Leveling Up Gaming's Inclusivity Efforts
How far have we come since 2021, and where does the industry stand to gain from playing up the values of its audience?
On the surface, you might expect gaming to evolve at the same rate of similar industries like music, TV, and film when it comes to diverse and accurate representation of the world we live in. But below the surface the reality is incredibly different. Gaming experiences, perspectives, and audiences continue to expand and diversify at an incomparable rate just as gaming technology has (just look at the evolution of Spider-Man games over the last 20 years as an example). Keeping up with (and staying ahead of) the ever-growing, and ever-more youthful player-base is a challenge, and their voices demand to be heard.
In September 2021, we wrote a piece deploying our human-powered values system to propose opportunities for gaming brands to emotionally connect with young gamers by letting them live their values via their gaming experience.
Within this, we highlighted:
The opportunity: Championing the “new” gamer outside of the traditional base, specifically focusing on stronger representation of all forms of diversity. This is a chance for the industry to grow exponentially while also being a force for progressive change in the world
The challenge: Existing perceptions of a toxic, western-centric, and exclusive industry still pervade. Companies, brands, and gamers alike therefore need to work together to form a more welcoming, inclusive, and ultimately enjoyable environment to stay relevant.
2 eventful years on, we feel now’s the perfect time to check back in, exploring how, and to what extent companies and gamers are responding to this challenge. Let’s take a look at three big themes in question today…
Representation, Customization, and Care for the Wider Community
In developing a passion, there are few things more important than seeing people like you to make you feel welcome and part of something bigger. When a piece of content or community does this well, it offers role models and relatability to anyone who wants in, without sacrificing the central identity itself.
Here’s one of our researchers Dianna Feng speaking on this subject in a Tedx talk!
Gaming has come a long way here, especially in the last few years:
The Star of the Show: EA Sports expanding the reach of the beautiful game
When Moroccan footballer Nouhaila Benzina became the first player to wear a hijab in a major tournament during a 2023 World Cup group stage match, her avatar in FIFA 23's World Cup mode did not originally showcase this. But, EA Sports took note and updated the game before Morocco's crucial Round of 16 match against France, ensuring she was accurately represented. Not only does this send a powerful message of inclusivity and acceptance in the world of sports and video games, but its reception highlights the importance of brands and companies being on their toes and listening to their audience.
Especially considering the recent ban on players wearing hijabs in matches by the French Football Federation, EA's decision stands as a beacon of positive representation.
The agency given to players of video games make them ripe platforms for customization and self-expression. Beyond just choosing your avatar, gamers are given real agency in their gameplay, strategy, and tools they use to get ahead. By letting players modify characters, outfits, or mechanics, they imprint their personality on the game and are left feeling more involved and emotionally invested in outcomes they felt were connected to their decision making.
The Star of the Show: A Widening Wizarding World
Hogwarts Legacy's attention to detail in its character creation system demonstrates a genuine commitment to its audience. Its diverse options, vast range of face shapes, hair textures, and skin tones allow for a genuine representation of ethnicities far beyond those shown in other Harry Potter (or other) media. Take the game's meticulous approach to black hair styles and textures as a key example, setting a new benchmark in the industry that demonstrates a real sign of intent in the industry.
This diversity is also evident in the game's broader world – with a varied cast of students and professors that enrich the game's subtext. Through these details, both subtle and overt, "Hogwarts Legacy" doesn't just offer a game but a platform for players to see themselves, creating a more immersive and personal experience.
Caring for the community
Gaming is inherently social whether in an online multiplayer game or sharing experiences and passion on social media. Whether discussing gameplay in online forums, chatting to teammates through headsets, or talking trash with friends in the same room, conversation begets fandom and community. Being able to share tips, tricks, stories, and experiences makes gamers feel part of something through their passion. But with great power comes great responsibility. For an industry that promotes sharing experiences in a competitive environment, it should be its absolute goal to eradicate the accessibility barriers that still exist today.
There are corners of the gaming world where this has become stronger, specifically for deaf gamers…
The Star of the Show: Spider-Man 2’s attention to detail
Underneath the relatable, authentic, and dynamic characters shown throughout Insomniac’s Spider-Man 2, there’s a hidden starring role - that of Hailey Cooper. She’s one of Miles’ best friends; instrumental in his success and a key agent in the game. Being deaf, she is a character that historically may not have had the airtime that she deserves, but here she’s absolutely integral. Using animated ASL and digital tools, Insomniac have been able to do justice to her character, making her central in the action, as well as in the emotional moments in the game. This goes beyond the gameplay too, as there’s support for deaf gamers throughout the game’s settings, from audio frequency adjusters to Narrated ASL. A game like Spider-Man 2 should be accessible to everyone, and this ensures that it is.
An Honorable Mention: Helpful hardware
Big steps have been taken in gaming hardware too. Xbox has their “Adaptive controller” - allowing players to fully customize how they play outside of the traditional “ergonomic” option, but PlayStation has recently joined the party too - announcing the “Access controller” releasing in Dec 2023. It means that what was once a company-led investment in accessibility, now feels table stakes in the industry.
And there’s been advances in efforts to help deaf gamers as well - take Pilsen Callao’s sponsorship of their “E-interpreters” software, - giving access to sign-language bots to translate in-game dialogue and voice-chats to keep them connected to the rest of the community.
It’s all a step in the right direction, but we need to keep going!
While big strides have been made, significant blind spots still exist which show there’s still much more to do…
Female icons: Female characters have always existed in video games, but historically written in a way that appeals to a predominantly heterosexual male audience, and there continues to be a real lack of female gaming icons. There’s room for more of these characters who have the ability to transcend the gaming world because they’re written to be relatable, realistic, and - crucially - flawed
Queer Representation: Yes, we’re seeing more LGBTQIA+ narratives and characters, but games often still relegate these experiences to 1-dimensional NPCs or side-quests – think Sirona Ryan in Hogwarts: Legacy. For members of the non-binary community especially, it’s still incredibly rare to see themselves reflected in-game.
Games still under-represent those with disabilities: This representation challenge stretches to those with disabilities – and is perhaps even more pronounced. Whether in character customization, narratives, or side-quests, disabilities are rarely shown at all, let alone shown authentically.
Toxicity still reigns: As game developer Wu told the BBC, “I think there is a war on women in technology. It’s not like I’m advocating that we ban Call of Duty or anything silly like that, I’m asking for companies to look at their hiring practices, to hire more women…and make sure they portray women in their games in a socially responsible way.” Inevitably this doesn’t stop with treatment of women either - language used in conversations and “banter” still marginalizes players who fall outside of the traditional audience of teenage males, especially those from BAME or LGBTQIA+ backgrounds.
So, there’s been some slow (but genuine) progress since we last checked in, but crucially there’s still significant space for brands, developers and gamers to announce themselves as leaders in broadening and diversifying the gaming industry in so many areas. Being the drivers in this movement will not only expand your reach and deepen gamers relationships with your brand/game/community, but it will also benefit creativity in all aspects of game and brand development - opening the doors to new stories, new gameplay ideas and new players.
Some thought starters...
How can we continue developing representative game narratives and features, while keeping these authentic to the games and themes you’re looking to present?
Gaming is an outlet for anyone - how can we continue to reduce and trivialize the barriers to those living with disabilities in future titles and hardware?
How can we be leaders in the community and champion the engagement of female and other under-represented gamers?
From human to human,
George & Sam