Gaming moves a level up, embraces brown skin, gender fluidity, saris and bindis
As markets diversify, blockbuster releases like The Last of Us 2 and Apex Legends are finally offering gender-fluid avatars, LGBTQ plotlines, and a growing range of ethnicities.Updated: Sep 27, 2020, 09:59 IST
A 19-year-old named Ellie stands on the fringes of a party. A woman approaches and leads her on to the dance floor. They dance, talk, then kiss. The intimacy of the kiss is shattered as the scene cuts into gameplay. Ellie stabs a man in the neck; more gore and death is to follow. After a few minutes of this, the trailer ends back at the kiss.
That’s The Last of Us 2, a Naughty Dog production released in June, and widely considered the Avengers equivalent in the gaming world.
A nose-ring and bindi pop up in the trailer for Apex Legends, a 2019 release by Electronic Arts. Amid the usual scenes of fighting and slow-motion explosions, the camera pans to a new character, firing away recklessly — an olive-skinned girl who speaks with a distinct accent. Her name is Rampart aka Ramya Parekh.
Ellie is a lesbian; key supporting characters in The Last of Us 2 include a bisexual woman and a trans teenager. Of the 14 characters players can choose from in Apex Legends, one is gay, another is non-binary, there’s a Latina woman, two Black women, a number of mixed-race characters, and now, Rampart.
As audiences diversify — the fastest-growing markets are in Asia, the Middle East and South America; women constitute 18% of all gamers in India and that number is growing at twice the rate of male gamers, according to a Think With Google report released this year — there’s finally some diversity creeping into mainstream gaming.
From the Lara Croft and Grand Theft Auto templates — White, often blond, women and men, all with perfect bodies — there’s a move to expand avatar types, add clothes and hair styles that represent different cultures, and offer greater gender fluidity.
In Nintendo’s Animal Crossing social simulation game, the latest iteration of which was released in March, players can pick from a range of clothing and hairstyles (options include a sari; but rather maddeningly, still no curly hair). Taniesha Bracken-Hucks, 26, an American gamer, is now petitioning to have curly hair added to the menu, because without it, she argues, there’s just no accounting for the average Black woman’s natural look. Her Change.org petition has gathered 50,000 signatures.
But the video game industry, which is worth more than both the movie and music industries combined, has a lot of ground to cover when it comes on diversity in gender and ethnic representation. Female characters still get far too little screen time, spend most of their time in supporting roles, are objectified and hypersexualised.
“We’re still very far from having gender parity. Games like The Last of Us 2 and Apex Legends are nowhere close to being representative of the industry,” said Vamika Johri, 29, a doctor and avid gamer from Delhi. “Most lead characters are still white males; most women remain scantily clad and their roles are reduced to helping the main character develop into who he ultimately becomes.”
Even in Bayonetta, where the lead is a strong female character, she goes into combat wearing a low-cut spandex suit.
“The issues of inclusivity in any industry and in any country are a reflection of that society in general. It is business and any advocacy has to face that reality. In games globally, women and ethnic minorities are underrepresented but this gets discussed regularly at game events and conferences and… every year we see it is getting better,” said PR Rajendran, co-founder and CEO of game development company Nextwave.
Players such as Ibrahim Pervez, 25, a computer programmer from Pune, say it’s nice to at least be able to pick a generic Indian avatar.
“In Modern Warfare, you can now pick characters that are Asian, African, African-American, Middle-Eastern. But that’s still the exception, not the rule,” he adds.