What’s the deal with representation?

If you have been on the internet any time in the last few years, the chances are that you have come across somebody talking about representation in some kind of media. If you have spent a little more time digging into the idea, the chances are you have seen a rise in discourse on representation and why it matters to a lot of people – especially those who belong in minority groups.

Representation shapes the way that we see the world. A lot of what you, the audience, care or know about, comes from the way the consumed media presents a specific narrative. This means that what we know about being a woman, a person of colour (POC), gay, from different classes – most of it comes from what we are exposed to in the media.

Essentially, it’s a strong force in the understanding of different perspectives, cultures, and people – and this is why it is such an important part of the creative industry.

Mr. Yunioshi in the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s has been a prominent subject of scrutiny. The character is, in plain terms, a complete assassination of Japanese men and culture, and perpetuated the gross Asian stereotypes and hatred in the US that followed World War 2. If you would like to read more about it, this article explains more of the issues in greater detail.

Mr. Yunioshi is a pretty extreme example of how representation can be harmful. Sure, you could say that at least they are acknowledging the existence of Japanese men living in America – but how relevant is that idea when this is the result of their portrayal?

It’s really important that we understand this harm; because we are still struggling with how to implement representation that is fair in media today.

And it’s particularly bad in the video game industry.

The world of gaming and representation

In my opinion, representation in video games can have a more profound effect on the consumer than traditional TV or news media. And this is simply because of the immersive nature of the content.

Games don’t just give you a narrative or character to consume, they make you an integral part of the story. If you don’t have any input in how the story progresses, it simply won’t. A movie will continue playing in the background. The news will continue while you cook. A video game will stop as long as you do. It is one of the few forms of digital media that absolutely needs the input of the consumer to have an effect on them.

For a long time, researchers have indicated that video games are created for men, despite the fact that over 40% of players in the US alone are women. Most of the time, the character you find yourself playing in a given game is a cis-het white man, and the women around him are usually overly-sexualised and follow the ‘damsel in distress’ caricature. There is, overall, a pretty severe lack of any significantly positive LGBTQ and POC representation.

But, why does this matter? Video games are meant to be for fun and enjoyment, so why does representation really matter – especially in FPS games like Apex Legends, Call of Duty, or Overwatch, where narrative isn’t really the core focus?

In any researched problem to do with video games, representation is often at the core of the issue. This shaping of how we see people different from us informs how we treat them. The ‘damsel in distress’ narrative, for example, perpetuates the idea that women are meek and in need of saving. Stereotypical portrayal of POC and LGBTQ identifying folk keeps them in that box.

In FPS games, where narrative isn’t the core focus, we are still exposed to significant representation that shapes our thinking. Through audio and visual cues, we are exposed to a certain kind of character (like Widowmaker from Overwatch) that falls into a stereotype.

True and fair representation is the first step in understanding how to normalise the true experience of the diverse identities and cultures that exist in the world. At the end of the day, that is the deal with representation. It helps us connect better, understand better, and see people outside of the stereotypes they are fighting off on a daily basis.

And using the incredible way that video games can tell stories is one of the best ways we can do this.