There’s really no escaping the fact that our current landscape provides us with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to geek-adjacent media.
Many still push against the idea that gaming and other previously niche entertainment are part of mainstream culture. But it is certainly among the primary focuses of our contemporary world. According to a recent report, video games generated more money than sports in 2020. Not to mention that comic books — and TV adaptations of them — are thriving media. Even tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPG) like Dungeons & Dragons are seeing a popular resurgence.
However, despite the growth in popularity, these media still have some issues. One of the more concerning is the continued lack of diversity in the industries that produce games, comics, movies, and TV shows. While there is certainly some steady progress being made, we are not yet at a point where these media can claim to be truly multicultural. This is especially concerning, given the influence these products hold on society, the economy, and our culture. The technology that helps gaming to thrive may be improving by the second, but cultural equality is not keeping pace.
Let’s take a little time to explore the importance of diversity in games and other media.
Why is it imperative that improvements are made? How can companies act in ways that make a meaningful and lasting difference?
The first point to consider here is the fact that there is an ethical imperative to encourage diversity. There is too often a belief that gaming and other geek industries are generally more liberally leaning. This opinion leads to the assumption that people of varying race, gender, sexuality, and accessibility needs will rise according to their merit. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. Unconscious and conscious biases are still very much present. This impacts both diverse contributors’ ability to get into these industries, and the cultural content of the products. As such, these media are on ethically shaky ground when biases go unaddressed. Whether discrimination is intentional or not, it remains discrimination. There have to be active efforts to improving diversity.
This begins by making the workplaces in gaming more welcoming. Even when recruitment has been geared toward identifying minority and traditionally marginalized candidates, it doesn’t automatically follow that the studio is well designed to help these contributors to thrive. Studios must address the systemic issues, which can start with training. Companies shouldn’t expect their minority employees to educate everyone on the business’s behalf. Leadership needs to do the work. They must invest in worker education that enables them to tackle not just the big, obvious discriminations. They also have to understand how daily microaggressions can make these media less positive places for diverse contributors. There have even been games created to assist in this, like Fair Play, which are backed by research and can be useful tools to strengthen empathy.
Importantly, creating a more diverse workforce in gaming and other media can have a cyclical effect. This is particularly the case when culturally varied workers are nurtured toward leadership. These workers help to direct the overall culture of the business. The company becomes more meaningfully informed and holds stronger ethical standards as a result.
One of the things that we all love about video games, comic books, TV shows, and other geek media is storytelling. This is the case whether we are active participants in the narrative, or being told a tale. Our geek culture is the source of some of the most fascinating and engaging storytelling. However, it has to be said that these industries have a long history of being largely staffed by young, white, middle-class, straight males. As such, the very limited world viewpoint causes the scope for potential storytelling to suffer.
This can be most evident in the comics industry. Since their introduction in the 1930s, superheroes have traditionally been white heterosexual men — especially the primary examples like Superman and Spider-Man. Even the majority of the X-Men reflect a single cultural heritage. On occasions that minority characters are introduced, they’re written only from cis white male perspectives. This has historically been problematic. The portrayal of women even up until very recently has been hypersexualized, often leaning toward limited traditional gender roles. Depictions of characters from diverse ethnicities were often mired in negative stereotypes. That’s not to say that these actions have always or even mostly been due to overt prejudice. But the lack of diversity in creators certainly stunted the ability to give positive, accurate portrayals. As such, there have been missed opportunities to tell more culturally accurate and far more interesting stories.
When games, comics, and other geek media provide platforms for diverse storytellers we all get to benefit from the vast array of unique perspectives each creator brings to the table. It was recently announced that, after 265 episodes as Dungeon Master (DM) and narrative designer of TTRPG real play show Critical Role, Matt Mercer is stepping aside. Taking his place for a high-profile mini campaign is Aabria Iyengar, CMO of Dice Envy and Black female DM. This is reflective of the recognition that companies need to be more open to giving space in popular media for diverse talent to be explored. These are opportunities to introduce audiences to voices outside of their familiar circles. It also demonstrates that more diverse contributors can successfully lead popular projects. The more the community and producers work together to elevate multicultural contributors, the richer our creative landscape will be.
Let’s be clear; representation is important. Even in emerging fields like esports gaming tournaments, representation can help fuel enthusiasm in multicultural competitors and contributors. Yet, it’s something that is too often overlooked in games, movies, comics, and TV shows. White men have historically been provided with depictions of themselves as positive figures in media. This has been both as creators and characters. As such they have few problems envisioning themselves in those roles. However, this has not always been the case for those from minority communities. Without representative characters, industry leaders, and role models, there is a tendency to transmit a harmful message. One that says that geek media are not supportive or achievable spaces for them.
We’ve seen this throughout various facets of our society, particularly in education. From an early age, kids who are lone figures from a different culture, race, or accessibility group in a classroom can feel isolated and out of place. Those in the company of more diverse groups tend to feel more accepted. Indeed, having greater representation in teaching staff and students at formative times helps to normalize and prioritize cultural diversity. This potentially has a knock-on effect on what audiences demand from their media.
This can’t just be from the perspective of having more Black game protagonists or deciding that the next depiction of Captain America will be gay. Though that is important, it also needs to extend to making diverse creators and leadership more visible. Additionally, the media that supports gaming and geek culture needs to treat multicultural contributors as high profile as they do their white male counterparts. There’s some improvement here, but it’s slow. We are getting to see more of Jordan Peele as a vital filmmaking auteur. We’re shown that Rebecca Sugar is a creative force in animation, but there are still too few diverse leadership role models. We have to keep pushing creative figures from more varied backgrounds to the forefront. We have to show that they are important contributors to the creative community. The more we do this, the more younger minds can see themselves reflected in these roles. This inspires youth to forge their own paths in these fields. This creates a positive cycle of inspiration and contribution that can lead to stronger games, comics, movie, and TV industries.
There continues to be a startling lack of diversity in the games industry, as with other forms of geek media. This serves to make the industries that create our entertainment ethically weaker, and our culture all the poorer. While there are some efforts to make improvements, there needs to be active, concerted efforts to improve the cultural mix both as the subject of geek entertainment and behind the scenes. When we work together to enact multicultural representation and influence, we all benefit from higher standards, richer storytelling, and creators that are empowered to thrive.