Sorry, Your Cis White Woman Protagonist Isn’t Progressive

Sorry, Your Cis White Woman Protagonist Isn’t Progressive
If a college were run by video game characters, this what the diversity and inclusion department would look like. (Image: BioWare / Capcom / Housemarque / Kotaku)

The future is bright for the current and upcoming crop of AAA releases. Reviews for Returnal are positive. I’m gassed as hell to have Lady Dimitrescu chase me around in Resident Evil Village before I let her snap me in half. Rift Apart looks so sharp on the PS5 that it might become my first Ratchet and Clank experience. And y’all already know I’m going to play the shit outta Mass Effect Legendary Edition. Other people are excited for these games, because, in their eyes, these games speak to a welcome shift in video game culture as every one of these titles either stars or prominently features women.

But when I look at these games, my excitement dims into frustration and, like the tiniest drop of ink in a crystal-clear glass of water, begins to take over. Though these games star women — monstrous women, badass women, or furry women — all the women are white (or voiced by white actresses), so I can’t quite feel the same sea change as others might when they look at these games.

Cis white women are a safe option. They are just as much the default as the white men they replace. When companies want to look progressive and inclusive, they hire white women. When video games similarly want to look progressive and inclusive, guess who gets put on the box. I’m reminded of BioWare’s campaign to have players vote on what the default female Commander Shepard would look like for Mass Effect 3. I remember being crushed when my choices were blonde, brunette, redhead, and two paper-bag-test-passing tan women.

And yet, there was so much hype around this contest because fans were excited that BioWare was finally paying attention to their female main character. Unfortunately, it seems like whenever a game’s protagonist can be customised, white-passing women are the default.

It sucks when games forget about you. It also sucks to be constantly told to wait your turn.

Almost five years after its launch, Overwatch — a game in which its colourful, disabled, and queer characters are a large part of its appeal — still doesn’t have a playable Black woman. (Sojourn’s coming, I know. But Overwatch 2 still doesn’t have a release date, and we’ve been waiting almost five years now.) Yesterday, the Overwatch League announced an MMAthemed skin that features cornrows for one of its female characters. After seeing the skin, I joked that cornrows — a style worn and popularised by Black women — got added to the game before there was even a Black woman to wear them.

I understand that any change is better than what the video game industry was like before. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about a skin or a video game starring a cis white woman. I’d just caution against seeing those games as indicative of real progress. And when people do, there’s an unintentional erasing effect that can make marginalised people in the community feel invisible.

While I am glad to see the shift away from its dude-dominated history, I think we can still want more for ourselves. Game makers should push beyond the safety of white men and women and create protagonists of all races, shapes, orientations, and abilities.

I say all this fully aware that diversity in video game protagonists isn’t as dire as it was. Life is Strange: True Colours, Kena: Bridge Of Spirits, and the hilariously named but damn cool looking Forspoken come to mind when evaluating upcoming AAA offerings. The indie scene features an even deeper wealth of diversity (and by diverse creators too!) Progress is often a game of inches, but it doesn’t have to be.

Comments

  • Not sure if any of these games were aiming at being ‘progressive’. Probably more aiming at just being entertaining and a good game. I think for things to fully change you probably need to look more toward the hiring policy at game studios than the color of a game protagonist’s skin. Then it will happen organically.

    • Exactly. People aren’t (or at least it’s a very tiny amount) excited for these games *because* they have female leads. They just look like good games

      • speak for yourself. i for one am 100% excited that i will get to take my fem shep out for another round of saving the galaxy.

      • I guess that I too am one of your “tiny amount”. Kick-arse female protagonists are hot, and that’s more than enough to flip my interest in a game from profound disinterest to interest.

      • I get excited to see female leads because it feels fair, and my wife gets excited because she’s got a character that represents her. So yeah, also part of that “tiny amount.”

      • People seem to be missing it. I’m saying that people don’t buy them *JUST because* of the protagonists gender. If it looked like a shit game, most people wouldn’t buy it

  • Overwatch in my opinion is one of the worst examples, not because of its costumes… but how they announced the sexual orientation of their actual cover girl Tracer, its not in the game… its was in a marketing comic to sell Xmas loot boxes… a year after the game was released.

    If they want to be inclusive, its not just about changing a back story, a throw away line, or an artist decision one day to change the skin tone palette… their story, has to be included as part of the character and not their defining trait.

    Over watch is a shooter (not an RPG) where the character development is not in the actual game, its in foot notes, books, animations, or still undecided until marketing wants to sell another loot box season.

