When Katie Stone Perez’s daughter first tried to ride a two-wheel bicycle, the little girl took her Super Mario plush toy and put him in the basket on the front of the handle bars. Intrigued, Katie asked why the little plumber toy had to accompany her on the ride. “Because he taught me to never give up,” her daughter said.
Perez knows a thing or two about the power of video games as a reflective, empowering and emotional influence in the lives of players. While working as the senior program manager for Microsoft’s [email protected] program, which seeks to support independent development on the console, she worked closely with Kenny Roy, creator of forthcoming puzzle platformer I, Hope. Aimed at children affected by cancer, it’s the story of a girl who must help defend her island home against a mysterious sickness. Perez also supported the launch of We Love Chicago, a narrative game about multiracial communities living in the city’s urban areas, and right now, she’s helping out at the Xbox-sponsored Girls Make Games, a three-week summer camp dedicated to teaching young women how to code and create video games. “Diversity within the games industry is incredibly important to me,” she says. “I think we need to back away from this focus on one type of consumer or one type of developer – some of my favourite gaming experiences come from really diverse creators.”
The issue of diversity in gaming has been a hot topic in recent years. The industry traditionally projects an image that is young, white, straight and male, but there is growing understanding that – if only for the sake of releasing more interesting products – this has to change. At the E3 event in June, we saw a string of announcements featuring women and people of colour, including Assassin’s Creed Origins, Beyond Good & Evil 2, Star Wars Battlefront II, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider. While showing off the new features of Forza Motorports 7, Microsoftused female avatars to reveal the new character creation feature; while talking about Call of Duty: WWII, developer Sledgehammer has stressed the vital role of the female French resistance leader Jeannie Rousseau in the narrative, and the fact that you can build female and PoC characters in the multiplayer mode. The industry has been improving its depiction of non-white, non-male characters for several years, but in the last three E3 events, there has been a real sense of momentum, belief and priority – as if this isn’t just something to pay lip service to – it actually matters from a creative and commercial standpoint.
Likewise, PlayStation recently sponsored Pride London, providing a joyous, hugely colourful presence in the parade. It wasn’t a top-down corporate endeavour, aimed at grabbing some kudos and exposure from a high profile progressive event. The idea came from PlayStationEurope’s LGBTQ group, which was originally formed by staff members as an online meeting place, but according to social media manager Eric Whelan, soon started to have more ambitious plans. “We decided that we’d like to do more for our LGBTQ gaming community and Pride in London seemed like a great start for that – after all, we are based in central Soho. We quickly came together with the UK team who had separately been working on plans for Pride. From there, it just started to move forward …”
For every forward step however, there is often a reminder of how far is left to travel. At the weekend, Develop, the Brighton-based conference for game developers, uploaded a video to YouTube showing an interview with two keynote speakers, the married couple Brenda and John Romero. A series of thoughtless on-screen captions erased Brenda’s own career, seeming to insinuate that her talk on how to avoid burnout in the games industry was about her partner’s career, and not her own 35 years as a game creator.
What often gets lost in the exhausting, furious online discourse around representation is real-world experience. Viewed from the outside, when Xboxannounces a new range of diverse player avatars, complete with wheelchairs, complete with a greater range of skin tones, complete with more expressive gender-agnostic clothing, it is tempting to be cynical, it is tempting to write efforts off as posturing. But actually, talking to the beneficiaries of inclusive thinking – being at E3, meeting Perez, listening to PlayStation’s Pride team – makes it all feel very real, very present and utterly valid.
A while ago, Xbox got a new feature in settings called co-pilot. It lets console owners map a game’s controls on to two separate joypads, so two people have access at the same time. A lot of core gamers shrugged at this seemingly arcane feature, but other groups felt very differently. “Co-pilot is one of the things I’m most proud of at Xbox,” says Perez. “You can use it to help people with disabilities, or people who are just less experienced at games. While playing, instead of taking the controller away from them, you can say ‘oh I’ll get this jump’, and you get it and they carry on. I work with a children’s hospital and the child life specialist team was like, oh God, this is a breakthrough. If you think of kids with cerebral palsy, they can maybe push one button, they don’t have a lot of meaningful content throughout their day, but with co-pilot, someone else can help with the tough bits, and they get to have powerful gaming experiences.”
