A plea from a gamer who is tired of every hero looking like him.
It happened during my umpteenth playthrough of Baldur’s Gate. I’d recently purchased a digital copy, despite already owning it on disc about three times over. A classic PC RPG based on Dungeons and Dragons, the game has a massive world filled with interesting characters, branching storylines and exciting quests. Even after playing through it more times than I can count, the game still finds ways to surprise me with something I’ve never seen before.
That’s what happened during my most recent run as a dark elf wild mage. If you’re unfamiliar with D&D classes, a wild mage is a powerful magic user who doesn’t have full control over his or her spells. Every time you cast magic, there’s a chance that something else will happen instead. Sometimes you turn the enemy into a rat. Sometimes you summon a demon that slaughters your enemy, your entire party and you. In this particular instance, I tried to cast a fireball and ended up changing sexes.
Functionally, nothing about the character changed. The stats and abilities were the same. The only thing that changed was the sex listed on the character sheet. That minor textual edit transformed my entire perspective on the character. No longer was I playing the straight male hero you see in almost every video game. Now the savior of the sword coast was a pansexual genderfluid person who currently identified as female. I (a straight, cis, white male) am none of those things.
Instantly, I was infinitely more invested in my character. One roll of the digital dice, and they had a background and personality that was entirely different from my own. It reminded me that part of the reason I play video games in the first place is to roleplay, and jump into the shoes of a person entirely unlike me. Video games are just more fun when they’re showing us something new.
That’s when I realized we should be asking more from our video games. I’m tired of making blond, white dudes named Nick in RPGs. I’m even more tired of playing brown-haired, white dudes with guns in nearly every action game. I want to meet new characters, with stories and experiences that I haven’t heard a million times.
That’s just my selfish reason for wanting more diversity in games. I realize it’s a privileged position to be tired of playing protagonists who look like me. I’m lucky to have had that all my life and can only imagine how frustrating it must be to never be able to play yourself. Everyone deserves to have the hero they play look like them at least once in a while. Everyone also deserves the chance to get tired of playing people who look like them. But no matter how you look at it, increased diversity in games is a win for all gamers. Some players will finally get to have an avatar they recognize on screen. Others will get to experience new stories they would have never seen otherwise.
Who would have thought a nearly-20-year-old game would have a lesson like that hidden in its programming? Is it any wonder I keep coming back?