If you don’t play video games, this hashtag probably hasn’t crossed your social media feed… or if it has, you may not understand what it means or why it exists. Such is the challenge of any kind of hashtag activism — it’s difficult to have meaningful exchanges when limited to 140 characters or less.
Consequently, there is a lot of miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinformation going on with #GamesSoWhite, much like what happened with the incredibly controversial #GamerGate controversy from 2014. Unlike GamerGate, which many video game enthusiasts used as a rallying cry to marshall support toward protecting their turf, #GamesSoWhite has become a target of many of those same gamers, who are doing their best to discredit, disprove or shout down the ideas behind the hashtag.
WARNING — if you’ve found this post through social media and you want to discredit my argument, before you respond, check the “WHAT I’M NOT SAYING” disclaimer at the bottom of this post. Trust me, it will save us both some time.
According to noted game journalist Leigh Alexander, #GamesSoWhite was initiated as a companion to a much less confrontational hashtag, #INeedDiverseGames, in response to a series of articles (this one, then this one, then this one just yesterday) that all seem to indicate that the video game industry has a problem with lack of diversity in developer personnel, and the evidence of this is how few video games feature characters of color, either as protagonists, or at all.
I must note here that many of the gamers on Twitter I’ve talked to object strenuously to the term “people of color” [or “PoC”], because they rightly note that nonwhite people are not a monolithic group that can all be lumped into the same category. I understand this, and wish there was a less clunky term to use. However, as a person of African-American descent, I don’t have any other way to describe people who are outside of the default European / Caucasian standard of whiteness that has permeated American society. Furthermore, I wish white were not the default standard, but since it is, terms like “PoC” are necessary to draw distinction. PoC didn’t make the rules, y’all, we’re just observing what already exists.
So in response to the pushback from defensive gamers who think lack of diversity is not a problem, the sarcastic hashtag #GamesSoWhite has sprung up, much in the same tradition of the “yo momma” joke:
#gamessowhite Fallout 4 has customizable characters and still went with default white male for cinematic trailer.
— Espi Serpina Kvlt (@EspiKvlt) June 4, 2015
#GamesSoWhite that five white chicks with varying hair colour is seen as groundbreaking. See also Assassin's Creed Rogue for dude version
— Tanya D. (@cypheroftyr) June 4, 2015
#gamessowhite that if they HAD set an Assassin's Creed in the Civil War, it would've starred a white dude
— Tim C (@thain1982) June 4, 2015
Of course, in response to this hashtag, the horde of defenders-of-the-status-quo began flooding Twitter with responses. A few of them were honest challenges or questions, but most were combination of distortions, distractions, ad hominem attacks and name-calling, none of which I will highlight in this space (but trust me, if you search for #GamesSoWhite on Twitter, you’ll find responses that fit these descriptions.)
Many, if not most, of these responses have coalesced around one particular question — why is this lack of diversity in the industry a problem?
Here are multiple reasons why it’s a problem:
1. Lack of diversity in video game characters is a problem because video games and other forms of popular culture have the power to reinforce racist norms of identity.
Thus, when video game protagonists are usually white, the message that is sent to the (often juvenile) consumer of color is, you don’t matter. It’s the same problem Ralph Ellison articulated in The Invisible Man — American society has so traditionally catered to the needs, whims and desires of white people that often people of color feel like we are invisible. So when teams of exclusively or mostly white people assemble to develop a video game, even if none of those people have racial animus in their hearts, they inadvertently perpetuate white supremacist norms by filtering their narrative through white lenses. They think only of the stories, issues, foods, clothing and other cultural signifiers that matter to them. The reason why the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained so much steam is because PoC in general and African-Americans specifically are told, again and again, through examples from popular culture, that their cultural priorities, tastes, or experiences are at best tangential and at worst completely irrelevant to the American story.
On one level, this still may not seem like a big deal. Boo-hoo, you don’t feel included. But here’s the thing, these norms have real world consequences, many of them devastating. How many successful African-American men and women have been stopped by police for driving expensive looking cars that cops assumed must’ve been stolen? If the default image of a person driving a high-performance sports car is a guy who looks rich and European, that makes it easier to justify police misconduct against law-abiding citizens who happen to be African-American. And when you can customize every single thing about your driving experience in Forza Horizon 2 except the ethnicity of the driver… that’s a problem that contributes to real-world racism (even if the game is actually set in Europe).
2. Lack of diversity in video game development teams is an even bigger problem, because it is symptomatic of larger trends involving racial prejudice in business.
