Gaming industry members discuss why we need more diversity in video games

"When everybody plays, we all win"

In the first part of this ongoing series, I reached out to a number of people in the video game community to ask the question: “is there enough representation in video games?

This time around, the question at hand is “why do you feel we need more diversity in video games and why is it important for diversity to be part of gaming?”

On a personal level, I feel that representation in video games is important because it can show that you’re not alone. As an LGBTQ+ BIPOC individual, it would be great to play a game with a character that shares at least some of the same experiences and obstacles I’ve faced in my life.

While not all video games aim to show similarities between in-game characters and real-life — for example, in Pokémon, though you can change your skin colour, it doesn’t make or break the game or reflect a BIPOC person’s experience — there are games that can.

Some forms of media like films and TV series are able to do this quite well, including TV shows like Love, Victor depicting what it’s like living with a Christian family while being BIPOC and LGBTQ+. On the other hand, I May Destroy You features triggering and hurtful moments that are hard to watch, but the experience of one of the show’s main characters helped me feel not so alone.

I believe that narrative video games can definitely evoke the same feeling and am happy to see that some strides have been made over the last few years, including with games like Tell Me Why and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, but I’d love to see more.

I’ve reached out to those who aren’t well-represented in video games, including women, BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people and those with disabilities, to learn more about why they feel the need for diversity in video games is important.

Why do you feel that we need more diversity in video games?

Stef Sanjati (she/her) is a trans woman who is now a Twitch partner who goes by ‘TheStefSanjati’

When I was growing up, I’ve always had an interest in gaming. It’s always been at the forefront of my mind and I’ve been gaming as long as I could hold a controller, but it seems that as soon as I understood that I was queer, it was like I was no longer welcomed because there were no examples of it.

One of the major reasons I struggled to find my footing in the gaming industry and why I actually pivoted to beauty and fashion for most of my early career was because I thought that’s what I had to do to survive. There was no representation of a trans person in gaming when I was growing up. I’m sure now there’s a handful of people and there are people from every marginalized community, but a handful isn’t really enough to create change for children to understand that there are avenues to places they want to go.

“…if I grew up not seeing the representation of trans people in gaming and I experience hostility as a queer person trying to enter any kind of gaming space or community, then I make the association that this is hostile and then I am rejected from these spaces.”

When you grow up seeing that the gaming community is hostile to pretty much everybody that’s not a cisgender, heterosexual, white man, I think you know as a marginalized person to then find ways to find comfort and safety. And for me as a trans person, that was with the queer community. But the problem is the queer community, for me, when I was a kid was that it was largely fashion, beauty, performance and drag; it wasn’t really things that I was interested in, but I found a way to be interested because it represented safety. Whereas, my actual interest was in game design, fantasy and science fiction [and] things like that but those environments were hostile because there was no representation. It’s kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps the doors shut.

For example, with myself, if I grew up not seeing the representation of trans people in gaming and I experience hostility as a queer person trying to enter any kind of gaming space or community, then I make the association that this is hostile and then I am rejected from these spaces. I’m unable to get a footing — I’m unable to provide representation for other people and then the next generation the same thing can happen. The door is shut so you don’t open it for your own well-being which is very fair, and then the next person to come to the door finds it shut as well, so it’s like this feedback loop that keeps people out, and I think on some level it’s orchestrated.

…I do see [the video game industry] opening up now, but it’s only through the efforts of people willing to take the hits and I don’t think it needs to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way and the more representation, the more diverse people we get in gaming spaces, the more those hits are spread out. The more those hits are seen as unacceptable, the more those hits are dealt with.

Brandon Stennis (he/him) is a BIPOC, LGBTQ+ Twitch streamer that goes by ‘iamBrandon’ and talent recruiter at @Softgiving.

From my perspective, I’ve played video games since I was eight years old, and there have been very rare times I’ve ever seen myself in a video game or someone who was like me. I think my very first experience with that was when I played the Dragon Age series for the first time. I was able to create a character who looked like me. I got to be like an elf. You know, with magic and all that kind of stuff.

Actually, it was also the first game that you could change your sexuality and do all that kind of stuff, so that was my first experience with that. It made me feel like I can actually create the story that I wanted to, even if it’s just the game’s story, it’s a character I created an image of what I wanted it to look like. All the characters I make when I have a creative character are usually Black because I want to see myself when I play the game, so it’s just easier for me to connect with that character and I want to play the game, even more, when I can see myself in it.

