Gaming industry members discuss how it feels to play a game that represents them

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?” Following that, I released the second part of the series and asked “why do we need more diversity in video games.”

This time around, there are two questions at hand: one for those who work on games (like animators, developers and writers), and another for streamers.

For those behind video games, I asked, “how does it feel to work on a game that focuses on your community compared to titles that focus primarily on white, cis-male, able characters?”

For streamers: “How does it feel to play a game that includes individuals from your community compared to titles that focus primarily on straight, white, cis-male, able characters?”

For me, the connection I feel playing a narrative game that focuses on Black characters is really important to my gaming experience. While I absolutely loved playing games like 2018’s God of War, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Marvel’s Spider-Man, my time with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales remains one of my favourite gaming experiences.

It’s difficult to put into words what it was like to see a character I truly identified with be featured in a video game. I played the game twice, and both times, I had a very emotional experience. When I played Miles Morales for the first time, just seeing Miles walking along the street listening to music and walking with such joy made me feel overwhelmed. I was so happy to finally play a story-driven video game as a Black character that I started crying.

I don’t think I will ever have a similar experience with titles that focus on white characters because it’s harder to put myself into their shoes and mindset. Now all I need is a narrative game with a Black, gay character.

In this story, I’ve reached out to those who aren’t well-represented in video games, including women, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other people of colour), LGBTQ+ people and those with disabilities to learn whether playing or working on a game that primarily focuses on their community feels different than playing or working on titles that only look at the white, straight, able cis-male point of view.

How does it feel to work on a game that includes individuals from your community compared to titles that don’t?

James Ham [He/Him] is a Black man and Advance Senior Animator at Insomniac Games. 

[This answer is focused solely on Spider-Man: Miles Morales]

Representation to me means so much. It can have such an effect, especially on the youth as they’re growing. I felt like I had a duty and that I did not want this game to fail. I didn’t want to have it come off as like, “oh, this is the Black Spider-Man game.” I just wanted people to play this as Spider-Man, and he happens to be Black.

That is a part of his identity, a part of his culture, but I wanted them to have a great experience as Spider-Man, period.

I felt like there was extra pressure because I wanted to make sure that he was represented correctly and that he wasn’t a stereotypical character. I felt like this was a special game in the sense of an authentic character where it isn’t a Black character in just like a fighting game — it isn’t a [game] where you get to create a character and just make them Black, but everyone has the same dialogue.

“I didn’t want to have it come off as like, “oh this is the Black Spider-Man game” I just wanted people to play this as Spider-Man, and he happens to be Black.”

This is a full-fledged, fleshed-out character. You see his personality throughout the game, you see him growing, you see him process emotions, you see him deal with things that a normal superhero has to deal with, and the reflection of him and his colour shouldn’t steer you away from that — he’s still a Spider-Man.

Natasha Hooker [She/Her] is a QA Analyst at Insomniac.

[This answer is focused solely on Spider-Man: Miles Morales]

I would just say it was fantastic.

The fact that we have so few people of colour as the protagonist — as the main heroes — of video games, it was an opportunity that was beyond what I dreamed. Because as a child, I’ve been playing games my whole life and I’ve been looking for more representation games and just for myself and did it.

Playing as a Black and Latino character, it just felt like this was important to do because I’ve never really seen myself represented in games and I felt more attached to him [Miles] as a character. It just made me work even harder and I had such a deeper connection to the game.

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 just 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.”

Gabriela Ponce Curlango is BIPOC woman and producer at Xbox Game Studios.

As creators, even when we’re striving to be as inclusive as possible, our individual experiences will inevitably influence our game, sometimes positively and other times negatively. Regardless of the type of game, we’re trying to create, it is our responsibility as game developers to continuously challenge the biases that we bring and to humbly accept that we will build a better game when we choose to be open to different ideas and learn from people who we disagree with.

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

Having games with a wide range of diversity to represent the breadth of players that are participating in the games creates a richer experience and encourages a greater understanding of all the different people on our planet.

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

In my career, being queer and having close ties with trans and non-binary communities has been something I’ve been very open about. For the most part, these aspects of my identity have not been very directly relevant to the products I work on, although I absolutely think there is implicit value in having LGBTQIA+ members on any game team. My experience recently working on Tell Me Why, a narrative game developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Xbox, was very different.

The title features a trans character [Tyler] as one of its playable protagonists and there is a queer Indigenous character in the story as well. I was able to bring many parts of my lived experience to bear on the project outside of my discipline-specific role as an audio director — specifically, areas around narrative and community that I might not have been involved in on another project. I also was able to be a resource for other team members if they had questions about LGBTQIA+ experiences or perspectives.