  • I mean, it’s a fair point. I am one of the people who gets excited to see female protagonists, even if they are CIS white women, simply because even this small step is overlooked.

    With AC Origins, we were meant to play as Aya, until Ubisoft chickened out. In AC Odyssey, we were meant to have Kassandra only, but this was seen as too scary again. When we went to get the latter game, Alexios was the only one on the box art. The fear of losing that cis white male base is felt in things like movies as well – how many Marvel movies do we have with a female lead? One, and people complained about it being too “woke”.

    But these industries do need to do better in representation. It’d be great if this was given the meticulous attention that incremental gameplay curves, loops and UI/UX elements were given.

    • Why are you against choice? What is wrong with people having a choice between a Male or Female character?

      Previously people complained male was the only option but now that we have choice people want it removed and to only have a female option.

      There is no downside to having a choice. You can play how you want and others can play how they want.

  • It certainly shows how narrow the characters in video games are when 50% of the population are arguing over whether or not a tiny number of video game characters are truly representative of them.

    The problem isn’t really that cis white women characters aren’t progressive – it’s that there are such a small number of women characters at all that they don’t have a hope of being very diverse in other ways as well.

    • I feel like it’s both. One problem (lack of female characters) definitely feeds into the second problem (lack of diverse female characters).

      That said, if we went “well, we’ll just have to wait until there’s 50% of games with white women protags” before anything else is represented… that’s kind of leaving everyone else out to dry for probably the next few decades.

  • Guys, deleting the comments isn’t making this article any less racist. Might want to pass that onto the American editorial division if you’re not liking the feedback. If you don’t want the comments pointing it out, don’t post these articles on the Australian version of the site.

    • Deleting commont isn’t making the article any less racist, however deleting comments is making the comments section less toxic and depriving alt-right types of another opportunity to behave like big babies.

        • Thanks, I now see the intellectual brilliance in every one of your posts. Congratulations, you win an elephant stamp. Good job you.

      • I’d argue that deleting the comments of minority women like me calling out racism from some nobody pretending to speak for everyone not white is racist in and of itself. Did you even see my initial response to you before they nuked it?

    • A woman of colour expressing disappointment that there isn’t more representation for women of colour in video games is racist? Holy wow. It’s like you just glossed over the part where she said “there’s nothing wrong with being excited about a skin or a video game starring a cis white woman.”

      Just when I thought I might start enjoy reading and engaging in the Kotaku comment sections again this raging trash fire of a comment section proves me woefully wrong. An unpleasant reminder that most of you lot are absolutely cooked.

      • I’m also a so called “woman of colour”, but the difference is that I don’t spend my entire life fixated on the races of other people since that tends to be, you know, racist in and of itself. It’s almost like all women who belong to minorities aren’t a brainless monolith, contrary to your expectations. Funny, you’d know this already if Kotaku hadn’t deleted my initial comment.

      • It’s funny, but typically when there’s a game with a character creator, most people I know create characters that are NOTHING like them. It’s almost as though games are meant to be a fantasy and not a means for someone to push a social or political agenda and complain and stamp their feet when they’re not represented.
        WHY ISN’T LARA CROFT A TRANS BLACK WOMAN? TOMB RAIDER IS TRANSPHOBIC AND RACIST?

  • Is there mod support yet? Her skin colour could be changed with some basic tweaking if it’s ruining peoples enjoyment. Maybe a Skyrim-style gay companion could be added later, but would probably take more work. I’m really not sure I can enjoy it without these subtle changes!

  • Sooo… what I got from this article is that Oneechanbara is obviously the most progressive game to date with a minority female lead (Aya and Kagura are Asian) and obviously have bisexual leads (have u seen the tension between Aya and Kagura?!)

    Or are East Asians not progressive enough since their skin type is caucasian?…which I always found doubly amusing since the racist sentiment back then was to label them as yellow skins to somehow differentiate their skin color as “different” to wastern caucasians which fun fact if you were Asian and saw a caucasian you saw no difference =P

    • I’m pretty sure that all of that hyperbole was floating around in your brain well before Ash Parrish started thinking about writing this article.

      • Actually yes I did enjoy Oneechanbara… its the gaming equivalent watching B grade schlock movies sometimes I just wanna switch off and play a dumb and fun game.

