When Representation Lifts, When Representation Hurts

[Art by Ashe.]
[Art by Ashe.]

It was seventeen years until I could play as myself in one of my favorite games.

I remember picking up Pokémon, my first ever video game, like it was yesterday. I was eight years old, having just walked through the mall’s exit doors alongside my mother, clutching my new red Game Boy like it was a lump of precious gold. Turning on Pokémon Red for the first time (even as a kid I knew the value of matching) and seeing Nidorino and Gengar duking it out in pixellated grayscale glory sparked a fever in me, each frame magnetized as so much more in my active, hungry child’s imagination.

Some of my earliest and fondest artistic memories were crafted—and even enhanced—with the aid of this Nintendo classic. I vividly recall picking Bulbasaur for the first time in my Atascadero living room. Tiptoeing through the eerie confines of Lavender Town at my mother’s friend’s mountain home. Raging at a lack of antidotes in Viridian Forest as I curled up in bed. Did Pokémon give me heightened sensory memory? Well, it certainly didn’t hurt.

After Pokémon Red and Blue came Pokémon Yellow, introducing the revolutionary new concept of a Pokémon actually following you around and responding (I spent approximately 20% of the game just asking for Pikachu’s opinion on things). Pokémon Crystal allowed you to play as a girl, though I missed out on this by virtue of not having the money to buy it at the time. I was delighted to see I could play as a girl in the Pokémon Silver copy I got, however, and fell happily into the beloved whirlwind of battles, exploring and trading with a pair of coded pigtails.

It wasn’t until I was twenty-three years old and turning on Pokémon X for the first time in my friend’s apartment that I saw my own face staring back at me in all her brown-skinned and fluffy-haired glory.

It’s no mystery that the sudden surge in visible playable and background diversity—Pokémon X and Y‘s main draws (besides being, y’know, another Pokémon game)—were the online fighting and trading systems made easy by 3DS hardware. It was a smart business move to continually push the envelope and acknowledge the international audience buying their products. Even recognizing this marketing decision, it was an effort that was immediately meaningful to me.

Especially interesting was when I met my in-game mother: a light-skinned, blue-eyed (apparent) single parent. Not only was I actually playing as a brown girl, I had an in-game parent who also looked like my actual mother! This would have blown my mind as a little biracial kid, attempting the best I could at a young age to sift through countless macro and microaggressions with very little media to soak the blows alongside me. While I harbor no delusions of subtlety (she looks the same no matter who you play as), it was a coincidence that resonated powerfully.

It's like a million homogeneous voices cried out in terror.
It’s like a million homogeneous voices cried out in terror.

My friend had begun to play the game with me that day (I learned early that Pokémon is a great social activity). At my ecstatic exclamation, she’d responded with more than a little frustration, “I wish they’d look like me, too.” My friend is light-skinned and plus-size; she had found herself looking and yearning elsewhere, wishing for her figure to be recognized instead of her skin tone. Upon further reflection, I realized we were both right. I was right to feel elation at seeing my very first video game experience finally recognize me. She was right to yearn for the same treatment.

It got me thinking about character customization. I pondered about all the people of color who saw the light brown-skinned character option in Pokémon X and Y as yet another reaffirmation of the paper bag test. I thought about the hair options in-game and how the closest you could get to a coily or kinky texture was a mild wave. It got me considering that even the praises for popular games’ character customization like Saint’s Row, Mass Effect, and well-known MMOs like Star Trek: Online and Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn are damningly faint when you start to dig: at best, they let you be chubby, and at worst, don’t let you alter your weight whatsoever. This erasure stops being background static at this point and becomes a blaring symphony directed at anyone thicker than a designer mannequin.

Is it possible to be grateful for a positive step and still deride it as pithy? Sure. I was thrilled every time I turned on Pokémon X to dress up my character and vicariously live out a self-insert fantasy in a world I’ve loved for years. I also know that people like me, Acceptable Brown™ and thin and loose-haired, are the bare minimum option for developers deeply in love with colorism, fatphobia, and anti-black prejudice. It would have been barely an effort to offer a few darker skin tones or some hairstyles besides ‘straight and wavy,’ as many of the trainers you battle sport more diverse appearances—and wonderfully so.

It would have been a greatly appreciated gesture with hardly a sneeze on the developer’s behalf to actually let players choose the varied builds that the supporting cast and NPCs display. When it comes to game design, don’t buy that fat builds or women or what the hell else ever is ‘hard to animate’ when modern AAA titles create horses that poop in real-time.