As a result of this involvement, I felt extremely invested in trying to make our production processes as inclusive as possible across the board. We did many things throughout the course of production to try and move the needle in terms of inclusivity — these efforts included inclusive casting (meaning that each character was performed by an actor who had lived experience that correlated to the role), script reviews, partnering with subject matter experts in areas of LGBTQIA+ and Indigenous advocacy as well as mental health consultants, just to name a few.

For me, the ethos that the two teams developed over the course of the project around inclusive production is something I hope to apply to every project I work on for the rest of my career. I also look forward to a day when the steps we took are standard industry practices or even better yet, are surpassed by more refined and developed lines of inclusive thought.

How does it feel to play a game that includes individuals from your community compared to titles that don’t?

Steve Spohn has Spinal Muscular Atrophy and is the COO of Able Gamers. He believes that when minds are willing and bodies are unable, video games still allow people to access a world that would otherwise not be accessible. Steve Spohn streams on Twitch as SteveInSpawn.

I think it depends on the story itself. I’ve never personally been someone who is drawn to a game just because the playable character is disabled. I don’t care if I’m playing someone who is disabled, and there are people in the community who do care about that, but from what I would personally experience in the disability community, most disabled people tend to agree.

It’s not about being able to play a disabled character — it’s about seeing disabled people in the universe.

There is a concept called “Disability Eurasia”, and it’s something really prevalent, particularly in futuristic video games, where disability no longer exists and has been completely taken out of the scenario. It’s either explained away that if you have a baby, you can genetically screen to see whether or not they are disabled ahead of time. The unwritten fact is that you have to have abortions for people who are disabled, which is horrifying. And that’s eugenics. And then there’s evil, as there are some games that take it even further and [disabled people] are just simply eradicated.

So, think Altered Carbon as a TV series example — those kinds of things that permeate in video games. I think this is kind of a dangerous trend, so it doesn’t matter whether or not my character is playing the line.

I’ve never picked a character in Overwatch because they’re disabled. You know, Pharah [Overwatch] is, in the lore, a quadriplegic. But I don’t play at Pharah, I play Reinhardt, and he doesn’t have a disability and he’s really old. So for me, it doesn’t matter quite so much. It’s just a matter of them being in the universe.

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

I love when I see a great LGBTQ+ character in a game. It’s like finding a little part of yourself in what you are playing. Whether that is a character who was written to be LGBTQ+ or a game that allows me to make my custom character LGBTQ+, it really adds to my enjoyment while playing a title.

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

To be honest, I don’t feel any different when I play games that focus on BIPOC versus white characters. BIPOC leads are few and far between, unless the environment of the game calls for it, like in Ghost of Tsushima.

From my experience, many of the games I play find it difficult to create engaging BIPOC characters without relying on racial stereotypes to distinguish themselves from their white counterparts.

Also, BIPOC characters tend not to be given fully fleshed-out backstories and narratives. In most cases, BIPOC characters just tend to be in the background supporting cast.

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

I’m definitely more invested in games that focus on BIPOC individuals because I think we naturally gravitate towards characters that we see ourselves in. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game that focuses on LGBTQ+, so that’s an issue right there — I can’t think of one.

We need more games like that, and if there are, please let me know. I’m currently playing Paladins right now, and some of the characters are LGBT, but they’re not the main focus.

Juice Boxx is an LBGTQ entertainer from Drag Race Canada and Twitch Partner.

I think you can relate to it a little bit more and it almost makes it more fun because you can put yourself into it easier. I think it’s like when a lot of us are kids, especially as gay men — we would always pick the girl character because we were so feminine, and it was always just like you can almost see a little bit more of yourself in the girl character because she was so feminine, but strong in the things that she was doing, and it sort of made you feel a little bit more empowered.

So when you’re actually able to play a game that feels like it’s someone more like you, it’s easier to get into it. For example, I recently played Tell Me Why, and it was so good to be able to play someone who was trans. I’m not trans, but it was still someone who is within the community, so it felt like it was more gratifying and more fun because you relate to the story and vibe with the character.

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

It feels great if the representation is done well. If it’s half-assed, or stereotypical and tropey, then it feels even worse than if I had to run around as a non-POC/Black character.

Steve Saylor (he/him) is a Canadian gamer with nystagmus. He’s on YouTube as Blind Gamer — Steve Saylor and Twitch as BlindGamerSteve.

I will say we’re still lacking in regards to aa lot of characters we can play who have a disability, so we’re still kind of trying to be able to have that proper representation there.