This is a really important part of representation – giving people who struggle to play games the ability to join in, and to be visible on screen. Accessibility and inclusivity are different parts of the same message. It’s why charities like Special Effect in the UK and Able Gamers in the US are so vital, building hardware and peripherals to assist disabled players, and advocating for better support throughout the industry. Games are now a habitual element of childhood and teenage life, it is isolating for people with different abilities or backgrounds to find they can’t play, and can’t have avatars that represent them. It is isolating not to be thought of or considered in the culture you desperately want to consume and be part of. In a media-saturated environment, where messages of belonging are constantly transmitted via TV, social media and smartphones, inclusivity is a life buoy. If you do not see yourself on Netflix, on Instagram, in games, in forums, where are you? Do you mean anything? It matters.
This is an aspect that came through in PlayStation’s sponsorship of Pride too. “We have a very diverse staff, including a big number of LGBTQ people who went through the same challenges that many of our LGBTQ fans are going through right now,” says Whelan. “If we can show just one of them that they can be accepted anywhere – in both gaming and in the real, working world – and that gaming is not just about being super gender- or sexually conforming, then all the months of work is worth it. That’s why it’s important.”
When people dismiss representation as a political fad, as an imposition on the creative process, as a means of ticking off lists, they are almost always doing this from a position of privilege. The argument that it’s not the gender, ethnicity or physical abilities of a character that are important, but whether they’re written well and fun to play, is easier to make if you’re already being comfortably represented. It is easy to assume your experience is universal. But it isn’t.
“All we wanted to do is show our support,” says group marketing manager Lauren Bradley about the Pride sponsorship. “While we don’t expect to change anyone’s minds, we do know that there are many young people out there, afraid to be who they want to be. If PlayStation can do anything to help them and make them feel part of a community, then we should.”
Perez says the attitude at Xbox reflects this. “As a girl growing up playing games I was always like, why do I have to play as a boy?” she says. “But I’m still a white straight woman who sees myself throughout our media and culture – there are so many people in our society who don’t get that representation. It’s important that they feel more included in the content we’re making – and part of that is to make sure they’re working in the team so those conversations are taking place. This year you’ll see from our entire first-party portfolio, a greater level of character customisation – you’ll see our new avatar system, where you can have prosthetics and wheelchairs, really express your identity. We’re bringing that ‘it looks like me’ moment to more people.”
I met Perez at E3, in a small room within the Microsoft stand. All around us you could hear the muffled explosions and simulated gunfire from a dozen different games. Outside, young people were queuing for hours to get a few moments of play time with latest title in a series they love. It can surely be nothing but empowering to get to the end of that line, to pick up a controller, and then to see someone on screen that looks like you, acts like you, or looks like how you want to be. Escapism is beautiful, but representation is intimate and personal – it is the connection between you and the cultural worlds you explore. Video games have a vital role in helping us form a sense of ourselves because they are pervasive and powerful.
Perez and I started swapping stories about how video games had changed our lives. I told her about my son making friends through Pokemon Go; she told me about how her daughter played the game Beyond Eyes, which has a sight-impaired protagonist, and ended up volunteering at the Washington Convention of the Blind.
“We’ve had so many Make A Wish kids come to the Halo studio,” she says almost in passing. “The fact that they get one wish and they want to spend their time with us …” Perez trails away, lost in thought for a second. “We’re so blessed we get to impact people’s lives in that way,” she says finally. “I’m hopeful and inspired about what can come from this industry.”
Amy Redmond runs Sink the Pink, a regular club night at Troxy, which celebrates dressing up and playing with gender. She worked with PlayStation on its Pride float. “Many of our collective have spoken about how gaming was a big part of their coming out process, the comfort of becoming a character and escaping into game world was an important safety net through their teenage years,” she says. “In many ways the Sink the Pink experience is a similar safety net. We aim to provide a welcoming and safe space for everyone who attends, to experiment with costume, gender and sexuality, and know that they will not only not be judged, but entirely supported and celebrated.”
Representation isn’t just a hot button topic, it’s not an intellectual argument. As the father to a son on the autism spectrum I see that every day – I see my kid getting more comfortable with himself and with other children through sharing games. Almost everything else in his life is an emotional struggle – games are his home. Way before this, games let me explore sexuality and gender at times when I’ve questioned both; I still have questions that I can’t vocalise, and games still help.
We should always be thinking about this if we care about the people around us. Being represented in the media makes you feel noticed, it gives you agency, it means there is a dialogue going on between you and creators. Role models – both on the screen and working behind the scenes – build assurance and ambition. It is so important that players often take the process into their own hands – as evidenced recently by this Sims player who set up a forum to help people create characters with a wider range of skin tones: