What happens when we as individuals, and also as representatives of the different demographics we belong to, are forbidden from seeing ourselves in the media we consume? What occurs as present day erasure reinforces the denial of identity and history of those whose existence is seen as inherently “not relatable” or even “unsellable?”
At first glance, this phenomenon seems confusing for those unfamiliar with history and its relationship with erasure or forced invisibility of particular groups of people, namely; women, people of color, queer/LGBTQ+ and disabled populations, as well as any intersections between these identifies. Unfortunately, what seems like a modern day issue is in actuality a timeless one, simply wrapped up in newer, shinier forms of media.
So, why is representation important? Why is it meaningful and necessary for repressed populations to see themselves in media, without being stereotypes or token characters whose sole purpose is to teach the white, usually male straight lead a lesson of some sort? The oppressed are explicitly used as a tool to enhance the personal growth of those who exploit us. That’s one problem, but don’t think it stops there! Representation, does, in fact, serve as motivation for populations who finally see themselves in the media available to them. A good example is of Dana Scully from The X-Files — a woman, an FBI agent and medical doctor, working in a severely male dominated field was enough to influence a new generation of girls and young women to join STEM fields. So, we can see a direct correlation between how well a group is represented and how motivated they are to challenge society’s narrative.
Race is affected in a similar manner. Most media is often characterized by, sometimes entire casts, of white people. A token non-white person is often thrown in there, as if the writers or producers were saying, “Look, here’s your (insert non-white race) character, now leave us alone about it.” Or, conversely, media that does feature non-white people often does so in a stereotyped, racist fashion. For an example, let’s analyze the stereotype that black people are inherently more violent than white people. A study conducted by Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, suggests that when white players are introduced to a violent game where they play as a black character, they “showed stronger explicit negative attitudes towards blacks” than white players who played the same violent video game with a white avatar. This is simply a digitalized version of the same stereotype perpetuated in real life; because black people are characterized as violent and aggressive, they are discriminated against in deadly ways. Police are around twice as likely to kill black suspects, even when they are unarmed or otherwise behaving in a passive, non-confrontational manner. It is such a problem that police kill black children under the pretense that they “looked” or “behaved” as if they were older or dangerous to an officer. Tamir Rice is a tragic, real world example of this. He is certainly not the first nor last to be a victim of such misconstrued, racist preconceptions. When video games, movies, and television shows reinforce these stereotypes, they validate white people’s feelings of supremacy, whether consciously or subconsciously. Therefor, it becomes apparent why fair representation of non-white races is crucial. (As black people are definitively not the only race who experience media enforced stereotypes and violence.)
How about gender? Moving beyond the binary construct of men and women, there are notoriously few forms of entertainment that feature a non-binary, genderqueer, or otherwise gender non-conforming character that is not robotic or alien in nature. However, there are a few notable characters, such as protagonist Frisk from Undertale and Team Mystic Leader, Blanche, from Pokémon Go. In Undertale, Frisk’s gender is never revealed or specified, and are referred to only with “they” pronouns.
Yūsuke Kozaki, who designed the characters of Pokémon Go, stated on twitter that Blanche’s gender is “whatever impression or feeling you get from the design” as Team Mystic’s Leader’s gender is ambiguous at best at first glance. In addition, Pokémon Go also poses the decision of choosing an avatar differently — instead of having you choose a gender as in the main franchise games, you are prompted to choose a style instead. Therefor, instead of deciding to be a “boy or girl” you simply decide which character’s aesthetic you are most comfortable with. So, media does feature characters with genders that are not specified as either male or female, or at least avoids such binary-enforcing language. And, while it is true there is still little in the way of human non-binary representation (or positive transgender representation for that matter) it does exist and is slowly becoming more normalized, at least in video games.
Divulging from gender, we can easily move into sexuality. This becomes a particularly recognizable problem in games where romancing another character is integral to the game. For example, the Harvest Moon series, despite how cute and fun it is, is incredibly hetero-normative. Meaning, essentially, there are no options for same sex romance. Yet, there are some games where same sex courtship is an option. Hatoful Boyfriend, despite being a game that primarily expects you to court, well, a boyfriend, still provides a route that ends with the protagonist (a girl) dating a female bird, Azami, instead of any of the male choices. It is subtle enough as to not give the impression that it is an abnormal or joke choice, yet prominent enough to throw a bone to female players with same sex attraction. Who knew pigeons could be so inclusive? (Disclaimer: Azami herself is not actually a pigeon.)
In this article, I’ve glossed over quite a few discrepancies in equality that exist in popular media, and some of the ways they impact our real world experience with identities that are not conducive to, largely, the Western world’s status quo. In order to begin thinking of solutions to these problems, we must first address them, which I have attempted to do, however briefly, in these paragraphs. It is important to be critical of the media we as a society consume, and to remain mindful of how these fictional concepts can and do impact real people living their real lives. We all deserve to see ourselves in the culture we occupy, even if who we see is fictional.
Shoot Shoot Reload welcomes Kat Kieren as one of the newest contributors! Kat hopes to write even more about video games in the near future.