In 2020, we can all agree that representation is important. Having games from different cultures with characters of different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, abilities, and sexualities enriches the art form. But representation is only one hurdle to overcome—there’s more to diversity than visibility. For the month of February, the Sidequest crew is chatting about representations of culture, including what games get it right and what games have a ways to go.

What are some examples of games that take a particular interest in representing a specific culture? What makes that representation fail or succeed?

Wendy Browne: I have yet to play Assassin’s Creed, but I am pleased and fascinated by what I keep hearing about the different cultures that are represented in it throughout history. I understand that maybe not every aspect of it is perfect, but it’s a far cry from the Jamaican trolls in World of Warcraft. Jamaicans might not actually exist in that fantasy world, but so distinctly pinning the accent and stereotypes on the Horde race without any effort to respectfully define the characters beyond those stereotypes is, well, racist. See too the Pandaren. Add the lack of darker skin tones, and you end up with players who feel crudely pigeonholed if we want to create characters that we can identify with.

Zainabb Hull: I loved Never Alone’s exploration of Alaska Native culture and the folklore of the Iñupiat people, represented not only through characters and narrative but through gameplay, where you seamlessly control both a young Native girl and an arctic fox. The developers worked closely with Alaska Native people, and I think this was a key factor in the success of the game’s representation. In contrast, well-intentioned developers who don’t prioritise input from the communities they seek to represent, like the white French creators of Bury Me, My Love, frequently end up with stereotyped, paternalistic, or, as Wendy points out, straight-up racist portrayals.

Melissa Brinks: As an example of what can go wrong, even in a really benign sense, the first Life is Strange got a lot of flack for its portrayal of the Pacific Northwest. I think you could make a case that Chloe, et al, are meant to be characters who think they’re very cool but aren’t, and that their dialog is meant to have a sort of Twin Peaks-esque hyperreal quality. Instead, the dialog feels very “how do you do, fellow kids?” It’s not like the world is lacking in authentic, positive PNW representation—we’re not oppressed on that axis—but the backlash shows how something as silly as inauthentic slang use can take people out of a game world. Magnify that by the thousands of games telling stories of cultures that aren’t their own with harmful, rather than just embarrassing, stereotypes and ideologies and it should be easy to understand why getting the voices of people from the cultures you’re trying to represent isn’t just a good idea, but essential.

A screenshot of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice showing Senua looking into the camera. Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Ninja Theory, 2017.

Elvie Mae Parian: As someone who has not directly played the game but has followed conversation on it, I think it is interesting how a pretty widely acclaimed game like Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is very thorough and keen to detail on its interpretation of Norse mythology and Celtic culture while faltering on its handling of mental health. It’s a pretty divisive game, as some feel reasonably hurt by it while others found the handling of the titular character’s psychosis and its justification as a “mechanic” to be sincere. (And the announcement of a sequel I don’t think helps this case.) I think it’s an important example to raise when it comes to this discussion of representation and the ramifications of how to properly handle these things. Even though a piece of media may succeed and win its kudos in depicting one thing just right, it can horribly fail elsewhere and perhaps make the former victory feel inauthentic.

Naseem Jamnia: I haven’t played a lot of games that have been very interested in portraying a specific culture in a specific time and place, though certainly I’ve played games where there’s a sort of backdrop—Persona 5’s set in contemporary Tokyo, and given that the developers are Japanese, I’m going to guess that’s an accurate portrayal. But it’s not about the culture, and honestly, I am hesitant whenever I see a game—or, really, anything—about a culture that’s not from cultural producers. I think, for instance, of the way Prince of Persia swoops down into my people and uses our name but, from everything I understand—forgive me for not wanting to dive deep into it—it uses our name and Oriental stereotypes but very little else. Don’t use stereotypes! Don’t use shitty Oriental tropes! It shouldn’t take much to make a game respectful, even if you’re too lazy to do real research.