And also, whenever there is a disabled character, we will generally be able to celebrate it if that representation works, in that it does really well.

I use the example of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales. There is an artist that is in the game, a street artist that’s deaf. And what was really great about that was that it not only provided a proper presentation of representation, but it also added an amazing element to the game where you saw that Miles knows American Sign Language and they’re able to communicate [through it].

What I love is that, at first, Insomniac, when they put that out, used a phrase that, essentially, we don’t really like to use: “despite their disability.” And that’s something that we don’t necessarily want to encourage because it’s not despite our disability to do the things we want to do.

“I know I’m a straight white male, but seeing someone who is blind, I would love that.”

We still do the things we want to do — we just have to sort of adapt our disability to that. People often wonder and they kind of are amazed at how I’m able to play video games as a blind gamer, but I can — it’s just something that I’ve learned as I grew up and it just became part of my life.

But at least Insomniac kind of [went] back on that and at least apologized. [And] what was great within the game is that Insomniac did take it even a little bit further with that deaf character, where not only were there subtitles so you at least read what this deaf character was saying, but they also actually added a setting in the game where you can turn on narration whenever she speaks. They actually had a deaf actor read those lines, so we knew, if someone like myself who obviously has difficulty reading subtitles, I’d be hearing a deaf character talk to me.

Along with being able to see, ASL was really, really cool. And I’m not deaf. I’m not hard of hearing, but it’s just really awesome to be able to see that that kind of care [that] can be taken into a main character.

In regards to seeing and playing the cis-white male sort of protagonists that we’ve had in many decades in gaming, and someone who’s able-bodied… I mean, if the game is good, I’ll still play him, but I’m still waiting for that one character. I would love to be able to kind of see myself in a character. I know I’m a straight white male, but seeing someone who is blind, I would love that.

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

I mean, there’s definitely a difference. When I first played the DLC [Left Behind] for The Last of Us, and it was a whole story with Ellie and her friend and all that stuff, as a younger person trying to figure out your sexuality, I connect with that because obviously, I went through those kinds of feelings.

I’ve only played a little bit of the second one [The Last of Us Part II] and I know some of the nuances a bit [Ellie is in a lesbian relationship], but even with that, just seeing two women in a situation like that, you don’t see that often in general in gaming.

I think that’s why a lot of the gamer culture was still shocked by it because we don’t see that very often, the female representation side of the LGBT community. And [because] you don’t see that very often, when it is shown, there’s a lot of backlash because people are not used to seeing it, which I think is very unfortunate.

I have always been very happy to see that just from the first game and to see it continue on to the second game like they weren’t afraid to go that route and try to scurry away from it, they’re just like, “No, this is like she went through this as a kid and, this is how she’s grown up.”

And another example of that was Life is Strange the first one was like that as well [many players read lead characters Max and Chloe as having a same-sex relationship]. Just seeing characters in the LGBT community existing without making it like a big deal, it’s just making it normalized.

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

All I can think of is World of Warcraft, but I don’t play it much anymore. I started playing it when I was really little at eight or nine years old.

I played that game for my entire life and only recently in the newest Shadowlands expansion did they [Blizzard] introduce a trans character, which was actually relatively well done. [Note: this interview was conducted prior to the filing of the lawsuit against Activision Blizzard regarding alleged years-long mistreatment of women at the company.]

At first, in the beta, they hit some stumbles with the way they wrote the character, but they accepted feedback from queer consumers of their game and altered the dialogue, and made it better. When I encountered the character, I actually had kind of an emotional experience, because for the first time, in the 17 years that I played that game, I saw a story like mine reflected.

“It’s clear that Tyler is a trans person having experience with family trauma, [but] it’s not exclusively about him being trans.”

I kind of grew to accept that I wouldn’t encounter that in games. There are not very many right now, especially when it comes to AAA studios. There are a lot of indie studios that are full of queer developers or diverse stories that are releasing interesting and diverse stories, but when it comes to the bigger giants, progress is slow.

But because of my history with that game, that didn’t mean a lot to me.

There’s also Tell Me Why, which is a big deal right now for trans people. I thought that was actually very well done. I played it on stream and it was one of the first things I did on my stream. The character, Tyler, I think was well done, and I guess I didn’t expect that.

The character was played by a trans man and trans people were involved in consulting and writing. And I know the voice actor modified some of the dialogue on the fly to make the character feel like a more real person. That resulted in a great character — a great representation of a young trans person.

It’s clear that Tyler is a trans person having experience with family trauma, [but] it’s not exclusively about him being trans.

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