Sugar Gamers would like to welcome back special contributor Tamiko Little! She has been taking a critical look at the game industry, especially in terms of demographics and diversity. She was excited to share her latest paper with our readers.


Say the word gamer and the first image that comes to mind is a white, anti-social, pre-adolescent, or adult male, who spends their time playing video games all day.  Picture comic book dude from The Simpsons as an example. It’s who the video game companies’ market to, but they are not the only ones playing games anymore. First, I’ll talk about my own history of video games and then discuss diversity in video games and define what diversity and representation mean.  I will then show how having a diverse employee population creates games that have diverse representation. Finally, I will talk about how the video gaming industry is slowly improving to become more inclusive. The research materials I used included articles from the internet, a book, a documentary, and personal interviews.  The people I interviewed were of all races, genders and sexual orientations and ranged in age between 30 and 50.

The first time I played a video game was at my friend Misty’s house.  Her parents had bought her the Atari system and we played Space Invaders.  The goal of the game was to defeat wave after wave of pixelated aliens. Misty and I would spend hours playing Space Invaders, Centipede and Pac-Man.  After that I babysat for a game developer who had created a text-based role-playing game that he invited me to play. Through text you typed on a keyboard, you would guide an adventurer through a dungeon where you would fight goblins, solve puzzles and search for treasure.  I was hooked! This research is important to me on several levels. I am a 50-year-old white, lesbian, woman who plays video games. Even though I grew up in the era when video games became popular, I have always felt like an outsider, an intruder to the white, cis, male group that video game companies’ market to.  Maria Vasilchikova, who is a Human Resources Manager for a video game company had this to say

“women don’t consider themselves or identify as gamers.  Gamer as an identity has so much more negative baggage. The problem as a woman is that you must prove yourself you have to have symbols of your identity – you must own the game, etc….  Because you are a girl you must work even harder to prove yourself”.

According to Oxford Dictionary diversity is defined as “the state of being diverse; variety”.  It didn’t really matter back in 1972 when Pong was first released. Video games were pixelated graphics with little to no real definition.  As the graphics improved in the early 1980’s it became more evident that games lacked diversity or that the characters that were diverse fell into stereotypical groups.  Mario who started off as Jumpman in the game Donkey Kong was only classified as Italian because his pixelated image vaguely resembled the landlord of the building that Nintendo was first housed in; and his name was Mario.  It can be very difficult to bring diversity into a video game because people are not just one thing. I am not just white or just a woman or even just middle aged. So, having a female character in a game would not necessarily cover the full spectrum of who I am or how I want to be represented.   Most games have a set character that you have to play, giving you no option to change anything about the character. Other games allow you to customize appearance and gender. You can choose to look like yourself or someone else and you can choose your own or a different gender. And yet others are even more customizable giving options for sexual orientation and backstory.  All of these are great options as long as the characters in the story are diverse with diverse backgrounds and deep storylines. “because identity itself is not fixed, it is inappropriate to posit any single identification with images”. (Shaw, 2014)

Video games are a $100 Billion-dollar industry, and that number continues to grow.  The focus on hiring a more diverse workforce has never been more important and as we use data to tailor games to each individual player, the need for more diverse characters is also increasing.  The largest demographic in the US right now is adult women and according to a 2015 Pew study there are also more African Americans, Latinx and Asian people playing games right now (Lenhart, 2015) and yet 80% of video game characters are white and male (Williams, 2009)

“only 10% of playable characters were female, fewer than 3% were recognizably Latinx, and Native Americans, children, and the elderly were all underrepresented. The number of black game characters was pretty good—but they were mostly portrayed as gangsters and athletes. If the teams developing these characters looked more like the people playing, we’d see less stereotypes and more representation”. (Packwood, 2018)

A study conducted by Cale Passmore, a researcher at The University of Saskatchewan shows a “lack of diversity in these games is linked with anxiety, depression and shame, these norms are harming all players’ gaming experience”. (Morin, 2017) One common theme I heard from the people I interviewed was that the lack of diversity wasn’t noticeable until they were older but it was definitely noticeable.  Rebecca Rothschild, editor in chief of the website Sugar Gamers, a site that specializes in tech advocacy and inclusivity in gaming, geek and tech spaces, said it best when she said:

“such a tragedy affects self-esteem, and financial well being.  It makes you question, am I just not hirable and not good at all?  But you don’t want to rest on the victim mentality and especially don’t want to lean on that mentality but you can’t help but wonder if this (race, gender, sexual orientation) is a part of it”.   

Hiring a diverse workforce will create a more inclusive industry for people to play games that represent them, and “diverse workforces are more innovative, different backgrounds produce different ideas, approaches and solutions”. (Ramanan, 2017)  

There are companies that are taking steps to becoming more diverse.  Microsoft has been one of the leaders on diversity and inclusion. In 1992 they hired Kate Edwards as a cartographer and in 1995 she created a team to serve as a centralized corporate authority on geopolitical policy, strategy and compliance focusing on the game Halo as well as other company programs.  Her job now is to advise companies on lack of diversity, asking the question: “do the characters in the game have to be all white? Do they have to be all male? Why not diverse it up a bit. What is it going to hurt if you make a character diverse?” She added that,

“in the last 5 years we’ve seen more diverse representation – a lot of companies are starting to understand the need for diversity.  and that I think what’s really important that is feeding the trend is the indie developers. They are creating the games, themes and characters with more representation.  Indie developers are driving diversity and inclusion in games”.