I feel like I’d be remiss to not talk about the Civilization franchise in all of this. I’m going to be honest: I LOVE THIS PROBLEMATIC SERIES, AND I LOVE THE PERSIAN REPRESENTATION IN IT. You have to understand, the Persian Empire is constantly erased. We were fuckin’ great! Cyrus was a boss! (We were still an empire and that is problematic, yes, but all evidence we have of Cyrus’s reign was that it was good as far as empires go—he historically didn’t use slaves, he let people have religious and cultural freedom, et cetera. Still an empire, still precursor to modern-day colonialism and empire, but all of his accomplishments and progresses are continually erased.) Being able to see! my! people! in an empire-creating game is so weirdly affirming. And let me take a moment to praise Civ6, for all its criticisms: they actually did their fucking research, at least for my people. Hearing Persian music coming out of the speakers when I played as Cyrus for the first time brought tears to my eyes. Hearing a language akin to the one I was raised speaking meant more to me than I can describe. So I think doing your damned research and talking to people within a certain community can be done, respectfully and well, and then reflected back in a game.

Nola Pfau: Look, I live near the city of Tacoma and the game looks NOTHING like it. Nothing.

What are some examples of cultural representation in games that you resonated with strongly? In what ways have these games changed your mindset in gaming?

Wendy: When my ex was playing Starcraft and I first heard Gabriel Tosh, I was excited to hear a proper Jamaican accent in mainstream North American media, after having lived with only Kendra the Vampire Slayer for so long. Buuuut that joy quickly faded when I discovered that Tosh was only a slightly better representation than the trolls that voice actor Dave Fennoy also voiced for Blizzard Entertainment. Better to just stay away from the Voodoo.

Elvie: The best examples of cultural representation I have experienced have been numerous indie titles developed by folks who were simply translating their personal experiences into a game. Mamayani resonated with me a lot as a Filipino-American in further widening my eyes that there is indeed more Filipinx-driven work than I realize, and that translating our stories into the games medium is still accessible. Attending shows like the Game Devs of Color Expo and learning about the types of work I have yet to experience in a triple-A level title also has really encouraged me to explore more creators of color and specifically to further research media relevant to my own culture.

Naseem: In contrast to my aforementioned displeasure at Prince of Persia, 1979 Revolution: Black Friday took a deeply personal and painful period in my people’s history and made a game that made me straight-up sob. That was a game that taught me what games can do, how personal they can be while covering both the beautiful and ugly, the things we don’t want to acknowledge but must. The Iranian Revolution is deeply personal and painful for me, and playing that game wrecked me in ways I didn’t expect. And I thanked it for doing so.

Nola: Trans rep doesn’t… happen in games, unless trans people are making them. I liked Hardcoded for that reason, but the market is otherwise pretty sparse. There’s a goblin dating game that features nonbinary characters coming up soon, so that’s nice.

Naseem: I’ve never been more excited to hear the words “goblin dating game that features nonbinary characters” in my life.

Mae stands in a Hot Topic-esque store. To the clerk, she says, "Stay strong you beautiful dreamer. You have nothing to lose but your chains." Night in the Woods, Infinite Fall, Finji, 2017.

Melissa: For me, it’s absolutely Night in the Woods. I didn’t grow up in the Rust Belt, but I did grow up in a small town whose culture was shifting away from generations of farming families as wealthy out-of-towners moved in. The town I grew up in was far from perfect before the polarized income disparity, but the way that the characters interact with one another, the way there’s this pervasive fear that our way of life is changing—which can manifest as xenophobia or as community organization and outreach—really made sense to me, even though I grew up clear across the country.

I already know how I feel about the town where I grew up, but Night in the Woods did make me think more about why it felt that way, how capitalism shaped its trajectory away from family-owned farms to chain stores, how the sadness at the core contributes to the drug and alcohol problems. When you’re looking at something like that from the outside, without the entrenched bitterness you (more specifically, I) feel, it becomes easier to empathize. I might have groused about hating that town forever, but from the outside I can see that it’s tragic, even as I simultaneously recognize that it was never a perfect place.

Are games (video or tabletop) a good way to engage with cultures other than your own? How can they be positive or negative?

