To say the video game industry hasn’t always been a model of inclusion and diversity is a bit like noticing that the sea’s wet or that Jeremy Hunt needs to be lowered quietly into a septic tank; it’s so blindingly obvious it’s hardly worthy of comment.
However, unlike the sea and the Conservative health secretary, gaming has begun to change, and not for the worse. There’s been a dramatic rise in the number of women making games, and some inspiring success stories among small, independent developers. That said, it’s still a blockbuster-driven industry that employs disproportionate numbers of men, but hey.
According to a poll conducted at the end of last year, 52% of British gamers are female. A survey of the industry taken around the same time found that just 22% of game developers were women; that’s double the number in 2009 thanks to more open recruitment practices, but still tragically low. That’s a real disparity but some recognition of the medium’s shifting audience is emerging. One simple but important change is that it’s now standard to be given a choice between playing a male or a female character. Even in traditional boys-y bastions such as Rainbow Six Siege, there are female special forces operators every bit as effective at blowing holes in walls, floors and terrorists as their male counterparts. In Fallout 4, one of the year’s highest-profile titles, the sole survivor of the nuclear apocalypse can not only be a man or a woman, but also gay, straight, or robo-sexual (for those interested in stretching diversity in new and potentially painful directions).
Greater sophistication is emerging in other areas of gaming too, as technology frees the medium from having to limit character interactions to those involving live ammunition. Life Is Strange, with its female-led cast, got you to make decisions about situations that usually had nothing to do with violence at all. Instead, it had time to explore protagonists’ friendships and motivations in more nuanced ways and with far more pronounced consequences to your words and actions. It wasn’t something you normally see in triple-A games but the mainstream is changing.
In 2015 small, independent game developers started to hit the big time, and their success started to turn heads even among the largest publishers. Indie studio The Chinese Room made its reputation with PC games such as Dear Esther, in which you explored a craggy Hebridean island while listening to a man read letters he’d written to his dead wife, and Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs, a dark and atmospheric survival horror. This year, it graduated to the PlayStation 4 with Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. A thoroughly English take on the end of the world – casting you as the last person left in a Shropshire village, and possibly the world – its 80s ephemera and perfectly pitched voice-acting made its mysteries a singular pleasure to unravel. It had critics in paroxysms and sold in reasonable numbers .
Likewise, Psyonix’s Rocket League, sold on the unprepossessing-sounding premise “football with cars”, has become a runaway hit that will no doubt spawn imitators and big-budget sequels. Meanwhile the most anticipated title of 2016 is Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky, a game that lets you explore the entire universe, made by a small team in Guildford.
So, the indies are coming, and the influence of their more thoughtful, experimental approach is educating players. There’s a long way to go, but the days of video games as an exclusive club for simulated gun-toting adolescent boys are finally on their way round the U-bend of history.
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