Cultural representation isn't the industry's strongest suit—let's change that
The perspectives of the traditionally underrepresented give us a glimpse on how to improve in the future.
The unique, rich history of game development can’t be separated from its core technological underpinnings, nor the related steep price of admission from the tech requirements necessary to make or play games. It’s only been a few decades since the mass market adopted games and less than a decade since game development was vigorously taking place globally. And so by design the Eurocentric cultural hegemony being where it all started became the default cultural basis point of the storylines. And that homogeneous cultural viewpoint remains today the typical face of most video games. Overall games lack the diverse voice and global cultural resonance compared to what is seen in other entertainment formats such as the movie or music industries.
There’s a confluence of factors that contributed to much of gaming’s earlier days, fun as they were to play, all checked nearly the same identifiable cultural markers, as were defined by gaming’s core customer base in Western Europe, the US and Canada. It’s a complex issue with a fascinating—but common—history that we could not answer on our own, and thus enlisted the help of many others to tackle holistically. There are many reasons it happened, very few nefarious ones, they are all more the result of circumstances that came out of regional teams of mostly guys building global games in the same physical location.

First we need to illustrate the extreme of the problem and describe the well-known biases that plagued many early industry storylines, those being the frequent cultural misrepresentations. And there is no better way to see it than through the eyes of those directly impacted by those biases. Then we’ll get to the solutions and discuss the progress underway in the industry.

London based Sak Abdi—games industry recruitment specialist and narrative designer—in his career felt alienated by the prevailing cultural conceit of games despite understanding full-well why they were inadvertently designed and built that way.
Deathloop
Image courtesy of Arkane Studios
Assassin's Creed
Image courtesy of Ubisoft
Marvel's Avengers
Image courtesy of Crystal Dynamics
“I identify as both a Black person and a Muslim. The treatment and representation of both groups have in several ways been widely different and in many ways depressingly the same. For a long time, since the start frankly, characters that look and/or talked like a Black or Muslim person were employed as the villains of the player-character's narrative (often not even considered worthy of being the ultimate foes). We were the endless hordes of criminals or terrorists, standing in the way of the cis white male hero. This treatment was the legacy of centuries of similar representation in the other creative arts from books, to films to then TV, as well as reinforced by the demographic make-up of the studios/companies that produce these artworks,” says Abdi. “We were — are— different, so we are strange. We are strange, so we are threatening. We are threatening, so we are the enemy. This became so ingrained with me that, as ashamed as I am to say it, I used to picture the 'hero' in the stories of my dreaming mind as a white man.”

Abdi acknowledges that there have been some strides made, but he wishes there was more done to see more of the tropes and habits of old wiped away. “Through a combination of a rise in the number and variety of people entering the industry, progressive socio-cultural changes in different countries’/regions’ perceptions, and a concerted effort by different groups to enable more people from diverse backgrounds to develop the skills/portfolios necessary to stand out, there has been a tremendous rise in the number and variance of roles for black and/or Muslim people,” he says. “Most recently, Arkane featured two black people in vital narrative roles in their AAA immersive sim Deathloop and Square Enix placed Kamala Khan, a Muslim girl, as the heroine of a game based on the valuable Avengers IP. 
So while these standout examples highlight the progress the industry has made, they also call to attention the lengths that it still has to go. Because while these games exist, they are far from the norm and typically face a small but considerably vocal minority of gamers that see any representation of marginalised individuals to be pandering and evidence of a covert political agenda. On the other end of the spectrum, you have cases where the inclusion of underrepresented individuals is cynically used to generate additional revenue by giving the impression of support or understanding; an example that springs to mind is Detroit: Become Human's heavy-handed utilisation of historical slavery as a means of humanising the androids and their blight.

Similarly of importance to Abdi is the notion that good representation isn’t only interesting from an artistic and literary perspective, but it is also the quickest way to get games infused with fresh, new and exciting blood. “Honest, genuine representation that embraces the culture/group that it is drawing from and handles the relationship between them with care can generate creative opportunities for sociocultural examination and historical introspection that would not be possible or authentic in any other context,” he says. “It can attract new audiences, both in current markets but also across the world. Africa and the Middle East are vibrant in their love for gaming, even despite the lack of affordable access to many of the games that other countries can easily obtain. It can also inspire entirely new generations of children who see themselves in the media they consume and wish to create their own tales and impart their own legacies. The heroes of one's childhood are as much role models as they are tools that can entertain, educate and empower simultaneously.
We were — are— different, so we are strange. We are strange, so we are threatening. We are threatening, so we are the enemy. This became so ingrained with me that, as ashamed as I am to say it, I used to picture the 'hero' in the stories of my dreaming mind as a white man.” - Sak Abdi, Game Dev Talent Specialists at Haptic Recruit
Similarly of importance to Abdi is the notion that good representation isn’t only interesting from an artistic and literary perspective, but it is also the quickest way to get games infused with fresh, new and exciting blood. “Honest, genuine representation that embraces the culture/group that it is drawing from and handles the relationship between them with care can generate creative opportunities for sociocultural examination and historical introspection that would not be possible or authentic in any other context,” he says. “It can attract new audiences, both in current markets but also across the world. Africa and the Middle East are vibrant in their love for gaming, even despite the lack of affordable access to many of the games that other countries can easily obtain. It can also inspire entirely new generations of children who see themselves in the media they consume and wish to create their own tales and impart their own legacies. The heroes of one's childhood are as much role models as they are tools that can entertain, educate and empower simultaneously.

