Courtney Craven was an avid video game player growing up, but quit for a while during her college and graduate studies. Then, in 2014, Craven’s partner, who is deaf, bought a game console that changed the lives of both of them.
“She was thrilled to play it because it was graphically stunning,” said Craven, who uses the pronoun they.
“But about 20 minutes into the game she found out that due to the bad captioning she couldn’t progress,” they explained. The game wasn’t accessible to Craven’s partner, not because she wasn’t interested, but because the industry had yet to understand just how diverse their fan base was.
Several years later, that finally started to change.
Craven, who then co-founded Can I Play That ?, a site that provides accessibility reviews for players with disabilities, is part of a large and growing group of advocates who are advocating for more diversity in games and breaking down the stereotype that the industry is centered. around young cis men.
Because even a quick glance at the numbers shows that it is just plain wrong. Women are just as likely as men to play video games, and it’s a passion that spans generations: The average gamer is between 35 and 44, while 15% of gamers are 55 or older. . There are 33 million disabled gamers in this country, and over the next decade, it is estimated that people of color will make up the majority of young video game players in the United States.
Of course, a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that the video game industry is truly safe, accessible and inclusive for all.
But one thing is clear: the era of the “stereotypical” gamer is over.
How the game became widespread
Three-quarters of American households now have at least one person playing video games, and more than 214 million people play video games for an hour (or more) each week. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this growth: With millions of us quarantined at home, video game sales have jumped nearly 40% in the past year, and the video game industry is currently larger than North American movies and sports combined.
There are many factors behind this explosion in popularity, but much of it stems from technological advancements that have put games within reach of people, around the clock. Smartphones are now the most popular devices. most commonly used for gaming in the United States, closely followed by computers and dedicated game consoles.
There have also been significant societal changes in the way gaming is viewed, largely thanks to a growing body of scientific research questioning the narrative that video games are inherently destructive.
Various studies now suggest that play offers health benefits, ranging from improved learning to increased social connection. And while many parents banned their children from playing, 87% now think video games can be educational, and around 80% think they can help foster creativity. The players themselves recognize the potential benefits. About 80% say playing games gives them both mental stimulation and stress relief.
But as video games have become more mainstream than ever, there remains a schism between who is taken seriously as a “real” or “serious” gamer – and how games reflect the true scale of who is playing. According to the Pew Research Center, men are twice as likely as women to identify as “gamers.” And studies show that undiversified games can cultivate racial and ethnic stereotypes.
“I hesitate to call myself a ‘gamer’ because of the stereotype,” Craven said. “We need to make it a safer space for marginalized players. And I think it’s happening, but it’s happening slowly. “
The base advocates for change in the industry
Like Craven, Alayna Cole, CEO of the nonprofit Represent Me, has been playing games since she was a child. And she, too, has fought for years to improve the video game industry for all marginalized people, with a particular emphasis on advocating for queer representation.
“My research found that the main benefit of diversity in games is that it makes storytelling more interesting and engaging,” Cole said. “Our lives are diverse, so it makes sense that our games are diverse too if they are to tell stories that grab our attention.”
Improving representation in games is not just a smart business move; it also opens avenues for fostering empathy, Cole said. She added that the goal of game developers should not be to cram as many diverse identities as possible into each game. Rather, it is to make the industry as a whole more representative.
Many gaming industry advocates have returned to their jobs after feeling personally excluded as gamers. Jay-Ann Lopez launched her online community, Black Girl Gamers, in 2015 after struggling to find and connect with a community.
“I realized there were other black women who had the same ailments as me,” said UK-based Lopez. “They couldn’t find women who looked like them, who could relate to them, who also played games. They have also suffered from racism and sexism in the industry.
Today, Black Girl Gamers are working in a number of ways to increase the voice of black women in gaming, from supporting black content creators to creating safe online spaces for thousands of black women.
“My goal has always been to change the industry,” Lopez said. “Not just to create safe spaces, but also to ultimately get to the point where Black Girl Gamers don’t need to exist.”
For the industry to truly evolve, advocates say there has to be continuous change at the top. A recent industry survey found, for example, that 70% of game developers identify as male and over 60% identify as white. Eighty percent identified as heterosexual.
Experts are hopeful. “Organizations have hired diversity managers, which is a step,” Lopez said. She noted that many have also created Employee Resource Groups, or ERGs, which aim to foster diversity in their own businesses and beyond.
Game and gaming hardware developers have also focused on accessibility, offering certification courses for those looking to better reach and serve players with physical and cognitive disabilities.
But truly transforming such a massive industry is not easy and it takes time.
“Improving diversity in the games industry always feels like ‘two steps forward, one step back’,” said Cole. “Sometimes when we look at jobs statistics, the latest news scandal, or our own direct social media messages, we can feel like we haven’t made any progress. But looking at the big picture, the numbers don’t lie; the portrayal of various characters, developers and players are all increasing.
Ultimately, efforts to diversify games are aimed at giving everyone a fair chance to have fun.
“Everyone deserves to play, right? Said Craven, who, like so many advocates for diversity in the game, hopes there will soon be no need for sites like theirs.
“We should all be able to have equal equal access to those things that build community and form friendships,” they said, “and just bring joy.”
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