By: Shannon Ralph
As the parent of three budding young gamers, I have often lamented—along with my 9-year-old daughter—the white, straight maleness of the video game industry. This is an issue that has been discussed ad nauseum in The Washington Post, BBC News, The Huffington Post, and numerous other news franchises and blogs, but little seems to change. Females still play video games at the same rate as males (or a higher rate, according to some reports), but the video game industry continues to cater primarily to white, straight males.
It is well past time that this change and I have been heartened by three recent developments regarding popular video games.
While on vacation last month, my three children excitedly downloaded the latest update for their video game addiction of choice—Minecraft. My children LOVE Minecraft. It really is a great game for kids. It encourages their imaginations and creativity by allowing them to design worlds of their own making. Minecraft prides itself on being a game that that allows players to design and build anything they want. To be anything they want.
That is, unless they want to be female.
Prior to the latest version, Minecraft 1.8, the only default character players could choose was Steve. Steve is a likeable enough character, beloved by players young and old, but he is most definitely a dude. Though the creators of Minecraft have asserted in the past that Steve is basically a genderless character in a genderless world, his boxy shape and visible stubble—not to mention that his name is Steve—leads players to assume he is male. Girls are left with no default characters of their own.
Sure, girls have always been able to create female characters in Minecraft, but this involves installing mods and buying characters. The only free default character has been Steve, who does not represent the diversity of Minecraft’s player base.
When my 9-year-old daughter downloaded Minecraft 1.8 and saw that there is now a free default female character named Alex, she whooped with joy. She can now play Minecraft with a character with whom she can identify, and this has renewed her enthusiasm for the game.
Like Minecraft, another popular video game recently came under fire from a young girl. 12-year-old Maddie Messer loved playing Temple Run, but did not think it was fair that she always had to play as a boy. Like many video games, the default character in Temple Run is a white male.
Determined to change things, Maddie decided to design a research project. She downloaded the 50 most popular video games in the same category as Temple Run, and counted up how many offered female characters and how much they cost.
She found that, of the 50 games, only five offered free female characters. The other games allowed Maddie to unlock female characters by amassing credits (which took hours and hours of game play), or purchasing female characters with an average cost of $7.53.
Maddie wrote an op-ed with her research results and The Washington Post published it. The creators of Temple Run read the op-ed piece and responded to Maddie indicating that she was right. They admitted that the default characters in video games are typically the white, male characters. Characters of color and female characters are rarely an option, and this is unacceptable. The creators of Temple Run assured Maddie that they intend to change their game and that there will soon be a free female character in Temple Run.
Another popular video game is making changes to its characters to include greater diversity. Nintendo confirmed in June that players will have the option of having same-sex relationships in Fire Emblem Fates, the latest edition of the popular strategy role-playing Fire Emblem franchise created in 1990 and currently published for the Nintendo 3DS handheld video game system.
Nintendo has been criticized in the past for not including same-sex relationship options in its games, most notably its life simulation game Tomadachi Life (which my children happen to love). Fans of that game responded with campaigns voicing their support for same-sex gameplay options, which may have played a part in Nintendo’s decision to include same-sex relationships in its Fire Emblem Fates.
Fire Emblem Fates will be released in two separate versions, Conquest and Birthright. One will feature a same-sex male couple, the other a same-sex female couple. Both will be able to marry after bonding in battle. When Fire Emblem Fates is released in the US and Europe next year (it is currently only available in Japan), GLBT gamers may finally have access to a video game that truly represents them and their families.
All of these recent developments are steps in the right direction, but wider inclusion is still needed in the video game industry, as young Maddie’s research surely indicates. As a new generation of video gamers comes of age, I am confident that we will continue to make the changes necessary to make all of our children feel included and represented in the games they play.
Photo Credit: Terry Madeley