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Nice when it happens: Thinking differently about questions of representation in video games

This is an excerpt from Adrienne Shaw’s forthcoming book "Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and gender at the margins of gamer culture" (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Adrienne Shaw, Blogger

December 15, 2014

15 Min Read

My book, Gaming at the Edge, began as a project that sought to look at how and if people who were members of marginalized groups (focusing on the intersections of gender, race, and sexuality) identified with video game characters and whether they felt representation in video games was important. After several years of interviewing members of particular groups about their thoughts on the representation of that particular group, I had heard a lot of consistent refrains (a list of my work is available here). One in particular, was a general ambivalence, and sometimes even apathy, about representation in games. Unlike other media I would ask them about, people I spoke to just were not as concerned with representation in games as I thought they would be based on earlier scholars’ research. Mostly this was based in an assumption that games would get better over time or because those I spoke to felt they were not a target market and therefore did not expect to be represented. At the same time, people expressed a resistance to articulate what “good” representation of their particular group would entail. As T.L. Taylor argues in Play Between Worlds, part of this is because people do not necessarily know what they could enjoy. It is also because, as media scholars have long argued, “good” representation can be just as marginalizing and “bad” representation (i.e. the model minority trope). Moreover, by conducting projects that were focused on particular groups, I as a researcher was making assumptions about what aspects of their identities would be particularly important to them.

            To correct for the fact that prior projects were asking interviewees to speak as members of a particular group, in the book project I wanted people to speak about what they as individuals wanted. To find interviewees for the project this book is based on, I used a general survey about video game play (details in the book) to identify people who played video games and where members of marginalized groups. They played a variety of types of games, from sports games to FPSs to RPGs to casual flash games. I interviewed dozens of people at least twice, including spending some time with them while they played games. I played many of the games they mentioned in interviews, and the book includes added case studies of particular games illustrative of issues discussed by interviewees. By focusing on if, rather than going into the project assuming that, representation mattered, I discovered that there is much more to the original ambivalence I saw than met the eye. People I spoke to were so used to putting up with games despite their lack of diversity, that the largely didn’t expect the industry to do any better. Still, many of my interviewees spoke of representation of marginalized groups as “nice when it happens,” which is what I explore in the excerpt included below. Note: all names used for interviewees are aliases.

[From Gaming at the Edge, pages 209-218]

When asked if seeing people who looked like them or were similar to them in some way was important, most of my interviewees were actually indifferent or at least offered qualified responses. When I asked Carol if seeing people like her in video games was important, she said that it was a nice surprise but not expected:

Nice when it happens. I never really expect to, at least not in video games. I mean, I expect to more with movies and TV because it feels more possible. I guess because I grew up during the dawn of the video game era and it wasn’t until more recently that the demographics of video gamers expanded and the types of games exploded, so my perspective is, oh, any character in a game being like me is not really a possibility. So I didn’t really come to expect it. But it’s a pleasant surprise when it happens.

Carol was conscious of how she had or had not been constructed as the intended target for games, and this influenced her expectations of representation. Most interviewees responded similarly to the question of whether identifying with characters in media texts was important to them.

            Representation was “nice when it happened” and it was a “bonus,” but my interviewees did not always have an active desire for it. They expressed a similar indifference about having characters to identify with in video games and other media. This was true regardless of whether interviewees thought that representation and identification were important. That is, people who thought representation was unimportant still said it was nice, and those who said it was important said likewise:

Devon: I really like the Fable games, and I think it’s great that you could play the character as a gay character, but that’s just like a bonus. It’s not like I got the game in this case because that’s what it was.

Tanner: I think it is probably nice to see, but I don’t think I seek it out.

Cody: I think it is nice to see people who look like you. But I don’t know if it’s a requirement.[i]

[…] This “niceness” was articulated in three senses, in many cases simultaneously: (1) that media enjoyment was not inherently about identification; (2) that they appreciated diversity in a broad sense; and (3) that there was pleasure in the unexpected surprise of feeling hailed by a text. […]        

