In order to look critically at the level of representation within games, we need a consistent scale to manage each game. There are four areas of diversity I’d like to look at: Race/Nationality, Gender, Sexuality, & Body.
You can see the specifics below, but the general logic of this scale progressively asks three questions in each category:
- Do people who are not straight white cis men with identical (able-bodied, conventionally attractive) bodies seems to exist in this universe at all?
- Do people who are not straight white cis men with identical (able-bodied, conventionally attractive) bodies form a reasonable and meaningful part of game play or game art?
- Does the game substantially acknowledge or engage with a wide range of human diversity -OR- does a group of traditionally underrepresented people form the majority of game play and game art?
Games get one star for each yes. I would like to emphasis that this scale is trying to measure representation within games and NOT rate overall game quality. With that said, here’s how I feel about games that fall into each star category:
Zero stars: OH, MY GOD. THIS IS THE LOWEST STANDARD EVER. HOLY RELIGIOUS FIGURES ON A STICK. HOW HARD IS IT TO–ahem. Sorry. Occasionally maaaaaaybe it makes sense within the theme, but requires major justification to overcome my side-eye.
One star: Okay, better than nothing. Depending on the theme and implementation, could be justified, but would probably like to see a bit more effort here.
Two stars: Reasonably good work on the representation front, team. I would be happy if a majority of games fell in this category.
Three stars: Think of this as the bonus round. Obviously, it’s a lot to ask of a game every single time, but it’s awesome when it happens.
In practice, here’s what I’ll be looking for in each category:
Note: When referring to a ‘character’, that includes both playable characters and artwork on game boxes, cards, and play-pieces, even if a player doesn’t explicitly play the characters being represented. Where both exist in a game, playable characters will be weighted more heavily.
- Zero Stars: All human/humanoid characters are white and/or Western. Geography is distinguishably of exclusively Western countries (unless the focus is on indigenous cultures).
- One Stars: There’s some racial, cultural, or geographic diversity, but not much.
- Two Stars: About 30-60% of the characters and/or setting are racially, culturally, and/or geographically diverse.
- Three Stars: Over 60% of the characters and/or setting are racially, culturally, and/or geographically diverse.
- Overt racism is an automatic FAIL (zero stars). Less overt, but still problematic handling of race issues gets a Serious Side-Eye and loses a half-star.
- For games with exclusively non-human characters, we’ll look at the racial/cultural politics that do exist, if relevant. If there’s really none, we’ll score it N/A.
- Zero Stars: All human/humanoid characters are male. 1
- One Stars: Some non-male characters exist, but not many.
- Two Stars: About 40%+ of the characters are non-male but gender-diverse characters are few or none.
- Three Stars: About 40%+ of characters are non-male AND trans, non-binary, or otherwise gender-diverse characters are well-represented.
- Exclusive use of ‘he’ as a generic pronoun in the rulebook is a negative full star.
- Overt misogyny or transphobia is an automatic FAIL (zero stars). Less overt, but still problematic handling of gender issues gets a Serious Side-eye and loses a half-star.
- For games with exclusively non-gendered characters, we’ll look at the gender politics or gendered representations that do exist, if relevant. We’ll also look at the use of gendered pronouns in the rulebook.
- Zero Stars: All human/humanoid characters are straight-identified or straight-coded with no mechanism for a player to make choices that implicitly identify a queer sexuality.
- One Star: Sexuality isn’t explicitly discussed, but game play allows choices that implicitly identify sexuality and nothing prevents a player from queering those choices.
- Two Stars: There are a few queer-identified or queer-coded characters; game play doesn’t force ‘straight’ choices but may or may not allow choices that identify sexuality.
- Three Stars: There are playable queer-identified characters and/or game play explicitly allows or encourages queer identities and behaviours.
- Overt homophobia is an automatic FAIL (zero stars). Less overt, but still problematic handling of sexuality issues gets a Serious Side-Eye and loses a half-star.
- For games with exclusively non-humanoid or non-gendered characters, we’ll look at any sexuality politics or representations that do exist. If none, we’ll score it N/A.
- Zero Stars: All characters are able-bodied and have a similar body type that lies somewhere in the ‘conventionally attractive’ scale.
- One Stars: A few different body types or characters with physical impairments exist, but not many.
- Two Stars: Some different types of bodies are represented. There is no ‘dominant’ body type OR characters with physical impairments or societally ‘less acceptable’ bodies are well-represented.
- Three Stars: Many types of bodies are represented. There is no ‘dominant’ body type AND characters with physical impairments are well-represented.
- Overt ableism and body shaming is an automatic FAIL (zero stars). Less overt, but still problematic handling of body or disability issues gets a Serious Side-Eye and and loses a half-star.
- For games with without bodied characters, a score of N/A will be recorded.
Among other limitations, there’s no consideration of neuro-diversity. I think I’m going to leave this aside for the moment, but bonus stars may be given in the Body category for games that handle it well. Also no consideration of relationship-model diversity. Probably same deal, but in Sexuality? But these are the overall metrics of things I’m interested in looking at.
I also want to note that games will be evaluated within the context of their theme, to an extent. I absolutely don’t think theme is a free pass on all representation issues, but I do think it plays a role in setting the parameters. For example, a game about body-building where all characters are extremely muscular but also a multitude of sizes & shapes might score a 2, but a game about economic development in aristocratic Europe wouldn’t score a 2 showing only muscular bodies. Same for a game with problematic elements–in general a game throwing out racial slurs or body shaming is an automatic fail, but a game exploring these issues in a critical fashion wouldn’t be.
Feedback? Thoughts? Disagreements? Major problems? Biases I haven’t considered that I need to unpack?
- Using ‘male’ as a shorthand for “Male-coded with no indication of a genderqueer, trans, or otherwise non-cis identity in art or text”. It’s inherently problematic to try to guess someone’s identity from just a single picture of them and it’s inherently problematic to assume someone is cis-male because they’re male-coded. But this is an overall unavoidable limitation of the medium, so we’re going to have to make some assumptions along the way from visual ‘coding’ to even be able to have this discussion.
In general, I think my approach is “if I can’t tell from game text or coded-appearance that someone isn’t cis, I assume the game intended them to be read as cis” which is obviously problematic itself, but it’s problematic mostly because our culture by default assumes everyone fits into a strict gender binary, and it’s a reflection of that set of fucked up assumptions. (Repeat same logic for assumptions about identities in other categories as well.) ↩