I want you to tell me what comes to mind when I say the word “chair”. For most of us, this word brings the image of a figure with four legs, a base, a back. It is probably made of wood and seated somewhat under a dinner table. Though chairs come in many shapes and sizes, this is the “standard” to which we refer when we say, “hey, that thing right there, that’s a chair.”
Now I want you to tell me what comes to mind when I say the word “hero.” Actually, don’t tell me, I’ll guess: white, young (mid-20s/early 30s), heterosexual, cisgender, male, possibly with a tragic backstory and maybe a score to settle. And therein lies the issue with the classic hero: it is, by every definition of the word, exclusionary.
Video game companies are out to make a profit, first and foremost, no questions asked. And they do so by pandering to an audience which they know they will buy whatever it is they make. So when they storyboard, one of the first questions they’ll probably ask (besides, “what’s the title?”, or, “how many people are we going to fire if this goes south?”) is, “who’s going to be the hero?”—and I bet you know what the answer will be (W.Y.H.C.M).
I call this the “stock hero syndrome” because it preys on a specific niche of gamers that are either oblivious to the fact that heroes come in all shapes in sizes, or that are flat-out intimidated by any hero that doesn’t look like them. And though this syndrome extends far beyond the gaming industry (the number of white male leads far outweighs the number of leads of pretty much any other race or gender), it’s slowly been getting better in cinema, the arts, and many other places. Not so much in gaming.
Sure, there are a lot more non-white, non-male video game protagonists now than there were a decade ago, but more often than not, characters like that are either alternates, sidekicks, or villains. And it speaks a lot about an industry that tells people solely based on their gender, sexuality, or skin color, “you can be a sidekick, you can be a villain, or you can be expendable. Leave the heroism to the white men.”
As I’ve stated above, my assumption is that stock hero syndrome takes its roots from the stock image—the reference which we use to compare alternatives. When you say “bus,” most people would think of the yellow school bus, not the Greyhound. That’s a stock image. And if that image is there, and easily understood, what’s the point of changing it?
Well, I’ll tell you: because equal representation in the gaming industry is paramount. People who don’t fit that image of the “hero” need to realize that they can, and shouldn’t have to settle in foreign shoes when picking up a controller. And, more importantly, cultural openness in mainstream games makes for a better understanding of the world, and for better cultural accuracy—because there’s nothing more frustrating than having a white character shoehorned into a predominantly non-white culture, Jason Brody.
I’ll end with this: cultural appreciation (and accuracy) beyond Western norms is important. And the idea that making non-stock heroes because it’s too difficult (I see you, Ubisoft) is belied by the facts that we’ve done it before, we’ve done it well, and we’ve done it repeatedly. All we need to do now is just do it again.