Courtney Craven was an avid video game player growing up, but stopped for a stretch during college and graduate school. Then in 2014, Craven’s partner— who is deaf—bought a game console that changed both of their lives.
“She was excited to play it, because it was graphically stunning,” said Craven, who uses the pronoun they.
“But about 20 minutes into the game, she discovered that because of the poor 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 not yet caught up to how diverse its fanbase was.
Several years later, that has finally begun to change.
Craven, who went on to co-found Can I Play That?, a site that provides accessibility reviews for disabled gamers, is among a large and growing group of advocates pushing for greater diversity in gaming—and shattering the stereotype that the industry is centered around young cis men.
Because even a cursory glance at the numbers shows that is simply untrue. Women are just as likely as men to play video games, and it is a passion that spans generations: the average gamer is between the ages of 35 and 44, while 15% of gamers are 55 or older. There are 33 million gamers with disabilities in this country, and within the next decade, it is estimated that people of color will make up the majority of younger video game players in the United States.
Of course, much work remains to be done to ensure the video game industry is truly safe, accessible, and inclusive to all.
But one thing is clear: The era of the “stereotypical” gamer is over.
How gaming went mainstream
Three-quarters of American households now have at least one person who is a video game player, and more than 214 million people play video games for an hour (or more) every week. The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated that growth: With millions of us quarantined at home, video game sales have jumped by nearly 40% in the past year, and the video game industry is currently bigger than movies and North American sports combined.
Many factors have driven that explosion in popularity, but much of it stems from technological advancements that have put games at people’s fingertips, 24 hours a day. Smartphones are now the devices most commonly used for game play in the U.S., followed closely by computers and dedicated game consoles.
There have also been important societal shifts in how gaming is perceived, thanks in large part to a growing body of scientific research challenging the narrative that video games are inherently destructive.
Various studies now suggest that game play offers health benefits, from improved learning, to increased social connection. And while many parents used to forbid their children from gaming, 87% now believe that video games can be educational, and roughly 80% believe they can help foster creativity. Gamers themselves recognize the potential upsides. About 80% report that playing games offers them both mental stimulation and stress relief.
But while video game playing has become more mainstream than ever, there remains a schism between who gets taken seriously as a “real” or “serious” player—and to what degree games reflect the true breadth of who plays. According to the Pew Research Center, men are twice as likely as women to identify as “gamers.” And studies show that non-diverse games can cultivate racial and ethnic stereotypes.
“I’m hesitant to call myself a ‘gamer’ because of the stereotype,” said Craven. “We have to make it a safer space for marginalized gamers. And I think that is happening, but it’s happening slowly.”
The grassroots advocates changing the industry
Like Craven, Alayna Cole—managing director of the non-profit Represent Me —has played games since childhood. And she too has fought for years to improve the video game industry for all marginalized people, with a particular focus on championing queer representation.
“My research has found that the primary benefit of diversity in games is that it makes narratives more interesting and engaging,” Cole said. “Our lives are diverse, so it makes sense that our games should be too if they want to tell stories that keep our attention.”
Improving representation in games isn’t just a sound business move; it also opens up avenues for fostering empathy, Cole said. She added that the goal for game developers should not be to cram as many diverse identities as possible into every single game. Instead, it is to make the industry as a whole more representative.
Many game industry advocates took up their work after feeling personally excluded as players. Jay-Ann Lopez started her online community, Black Girl Gamers, in 2015 after struggling to find and connect with a community.
“I realized that there are other Black women who had the same ills as me,” said Lopez, who is based out of the United Kingdom. “They couldn’t find women who looked like them, who could relate to them, who also played games. They also suffered from racism and sexism in industry.”
Today, Black Girl Gamers works in multiple ways to heighten Black womens’ voices in gaming, from supporting Black content creators to creating safe spaces online for thousands of Black women.
“My goal was always to change the industry,” Lopez said. “Not just to create safe spaces, but also to eventually get to the point where Black Girl Gamers does not need to exist.”
An uphill climb
In order for the industry to truly evolve, advocates say there needs to be continued change at the top. A recent industry survey found, for example, that 70% of game developers identify as male, and more than 60% identify as white. Eighty percent identified as heterosexual.
Experts are hopeful. “Organizations have hired chief diversity officers, which is one step,” Lopez said. She noted that many have also established employee resource groups, or ERGs, which aim to foster diversity in their own companies and beyond.
Game and gaming hardware developers have also ramped up their focus on accessibility, offering certification courses for those seeking to better reach and serve physically and cognitively disabled players.
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 forwards, one step back,’” Cole said. “Sometimes when we look at employment statistics, the latest scandal in the news, or our own direct messages on social media, it can feel like we haven’t made any progress at all. But looking at the big picture, the numbers don’t lie; representation of diverse characters, developers, and players are all increasing.”
Ultimately, the efforts to diversify gaming are about giving everyone a fair shot at having fun.
“Everyone deserves play, right?” said Craven, who like so many advocates for diversity in gaming hopes that there will soon be no need for sites like theirs.
“We should all be able to have the same equal access to these things that build community and form friendships,” they said, “and just bring joy.”
Credits: By WP BrandStudio.