Elise Baldwin (she/her) is an LGBTQ woman and the senior audio director at Xbox Game Studios Publishing

There are many reasons why increased diversity is beneficial to any entertainment medium, whether it be games, film, music or literature. On the product side, historically under-represented communities experience a paucity of nuanced, accurate and respectful representations of themselves in media. This is an injustice and something that limits understanding, appreciation, empowerment, and empathy for these communities in the larger context.

To borrow a page from expert colleagues at GLAAD [an LGBTQIA+ media advocacy group based in the U.S.], they have data indicating that 80-85 percent of Americans believe they have never met a trans person. If you believe you’ve never met a trans or non-binary person, then 100 percent of what you think you know about that community has been created by the media you’ve consumed. And yet, media portrayals of trans and non-binary people can be harmful, reductive, trope-ridden, inaccurate and problematic. So there is clearly a need for more nuanced, respectful, and positive representation that ideally includes diverse content creators as key voices in the creative process.

“We also have industry data indicating that games developed with more diverse character sets draw a more diverse audience- thereby introducing new players to our platform or studio.”

I feel strongly that we as content creators need to put money back into communities that we are portraying in our products and ensure that voices from those communities are embedded in our creative processes. By including more diverse voices, we will make a more authentic and nuanced (aka better) project that will garner more acclaim and word of mouth, thereby selling more units.

We also have industry data indicating that games developed with more diverse character sets draw a more diverse audience- thereby introducing new players to our platform or studio. So in summary, there are excellent business reasons as well as ethical considerations at play when discussing increasing diversity in both game titles and creative teams.

Kate Rayner (she/her) is a trans woman and is the studio technical director at Vancouver’s The Coalition (Gears 5), Xbox Games Studios

Game developers and major publishers need to recognize the business value and social importance of listening to their broad, diverse gaming communities, working to ensure content is inclusive, and representative for all players. This is especially true for online game communities where diversity is an essential consideration for developers to engage, retain and monetize more players.

Positive role models and authentic representation of queer experiences and identities in games help offset the negative stories and phobia we encounter on TV or in social media and provide tools for LGBTQIA+ individuals, especially queer kids, to safely explore and come to terms with their own identity.

Authentic representation has the power to influence and can be used as a force of good to share experiences, broaden perspectives, and inspire change. More than that, it has the power for real social change by humanizing LGBTQIA+ people in the eyes of all gamers.

Steve Saylor (he/him) is a Canadian gamer with nystagmus, a vision condition in which the eyes make repetitive, uncontrolled movements. He’s on YouTube as Blind Gamer — Steve Saylor and Twitch as BlindGamerSteve

It provides different perspectives than we probably wouldn’t have known before. I mean, video games were very much a thing for a lot of us growing up, and the sort of stereotype of “it’s basically white dudes in their mom’s basement” is kind of starting to go away, where the female demographic is becoming the more dominant demographic in the video game space, at least of people who are adults.

People with disabilities are becoming a little bit more aware of what accessibility is in gaming, and we’re seeing more people of colour, see more people LGBTQIA like just starting to kind of be accepted. There’s always going to be that fringe on the outside, the GamerGate ‘dudebros’ that are going to want to claim that video games are theirs, but that’s the thing: video games are for everybody.

There’s a saying that Microsoft uses, mostly they used it to be able to advertise their Adaptive Controller during the Super Bowl, but they use the phrase “when everybody plays, we all win.” And yes, at the time, I still believe that is definitely for those with disabilities that when we, people with disabilities, can be able to play, we all win. But for me, I take that a little step further and I say that when everybody plays — when everyone has equal access to be able to play video games, regardless of what sort of marginalized group you fall into. If we can have the same equal access to games then, then we all win.

Kahmora Hall is a BIPOC, LGBTQ entertainer from RuPaul’s Drag Race and Twitch partner

Diversity is important in video games because it allows us to connect with characters that look like us, or characters we could relate to. I was always a feminine kid and naturally gravitated towards the strong female characters in fighting games like Chun Li in Street Fighter. One of her taglines was “the strongest woman on Earth,” and the biggest role models in life are my mom and sister — so to see a strong Asian woman kick ass was everything to me.

Rokashi Edwards (they/them) is a BIPOC/LGBTQ+ developer who’s currently working on HBO’s Insecure mobile game.