Wendy: When written appropriately, games, like any other media, are an excellent opportunity to engage and learn about our similarities and differences. But I don’t feel that gaming has quite caught up with the understanding that you can’t just appropriate cultures or toss in a few token cultural tropes to check off the representation boxes. We still see problems in books and on screen, and considering the poor cultural representation in the gaming industry as a whole, there’s still a lot of work to be done to understand the importance of representation and make sure it happens respectfully to give us all the opportunity to engage positively and learn about each other.

Naseem: This is a complicated question, the same way we can wonder if any media (created by outsiders) is a good way to engage with a certain culture. I add that parenthetical because if a person from within their own culture is making a game about their culture, then yes, that’s a great way for others to learn about that culture! It is nuanced and complicated, I’m sure, and I’ve learned from my own context that I will constantly worry about how I’m representing my people, and I imagine others worry the same. But to this question: it makes me think of a game like Tzolk’in. It’s one of my all-time favorites, based on the Mayan calendar, but could I turn to it as an accurate, respectful representation of what Mayan culture once was? Proooooobably not. I’m guessing the Mayan people of Guatemala, who underwent genocide by the hands of a US-backed dictator in the ‘60s-‘80s, wouldn’t be thrilled with the kind of exotification that happens in that game.

Nola: I think they could be, if they tried. But that would require dev studios who cared about that kind of thing. Assassin’s Creed: Origins had Discovery mode, where you could just explore ancient Egypt without any combat, and that’s something I’d really like to see more of—kind of walking tours where possible? But even that doesn’t accurately fill the gap.

Sean and Daniel sit on a rock, looking out at a river and surrounded by trees. Assassin's Creed: Origins, Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft, 2017.

Melissa: I agree. Games created by the cultures and groups with the intent of sharing some facet of life or culture can be wonderful and enriching. Games created by outsiders may do an okay job, but without the authenticity of lived experience (not just intensive research), something is always going to be missing, and it becomes far easier to create a narrative that’s exploitative, even with good intentions.

And even games created by the culture they’re representing isn’t always positive for everybody. I think a lot about Azha Reyes’ experience with Pasión de las Pasiones, a game lots of people have had wonderful, enriching experiences with. But Azha points out something important in her review, which is that having her culture consumed and acted out by others can easily turn offensive, even if the intent was good.

That’s not to say games like that shouldn’t be made—they should! they absolutely should!—but rather that we should be conscious consumers as well when we engage with these kinds of stories. Are we helping or hurting? Are we understanding or mocking?

Zainabb: I absolutely agree that when games are thoughtfully made, and particularly when they are made by people from within a given culture, they can be a positive way for outsiders to engage with a culture. I think it’s always vital to understand that any piece of media or art will inevitably be unable to capture every aspect of a community or culture, even when created by people from within that culture. This is something I’m always super aware of as I’m finishing my Master’s in Postcolonial Studies, where a lot of my peers (and teachers) are white, studying and defining cultures that aren’t their own. So often, this ends up in appropriation, exoticisation, and straight-up colonialism, and this is a pattern we can see all the time when people engage with media about other cultures.

As Melissa says, the onus is not purely on creators, although it’s certainly important for creators to recognise the limits of the representation they’re constructing. Consumers also need to be constantly mindful of how they’re engaging with a culture and what they’re seeking to gain from their engagement. Do they want to learn and broaden their understanding of a specific perspective from a specific culture? Or are they hoping to gain access and authority into an experience that they can never fully appreciate? What power dynamics are at play when consuming a piece of media? It’s so easy and so common for consumption of media to become consumption of culture, and this has negative, material effects on people from within that culture in the real world, through exploitation, oppression, and marginalisation.

Is culture representation sometimes just enough? What draws the line between what is representation and what is performative?

Wendy: The line is drawn between defining a character or race only by that culture, or naturally integrating them into the world as a whole. Is their culture an anomaly that needs to be pointed out constantly? Or is it simply who they are?

I recently played Uncharted: Lost Legacy which left me torn on this question because sometimes, the answer isn’t easy. I enjoyed the game, the things I learned about Indian culture and mythology—with the assumption that Naughty Dog worked to get this right—and I love the voice actress, Claudia Black. But I realized in playing it that the character I met in an earlier game had “become” Indian in order to tell this particular story. Her culture is then fairly seamlessly integrated into the story, but that background of changing a character into a person of colour to suit your new story and earn a #RepresentationMatters stamp, rather than starting that way in the first place seems disingenuous.