Nazih Fares—head of localization and communications at The 4 Winds Entertainment—had a similar-going perspective as he reflected on the early days of representation for him and fellow Arabs, and the reasons for why it took such a long time to break out of typical stereotypes. “When you look at the landscape of video games, the first instance of having a game that represents let’s say the Middle East in a fair view was probably the first Assassin’s Creed. You had an Arab character, his name was Altaïr Ibn-Alhad, but in general, most publishers have always gone with what they know from their existing media diets. So they look at movies, books and the rest of Western art and literature, and it’s a filtered-through perspective of Middle-Eastern culture from a very orientalist lens without knowing what it really is and looks like,” he says. “A lot of the West looks at us as products of civilizational backwardness, but if you really think about it, most of Western culture had succumbed to a similar pathos in the pre-industrial era, it’s just that they had the upper hand in modernizing their view of the world, culture and what representation and identity mean in later centuries. While yes, several Middle-East locales are working through old pathologies—ones bred by the very powers that erstwhile subjugated them—things are changing.
As founder and admin of the Acherus community in World of Warcraft, Magdalena DK represents a sizable chunk of the gaming demos in that her earliest forays into the space were through Blizzard’s brand of Tolkien-inspired fantasy storytelling, a hot cultural commodity a decade or more after it’s launch. While so many in the global northwest take it almost for granted to have reveled in the depth and grandeur of those fantasies, Magdalena acknowledges that her upbringing has much to owe for overcoming a significant hurdle at the time–that of poor localization.

I grew up in an educated household in Pakistan, where developing strong English skills was considered a matter of tantamount importance by my parents. This is important to mention because having access to English on a native speaker level (rather than as a second or third language that it was for many of my peers) meant that I found myself drawn to RPGs at a very young age. Narrative, depth, and story all appealed to me much more than Rock 'em, Sock 'em type games,” Magdalena told me. “As an example: When most folks I knew were into Street Fight, Streets of Rage, Mortal Kombat, etc, I was more drawn to games such as Heroes of Might and Magic, Might and Magic, the early WarCraft RTS series, Diablo, [and the like]. I'd even go so far as to say that a great deal of my English vocabulary was further defined and built upon, particularly by games such as Heroes of Might and Magic during my formative years. I picked up World of Warcraft in 2008, and played it very intensely till 2016, and remain a part of the larger WoW community even after ceasing my play on retail. As such, most of my impressions have been defined by modern, Eurocentric (i.e. heavily based in the D&D canon that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s) conceptions of fantasy worlds. I've thus had less in-your-face examples of, for example, murdering brown people in Call of Duty verus releasing belatedly that fantasy caricatures of "desert people", "sultans", and the type of Arabian Nights-esque pastiches, were essentially the closest I would get towards seeing representations of "me" from a brown, Muslim point of view.
"When you look at the landscape of video games, the first instance of having a game that represents let’s say the Middle East in a fair view was probably the first Assassin’s Creed. You had an Arab character, his name was Altaïr Ibn-Alhad, but in general, most publishers have always gone with what they know from their existing media diets. So they look at movies, books and the rest of Western art and literature, and it’s a filtered-through perspective of Middle-Eastern culture from a very orientalist lens without knowing what it really is and looks like"
After recounting several inappropriate at-best depictions of Muslims from many games own bits of storytelling, repeated in expansions, even out of game short stories and lore books , Magdalena reckons that those who the representation is aimed at ought to partake in the process–not doing so only destines them to failure. “What [lackluster representation] should tell us is that it's both possible and necessary for game design studios to make serious investments in continuing this trend of consulting actual members of the groups that they allegedly wish to represent within their games—and this will only happen when a predominantly cis white male-centric industry takes a step back to ask itself about their own existing biases and influences when coming up with "original" storylines/ideas for game narratives,” she says. “To put it simply: It shouldn't be seen as special or noteworthy for a games studio to regularly consult with cultural anthropologists, reach out to queer orgs/alliances that are known for prioritising marginalised voices within the queer community, and generally trying to dig beyond the superficial Tolkien-esque fantasy tropes that have formed the basis for how most eurocentric understandings of Islam (and non-European notions of queerness) have been formed. The underlying stories, scholarship, and work have all already been done and, more importantly, are also accessible in large part. All that remains is for studios to begin recognising their inherent value in being able to tell richer and deeper stories than the recycled tropes they've relied on for the past 30 or so years.”