        I dont think I ever really “analysed” the game past dumb fun tho… but I did feel like being slightly facetious hence the hyperbolic post =P

  • “Yesterday, the Overwatch League announced an MMAthemed skin that features cornrows for one of its female characters. After seeing the skin, I joked that cornrows — a style worn and popularised by Black women — got added to the game before there was even a Black woman to wear them.”

    Black women do not “own” a hairstyle. That skin is based off an MMA fighter and loads of female MMA fighters of all background sport the hairstyle.

    ” all the women are white (or voiced by white actresses)”

    I don’t know if you realise this, But the point of acting is pretending to be someone you aren’t. Saying only black women can voice black characters is racist. If you were to be consistent in your opinion then only white people are allowed to voice white characters, But something tells me you wouldn’t agree with that.

    • I’m sure she’d happily agree with that if it worked the other way.

      Seriously mate, let’s engage with your straw man here. Name three white characters in mainstream Hollywood media that are actually voiced by people of colour.

      • Define “mainstream Hollywood media”

        If we look at animated series that are global hits, we have Phil Lamar voicing Samurai Jack, Ray Hurd voicing Kizaru from One Piece, Amanda C Miller voicing Boruto (two for one there, also a female voicing a male). All black people voicing, well… Asian, I suppose, characters…

        Would those count? Bit hard to find voice actors for live action movies, unless they are voicing decidedly non-human characters.

        Although James Earl Jones comes to mind… He voiced a white guy in some pretty famous movies…

        Does it just have to be voicing? What about actually portraying? You have Zendaya playing Mary Jane, Idris Elba playing Roland Deschain, Morgan Freeman playing Ellis Redding… This list can grow rather long though…

        Point is. Who gives a rats arse who is voicing an animated character? They’re animated. Do I care that Bart Simpson is voiced by a woman? Hell no. Do I care that Samurai Jack, one of my fave anime-styled shows of all time, was voiced by a black man? Nope. Do I care that Bojack Horseman isn’t voiced by a horse? Maybe a little actually…

        • “Do I care that Bojack Horseman isn’t voiced by a horse? Maybe a little actually…”

          A true travesty. I guess Mr. Ed just wasn’t available…

  • Returnal looks great… Too bad it only has a cis white female protagonist…. Being a male, I can’t relate, therefore I can find no possible enjoyment out of it…

    10/10 would not play it.

    I’ve also always wanted to play Breath of the Wild…. I heard it’s also a fantastic game… But I just can’t relate to Link, as I do not fit the Aryan mould…. I can’t possibly enjoy it

  • I’m not sure why you’ve pointed out mass effect 3 (a ~10yr old game) and Resident Evil village (set in an eastern european country) as examples for games not being progressive enough towards black women. One is outdated, one is set in a region that would unlikely have a black female present. Games are organically becoming more progressive towards treating all races and genders equally within their stories and have made great progress in the last 10 years.
    Also, all the games i’m currently playing have playable black females characters; cyberpunk 2077, cod:warzone, battlefield v even.

    “When companies want to look progressive and inclusive, they hire white women. ” I’d be keen to hear some statisitics to see how many talented non-white females are applying for jobs within game studios, compared to how many are in work. eg: if 25% of applicants are non-white females, and only 5% non-white females are represented in studios currently, then there is obviously a problem. but if the overall representation is reflective of those interested in game development, then saying ‘we need more ethnically-diverse women in games’ isn’t going to magically help solve the ‘problem’ if there just isn’t enough interest.

  • It’s almost like making a GAME is the first priority of game designers and developers, and meeting the expectations of individuals to cater for their explicit desires comes lower down the list on priorities.

    Reminds me of the article on Cyberpunk “I couldn’t play as a transgender female and immediately have an NPC realise that I possessed a penis and comment on that in this minor sidequest. Worst game ever.”

    Come on Kotaku, you can do better than this.

  • Loving the flood of comments from people who didn’t read the article or didn’t understand that ‘not progressive’ doesn’t mean ‘bad’! Wow, I sure love the comments Kotaku Au gets these days. I just feel warm and fuzzy inside opening an article knowing the comments are going to be vile no matter what the actual article contains.

    This is such an uncontroversial argument. That it’s not progressive to feature a cis white woman is just a fact, and the surrounding opinions are almost exactly as uncontroversial. Non-white characters and protagonists have been hard to come by for as long as games have had characters and no shit Parish is frustrated she can’t see herself represented as she’d like to be very often. Everyone wants to see them self in one way or another represented in the media they consume. The funny thing is so many people are so incredibly sensitive to her personal frustrations that they show the chip on their shoulder about skin colour is so much bigger than hers.