Elvie: I think the industry is trying its best to come up to speed now with more diverse representations in games, but still only in very surface ways. We may see more characters of color pop up as a playable avatar in the latest super hot, FPS title, but the setting is once again contextualized in the same old, vague European setting or a fantasy realm far removed from our own reality. A franchise like Tekken actually respectfully represents characters of different countries, but none of that really matters contextualized within the game’s absurd, cartoony storyline. At the end of the day, although it’s really cool to see Eddy Gordo integrate capoeira in his fighting style, it’s not like his background and what it all means is more thoroughly explored beyond it being another strategy to consider as a competitive player. Overwatch also suffers from this problem and is often the butt of jokes when it comes to this, because it just simply has no real story and a lot of its development is all thanks to the labor of its fans.

It is actually also not a problem per se that we see too many games that embrace American and European elements, but it is even the fact that we don’t even see more diverse perspectives within those Western perspectives. We see games like Kentucky Route Zero excellently depict a non-caricatured and more properly nuanced experience of the American South, but meanwhile, horror games continue to love setting themselves there because there continues to be this allure that those areas are haunted and backwards. The real roadblock is the lack of promotion and marketing on creators that continue to be overshadowed in the mainstream, who otherwise can bring something new to the table unseen before—with an authentic perspective, nonetheless.

A screenshot of the starting area of Kentucky Route Zero: a stark silhouette of a gas station in front of a distant mountain, sun beginning to set in the background.

Nola: Nah, it’s never enough. This is a point of discourse that comes up in comics often too, and it’s always nice to see more diversity represented in the fiction, but if you’re not reflecting that same diversity in the creator balance, then you’re just paying lip service to turn a profit. A creator in… Montreal or wherever is gonna be able to tell you where countries are, what their cities are called and look like, but they’re not going to be able to give you an accurate rendition of the way that culture informs those locales (and vice versa) because it’s not a lived experience for them, unless, you know… they’re from the given place they’re writing about.

Naseem: I strongly agree with what others have already said. I mentioned earlier that I’m highly suspicious of products about or featuring or even mentioning a culture that’s not the background of the people producing the thing. Usually, that’s when representation feels performative or exploitative to me.

Melissa: Yeah, I would echo all of that, and also add that the why of representation is important, too. Not in the “wah wah I don’t understand why every character has to be marginalized these days,” sense, but in the sense that creators who aren’t themselves marginalized should ask themselves why they’re telling the story they are. Is it because they want to check off a diversity box and get credit for being progressive? Is it so they can retrofit a character to tell a story that feels more progressive, as Wendy mentioned with Uncharted—especially since both of the series’ primary women of color are voiced by white actors? How much effort, time, and money are they willing to put into subject matter experts, consultants, and so on, to make sure that they’re doing a thorough job?

The takeaway here isn’t “don’t do it,” it’s “do it right.” As Nola said, representation needs to be behind the screen as well as on it. Hire people, pay them well, and listen to feedback without using your consultants as a shield to hide behind. I don’t think “we tried” is a good excuse anymore—if you want to tell a story that isn’t yours to tell, hire somebody who does fit that bill.

Zainabb: Hard agree. Representation alone isn’t enough, there needs to be a shift in our existing hierarchies of power, and that means making a material change for real-life people from cultures depicted in video games. That includes hiring people, centering their experiences and perspectives, paying them fairly, prioritising their feedback. The cultures we’re discussing in this roundtable are mostly marginalised and minority ones; there is a major cultural narrative around what culture is considered the norm or default one, so much so that it doesn’t need to be named and sensitivity consultants aren’t required, because they’re just a company’s regular employees. The purpose of representation is to encourage a shift in our existing cultural power dynamics; by seeing more experiences and histories than the default, we can move to fully recognise the people with those experiences and histories. We can move towards inclusion, equality, and reparations. If representation stops at the seeing, it means nothing at its best, and contributes to further harm done to marginalised communities at its worst. Representation must always be a part of broader actions that enact the kind of real social change representation is supposed to promote.