!

Once seeing dark skin women in games the next up is hair texture representation. This sub-level is something that has been brought to the forefront since the natural hair movement has come to the limelight. Before this period, even as early as 2011, DC Universe Online, only depicted an afro as a hairstyle for custom made characters. Our only look is not 70s Black exploitation film. We like braids that don’t make us look bald-headed. Textured hair packs are greatly appreciated, just ask The Sims community. There are more options now besides the fro, wavy or loose curls. There are tight curls, braids that simulate actual braids. Different braid styles not just cornrows or french braids. The curls are tighter and some games even depict a tapered hair cut for our curly nerds.

There is most definitely progress happening when it comes to representation of minorities, but will we ever be able to include everyone? Just in the way Black women have layers. Every minority has layers. Whether you’re a part of the Latinx community or another, colorism is real thing. Continuously, people of color are being told, ‘lighter is better.’ I can’t speak too much on the Latinx community’s layers. That’s why Alexa Lopez, a Latinx developer, gamer, and member of the LGBTQIA+ community will share her experience. She expresses that when she gets into these spaces, she’s ostracized because she’s a woman. Then when these same people get a hint that she is Latinx & LGBTQIA+ they push her further out of the conversation. Now that more minorities are being asked to the table there are great strides happening right now in the tech and gaming industry. Other minorities include persons with disabilities.

I spoke to Ethiel “E” Padilla, a Smash Bros player, and also a person with a disability about the layers of representation he goes through when he shows up to events and everyday life. E says,

“First representing your family when you step outside the house and wherever community you’re in you’re representing them as well. [In a way] The Latino & Black community, we’re all in a way considered the same in the standpoint of struggles and trying to get out.”

E & I agree that every time we go anywhere it’s up to us to break stereotypes and stigmas. Being in the public eye and not wanting but forced into being a public figure and almost a spokesperson for “your people” happens daily to minorities. E explains what it’s like going to a predominantly White institute.

“Going to a PWI like the University of Milwaukee, I felt alienated. I’m a very social person and I like to speak to people. My first two years were abysmal. I felt socially neglected. With side-eyed stares,” says E.

As a person who isn’t dealing with a disability where I use a wheelchair on a daily I already know it’s easy to attract side-eyes and stares. E uses a wheelchair to get around and a Microsoft adaptive controller to play games. So people see that and start making assumptions and putting limitations on E.

“Going places where people don’t know how to socially handle me is difficult,” says E, “I found myself separating myself from a lot of things like, socially. Physically not being at events. I fell into [a] bad depression.”

Some of us can relate to this, being an outcast. Since I don’t have outward physical impairments I haven’t experienced being an outcast in this way. I have experienced being an outcast from being Black and a woman. But I can imagine how it’s amplified. Imagine meeting someone who doesn’t have a physical disability but volunteers this information. Would you proceed to ask them what they can and can’t do? Hopefully, you would let this person live their life as they will, and if they need something you’re open to helping.

I have an example of this which is kind of funny. I’m relatively tall. I was grocery shopping a few months back. I saw this grandpa who was about 5’5”. He stood on a shelf to get to the produce. Which I know is dangerous because it could be wet so I say,
“Hey, can I help you get something?”

He looked at me like what? And replied,

“No! I can get it myself.”

And I was embarrassed. I thought I was helping and I projected my willingness to ask for help unto another person. In retrospect, he has been short all his life. Just because he’s older doesn’t mean his mentality for help or relying on other people changes. I would think twice before I ask someone if they need help. Being yelled at by an old person is not the move.

“I took the reign of my education and I transferred out of the University of Milwaukee because it was that bad,” E says. “I found myself again. It was a smaller environment, MATC (Milwaukee Area Technical College) where people interacted with me. I transferred back. Being a new person, 2.0 me.”

Honestly, I’m not sure if I would be brave enough to switch schools like. I’ve been switching schools all my life and I always feel like I have to stay in my situation and preserve. In a lot of situations I just code switch. Whether it’s to “tone down my Blackness” or act like I’m not affected or hurting from a previous social situation with the same group of people. It’s a thing I’ve seen a lot of Black Twitter talk about. Some people are comfortable code-switching other people say they are authentically 100% themselves at every moment. Either way, no way is ‘the right way.’

E continues in a matter fact tone, “I knew how to code-switch, but not how to apply it. Understand my audience is – who am I talking to, who I’m speaking with. I attacked it from every angle.

The racial divide at the University of Milwaukee is a bit farther than a smaller place like MATC.

Over 66% is White, 11% is Latinx, and Black coming in third at over 7%.

MATC is a bit smaller and the numbers are closer together. 42% is White, 30% is Black, and Latinx coming in third at 13%.

Because we have coping mechanisms doesn’t mean it gets more enjoyable to interact with people who are not open-minded. It’s still just as taxing. It might get a bit easier because there is a method to the madness, but that’s it.

E says, “Every day is a burden. I‘m just aware of it [how ignorant people are] I know what situations not to put myself in. I know what triggers are. If I do something that’s normal to you guys [able-bodied people] it’s normal.”

E’s sister, Alex, explains the difference between interacting with outside people versus his family.

“As a family member – it’s normal to us. People have come up to us and say how amazing he is but not for the reason, they’re thinking. People immediately look at me and assume that he’s incapable of communicating. And I turn to him and ask him what he thinks.

E last statement, “With a disability, everyone has a preconceived notion to what it is. And that’s not smart, it’s ignorance. To categorize me or subject me to what you think disability might be. You don’t see me as an equal. I’ve taken it upon myself to put myself in situations to make people aware I am aware, I have my own thoughts, dreams, trials, and tribulations, passions. I’ve been through some shit. What people don’t seek understanding for that’s what hinders me in my life. I was raised to fight, ya know? I’m not gonna give in. I got a fighting spirit.”

If you are pursuing being a world changer you have to fight. A part of the fight is understanding that everyone has their idea what it is to be a minority, whether or not they are a minority. Whether or not they are of the Black diaspora everyone carries a definition until they choose to intake more information. Being a minority can mean your skin color, hair texture, education, body type, or body capabilities. Being in a place populated by people who are able-bodied who have their own ideas on persons with disabilities isn’t comfortable. And there are safe places for minorities but we cannot stay in our safe places. They are to help unwind, build up self-esteem. Think of safe places being like at home with a family of your own choosing. You’re safe at home to share your feelings, have them validated, and get advice from people who have been through the same situations. Or you get the vent, go off the rails, get creative with the curse words. It’s very nice to have a safe place but the world is more than that. E’s family helps him have a basis for how he wants to live his life so he can project that on to other people. Instead of having people project their notions on to him.

And a PWI doesn’t have to refer only to schools. It can refer to being in a space that is populated by White people. Meaning, board rooms that make decisions concerning mostly minorities. So having a team of able-bodied people make decisions about a gym and not one person with a disability. Nor a person with experience on diversity and inclusion. More minorities need to be invited to the discussion. That’s the only solution. Every table needs to have a variety of minorities. Getting one type of minority doesn’t make up for not having other types of minorities.

We can keep demanding representation for all minorities in the gaming and tech industry. Companies like Ubisoft, Epic Games, and Respawn are companies that are making strides to include minorities. But they’re not the majority. And their games may reflect diversity but what about their payroll?

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