For me personally, it’s liberating to work on games with characters like me. The validity is overwhelming and I love to see people like me put in the work to see someone like me within a video game. People messaging me to tell me, “thank you,” for certain characters or viewpoints based on relating cultures is already worth the time and work to make sure it’s done right and isn’t artificial.

It’s funny: when I play with more white characters, it’s just…”ok, and?” I don’t necessarily feel any sort of connection with them. Even in video games, a lot of white characters have things easily handed to them, reflecting the real world we live in, but I think to a certain extent it’s whatever. I’m not here to pull the carpet from under someone who enjoys those experiences, but it is prominent. When I speak out about diversity, it’s not so much “I don’t want to hear about these stories,” but rather, “I’d like to play games that offer more.”

Anita Mortaloni (she/her) is the director of accessibility at Xbox

Video games are about community and connection, with the power to bring people together across gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, education, and socio-economic background. We want to create an environment where everyone can participate, feel included and play as they are… and that happens when we have diversity in our games, in the people that are creating them, and the players giving us feedback.

Lee Tran (he/him) is the BIPOC LGBTQ+ co-founder of soawkwardstudio

When I was a kid, there was something magical about finding a picture book that showed Chinese cultures and traditions. This felt personal. This felt like it was something special that I had authoritative knowledge about. I could relate to these characters and, in some sense, this character could potentially be me. When I played video games growing up, that sense didn’t come up so much. Sure, there were a lot of Japanese characters, and they kind of looked like me, but they weren’t characters I could relate to. There was Chun-Li and Fei Long from Street Fighter, and as a child, I was ecstatic that these characters were there and present. But the ability to identify with and relate to these characters is what’s important, especially for games.

If I’m going to be playing as a certain character, it becomes much easier to understand them if I can relate to them. Whether it’s race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, sexual orientation — it’s only through these diverse characters that games can weave certain narratives. And the more the character’s identity intersects with the player’s identity, players can get that same magical sense similar to myself with the cultural picture books, only more magical. Players would be able to really get the sense that this story was made for me.

If you focus exclusively on the white cisgender male, you lose so many other avenues for stories and opportunities to really connect with more people.

Dylan Zaner (he/him) is an LGBTQ Twitch partner and YouTube streamer who goes by 8BitDylan 

Diversity in games is extremely important because we should aim to include the representation of everyone who plays games. This not only enriches the universe, story, and characters of a game and its development, but it also allows new audiences to see themselves in games that they might not have previously.

Tanya Depass (she/her) is a BIPOC, LGBTQ+ woman Twitch gamer who goes by Cypheroftyr and is the founder of ‘I Need Diverse Games’

We need diversity and inclusion because the world is inclusive. Games are blank pages that are filled in by the players and the community around them. The games we’re playing do not reflect our world and that needs to change.

Nic Truong (he/him) is a BIPOC Canadian YouTube gaming personality: Tetra Ninja

Video games can influence the minds of millions of young people every day from all corners of the world. As a first-generation immigrant who grew up in a small white farming town in the ’90s and early 2000s, active and passive racism was just a normal part of life that I accepted. Showcasing diversity in games is an important step that the industry can take in embracing BIPOC communities and influencing the perception of young gamers when it comes to inclusion.

By developing games with diverse characters, we’re telling everyone that our differences don’t need to be just simply accepted; rather, they should be celebrated.

Gabriela Ponce Curlango is BIPOC woman and Producer at Xbox Game Studios 

In my perfect world, we would no longer need to ask questions like this because we would have collectively accepted that people from all backgrounds can be strong, valuable, and intelligent contributors to society whose stories are worth sharing. A few months ago I saw an article headline that read something like, “Two scientists win Nobel prize in chemistry” and the photo showed two women. What struck me about the headline is that it didn’t say “Two women” or “Two women scientists” it was just “Two scientists.”

They were recognized for their work as scientists first and as women second. My hope is that the gaming industry will reach a point where both our games and game creators will reflect the breadth of rich cultures and unique individuals that we encounter in the real world.

The interview answers have been edited for style, clarity and length. 

The next part of the series asks the question: “As a person from a diverse community, how does it feel to play a game that focuses on that community as opposed to an abled, cis-gender, white, straight male character?” If you are part of the LGBTQ+, BIPOC, or disabled communities and would like to be a part of this series, please email dean@mobilesyrup.com.