Sunday, March 3, 2013

Representation Matters

In “Doing Gender in Cyberspace: The Performance of Gender by Female World of Warcraft Players” (2011), Lina Eklund examines how gender and sexuality are constructed within the MMORPG World of Warcraft. She found that while female players have agency to explore their gender and sexual identities, they are limited by societal gender expectations and the constraints of the game itself. “The heterosexual matrix sets norms that limit possible sexual expressions and firmly positions gender into the binary system of the heterosexual” (2011:336). World of Warcraft was not made in a cultural vacuum. The developers imposed their gender ideals upon the game world. Heterosexuality is assumed, males are masculine, and females are feminine. But what if there was a game that did not make these assumptions?
Arkh prominently features people of color.
Enter Arkh, a planned single player action-RPG designed around subverting the usually unquestioned character assumptions made in games. Tired of seeing the same white, male, hyper masculine characters, the developers of Arkh set out to create a game where the main cast primarily consists of queer people and people of color. As much as I’d like to say that this isn’t revolutionary, it is. Few games have characters of color, let alone characters that openly identify as anything other than heterosexual.

In Arkh you take on the role of a deity who has become bored with life amongst the gods. Your character, Aina, leaves paradise to find purpose in life and find their lost love. Gameplay focuses on the idea of reincarnation. As you are reincarnated into different worlds your deity changes appearance and you, the player, experience what its like to live through the lives of a variety of people. Aina’s gender identity is not set in stone and changes as you progress through different worlds. One of the developers explained, “In the story, what Ain will be called depends on who is talking to them, much like real life.” This change in identity is indicated by pronoun usage. Various non-player characters will refer to Aina as “he”, “she”, or “they” depending on Aina’s physical presentation. When talking about the character in general, however, the developers go with “they”.

While the game is still in the works and rumors are floating around that it will never be completed, the initial response to the game’s concept was positively received. Here are a few comments:

“I'm extremely glad that there is a game in development that defies the gaming norms. As an avid gamer myself (mostly of jrpgs because I like getting involved in the story), I'm very excited for this game to come out. As a queer person, I'm glad that I'm finally getting some representation in games!”

“Okay so I am pretty sure you get asks like this all the time. But I wanted to let you know that your project really puts a smile on my face and makes me excited for the future of videogames. As a supernerd an African American woman and a member of the LGBT community, I get so excited when I see characters like me in comics and videogames. I can't wait to see more from this project, and I really hope to support you in every way that I can.”

“Whooaaa This is like the best thing ever really can't wait for this to come out I'll anticipate every single update you have.”

“As someone who's genderqueer and pansexual, I have nearly cried in joy several times while reading through this story. Anytime you get a queer character in a game, they're always the same, token character. So thank you, so much, for this game. I want to hug each and every person working on this! :')”

“Putting aside how awesome it is that you're making a game for POC and the GLBT community, I think it's great that your female characters wear real armor.”
Aina and Haruka, two character concepts from Arkh.
Many non-gamers who identify as persons of color or queer who have never played a videogame in their life, were ecstatic about Arkh. Even though they aren’t familiar with the medium, they were excited by the mere plans to have a diverse group of people represented in the game. They were excited about having character they could relate to on a personal level and who looked like them. Once again, it seems like a small thing. But the fact remains

that videogames are dominated by the same white, male types. These games are a reflection of the mostly white, male industry they were created by. An entire population of people who were never interested in games before reconsidered once Arkh was announced. This illustrates the power of representation. I think that this instance could be applied to games in general. For example, if women were better represented in mainstream, big budget games perhaps they would be more likely to play them. If you’re more of the pragmatic type, the untapped market potential is huge.

- J.

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