A new study by Currys PC World investigating diversity in the gaming industry has found that, while the representation of race, gender and disabilities has improved in games since the nineties, there is still a distinct bias in favour of the young, white, straight male. 

Using a bespoke scoring system (please see methodology for breakdown), they analysed games that have made a mark at E3 and The Game Awards over the last 20 years. Games were awarded points for: female characters in prominent positions; for exploring LGBTQ+ plot points or themes; for mixed race characters prominently placed in the story; and for disabled characters or references. Their key findings are below:

Ethnic minorities are still underrepresented in games, but things are (slowly) improving

Despite efforts being made in recent years to improve the ethnic diversity of characters in games, an analysis of all games nominated for a Game Award from 2003 to 2018 unearthed that black and ethnic minorities are still severely underrepresented. 

While RPGs (role-playing games) sometimes offer a choice of playable characters, their default characters are often white. When other ethnicities are represented, it’s also common for them to be type-cast. 

 “The diversity that is applied to white characters is something that is often missing when other races are depicted in games.” Adam Campbell, co-founder of POC in Play. “Representation still feels incomplete and inconsistent. We’re still also hard pushed to find those protagonists that are not the stereotypical Indiana Jones or the tough, bald, male type, so ‘diversity’ is the exception rather than the rule.” 

  • Proper ethnic diversity is still lacking. Only 3% of Game Award nominees (2003-2018) have featured a person of colour as a default protagonist.
  • Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and The Walking Dead are the only games where a playable person of colour is baked into the story from start to finish. 
  • Fallout 4 doesn’t feature a specific character on the cover, but the player creator screen serves a generic white male/female face as the first thing you see.
  • Canada is by far the best at getting representation right. Edmonton’s Bioware has put an emphasis on freedom of choice of character, and Ubisoft Montreal consistently tells diverse stories (e.g. Assassin’s Creed). 

Representation of women in games is on the rise, yet the characters are often hyper-sexualised

With as many as 42% of gamers in the UK being female (and that number rising to 52% in France[1]) it only makes sense that women are represented equally in games. This doesn’t appear to be the case, however. While the last decade has seen a 189% increase in games featuring playable female characters, fewer than a third of game covers feature a woman in a prominent position. When women are featured, they’re often sexualised. For example, the cover of San Andreas sports a blonde-haired woman in a come-hither pose. 

“Female characters have historically been hyper-sexualised for the male gaze in gaming,” says Jay-Ann Lopez, founder of Black Girl Gamers. “You can observe this with the various representations of Lara Croft. I do not believe there is an inherent problem with women being viewed as sexy. However, when it is the only version of women shown, it strips us of our depth and limits us to serving as purely visual objects. Still, there are more and more holistic and nuanced female characters appearing within games.”

  • Game covers continue to put men first. Only 11% of covers have women as the focal point, or with a share of the focus.  
  • From 2012 onwards, diversity has markedly improved. The Walking Dead release that year starred a black man (Lee) and a young mixed-race girl (Clementine) and was a critical and commercial hit. 

The notion that people with disabilities need to be “fixed” is rife in the gaming industry

On the rare occasions that disabilities are represented in games, they are more likely to be physical ailments than mental. Mental health has only been tackled in the last few years as awareness rises. Plus, characters with a physical disability are often “fixed”.

Accessibility expert Ian Hamilton says: “This notion that people with disabilities are broken and need to be fixed – a concept known as the medical model of disability – was rejected and abandoned in the 1970s, yet still persists in media and in games, often through the trope of medical conditions being replaced by superhuman powers or superhuman prosthetics. Moreover, games are often guilty of furthering the myth that a disability is rare, with all the impact that has on broader prejudice and discrimination.”

  • Deadly Premonition shows protagonist Francis York Morgan talking to an imaginary character, Zach. What starts off as a curious subplot turns into a fascinating exploration of mental health.  
  • The Joker, ace pilot of Mass Effect’s SS Normandy, suffers from Vrolik syndrome (brittleness of the bones), while Lester, the sardonic sidekick in Grand Theft Auto V, has an unnamed wasting disease. Yet both men are fiercely independent in spite of the challenges they face and are not defined by their disabilities. 

LGBTQ+ themes are being explored more in gaming narratives

LGBTQ+ themes are rarely explored in games, and that’s especially true of the biggest titles. 

This being said, things are improving. Some of the biggest games to tackle homosexuality with grace in the last 20 years include:

  • Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) and The Sims (2000) with both allowing you to enter a relationship with anyone you please
  • The Last of Us (2013) boasting an expansion pack that portrays Ellie in a relationship with another girl, 
  • Fallout 3 that features a romanceable gay character, and 
  • Life is Strange (2015) that explores a number of well-written gay characters. 

“Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator lets players be either a cis or trans man and captures a reality of the gay community I haven’t seen before in a game. Not every game can be Dream Daddy – and not every game has to be.” Alayna M. Cole, MD of Queerly Represent Me.

  • Only 11% of GOTY nominees and E3 winners offer up significant LGBTQ+ storylines. 
  • From 2009-2018, there’s been a 300% rise in games featuring proper representation when compared to the preceding ten years (1999-2008). 

Ultimately, things are getting better. Since 2012, nearly half of all games have featured diverse casts, LGBTQ+ themes or characters of colour – as opposed to 26% pre- 2012. Plus, The Last of Us II, one of the biggest PS4 games coming out in the next year, is set to feature a female LGBTQ+ lead. With time, here’s hoping that the enduring (and inaccurate) stereotype – that only young, white men play games – will fizzle out.

You can view the results of the study here: https://techtalk.currys.co.uk/tv-gaming/gaming/diversity-in-gaming/games-and-disabilities.html

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_and_video_games