In March of 2019, Riot games, a company with a history of sexism and dysfunctional workplace practices, hired Angela Roseboro, as their Chief Diversity Officer.  Angela is bringing with her over twenty years of experience focused on diversity and inclusion. In 2007, gaming company Bioware released a game called, Mass Effect, a single player, action role-playing game in which you take the role of Commander Shepard and you are able to customize name, gender, sexual orientation, appearance and even backstory.  

This is what the future of gaming looks like.  There are companies like Yokozuna Data (Quartz, 2018) that are gathering data on what games we choose to play, how often and long we play them, and what we spend our money on.  One could even postulate that the future shown to us through science fiction books, movies, and television shows is just a mouse click away and the possibilities are endless. “and those on the industry’s cutting edge say that games becoming more sophisticated, immersive and personalized is one of the key reasons they’re becoming something more profound”. (Quartz, 2018)

Annotated Bibliography

Diversity. (2019). In Oxford Dictionary: Oxford University Press https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/diversity

Documentary (2018) The Future of Gaming, Quartz and Retro-report https://qz.com/is/what-happens-next-2/1438720/future-of-gaming/

A twelve-minute documentary on the future of gaming and how companies are using data to customize games to specific players to encourage them to spend more money and time on a game.  Includes interviews with Africa Perianez, CEO of Yokozuna Data in Japan.

Lenhart, A. (6, August 2015) Video Games are Key Elements in Friendships for Many Boys Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/06/chapter-3-video-games-are-key-elements-in-friendships-for-many-boys/

Amanda Lenhart was the former Director of Teens and Technology research at The Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.  This five-chapter report is part of a series on Teens, Technology and Friendships and was a survey of teens ages 13 to 17 conducted online from Sept. 25 through Oct. 9, 2014, and Feb. 10 through March 16, 2015, and 16 online and in-person focus groups with teens were conducted in April 2014 and November 2014.  Data from the report used to support the information that video gamers are a much more diverse group.

Morin, C. (8 December, 2017) Tackling Interactive Identity. University of Saskatchewan News. Retrieved from https://news.usask.ca/articles/colleges/2017/tackling-interactive-identity.php

Chris Morin interview with researcher Cale Passmore of the Human-Computer Lab Interaction at the University of Saskatchewan.  I used Cale’s research to support the negative effects that the lack of diversity in video games has on players of color.

Packwood, D. (31 October 2018) The era of white male games for white male gamers is ending Quartz, Retrieved from https://qz.com/1433085/the-era-of-white-male-games-for-white-male-gamers-is-ending/

Damon Leon Packwood is co-founder and executive director of Gameheads, an organization that trains low-income students of color ages 11–25 in video game design, development, and DevOps to prepare them for careers in the entertainment and tech industries. His article was key in highlighting the difference between who the video game companies are marketing to versus who actually plays the games and led me to the documentary on The Future of Gaming.  

Ramanan, C. (15 March 2017) The video game industry has a diversity problem – but it can be fixed, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/mar/15/video-game-industry-diversity-problem-women-non-white-people

Chella Ramanan has been writing about the video gaming industry for 19 years.  The purpose of this piece is to highlight that there are too few gaming industry opportunities for women and people of color. This needs to change if it is to have a healthy future.  This piece was written for the general public. 

Chella conducted interviews with several key people in the gaming industry.  She also referenced several statistical reports.

The conclusion she drew from the interviews and reports is that “research consistently shows that diverse workforces are more innovative; different backgrounds produce different ideas, approaches and solutions”.

Shaw, A. (2014) Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. University of Minnesota Press.

Adrienne Shaw has been playing video games since the 1980’s.  She is currently an associated professor at Temple University’s Department of Media and Communication.  Along with Gaming at the Edge she has also co-edited three anthologies that focus on Queer game studies and Queer technologies.  She is also the founder of the LGBTQ Video Game archive which has been among other things, curating a collection of information of LGBTQ content in digital games from the 1980’s-present.   

Her purpose in writing this book is to parse the connected but distinct issues of identity, identification, and media representation.

She obtained the information through interviews and showcasing data that supports her research that there is a lack of LGBTQ representation in video games.

Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., & Ivory, J. (2009, July 23). The virtual census: Representations of gender, race and age in video games. Retrieved from http://dmitriwilliams.com/VirtualCensusFinal.pdf  A twenty-one-page report focused on representations of gender, race and age in video games. Answered questions on why representation matters.  In depth analysis of characters within the games.

Interviewees:

Edwards, K. (2019, March 04). Personal interview via Zoom

Kate Edwards has been working in the video gaming industry for over 26 years.  She provided valuable insight on Microsoft’s process with their game Halo and her current work with companies to highlight diversity and inclusion.   

Rothschild, R. (2019, February 21). Personal interview via phone

Rebecca Rothschild is the editor in chief of the website Sugar Gamers, a site that is founded by Keisha Howard as a community for female gamers.  Rebecca is not only a gamer but she is a journalist with an eye for highlighting with laser focus any inequality in the gaming industry.

Vasilchikova, M. (2019, February 27). Personal interview via Zoom

Maria Vasilichikova is the HR manager at the game studio, Unbroken.  She provided a unique perspective as she grew up in Russia and came to video games in a more or a round about way since the games themselves were usually rip-offs of main stream games.  

Written by Tamiko Little