Video games do more than just pass the time. For many gamers, playing video games adds great influence in their lives. Katie Stone Perez has seen the games’ impact on people while taking care of her own daughter. When Katie’s daughter was learning to ride her two-wheel bicycle, the girl places her Super Mario plush toy in the basket on the front of the handle bars. When Katie asked her daughter why she does it, the girl said, “because he taught me to never give up.”
Aside from being a mother, Perez also works in the gaming industry. She is the senior program manager for Microsoft’s ID@Xbox, a program supporting individual developments for XBox. Perez is also one of the closest co-workers of Kenny Roy, creator of I, Hope. Clearly, Perez has been aware of the empowering and emotional effect of video games to players.
I, Hope is an upcoming puzzle game symbolizing a war against cancer. It is a story of a girl who defends her home island against a mysterious sickness. Perez also works on other similar projects advocating diversity like We Love Chicago, a narrative game focusing on multiracial communities located in urban areas, and the Xbox-sponsored Girls Make Games, a three-week camp where girls are taught about coding when creating games.
“Diversity within the games industry is incredibly important to me,” Perez says. “I think we need to back away from this focus on one type of consumer or one type of developer – some of my favorite gaming experiences come from really diverse creators.”
Over the years, the gaming industry has been performing ways to improve the diversification in games. Slowly, companies are realizing that in order to produce more interesting products, the limitations in characters must be lifted. In the past, the gaming industry usually projects an image that’s young, white, straight and male. It’s good to see that in recent events, like the E3 held in June, newly released games have created characters that are women and with varying races. Some of those were Assassin’s Creed Origins, Beyond Good & Evil 2, Star Wars Battlefront II, Life Is Strange: Before the Storm, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.
There had been changes for several years. However, it was just recently when the gaming industry has created a striking momentum. A clear depiction of non-white, non-male characters has been called, especially in the last three E3 events. These changes matter, and are of great importance, creativity- and business-wise.
We can also see the efforts in games diversification not only in races but as well as in all types of gender. One great example is the sturdy support of PlayStation when they sponsored Pride London. The company’s presence was highly remarkable when they joined the vibrant parade.
PlayStation’s participation in this parade is a result of the efforts of PlayStation Europe’s LGBTQ group. According to social media manager Eric Whelan, the group began as an online meeting place, but then evolved into a bigger community due to their ambitious plans.
“We decided that we’d like to do more for our LGBTQ gaming community and Pride in London seemed like a great start for that – after all, we are based in central Soho. We quickly came together with the UK team who had separately been working on plans for Pride. From there, it just started to move forward …”
One of the most staggering announces from Xbox lately was their addition of a new set of avatars. It included a new range of skin tones, gender-agnostic clothing, and yes, wheelchairs. The public didn’t go cynical over these changes, rather, positive feedbacks are received. The attempt of Xbox to improve the representation of real-life experience, was a clear success. Just like the works of E3, Perez, and PlayStation’s Pride team. All of them made it happen.
Another great achievement to improve diversification and gamer experience was Xbox’s Copilot. It allows two different players, using different Joypads, to access and control one console.
“Co-pilot is one of the things I’m most proud of at Xbox,” says Perez. “You can use it to help people with disabilities, or people who are just less experienced at games. While playing, instead of taking the controller away from them, you can say ‘oh I’ll get this jump’, and you get it and they carry on. I work with a children’s hospital and the child life specialist team was like, oh God, this is a breakthrough. If you think of kids with cerebral palsy, they can maybe push one button, they don’t have a lot of meaningful content throughout their day, but with co-pilot, someone else can help with the tough bits, and they get to have powerful gaming experiences.”
This feature allows people who are struggling to join games, to play and be visible onscreen. Inclusivity is the targeted goal of such developments, just like what Special Effect in the UK and Able Gamers in the US have created. These charities developed software programs that assist disabled players, and support other similar innovations throughout the industry.
These efforts matter to the lives of players. It has a deeper impact than what we thought. It prevents feelings of isolation of people with different backgrounds, and abilities in the games they desperately want to be a part of. Avatars that represent real-life situations make these people feel that they exist and they matter, especially in a realm that delivers huge influence to their lives.
The same vision is behind the PlayStation’s sponsorship of Pride. “We have a very diverse staff, including a big number of LGBTQ people who went through the same challenges that many of our LGBTQ fans are going through right now,” says Whelan. “If we can show just one of them that they can be accepted anywhere – in both gaming and in the real, working world – and that gaming is not just about being super gender- or sexually conforming, then all the months of work is worth it. That’s why it’s important.”
Diversification in games isn’t only about representation. It isn’t a topic for argument. For some parents, video games can help the family. A father with an autistic child said that, “I see my kid getting more comfortable with himself and with other children through sharing games. Almost everything else in his life is an emotional struggle – games are his home. Way before this, games let me explore sexuality and gender at times when I’ve questioned both; I still have questions that I can’t vocalize, and games still help.”
If some people still see representation as a political fad, or anything unimportant with the video game industry or experience itself, they must haven’t seen its real worth. When it comes to gamer experience, t’s not the gender, ethnicity or physical abilities of a character that are important. What matters greatly is if the game is fun to play or if it’s well-written. These factors will be enhanced if the players feel comfortably represented.
“All we wanted to do is show our support,” says Lauren Bradley, group marketing manager, about the Pride sponsorship. “While we don’t expect to change anyone’s minds, we do know that there are many young people out there, afraid to be who they want to be. If PlayStation can do anything to help them and make them feel part of a community, then we should.”
“As a girl growing up playing games I was always like, why do I have to play as a boy?” says Perez about the attitude towards Xbox. “But I’m still a white straight woman who sees myself throughout our media and culture – there are so many people in our society who don’t get that representation. It’s important that they feel more included in the content we’re making – and part of that is to make sure they’re working with the team so those conversations are taking place. This year you’ll see from our entire first-party portfolio, a greater level of character customization – you’ll see our new avatar system, where you can have prosthetics and wheelchairs, really express your identity. We’re bringing that ‘it looks like me’ moment to more people.”
This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.