Very often, when I or someone else has written a long and well considered post about a game or other piece of media, we get a flood of people saying something along these lines:
Good question, angry internet citizen! Let’s talk about why I care so fucking much.
Before I start talking about this in more concrete terms, I want you to imagine that you have literally never seen someone like you positively (by which I mean as a well rounded and full person rather than a token or as magically flawless) portrayed in media. If you don’t have to imagine that, then you can obviously skip this step, but even if you have only a bit of good representation, imagine not having even that. I’ll use myself for an example here – I’m a white queer woman. There are few examples of well presented queer women in media, but they are there. And white women are relatively widespread. Clearly not as commonplace as white men, but there are some. It’s difficult for me to imagine having never seen someone like me get to be in a story at all, but it’s an exercise in empathy that is important.
Imagine watching heroes, side kicks, and minor characters, all play their part in saving the world. Imagine being told over and over that you have no part in this heroism, because you’re the wrong gender, race, or sexuality, or because you’re trans or disabled, or any number of similar things. Can you see how that would become grating?
This is backed up by early studies: though only preliminary due to its small sample size, it’s been suggested that watching TV raises the self esteem of white men, who get to see themselves as the capable hero so often, and lowers the self esteem of anyone else, who see themselves relegated to smaller roles or don’t see themselves at all.
This is corroborated by other media phenomena, such as the Thin Ideal, which sees women’s mood drop after seeing many very thin women in media. There are also studies demonstrating the ways in which media affects our view of others, especially when it comes to race. Not surprisingly, seeing stereotypes of marginalised people lowers our impressions of them.
Media representation is also demonstrated to have encouraged people to chase their dreams by showing people like them becoming the things they want to become. Black actresses inspire black actresses inspire black actresses.
Fiction is a way in which culture expresses itself and its current general homogeneity is neither representative nor neutral. Fiction informs our opinions of ourselves and others. Fiction is usually supposed to be entertainment, and aiming it squarely at one demographic is insulting. In short: fiction matters.
Of course, to return to the angry internet citizen from the beginning of this post and many others like them: if fiction doesn’t matter to you at all, I’m sure you wouldn’t complain if every video game you played from now on had absolutely no men, white people, or straight people in it, would you?