What is Tokenism?
Tokenistic characters exist in a product by virtue of representing its creator’s virtues – like including certain races, genders and sexualities for the creator to connect with sympathetic customers and represent a more broad consumer-base. We like to see people like us in games and I’ll admit, it’s endearing seeing a game represent same-sex couples, issues and social commentary. “Token” characters go no deeper than their appeal, and people looking for a character that speaks to their gender/race/sexual sensibilities will find no further depth.
The complication when discussing token characters is deciding where the line is between a token character and an authentic one. Does a gay character need to out themselves for the player to know, or should gay characters need never be seen or heard in any romantic context? Is it possible for a female character to exist without having to justify to the audience that she is female or does she need to prove to the viewer that she is equal to the men in her life? Can a fantasy game like Dragon Age take creative licence to include People of Colour in its fictional world with a new history where they were never downtrodden are instead equal?
History of Diversity in Video Games:
Representation in videogames has trailed far behind other mediums, which makes sense given how games are a relatively new medium. In the 90s, there were very few female protagonists, and queer characters were largely relegated away into comics and books. That’s changed a lot since then, but not entirely. Of 50 of the biggest games from 2007 to 2012, only 5 of the 61 protagonists were women, and 2 of those were the main character, and only 5 were People of Colour. AAA gaming in the West still very much favours the straight, white, male, who happens to be their biggest demographic. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy where a game’s market ignores the desires of people outside its demographic and the potential they can bring if the developers will extend an olive branch.
But what happens if this olive branch doesn’t work out? In trying to appeal to new demographics, it’s too easy to misrepresent people or to try so carefully as to totally ignore the subtleties and characteristics of the race, gender, sexuality, etc that you’re representing. This is how Token characters form – characters that are build to into worlds they don’t belong, or developed in unrealistic ways as to alienate the audience they’re trying to endear.
Common Tokenistic Characters:
- ● Left 4 Dead:
- ○ Left 4 Dead’s cast is a blend of two men, a black guy and a woman.
- ○ Many people consider this a reflection of the audience that valve wants to
- ● Mass Effect:
- Steve Cortez
- Many people think that he is a flat token character because his value
in the story is only the male gay romance option.
- But for me, his subplot and romance actually enriched my experience
of the story
- The world of Dragon Age includes People of Colour while ignoring the history of these ethnicities. Is that including PoC for the sake of it? Or does it not matter because the story isn’t about the segregation of these people?
- His storylines revolves around his relationship with his family, and how his father won’t accept him for who he is. It’s cliche, but is Dorian the token gay man because he’s the only “gay” man in the ensemble, or is having a single gay man more reflective of the reality that 10% of people are LGBT
Call of Duty WW2:
- Black Soldiers in Multiplayer – is it tokenistic for these characters to exist at all? Or is it irrelevant because they aren’t a part of the story mode?
- The man on the front cover is a black man that is a part of the Harlem Hellfighters, a little-known group of soldiers in WW1. One of them is on the front cover, and as the Creative Lead said, is there to create intrigue. Is this tokenistic because they are including a black man in an ostentisbly white-dominated field of history, or tokenistic because he is included to create intrigue, or irrelevant because this sect of the war actually existed and the creators have creative liberty to include them?
Why are high profile games so averse to including minorities?
Independent products have the liberty to experiment with storytelling and gameplay techniques because they cost less to create and are easier to get a return on your investment so it doesn’t matter if the product reaches a niche audience. But for massive multi-million dollar games, developers and publishers are risking a lot on the game’s success and ability to make its money back.
High-profile and big-budget AAA franchises like, for example, Call of Duty and Battlefield need to represent the highest common denominator when positioning their game for the largest market share, so their products feature straight white male protagonists almost exclusively, and any minorities are relegated to side and disposable characters. These games will very rarely explore minority issues, with a few notable exceptions, for fear of alienating players that don’t sympathise with them.
The complication with this paradigm is that it practically erases these niche characters and makes the broader market more homogenous, so that any minority character stands out from the crowd and will draw appreciation and disdain from players.
So, what’s the rule of thumb?
It’s hard to say with so many differing viewpoints on this topic. It’s near impossible to nail down a criteria for minorities to exist in games that everybody can agree with. We can only continue to incorporate minority stories and sensibilities into games and the culture will adapt to recognise it.
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