Extra Punctuation Transcript
I was really torn on the diversity of the main characters in Call of Duty: Vanguard. On the one hand, it’s good for everyone to feel represented and that there’s no race or gender barrier to a career as a gun-toting insta-healing psychopath. But on the other hand, it’s not exactly representative of history, but back on the first hand why does that matter, it’s all fantasy, and no different to, say, casting nonwhite actors in the musical Hamilton to be more representative of modern demographics, but then wait, second hand again, race isn’t really a theme in Hamilton whereas it’s pretty fucking front and centre in World War 2 settings considering what the Nazis were all about, and isn’t it a bit irresponsible in this day and age to minimise the racism that existed in allied nations at the time – nee, urgh, aaah, how to phrase all this without making people come and push dogshit through my letterbox…
Forget all that. Diversity is good. I shouldn’t have to explain why, but I will anyway. It’s good to experience a broad range of perspectives on life, the universe and everything. It means more people feel included and represented and if you only ever hear about the world directly relevant to you and people like you then your thoughts and opinions become stagnant. Like a gene pool with too much inbreeding. A range of cultural experiences helps you become a generally more empathetic, better rounded person with the social conscience to get yourself vaccinated, for fuck’s sake.
But video games have a generally poor reputation for diversity. In fact I read a comment recently, I forget exactly where, that sparked this entire video in which someone asserted that “everyone knows most video game protagonists are white men.” And maybe it was my kneejerk instinct to defend my beloved medium, but I immediately wondered if that was true. In the past, probably, but now? I feel like things have been getting more diverse all the time, but that could be my inherent bias talking. Nothing for it – we’re gonna have to compile some hard motherfucking data.
Specifically, I decided to track the races and genders of all the protagonists in the last two years of games covered by Zero Punctuation. Starting with Jedi Fallen Order, ending with CoD Vanguard. I went with ZP subjects for want of a better metric for “noteworthy games.” It’s not ideal but the only alternative is to go through every single game that came out and ain’t nobody got the time for that. I then went back and did the same thing to the FIRST two years of Zero Punctuation subjects, starting at Heavenly Sword and ending at… The Conduit? Blimey, no one’ll remember that.
So, at first I was just tracking white male, white female, nonwhite male, nonwhite female, and unspecified. Yes, I know the wonderful spectrum of race is a bit more complex than “white and nonwhite,” but the point of the exercise is to determine how overrepresented whites are specifically so I’m not going to split it up, we’ll be here all day. Quickly I was faced with a poser: what counts as nonwhite? Does Asian count as nonwhite? It was Persona 5: Strikers that delayed my train of thought on this one. Yeah, all those kids look as white as the driven snow but they’re Japanese by descent, should that count? In the end, I decided that we were assessing things in the spirit of diversity and representing minority viewpoints, so Japanese characters should only count as white in Japanese games, because that’s their culturally dominant race. So Joker from Persona 5, white, Jin Sakai from Ghost of Tsushima, nonwhite. Got it? Feel free to debate this further somewhere that isn’t here.
At first I was tracking whether the characters were children or adults, as well, ‘cos a white male child isn’t the same as a white male adult where power dynamics are concerned, but eventually I decided to drop that because it didn’t come up that often and it only complicated things when it did. Persona 5, again, was mainly what fucked it up. How characteristic of those rascally Phantom Thieves to keep ruining my nicely ordered systems. Do they count as adults or children? Really, they’re on the line in between. I mean, in Japanese protagonist world, you’re generally considered over the hill if you’re out of high school. Incidentally, want to know the single solitary game in either list that featured a nonwhite, female, underage protagonist? Spiritfarer. Good on yer, Stella.
Let’s move onto the problems with the Unspecified category, because that was immediately doing a lot of heavy lifting. This was the category for games with fully customisable protagonists, like RPGs, as well as games with multiple playable characters, like fighting games, and also games with nonhuman characters like, say, Fall Guys. But it soon became clear I was going to have to split them up like disobedient schoolkids. Some of the nonhumans are obviously coded with gender, like Abe from Oddworld. There are games with multiple characters who are all one race, like the leads in It Takes Two both being white or the two options in Far Cry 6 both being nonwhite. Also, the Team Fortress 2 cast are racially diverse but all male. Incidentally if you can think of any mainstream games with an all-female racially diverse cast then let me know, ‘cos the only one that sprang to my mind was Dead or Alive: Xtreme and I wouldn’t call that progressive.