Yeah.
Yeah.

Why am I more likely to play as a thin brown woman than a fat any woman, anyway? It’s a complex issue that sees the intersections of identity toyed and fiddled with; people with varying degrees of power and influence tossing scraps every which way with surface disdain and a cunning, underlying intent. I know better than to presume fatphobia is the same as racism (conflating oppressions with one another is inaccurate and unhelpful), but the moment we fall in-between the cracks is the moment divide-and-conquer becomes stark. Do you want to be this or do you want to be that? Oh, you can’t be both, that’s too much. Choose one, pick one. You can’t here, but you can there. Get defensive. Get touchy. Gnaw on your scraps and snap at those who reach for yours. Fuck you if you’re fat. Fuck you twice if you’re fat and dark-skinned, they say, likely subconsciously.

Intent doesn’t negate impact, however, as any once or twice or thrice minority can tell you, and pushing to the forefront these hypothetical feelings of accidental erasure only make less and less sense as time goes by. Can you build a house on accident? Well, no. The act of building a house takes the combined efforts and talents of many different people over an extended period of time. Erasure, much like a house, comes in the form of bricks and mortar. Every little effort—or lack of effort—lays the foundation for more to come. Every moment you’re not there, but someone else is. Every game you play. Every ad you see. Like bricks, like mortar: it adds up. Remove ‘accident’ or ‘unintentional’ from your vocabulary. Does it matter, really, when the end result is the same?

Pokémon‘s player avatar started with a thin light-skinned boy and gradually made room for a thin light-skinned girl. It wasn’t until two years ago that we got the option to play as a thin, light brown girl and boy, which makes me wonder: what’s next? Do I represent the bottom of this pyramid? It’s an uncomfortable question, one that forces you to introspect on the standard model and how so many people subscribe to the idea of ‘but not too much.’

Will we see more plus-size options in popular customizable franchises, or am I where they start to peter out? What about physical disabilities or gender neutral options? Multiplayer games like Splatoon and Skyrim reinforce this ‘but not too much’ mentality with darker skin tones available, but body sizes staying firmly skinny. (Splatoon‘s marketing predominantly features the Inkling girl, to boot.) Even when fat options are available, such as in Guild Wars 2, women have their fat kept minimal and generally delegated to where it’s considered proper. Y’know, hips, tits, and ass.

It took until the third game for Mass Effect's marketing to actually advertise the woman option.
It took until the third game for Mass Effect‘s marketing to actually advertise the woman option.

All is not barren, fortunately. Saint’s Row features gender as a slider that can be tinkered with at will and you’re allowed to alter your body size in a variety of ways, while Dragon’s Dogma allows for a wide range of muscular and fat options. The recent Fallout 4 and the ever-popular Sims franchise do a decent job of this, as well, though a whole ‘nother dissertation can be emphasized on the issue of Acceptable Fat™ (much like Acceptable Brown™, there’s a certain range that becomes harder and harder to find). Even Dragon Age: Inquisition shook it up, just a little, by randomizing the default when you start the character customization. Have you noticed any character creation screen always starts off with a man?

Kingdom, an indie strategy and resource game, will randomize the royalty you play as (I was very surprised to see my boyfriend playing the game and running around as a brown woman rather than the white guy the trailer showed). Lastly, Rust had an interesting approach, being an independently created survival game that didn’t allow customization. Rather, players were given a gender and race randomized model tied to their Steam ID. While this particular example isn’t right or wrong, it was an interesting (if somewhat flawed) attempt at garnering player empathy through media. When a lot of the ‘funny’ and ‘ugly’ character customization images crop up on blogs and video game sites with repeated emphasis on large lips, sloped foreheads, and garish makeup, we need to think particularly hard on what the default means and, subsequently, what the opposite implies.

Not all games can (or should) have character customization. It doesn’t work if you’re trying to tell the story of a particular character. Sometimes it’s an indie game with a shoestring budget. I get that. What I’m looking for is that when it is there, it’s actually customization, not Let’s Fiddle Mildly With The Default Human Being: Heterosexual Cisgender Able-Bodied Thin Light-Skinned Men, That’s You!

When marginalized groups turn to games more than ever to combat day-to-day frustrations and mental illness, developers only stand to shoot themselves in the foot by pretending they don’t recognize the world outside their window. When women have been found to outnumber men in video game purchases and similar industries, such as film, have routinely underestimated the spending power people of color have compared to white audiences, it’s as far as it can be from an oops! situation at this point. If they want to lose money to protect their bias, let them.