            First, people can enjoy media that does not include people “like them.” Renee said, for example, “It’s cool when it happens, but I don’t seek out media or anything that does it.” In part this is due to the fact that audiences are active and can “make do” with what texts provide them.[ii] As explored in chapter 3, players can interact with video games in a variety of ways that may or may not necessitate identifying with avatars. Identification is not the only pleasure gained from media texts. Audiences have ways of connecting with media characters that are much more expansive than those for which research that focuses on specific identifiers accounts. Indeed, as Rusty described, individuals can identify themselves in ways marketers and researchers rarely think of: “I guess when you come down to it, identification, I don’t identify with myself personally but more the things I belong to in real life: my family with Tanner, with our neighborhood, our house and how we belong to the community of this neighborhood.” These types of identity/identification cannot necessarily be cultivated through representation. Representation is, likewise, not integral to enjoying all texts. Ephram said, “I guess it would be nice to see an Asian character or gay character that isn’t a flaming homosexual or a huge stereotype of what an Asian person should be. . . . But again, it’s nice when it happens, but I’m not too hung up on it.” As described in chapter 4, the importance of representation is relative to the importance of realism in a given text, whether people identify as a member of the group represented, the function of the representation in a text, and the context in which they use a text.

            Second, my interviewees valued diversity in a broad sense. As Carol put it, “It’s always great to see things become less narrow-minded and a greater group of people acceptable.” She noted, for example, that following their enjoyment of Will and Grace, her own parents seemed less overtly homophobic than they used to be. In some cases when people said that it was not important to see people “like them,” it was because they wanted diversity in a more general sense in their media. Pouncy said:

I’d love to see more queers in science fiction, video games. I’d love to see more people who aren’t male identified . . . but I’m not sure if that’s because I would be able to identify with them more personally or just because I would be happy to see these institutions, video games, and movies and TV shows branching out away from representing white dudes.

It was diversity, not representation of one’s identifiers, that interviewees’ described as nice. This was because they did not enjoy only media that reflected their identities. Anya discussed this in terms of representation following our discussion of identification:

I think it’s nice to see someone who’s like you, but I don’t think I have to see only people who are like me. Like I don’t, the whole movie or the whole TV program doesn’t have to be about a white woman in their late twenties. I think I can appreciate stuff about male versus female, old versus young, race-wise, and stuff like that. So, it’s kind of like the previous question that you asked [about identification]. It’s nice, but it’s not something I look for. It’s not super, super important.

Identification was, like representation, a pleasurable surprise but not a driving factor in her media consumption. If diversity for the sake of diversity is nice rather than imperative, then what might this mean for how researchers and producers approach the issue of representation?

            Third, “nice” expressed pleasant surprise. Many of my interviewees did not expect to see themselves in media. As Sasha expressed, “I’ve just become accustomed to not even caring or, like, thinking about my preference, because I just automatically assume I don’t have any.” Carol made a similar comment:

But I don’t consciously think when I’m watching TV, “There’s nothing like me up there, and that makes me upset.” . . . When something comes along that breaks that, I’m always very, very happy and encouraged. So it’s important to some degree. I’ll certainly tune out of the things that don’t meet my expectations.

Previous research has argued that feeling excluded might cause marginalized audiences to not consume or to reject parts of particular texts.[iii] This book demonstrates, though, that such audiences might also find ways of ignoring or engaging with a text differently. Evan, who was earning a degree in gender and society studies at the time, pointed out that just being aware of interlocking systems of oppression did not mean that he would stop watching offensive shows: “I might just watch it to see where this is going. But I don’t know that it would make me stop doing that.” Audiences can also find pleasure in media despite poor representation. In her study of EverQuest, T. L. Taylor finds that “women in EQ often struggle with conflicting meanings around their avatars, feeling they have to ‘bracket’ or ignore how they look. . . . In many ways, women play despite the game.”[iv] Players are capable, moreover, of a variety of interactions with characters and avatars, in terms of both identification and the activity of playing video games.


            “Nice when it happens” demonstrates a seeming ambivalence about representation, but such ambivalence can be explained in two different ways. First, in the contemporary media environment, audiences have access to relatively more diversity than was present in previous decades. Second, people often view video games as relatively trivial and, thus, in-game representation as inconsequential. What “nice when it happens” indicates is that individuals push back against the attempt to locate responsibility for representation in the audience. Market logic and the targeting it inspires place the impetus for representation on consumer demand. So too do character selection and creation tools. I have been arguing throughout this book that both emphasize pluralism, not diversity. Interviewees, because they did not personally need to see themselves constantly reflected in the media, rejected that responsibility of being the locus of demand. Instead, they argued that producers should imbue their texts with organic, realistic (i.e., not tokenistic) diversity. Realism need not, however, be the only lens we use to make sense of when and why representation matters in media.