Often it’s disguised as an issue of organizational fit, but either way, it ends up making it harder for people of color who are interested in pursuing careers in the various disciplines that comprise video game development, because they have to confine themselves to an unfair cultural standard in order to be hired. And even if they are hired, diverse teams of people that intentionally include diverse characters have to fight hard for their creative ideas to remain intact because of the perception that gamers are a mostly white audience, which may or may not be true, depending on how you measure and define the term “gamer.” (Case in point — how many people played “Remember Me?” vs. “Mirror’s Edge”?)
3. Lack of diversity in the vocal crowd of online video game enthusiasts is a problem because it paints a distorted picture of the overall entertainment market. Video games are a lucrative segment of pop culture and are subject to many of the same market forces that affect television and feature films. And both TV and feature films have their own issues with diversity, however, in recent years, there have been increasing efforts on the part of television and feature film studios to increase the level of ethnic diversity in their product. Do they do this out of the goodness of their hearts? Hell no, they’re beginning to do it because they recognize that their audience is becoming more diverse, and audiences will respond more favorably to shows they can identify with.
Video games have been slower to adapt, and one reason for this is that the most visible segment of customers have been the most vocally resistant to calls for inclusion among racial or gender lines. Can you imagine if some TV viewer organization tried to say that diversity doesn’t matter because most of the people who watch TV are white? Ad execs and demographers would laugh in their faces, because they know that TV and movies are practically universal in their appeal. Whatever other things that divide us as Americans, one thing is for sure — we watch a lot of TV and we go to the movies.
From a revenue standpoint, the most successful video game titles bring in just as much revenue as television shows and feature films, but because the perception is that gamers are mostly white, there isn’t as much pressure for developers to increase the diversity of their teams and products. Just like TV and film, this is slowly beginning to change. But where the pace of diversification may be slow in TV, in video games, it’s damn near glacial.
So what can be done about it?
First, if you want to help the situation, start by countering the misinformation campaign unleashed by opponents of the #INeedDiverseGames and #GamesSoWhite hashtags. Even if you don’t agree with everything I’ve said, don’t fall prey to the following knee-jerk replies that completely miss the point, mischaracterize my argument, and wrongly frame the discussion.
- I’m NOT saying that it’s wrong to have white characters. As a matter of fact, no one I know is saying this, because this is dumb. Plus, Sam Fisher from Splinter Cell is white, and I freaking love Sam Fisher.
- I’m NOT saying you have to have an equal number of black and white characters, mostly because I think quotas are not a great way to spur on creativity, but also because that approach fails to account for biracial people, who are an exploding demographic, growth-wise. Plus, it’s ridiculous that discussions of ethnicity in the United States always get framed as black-and-white when the reality is much more nuanced. The main reason why my discussions about racism revolve around black and white is because I’m black and I live in the whitest city in America.
- I’m not saying that studios should create and release characters that follow the same proportions of ethnic groups in the U.S., partially because of what I said before about quotas, but also because I also recognize that video games are often collaborative affairs of international studios owned by multinational corporations, sold, operated and supported on a global scale.
- I’m also NOT saying that anyone who disagrees is racist (though many of the people who have interpreted my remarks in that way probably don’t have an accurate definition of racism).
- SINCE I’M NOT SAYING THOSE THINGS, I AM SAYING THIS: There is still a ton of progress that can be made in this area, but large scale change won’t happen without people like me, paying customers, declaring loudly and publicly that diversity is important in my gaming experience.
What else can be done?
- If you’re a video game player, actively support games that have diverse casts or that intentionally explore issues of race or culture.
- Also if you’re a gamer, speak out on social media so that your voice isn’t drowned out by those who are threatened by the specter of more diversity in video games.
- If you’re not a gamer but you are a parent, spouse or friend who sometimes purchases video games, ask informed questions about the games you purchase, not just about violence or sexuality, but about culture and ethnicity.
- If you want to know more about these issues, check out Tanya DePass’ Tumblr site I Need Diverse Games and feel free to share more of its content.
If you disagree with the #GamesSoWhite or #INeedDiverseGames movement, find a way to do so respectfully, so that we can have an actual conversation and not just lob a series of insult memes back and forth.
After we were introduced on Facebook, Tanya DePass offered these words as a corrective concerning how the #GamesSoWhite hashtag started:
#INeedDiverseGames started back in October 2014 [with this tweet]. The #GamesSoWhite seems to have started in response to Arthur Chu’s piece on me in Salon and was revived due to the response to Tauriq’s piece on Race issues in Polygon. It wasn’t raised so much in response to my Offworld piece on race in Dragon Age.#GamesSoWhite was created [in the vein of] #OscarsSoWhite, actually, and I believe desertfox89 on Twitter started it. From Leigh Alexander’s #GamesSoWhite article on Offworld, she notes that conversation around the Salon piece was where she first started seeing the #GamesSoWhite hashtag crop up, but it’s seeing some revival today.
For more info, check out the INDG FAQ.