Meanwhile, many didn't realize there was a boy option in Splatoon at all. Ha!
Meanwhile, many didn’t realize there was a boy option in Splatoon at all. Ha!

Nobody should settle for less. Even now, I become more and more impatient with game narratives that pretend I’m nothing more than a sexual hors d’oeuvre or a temporary cheerleader (you made it so hard to like youThe Last of Us) and I’ll be damned if I begrudge someone dealing with a different pain the same perspective. We have a right to see ourselves in this mirror. To quote writer and professor Junot Díaz:

“If you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. Growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, ‘Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole of society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?'”

I love running around as a brown girl in Splatoon, sloshing paint over my opponents with a snazzy pair of cherry kicks and matching beret. I still smile whenever I see my self-insert skating through semi-futuristic towns in Pokemon X and Y. The whole of Mass Effect felt all the more poignant when I could create a hero that looked like me. Nobody exists as a complimentary option—a fun flavor—to a standard model. There is no standard human being. If we’re to progress, however, we need to acknowledge that this is how the game is set up. We need to acknowledge that even our representation, as breathtakingly wonderful as an oasis in the middle of a chokingly dry desert, will still be used to deny and hurt others somehow.

Humans made and subsequently reinforce these myths of deviancy and normalcy. We can break them. I want to exist as I am rather than as a barely preferred option at the behest of others. But it’ll take much more work than just wanting.

Everyone deserves to feel the same emotions I felt that day.

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5 Comments on “When Representation Lifts, When Representation Hurts

  1. The problem with fantasy is that it’s someone’s impression of how things SHOULD be. Take Tolkien. “Oh we should be able to identify the GOOD (elves) and the BAD (orcs)”. Fantasy worlds are often wishful, black and white worlds. Some feel “Oh all the GOOD characters should be of the same skin colour and roughly same body size and same accent”. Fantasy shows people’s human failings. Their prejudices and inability to accept certain realities. As a matter of fact, I include religious stories. Idealized, fantasies where a line is drawn between those worthy of life and those not.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a superb article. I have found myself quite annoyed and disappointed with the whole “boob cups” or “boob plate” female armor. Not only is it wildly nonsensical (having a giant X across some of your most vital organs would only help in deflecting blows *to* that central point) it is tinged with the same sexist thought that makes “animating women hard.” I did really enjoy creating my Dragon’s Dogma character to be thicker in more than just the objectified and sexualized areas of a female body. I would also like to say that the steps Bioware has taken to be diverse with their character’s sexual orientation is nice to see and experience. Even though I am heterosexual, I find it deeply rewarding to see some of the characters I’m running around saving Thedas (never got into ME) with retain their personalities and orientation seamlessly with their character development as a sense of who they are. To me, I see that as incredibly positive way to allow sexual orientation to be known, completely acceptable, and, at the same time, to be an ordinary, nothing-to-make-a-big-deal-about-it’s-just-who-I-am thing. It is both a big deal (being in a popular video game) and not a big deal( the characters are not defined by their orientation, just like any other person). They also have a trans character that was a delightful surprising to run into, but, as with all other characters, is also not defined by their transgender. We can all be enriched by recognizing the beautiful diversity in the world and treating it with equality. Thanks for posting this.

    Like

  3. The lack of female customization has always driven me crazy. I just can’t enjoy games where its a cookie cutter white guy or pencil thin white woman anymore.

    While your point on Splatoon character models being thin is valid I do want to say that part of that is because they’re only using one character model for the inklings. The only difference is the boy model has their tentacles tied up where the girl model has hers down.

    As someone who doesn’t identify as on the gender binary I thought it was brilliant how they had such a minor difference in design and how the inklings are (for all we can see) really genderless. They choose which gender they are, you as the player can even change your gender whenever you want. No penalties or loss of gear since its the same model but different hair. The only gendered item is the School Uniform. You get pants for the boy and a skirt for the girl.

    One game that’s got some decent custom options for body type would be Soul Calibur 5. My friends and I all made custom characters and with some patience you can get a character that looks a lot like you. Now the body builds do have some limits but my character is stocky with glasses and really broad shoulders. Which is awesome. Also there’s customization of vocal tone and pitch.

    I hope that one day we’ll get to make characters that can look just like us for everyone. Also no more stupid boob cup armor. Its just stupid looking at this point.

    Like

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