I’ve been emailing furiously with friends and contacts I’ve made online. I’ve been sending out queries along the lines of “HEY, you’re a gamer, how do you feel about DIVERSITY”. I’ve been reading articles, trawling Tumblr for opinions and all whilst wondering what people must think of me — a straight, white woman from Canada who is hounding them for what can be personal experiences.
Of course, I’m linking all of these wonderful people to this website. They will probably find my one lowly game review and a pretty header. If they are very diligent they might find my Tumblr or my AO3 account or even my art portfolio where they will be bombarded with my oh-so-professional Dragon Age Fangirling (professionals can still fangirl right?).
The fact is, you might not know me very well and if you do, you might not understand why this topic is one that means so much.
Since I am going to feature interviews with all kinds of gamers on this subject, I wanted to start closest to home — with myself. So, here’s my story, and my take.
I grew up in a small ‘c’ conservative Christian home surrounded by heterosexual white folks. My upbringing was happy and uncomplicated, and the only drama or hardship I faced was the kind that pre-teens invent for themselves to make their lives more interesting. I always wanted to be a writer and so I read and wrote voraciously. I was a romantic, fantasy obsessed lover of elves and of lore.
One thing I did not do was play video games. My family was a late adopter of home computing and I never had a console system. My Dad would occasionally bring home work laptop and let us play Duke Nukem 2.
After we finally did buy a home computer I spent more than my allotted time playing Quest for Glory: Dragon Fire, an action role-playing game released in 1998 in which you play a white, blonde man roaming around a pseudo ancient Greece. This is where I was introduced to romancable characters, button mashing fights and jumping puzzles.
After years of playing Quest for Glory (the other games in my house were Homeworld, Civilization and Quest for Camelot: Dragon Games), I was introduced to the first Mass Effect. The ability to create your own character, choosing their appearance, specialization, background AND most noticeably, sex, was so intriguing to me I spent months playing despite horrible lag issues. The lag was so intense; I had to kill thresher maws by getting out of the Mako and running around it in circles with a shotgun. When I got to the timed mission on Ilos, my poor computer wasn’t able to keep up and I was incapable of making it through the conduit.
Of course this is what led me to purchasing my first Xbox.
It wasn’t long after starting to play games I became frustrated with several things. Firstly, I wanted to play as a woman and in most games, this was not an option. Seeing a woman in a game as a PC made me want to play. It was like I was being marketed directly to. When I saw shooter games that featured only male PC’s my inherent thought was “that’s not for me.” Of course there are plenty of women who enjoy shooter games, and who have no problem playing as a male protagonist, but getting into games a little later in life and coming to the culture for the first time, I immediately felt like I wasn’t being included.
The other frustration I had was with character creation. My inherent desire was to create a self-insert, someone who looked like me. In real life, I have very curly, long-ish hair and in gaming — that wasn’t an option. In Mass Effect all my ladies had this close cropped wavy hair as it was the only curly option. Of course, I recognize that hair physics is more of a design and animation challenge, but this was my frustration.
I started telling people around this time that I only played video games with female PC’s. My then boyfriend would talk about the games he was excited for and qualify, ‘you probably won’t like it though, there’s no women’. You would not believe the number of games that this clause excluded me from! I became incredibly excited about anything that had a woman in it even if it was completely outside my preferred play style. I haven’t always stuck to this rule, and I recognize now that some games are meant to be more of a passive experience than others.
Ultimately, I didn’t even consider myself a ‘gamer’ until Dragon Age: Inquisition.
To prepare for the game I played through DA: 2 and refreshed my knowledge of Origins. I loved all three Mass Effect games and was suffering serious Bioware withdrawal so I booked time off work and started researching classes, races, and builds. I ended up putting a ridiculous number of hours into Inquisition, a number I am both proud of and too embarrassed to share, and threw myself for the first time into an online community of fans.
I discovered Tumblr.
Some people might be incredulous about the Tumblr community or even fandom in general, and it’s true that it has the potential to be toxic if you’re sucked into the minutia but my experience has been anything but.
On my second play through of Inquisition, wanting to see what the fuss was about, I played as a male character and I romanced Dorian Pavus who has been (somewhat incorrectly) touted as Biowares first romanceable gay character. His story in game is one of personal struggle and dealing with homophobia. He has some heart breaking scenes and dialogue and I was moved by it. I started posting and reblogging fan art and writing centered on Dorian and his romance and was welcomed into a community of fans who were likewise moved. Some of them, like me, were straight, but a huge amount of those I connected with identified as gay, bi or lesbian and they, let me tell you, they loved Dorian and what he meant for LGBTQ representation in games.
I won’t get into the characterization or the game too much here, what this is ultimately about is the fans. I read so many articles, stories, opinions and anecdotes from fans who felt like they were being represented, or their story was being represented in a meaningful way for the first time. What I began to see was that LGBTQ people had been feeling invisible for all these years, struggling with a much more deeply felt, and grander version of my curly hair frustration. Straight up, I qualify that this is a poor comparison. Believe me I know how tiny my curly hair frustrations are, but it was this small seed in my heart that helped me realize just how much privilege I never realized I had.
Yes, the gaming industry was moving to include more women in games (to a differing affect), but who was being included first? Straight white women. Me. Curly hair or no.
The gaming industry is often so reactionary and behind, that they are just seeming to realize now that women play games, let alone people of colour or LGBTQ people. I realized for the first time that I had been so blinded by myself, that I never gave a thought to who else I wasn’t seeing in popular culture. I began to hear thoughts from Indigenous people who were fed up with lack of representation, and the one caricature that did represent them in the most stereotypical way, I heard from black people who took issue (rightly so) with horrible lack of representation in games, and trans people who felt virtually invisible.
I started to feel more passionate, and as that passion grew so did my awareness of the micro-aggressions and ingrained racism that existed around me everywhere, not just in games or in popular culture, but in my workplace, my friends, my family, and most disturbingly — myself.
So what does representation mean to me? It means that everyone sees themselves in the media they engage with, it means that no one is made to feel invisible. Representation is not given to fill some quota, it’s not thrown in at the last moment under-researched and underdeveloped, it’s not for a token effect and it’s not mired in stereotypes. Representation in games means that there is a myriad of different experiences we can engage with, it means our minority friends are jumping up and down and saying, “see, that’s what I feel like every day!” because for just a moment we understand a tiny bit of their experience.
It means we’re trying to do better – be better – to learn, and to grow.
It’s my hope that through talking to others, sharing their stories and opinions — I can deepen my knowledge of this issue, enrich my understanding of experiences far removed from my own, and share with others who might also be educating themselves.
If you would like to be a part of this series, “Why Diverse Games”, you can join the conversation by tweeting @kjewellwrites or contacting me via this form.