Seniority in the games industry is sometimes a most-potent radicalizer, and in the case of Steven Huot—Blizzard alumni and CEO of The 4 Winds Entertainment—breaking apart from the bigger machine has lots to do with seeking a path forward for games that don’t adhere to its prior, more rigid characteristics. “As an American that grew up during the start of video games, I can start by saying this: First, when games were invented, very few if any companies looked beyond their country walls for marketplaces. So games at the start were built by Americans for Americans, by the Japanese for the Japanese, etc. Since that time, a lot has changed, but our perception is the first market rule and the rest is “extra effort,” he says, while signaling that the company intends—however tall the order must be—to become a catalyst for change. “Gaming lags far behind [cinema in representation terms]. But it is our aim to see that it is no longer so. Development is more insular, and smaller development teams put their heads down and make incredibly creative new games in a 3-7 year window. But those teams rarely operate from a global viewpoint, and most of those developers see the US market as the main prize, so if they make it for themselves, it will work. This I’d say is at the center of the problem: The development teams and even the studios don’t have a defined worldview nor know who to ask. If the team isn’t diverse to start with, typically they are not because by their nature are constructed regionally, then left out are the diaspora of perspectives of the rest of the world. It’s changing now finally, with more inclusiveness, more women making games, more studios being built and maintained around the world, etc.
Former shoutcaster and brand manager for The 4 Winds Entertainment Uğur Ülger believes there’s great business sense in appealing to players’ varying cultural sensibilities despite the industry’s current reticence to do so. “From a players’ perspective and what I see from them, the first thing that comes to mind is in-game content that is relevant to any given player’s culture. The second thing is how easy it is for the player to engage with the things that are in the game. Localizing the regular bouts of PR through social media, the community guidelines and all the front-facing content is a good start, so if there’s a giveaway for example, or if there’s a tournament happening, are they able to take part?” Ülger wondered. “Companies realized this—not all of them, but at least some—and they started to change their approach towards these new territories or new regions that they’re targeting, but they can’t do this if they don’t have anyone that really understands or knows the culture and its ins and outs. In order to make your game appealing for these new audiences, you need people that can create content, marketing, and communications campaigns that are specifically tailored to their divergent cultural backgrounds.”

Some like PCMag ME editor Kevin Sebastian are hopeful that the challenges ahead will soon be no more. “Games in the 90s-early 2000's were made with a certain lens and a certain demographic and people were generally not as switched on. However, that changed with the internet and us becoming more self-aware about the media we consume and how we are portrayed,” he says. “There's still a massive problem given that I personally feel that characters are being made for profit as opposed to a [more valiant and noble] message. It's slowly changing and I'm optimistic that in the next ten years we won't have the "generic white lead" in the next hit game.

Though the scope of an initiative to be more culturally-inclusive would run up against the logistical challenges of making video games—especially ones with ever-evolving worlds and a global consumer base—it’s still one worth undertaking. The stories we tell in the media we consume should be reflective of our own diversity, and though the imagery, attitudes and mannerisms may appear familiar in the text, they pale in comparison to what could be done when proper care is given to the cultures depicted, regardless if the setting is fictional or not.

There has been great progress made across the game industry, and overall, there is relatively far better representation in games today and it’s paying off. Each time there is we see the business results in this far more global marketplace. First, more cultural perspectives result in better stories, player adoption and much higher engagement. Second it opens previously untapped markets to grow your player base, so it just makes plain good business sense. Other industries have embraced the potential faster and can illustrate the benefits.
Overwatch's Iraq inspired map - Oasis - is one of the rare cases in game where the nation has been portrayed in a lighter note. As pointed on the official site of the game, Oasis is "a monument to human ingenuity and invention, researchers and academics from around the region came together to found a city dedicated to scientific progress without restraints"
Hollywood now recognizes the global marketplace for their content and has made big strides. Not so long ago, the US box office sales was enough to forecast the lifetime revenue of a movie. But little by little, the global numbers started to be more and more relevant, then specific markets became critical, and they were forced to consider them all at the start. Today we see a more diverse cast in nearly all the top films, since having say a Korean star in a supporting role, or a well-known Chinese star, etc. helped to establish greater global reach. And those market forces got scripts to be rewritten, even plots or villains to be reconsidered. Overall, it made more movies more interesting and relatable to larger and larger audiences.

Additionally, financial analysts need to be asking for global and regional comparisons. The way Hollywood was held to account for global box office eventually, our industry needs to do the same. And teams have to be diverse.
This is changing somewhat as game teams are remote and can have developers, designers, artists living anywhere around the world and delivering their talents into the game design. But we need to force it more and do more.

Today you’re seeing small creative productions that can now come out of what are considered "smaller markets", with global budgets and appeal. Money Heist from Spain, the recent Squid Game from Korea, and that’s just to name a few. The creativity and creation process of all entertainment must be global. The work to do so will always pay off. There remains much room to keep improving, and the efforts are almost always much easier than expected when you consult with those that have the experience. For each step we take as a company in that vision, both the developers, and the players are rewarded for it.

If you're curious on how The 4 Winds Entertainment can help you break miscconceptions and be more culturally relevant for your products, then it all starts by simply emailing our team via info@the4winds.com.