Why Diverse Heroes Make Better Video Games

As we all know, there’s currently a massive political argument going on right now that is, ostensibly, about video games and representation. The argument, on one side, more or less boils down to that there’s no reason to put anybody other than a brown-haired thirtyish white guy in a video game as the hero, and it’ll somehow ruin games if we do. But will it? Well, it’s actually already happened, and in fact it might actually make games much better in an important respect.

Want proof? Well, Assassin’s Creed IV swapped out Edward Kenway for Adéwalé in the Freedom Cry expansion. The game itself did not change. Prototype 2 switched out an angry scientist for an angry Black soldier. The game itself did not change. Infamous switched out Cole McGrath, generic snarler, for Delsin, an Akomish tribe member. The game itself did not change, even after they swapped in a female character for the expansion. Grand Theft Auto V made swapping out protagonists a mechanic. I could go on, but you get the point.

Games are just sets of rules, and those rules are not going to change substantially just because a puppet on screen has a different skin tone or breasts. Why would they? You can just as easily animate a woman stabbing some dude in the neck as you can a man. People love games where you run around stabbing orcs, blowing stuff up, and firing off crazy science fiction weapons, and let’s be honest here, most people don’t particularly care who their stand-in on the screen is.

But then there’s the other half of the game, the story. Most video games have, let’s be honest, terrible stories. There is, in fact, an entire argument that video games shouldn’t have stories at all, or at least not a central plot, because it can often get in the way of the game. The entire reason you have so many of the same guy in so many games is that they deliberately want to shove a blank in there. He’s supposed to be so bland he’s invisible.

Interestingly, when Captain Bland gets his walking papers, games get a little better at telling stories. Adéwalé joining the Maroon rebellion is way more interesting, and has far more to say, than Edward Kenway sulking his way through the main game. Delsin is pretty generic as a character, but he’s got a more personal motive than Cole. Some games will even go further: Mass Effect spends three games deliberately forcing you to build a personality for your Shepard, to make tough decisions and deal with them.

In short, they’re characters, people with a backstory and a history. When the character is somebody who actually matters to the game, the writing staff tries harder. Furthermore, one of the great, largely unexplored frontiers of gaming is using games to put yourself in other people’s shoes. The Assassin’s Creed series has an entire fanbase more interested in walking through the virtual museums Ubisoft constructs than playing any part of the game.

And that can easily be taken further. One of the most talked-about indie hits right now is Gods Will Be Watching. It’s a deliberately emotionally complex and morally gray game that’s not entirely successful in what it tries to do, but it does highlight how a clever designer can use the hard rules of a game to create entirely new experiences.

It’s true that some people just want to blast aliens, and they’ll never run low on games that let them do just that. And truthfully, there’s ample room for all kinds of games. But really, if a game can be better… why not let it?