In the end, there was nothing for it but to split it all up. So I ended up with nine categories in total, three races times three genders: white, nonwhite and unspecified, all of those split into male, female and unspecified. So with that all made clear, let’s analyse the results.
Starting with the games from the first two years of Zero Punctuation, and it should come as absolutely no surprise that white males do indeed absolutely dominate the board. In fact, there’s more than every other category put together. But it wasn’t quite that simple. This was an FPS-heavy era, many of which had silent or never-seen protagonists. Generally coded male making male grunting sounds or referred to as male by other characters, but what about race? How do we know for example that Master Chief is white under all that armour? Well, from reading the wiki, it turns out. Yep, there it is, no ambiguity, white as correctional fluid. As for all the others, I went digging for wikis or promotional art and would usually find that lo and behold, most of these protagonists were white dudes all along, with a couple of edge cases. Nomad, the protagonist of Crysis, I did end up counting as white, but honestly I could be swayed on this. If you look at his picture from the Crysis wiki he could be from fucking anywhere, frankly. I think what clinched it was that his real name is Jake Dunn. Which sounds pretty fucking WASPy to me.
The other interesting one was the protagonist of FEAR Perseus Mandate, unhelpfully named The Sergeant. He had a page on the FEAR wiki with a couple of pictures, and to my surprise, he looked pretty fucking nonwhite to me. Nothing I found confirmed that he didn’t just have a tan, though, so I hedged my bets and tucked him under Male, Unspecified Race. Anyway, this doesn’t count for much as representation if you could never’ve found this out just from playing the game.
As for other demographics, a rather stark 8 games were repping the nonmale white perspective and a downright stingy 3 for the nonwhites: Turok, GTA Chinatown Wars, and 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. Funny how that game keeps popping up. Big fat goose eggs for nonwhite females and nonwhite unspecifics, with some hemming and hawing on my part over Faith from Mirror’s Edge. Looks Asian, yes, but according to her wiki she’s mixed Asian and Caucasian. So given the fifty-fifty split, I stuck her in with White just because it proves my point better. That’s creative accounting, baby!
So, now the big question, has diversity in video games improved upon that in the last two years? Short answer, yes, quite significantly, actually. White males are handily outnumbered by games where both race and gender are unspecified. And even if you take those away, while the white boys are still the largest single group, it’s still smaller than every other group put together. So if you do want to make the argument that games about white males are now in a minority, there’s your heavily massaged evidence.
Not too surprising to see that white women are the next most represented with 15 entries, but every category has some representation. Only one female unspecified race, though. The shark from Maneater. Isn’t this fun. Interestingly, while there are again only three nonwhite males – Deathloop, Ghost of Tsushima and Miles Morales – there are five nonwhite females. Half-Life Alyx, Cloudpunk, Subnautica Below Zero, the aforementioned Spiritfarer, and, uh, Shantae and the Seven Sirens. Probably a bit interpretive, that one. Actually this rather exposes the flaw in this whole enterprise because there are certain nuances that raw data cannot express. It’s not in the spirit of progressiveness if you only have a female protagonist so we can look at her jiggling about in a bikini top. I’m going to reference Dead or Alive: Xtreme again now to give the editor an excuse to look at some more pictures of it.
But let’s not distract from the point, which is, I have successfully proved video games are definitely getting more diverse, yah boo random internet commenters, shut your face. And this was only counting high profile games that got ZPed, remember, I didn’t even mention all the indie games I’ve played lately that have entire sections of the character creation devoted to asking me what my pronouns are. Of course there’s always more progress to be made, and when it comes to marginalisation, race and gender is just scratching the surface.
What about games with disabled protagonists? Neurodivergent? LGBT? Actually on that note I’m pretty certain that most game stories don’t even engage with sexuality because emotions are icky, but what that means is a surprisingly large number of game protagonists could conceivably be gay. Is Gordon Freeman gay? There’s no evidence he isn’t. And it might explain why Alyx Vance could never provoke a reaction. So a bit of LGBT visibility wouldn’t even take much work. Maybe one day Marcus Fenix could finally have his moment in the sun.