    • It is blatantly dishonest to claim that something or someone being labelled ‘not progressive’ isn’t seen to be an absolute negative, and therefore ‘bad’, basically anytime it gets mentioned. This headline reads no differently.

      No matter how good the body of any article might be, an author should not ever be given some weird sort of pass when it is frontloaded with a headline like that.

      That in itself is some real weird shit… Like pushing someone to the ground then expecting praise because you didn’t also kick them while they were down.

    • Except starting from the headline, the entire article is couched in terms that having a CIS white female isn’t sufficient and somehow a failing and derogatory. It’s saying “no, this isn’t good enough” or “do better”. The argument is almost as though unless games cater specifically for the author, then they’re not doing enough to represent her.
      Again, I’ll draw the parallel to an article (published on this very site) complaining about how Cyberpunk didn’t have a NPC react to the fact that the author’s character was transgender and had a penis, despite there being zero logical reason the NPC would know that information. (Or honestly, why the hell should an NPC react to that? If someone did that in real life, they’d open themselves up to attack for making comment on it.)
      Is increased representation great? Yes. Would it be great to see more cultural representation in games? Yes. But for goodness sake, complaining about Overwatch not featuring sufficient representation simply because it doesn’t represent her feels like wanting to be explicitly catered to. It provides representation for so many other groups, yet this article still suggests that the game is insufficient and implies it is bad because it doesn’t cater to her.

      The headline implies “unless you cater for every possibility, then any version of being ‘progressive’ isn’t actually progressive.” No, the article isn’t anywhere near as bad, but there is an element of arguing that perfection is the only acceptable version of being progressive, and that’s simply not an argument I can agree with.

  • Constant comment bait, author flaming and deliberately stoking the fires goes completely against a core rule I outlined a while ago: make the comments a more positive place, not a toxic one.

    Certain users have had their accounts removed entirely. I don’t have the same suite of moderation tools I used to since the site redesign, so account removal is my only option.

    Other users, and you know who you are: last warning. I don’t want to spend my weekends cleaning up your shit because you can’t behave like civilised humans and do the basic functions of reading the whole article and making this a better place, not a divisive one. You can disagree with the content constructively, but you’re all responsible for how you react and comment to that, and this site doesn’t have to be a repository for the same reactionary bullshit that exists elsewhere on the internet.

    • Sadly, as far as Kotaku comments are concerned, the site is already a repository for the same reactionary bullshit that exists elsewhere on the internet and has been for several years now.

      Every single time an article drops with even a smidge of a social justice angle the comments section is flooded with exactly the same hysterical, angry criticism of both the headline and the author.

      And pretty much that’s the only time that a Kotaku comments section even gets a look in. Look at TAY, sitting on mid-40 comments for the best part of a month. Scroll down the main page – 15 articles in a row with not one comment, 1 comment, 1 comment… bam, “Cis White Woman” appears in a headline and suddenly 44 comments plus at least a dozen more deleted.

      And you’re not convincing anyone with posts such as this. Everyone around here thinks that they’re the ones behaving reasonably; Kotaku would obviously be a much nicer place if nobody ever disagreed with their self-evidentially correct opinions.

      I’ll take my share of responsibility for biting when the exact same alt-right culture warriors claim again and again and again that they’re the real victims. Still, if I left those posters alone working themselves up into a frothing frenzy of furious agreement, unchallenged, any casual reader scrolling down into the comments section might be left with the impression that those opinions were somehow representative of both the local readership and of management.

      Seriously, Kotaku indeed does not need to be giving the same reactionary bullshit another mainstream platform, and it would be no loss whatsoever if the comments sections were turned off entirely, at least for articles such as this one. I mean, it’s not like the usual suspects actually enjoy them, after all, the starting place of all this brouhaha is typically that the offending articles and their offensive authors should be cancelled.

      • People have different standards depending on where they live, Angora and that’s why I specifically said they’re better off not posting these types of article on this version of the website. The readership are not American and on the whole people don’t seem to appreciate American attitudes of hyper-politicisation of entertainment media (or sport or any other area that’s not specifically political in nature). People are giving feedback specifically for this reason.

        If they want to write issues about diversity in games, great, but they should at least be relevant to our region instead of from a country that’s a walking meme of how not to do things to the rest of the world.

        • Let’s see if I can helpfully translate.

