Diversity is great – but do we run the risk of tokenism?

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The witcher 3 characters

Debates about diversity in gaming are the hot topic at the moment. Everyone seems to rage about the lack of women, people of colour or alternative sexualities in games. Without representation, how can gaming appeal to a broader range of games? While I agree with the need for more varied and developed characters, some games are coming under fire in this regard, and it sometimes feels ungrounded and argumentative to me.

The reason I like more diversity in games is that it usually results in more interesting characters, more compelling stories and something unique in the experience. While plenty of games starring grizzled middle-aged white men can be excellent, it’s nice to see varied characters as well. Not all games need playable female characters (although it’s nice when those options do appear), but they should consider how they can make women (and men) more nuanced characters.

Dragon age diversity

Race and sexuality are also important in the game. I like how Bioware deals with it in its games, letting players choose their own race and sexuality, with the consequences that this may bring.

Despite receiving a ton of praise for storytelling and game design, The Witcher 3 is now coming under fire for its lack of characters of colour. It’s argued that the whole game is filled with white characters and the fact that we aren’t even criticising this is indicative of the state of the gaming industry.

Perhaps the white men who I know who have been playing the game lately are so colour blind that they didn’t even notice and it’s a big problem. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to play it and experience it’s diversity or lack thereof. That’s not to say that the game is inherently racist, though I think the criticism is fundamentally misinformed.

Not a person. Therefore not a "person of colour"

No, I’m not going to argue that certain parts of Europe are that lily white that developers could legitimately forget that other parts of the world are more ethnically varied. Rather, I’m going to ask why every game needs to represent all types of people. Are the characters that players encounter well rounded? Is the story detailed and well told? Is there nuance and realism in abundance? Then why is it such a big problem?

In Sleeping Dogs, an excellent game taking place in Hong Kong, all the characters the player encounters are Chinese. Could there be white characters in Hong Kong? Of course, but this game didn’t include them just for the sake of having some white characters. In that same vein, it feels contrived to include various races just to avoid making people feel left out. If there were a compelling reason to include a person of visually different origin (a trader from afar who Geralt needs to probe for information, a foreign soldier he needs to help), that could work. However, to insist that every game has playable, women, LGBTQ and ethnically different characters makes the whole thing feel contrived. Shouldn’t we be focusing on pushing studios towards making better games with more varied characters and deeper storytelling? If we make it simply about a diversity checklist, that doesn’t make for better gaming, or improved representation. In fact, it leads to a much more distressing form of Tokenism.

inter-alien romance

Some criticism is warranted at times though. Games predominantly feature white leads – which certainly needs a bit more balancing. This doesn’t mean that every single game under the sun needs an equal spread of representation. Rather, more games should perhaps focus on different racial demographics, so that people can engage with a protagonist who shares their ethnicity for a change.

There’s also nothing wrong with asking for better representation in games, because it acts as valuable feedback to studios who may not even realise the racial favouritism they are implementing. Rallying for every game to be a mix of colour certainly isn’t the way to approach it, but asking for games to maybe focus on protagonists of colour for a change isn’t going to hurt either. Developers don’t have to listen, and that’s ok – but for the ones who do, it could make their games more welcoming, richer experiences for it.

I would love to see games that offered more representation for people of all walks of life. As a woman, it can be really cool to play as a character who more closely resembles me. However, I can still have a fully immersive and engaging experience playing as a middle-aged man, provided the rest of the game feels right. While studios should be encouraged to make better games, and called-out for games that don’t meet player standards for representation, I don’t think it’s fair to push a singular agenda to the point of making studios worry if they’ve hit their diversity quota.

Does Dragon Age need more diversity? I don’t think so. Nor do I believe that The Witcher 3 is lacking in the representation needed to create a believable world. Could games improve in this regard? Of course. But let’s remember that this is about making interestingly varied game worlds filled with intriguing characters. While diversity is welcomed and appreciated, I don’t think that every single game needs to cater to everyone – or we run the risk of shoehorning in token characters purely for the sake of representation, creating one-dimensional characters that ascribe to the stereotypes we’re trying to get rid of.

This is an opinion piece by the author indicated and does not represent the views of the publication or its staff.

Last Updated: June 5, 2015

Zoe Hawkins

Wielding my lasso of truth, I am the combination of nerd passion and grammar nazi. I delve into all things awesome and geek-tastic. You can read more of my words over at www.borngeek.co.za, or just follow me on all the social networks to get the true range of my sarcasm and wit.

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