Games, role-playing games in particular, have created this interesting conundrum in which most of the things you do will turn out to your advantage somehow. I advance through the world. I give people reason to like me or to fear me, whatever I enjoy best, and both options work out for my character equally well.
These games want to make you their hero. You’re supposed to have an empowering experience, punishing you for any action seems counterproductive. Having diverse heroes in such games is often especially great because people of certain backgrounds rarely see themselves depicted as heroes. It’s one of the reasons playing Kassandra from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey can feel so liberating – if you decide to play her as a lesbian, you don’t only get to control a powerful female warrior, you also get to act as someone who is unapologetic about her preferences and gets to have the odd fun romp instead of having to fear public opinion.
So being a hero is fun and games, literally, because even as the challenge increases, so does your power. I absolutely want more people to experience being powerful through representation, as there are many races, identities and body types entirely unrepresented in games as of yet. I want to believe we’re steadily getting there.
Recently, however, I became concerned with all those experiences minorities face that don’t make us feel powerful at all, and how I wished for games to represent these aspects of my life as well. Some of it is difficult to explain, and much of it (thankfully only) amounts to micro-aggressions – the person who tells me “I didn’t think you would be black, you’re so eloquent,” upon meeting me for the first time, people speaking loudly about me because they automatically assume I don’t speak their language. Even the bigger issues are difficult to explain, like having no childhood friends until fairly late into primary school, hearing parents tell their children not to associate with “families like that”. The odd person telling me to be grateful because “someone like me” could have it much worse. I keep a list of places that I stay away from for reasons of personal safety. As a teen I kept a list of dates for right-wing demonstrations and counter-demonstrations because going into town during one of them wasn’t safe. I have experienced physical violence for doing nothing other than to run into the wrong person at the wrong time.
I appreciate that these experiences aren’t universal, and I’m glad for anyone who hasn’t ever been in situations like that. My point is only that as a person representing a minority, you don’t have to make the conversation about race, gender or health. You don’t have to define yourself by any of this. Someone will do that for you. Even if they don’t, these factors are a large part of your identity. Games may not have the power to make someone empathise with an unfamiliar concept, but they can educate, simply by putting us in someone else’s shoes. They have a large audience completely unfamiliar with struggles such as these who could benefit from knowing more about them, simply to foster intercultural understanding.
When it comes to highlighting the struggle of minorities, it’s a more common practice to tell such stories by proxy. Racial tensions and the resulting mistreatment of minorities is, for example, a topic that features quite prominently in both The Witcher and Dragon Age. Both position elves as a disenfranchised race who clash with humans due to different beliefs on pivotal topics such as religion and magic. In both games human civilisations also have flourished after elven cities were destroyed or elves fled from persecution, giving their lands up to humans. If this sounds familiar, that’s because fantasy stories use human history and social structures as a blueprint. Every story does. After all, we need something to extrapolate from when we tell a story.
However, here you are meant to solve these conflicts where possible, keeping you in a position of power throughout. Sure, you can play an elf in Dragon Age Origins and Inquisition, but you’re removed from anything that happens to elves in the wider context because your own position is quickly elevated. Here, too, what I said about empowerment holds true: playing as an elf in Inquisition, people will occasionally call you “knife ear”, a slur for elves, only to be quickly shut up when they find out you’re in fact the Inquisitor. Any experiences like that you may have made prior to assuming this position don’t factor into your character’s personal story. There isn’t much of a personal story, because that would prevent the character from being a blank slate a player could make their own through their choices.
In L.A. Noire, you encounter racial issues more than once. As your own character is white and refuses to engage with any injustice he witnesses, you might be able to quickly put these incidents behind you. They may feel shocking, but you may view them as products of the time, sad but ultimately not your main concern. Of course such a depiction can also be useful in that it reminds players who are less affected by race and gender issues in their daily lives of the privilege they have, but I think of a change of perspective as a more powerful tool. Ultimately scenes like these are supposed to show that your “heroic” character isn’t all they claim to be. Seeing the perspective of a minority character who doesn’t receive help from the supposed hero, however, would also have a lot of impact.
The approach of putting you in the character’s shoes worked really well for Hellblade. Instead of simply encountering the behaviour of someone with auditory and visual hallucinations, you experience it through their eyes. More importantly – again, while the experience portrayed may not work for everyone, devs at Ninja Studios decided to take on this task despite having no experience with hallucinations themselves. While a more diverse gaming industry is important in order to better reflect the player base and the world at large for that matter, it’s perfectly possible to give someone a voice through good, thorough research. What matters to me is that through games, you no longer have to be on the outside looking in.
Recently I’ve played Bury Me, My Love, which follows a Syrian woman seeking refuge in Germany from the Syrian war. The game gives me very little control over what happens to her – sometimes all I can do is listen to the stories she tells me through text messages, a deliberate act of powerlessness. Yet following a refugee this closely helped me to get a perspective on the myriad of routes people in situations like this took. A look at the dangers they tried to navigate by having to make some of those decisions myself made the experience more tangible to me. I won’t be able to empathise with any of it due to no similar personal experience, but I still consider myself to have gained knowledge through interactivity. As much as I disagree with many things about Detroit: Become Human, it, too is a very tentative attempt to tell a story of oppression from the perspective of the oppressed. Even if you can’t recommend a depiction of a minority, a game as big as this allowed discussions as to why, allowing voices from minorities to be heard. There can be value in flawed products, too, as long as games don’t shy away from topics such as this altogether.
Another similarly educational game in this regard is 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, which gives a brief snapshot of events during the Iranian Revolution. 1979 is set up like a Telltale game, asking me to choose certain responses and actions which will then influence the outcome of the story. The most important aspect this game shares with Telltale titles, particularly The Walking Dead, is that sometimes you just can’t win. That to me is certainly one reason some of these stories aren’t told – a lot of it suggests a certain powerlessness. Sometimes these storylines simply aren’t fun, but that’s what makes them all the more well-rounded. There’s value in what makes us squeamish. We know that nothing is always fun, and conveying these experiences makes characters into more than their skin colour or romance options.
Minorities in the gaming industry, from people battling with mental health issues to those from different cultural backgrounds, have so many stories to tell, both good and bad. Using their first-hand perspective makes these stories richer. As games embrace diversity more and more, I want to dream of more games that can use this trait to their advantage to teach me something new.