In many nerd spheres, there is a lot of talk about “pandering”. In gaming specifically, the term has been used to refer to series that unnecessarily add or feature components just to “pander” to an audience for the sake of getting sales. This has been a recurring discussion point, but came to a head again with the recent changes to the Street Fighter V beta version’s changes. Essentially, some of the characters’ intros have been less sexualized, which has led some factions to claim that this means game developers are pandering to liberal, progressive critics. I know some people might not want to have this discussion and will get mad at me for this, but pandering is a serious problem! Looking at the current landscape of characters and features, it’s time we had a good, hard look at this industry and put a good effort into adding some damn diversity.
Sarcasm aside, yes, even in 2015, the palette of genders, races, and sexualities is a limited prism in the world of gaming despite much protest. The problem, as is well documented, is simply resistance to change—gaming and nerd “conservatives”. One only need to look at the current discourse to see such obstinance; the Star Wars Boycott hashtag, misogyny aimed at FIFA including female athletes in its (fairly realistic) soccer simulator, or the gaming hashtag that shall not be named. Each of these reactions is due to anger that “other” groups are being added to the cishet, white, male status quo. If every character is not Nathan Drake, we’ve somehow pandered to the liberals who want to take games away from their rightful owners.
To put this in perspective, many nerds can see aliens fighting in space with lightsabers, but Black people and women leading a cast is where the immersion is broken. People will accept dragons, magic, Norse Gods joining gamma-ray powered monsters, and a whole host of unreal feats, but when marginalized groups are added, historical realism needs to be observed. Never mind fantastic settings, FIFA, an organization that actually has women participating in real life already, cannot add female players to its video game roster without causing an uproar!
The claim often ends up being “they just added diversity for diversity’s sake!” But, this objection is either overly ignorant, or disingenuous at best. In the United States, women make up roughly 50% of the population depending on where you look; Black people (for one racial example) are roughly 13% of it. (Census.gov, as always, can provide usable data.) One could find it fair that nerdy media should reflect demographics if it wants to be realistic. (if realism isn’t the goal, then why exclude any group, unless that’s especially your goal?) As one can tell with a quick observation, the current landscape of game characters and protagonists isn’t particularly diverse. Adding women and people of color only make games more representative of reality, not less.
The next counterpoint tends to be that marginalized groups don’t play games or consume this media. Why should they be represented? This shouldn’t even need to be backed up by statistics: if you’ve ever had contact with any reasonable number of people from a group, you know that group plays at least some games. But for the sake of argument, some studies (such as from the ESA and Pew Research Institute) and statistics that show how frequently women, minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community plays video games. One complaint is that “it shouldn’t matter who the characters are, as long as the game is good” and, c’mon. If that was the case, why is anyone complaining?
If the previous statistics are dismissed or justified in some way, people start arguing, “Games should be made for the majority! We can’t relate to characters that aren’t similar to us!” And again, this is nonsense. The nerd community has related to a blue hedgehog fighting robots, a bounty hunter lady in space, and a monkey man from a doomed planet, among other colorful characters. Being relatable goes as far as a consumer chooses to take it. But this argument presents a disconnect and catch-22 of sorts. The first disconnect is that gamers most certainly can play as characters they can’t relate to if they want to; it’s been done and continues to be done. At most, we’re only marginally like the characters in games. Second, gamers in marginalized groups play as characters they don’t match all the time. And this presents the catch-22 that gaming conservatives stick to so well: if marginalized gamers are playing games as is, then the condition is not that bad. But if we don’t play the games, then we aren’t in the demographic, and companies shouldn’t cater to us. See how that works?
Again, this reasoning isn’t innovative. It’s willfully ignorant (we have vast amounts of internet-accessible data at our fingertips) or purposefully misleading to halt and redirect the conversation. It simply doesn’t make sense that it’s all right to have ridiculously oversexualized women in your ads, but a reasonably clothed woman is the detail that’s considered pandering or cynical. Either way, we’ve got to stop succumbing to such pitfalls if we want gaming, and all of nerd culture, to evolve and be better. The way I see it, no matter what your stance is, we need more people starring in, buying, and making our games. Whether you see video games as a cutting edge way of telling stories or simply a complex and innovative toy, more voices simply means more everything. Additional perspectives create more intricate stories, and more buyers fund more powerful and radical technologies. It’s win-freakin’-win.
So what’s my point? I basically just want geek discourse to be better. I want it to be inclusive and the best it absolutely can be, and I know we’ll never get there by wasting energy on accusing people of and defending people from “pandering”. I saw friends break down in happy tears over the inclusion of women’s soccer players being in FIFA; I heard a game critic express raw gratitude over queer/poly relationships being possible in Fallout 4; hell, I shed a tear just from seeing a Black mother and son depicted in an episode of a gaming discussion show. I say it all the time and I honestly mean it: Representation matters. Representation absolutely matters. This sort of emotion—this raw passion for a medium—can only take video games closer to being the stellar scientific-art form they truly are.
All I ask of gaming journalists, creators, and enthusiasts. please: let’s stop making up nonsense about pandering, and get to playing the games we love. Let’s enjoy them, let’s discuss them honestly and openly, and let’s make them better.