            Despite claims that representation matters only to realism, several interviewees discussed the fact that as texts that often rely upon fantasy, games are particularly suited to representing more diverse versions of the world. That is, the medium itself relies upon play and, in turn, can play with what reality means. Caine connected this to representation in science fiction:

I would say, even in a setting where it’s far future, aliens everywhere, in the best of media you’ve still seen efforts to try and present a more diverse perspective. I’m reminded of the original Star Trek, where Gene Roddenberry said, “No, we’re going to have a black lady as a member of the bridge crew.” Now point out that, even though he said that, poor Uhura didn’t really get that much to do. But even still, it was so significant a step that at one point the actress who played Uhura, Nichelle Nichols, was considering leaving the show. She actually got—Martin Luther King Jr. said to her, “No. You can’t do that, because you’re presenting such a positive role model for black people everywhere.”

What Caine points out here is that even in fantasy realms, like video games and science-fiction shows, the representation of marginalized groups is important to audiences. Why it matters is an important question that is rarely addressed in media analyses. Nichols’s autobiographical account reveals an even more important detail about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s insistence. According to Nichols, he said:

This is not a Black role, and this is not a female role. You have the first non-stereotypical role on television, male or female. You have broken ground. . . . Don’t you see that you’re not just a role model for little Black children? You’re more important for people who don’t look like us. . . . There will always be role models for Black children; you are a role model for everyone.[v]

This is the more expansive understanding of the importance of representation that this book is advocating. Fantasy and fiction allow us to imagine different worlds. Media representations are possible realities made material. Characters that are members of marginalized groups cannot simply be treated as lessons to outgroup members or examples to ingroup members. Their existence in media texts allow for more ways of being in the world, for all audiences.


            Some interviewees argued that producers must simultaneously recognize but not call attention to the diversity of experiences attached to inhabiting particular marked categories. The act of marking specific marginalized audiences through targeting shapes the relationships people hailed by such targeting have with video games. The video game industry cannot simply assume that all players are alike, but neither can they assume that identifiers like gender, race, and sexuality are differences that make a difference to how people play video games. Gender, sexuality, and race are inflected in but do not predetermine play preferences. Similarly, identifiers can provide one form of connection between players and characters, but that does not mean that those identifiers encompass the many other ways (e.g., emotional, experiential) people identify with fictional characters.

            Interviewees were critical of representation that was used only to emphasize a group’s difference to the assumed white, male, heterosexual norm, particularly if such representation downplayed the struggles involved in deviating from the norm. For these reasons, perhaps, interviewees in this and my past research did not necessarily demand representation. The act of demanding the representation of a group raises concerns about how that group should and will be portrayed. Rather, its importance was often seen as “nice when it happened,” an articulation that expresses the importance of representation without developing proscriptive rules. It also reflects the emotional connection people have with media representation, for which the cold, hard logic of the market cannot account. “Nice when it happens” promotes diversity but rejects being the target of pluralism.


            As demonstrated throughout this book, we should be asking not whether people generally think representation is important but rather how the distinction between realism and fiction, between seriousness and play, forms the biggest divide between those who see diversity in media as a necessary goal and those who see it as relatively trivial. I argue that the way minority representation has been made to matter—through marketing and assumptions about audiences’ interactions with texts—promotes pluralism in the sense that groups are represented only if they are targeted as a market. The defense of representation on the basis of marginalized groups’ need to see people “like them” leads to niche marketing (pluralism). In contrast, diversity in video games should be promoted as valuable unto itself. This is feasible, in part, because players’ relationships with in-game characters are complex and, in part, because interviewees stressed that they did not need to see only people like them in their media. Researchers should question the assumption that diversity requires a defense in the first place. Marginalized audiences are often called upon to demand representation, but media producers are not pressed to see diversity as an integral part of their products rather than a feature included only if the case for such inclusion can be made. In other words, we need to stop letting media producers off the hook, including game developers and game corporations. It is not the job of marginalized audiences to hold their hands. If media producers want to create culturally relevant and important media texts, they need to take the initiative, learn about cultural difference, and design texts that reflect it. [Additional note: Creating an industry where more diverse voices are welcomed and supported would be an excellent first step.]


[i] Emphasis added to all quotes.

[ii] In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau (1984) argues that people regular remake and reimagine mass-produced products in order to individualize them. This pushes back against research that addresses only industries and products.

[iii] Abrams and Giles, “Ethnic Identity”; Davis and Gandy Jr., “Racial Identity and Media Orientation.”

[iv] Taylor, “Multiple Pleasures,” 36.

[v] Nichols, Beyond Uhura, 164.

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