          People have different standards depending on where they live

          I don’t agree with these articles, and most Australians agree with me.

          they’re better off not posting these types of article on this version of the website

          Articles I disagree with should be cancelled. Americans can go ahead and do whatever the fuck they like so long as I am never forced to read another woke headline in my life.

          on the whole people don’t seem to appreciate American attitudes of hyper-politicisation of entertainment media

          As I represent all Australians I am doing my best to hyper-politicise entertainment media in the hope that the proprietors can be bullied into preventing me from ever seeing another opinion that I disagree with. (see also #2)

          People are giving feedback specifically for this reason.

          I am giving feedback specifically for this reason.

          If they want to write issues about diversity in games, great, but they should at least be relevant to our region

          Alex Walker seems like a nice chap, and has for the most part tried to avoid getting caught up in stupid culture wars debates. Consequently, I assume that he largely agrees with me and if he wrote all the articles on this website I will be much less easily offended by the articles on this website.

          • Dear god, Angora, you are drastically over complicating “Australians aren’t Americans and don’t care about American problems, politics or political ideology”. But if I have to be that blunt to get the point across, I will be, because you seem very keen to read into an issue that purely relates to relevance.

            Australians aren’t Americans. We largely don’t care about America (nor does the rest of the world until they blow something up). If people want to deal with America, they can move over there, but if I’m on an Australian flavour of a website I don’t constantly want to be bombarded with American problems that have no relevance to our country. The last thing I want to see is an American take on “culture wars” because it’s geographically irrelevant. Maybe you’ve forgotten, but we aren’t the same country and I’d much rather the Australian version of the website cover Australian specific politics if they’re going cover politics relating to gaming.

      • That’s probably fair, and it does remind me of why Gizmodo AU shut off comments many moons ago.

        Thank you for the time and effort you take to contribute — it’s genuinely appreciated.

        • At this point it is indeed too late. People like burnside and worrito (though I suspect they are one and the same) ran rough shod over the comments section and turned it into an overtly, hyper-aggressive space. It has never recovered.

          • Careful, you’re listing Angry’s mates there, and their comments are always welcome.

            In all fairness though, I’m down for turning comments off completely.

            I mean… Why allow comments on articles like this, but not allow comments on articles such as “Jeff Goldblum Is Doing A Dungeons & Dragons Podcast, Which Is As Excellent As It Is Unfathomable” or “Eternals Director Chloe Zhao Shocked Marvel With Her Sets” or “New Pokémon Snap Lets You Take Some Absolutely Gorgeous Shots” or “The World of Vampire: The Masquerade Is Being Developed for Film and TV” If anything, it should be the reverse.

            Makes zero sense to me.

          • All it’ll do is push commentary on articles to social media like Twitter and it’ll be even nastier if it starts trending and Twitter’s masses mobilise against anyone, whether writer or reader of the article (there’s intelligent conversation in this comment section that definitely doesn’t happen on Twitter). While I’m sure the editors will be happy not to deal with any site moderation, it might have some substantially nastier fallout. The comments on this article were still downright tame compared to the social media response to the USA’s version of the article.

          • @nuffman The articles you mention are reposts from other parts of the Pedestrian network that happily turned off comments years ago.

            @louie It’s not Pedestrian Group’s job to police your social feed, Twitter, Steam profile or anything else. Pedestrian Group does have the ability, however, and to some extent a legal obligation, to police toxicity hosted on its own network.

          • @Angora “Pedestrian Group does have the ability, however, and to some extent a legal obligation, to police toxicity hosted on its own network.”
            funny, since you are one of the most toxic commenters on this website. just your toxicity is the correct kind, the kind that follows the far left ideology this site promotes.

          • @lawlorz the very fact that you consider being respectful to people a “far left ideology”, and further, that you consider thoughtful, reflective articles to be promoting anything at all, and further again, that despite your vehement disagreement with said articles you’re still here arguing against them really should trigger a higher level of self-reflection than you’re clearly interested in.

            But, easy enough to just keep venting your anger and bitterness and feelings of victimisation in a safe space such as this, eh? There’s no possible way that’s got anything to do with the general atmosphere of toxicity around here, no way at all.

    • Ahhh. I was going through the comments and bracing myself for the most disingenuous and hateful takes and then, increasingly, getting more and more puzzled as most of the usual suspects failed to make an appearance. Your post explains exactly what happened to them. Good riddance, if I may say so.

      I myself tried over and over to make them understand that the problem was not their divergent opinions but the way they went about expressing them, in ways that were not conducive to good-faith discourse and which riled the worse emotions in everybody involved–something that I eventually could not entertain any doubt about, was entirely intentional.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!