Downloadable Diversity: How AAA Games Monetize Minority Representation
Diverse characters and storylines are often withheld from games to be sold as optional add-ons for additional cost.
Downloadable content (DLC) began as a practical way for early mainstream games studios to offer players additional content and customizable options not available in the original release of a game. As DLC’s prevalence and technological capacity has grown, games studios have come to offer extensive story development and additional game chapters alongside inventory upgrades, character skins and new outfits. Some DLC is free, some is unlocked through game achievements, but most mainstream game DLC is only available through purchase, on average ranging between $10-$20 USD.
Industry advancement hasn’t just resulted in more downloadable content, but more diverse content. AAA games have an infamous reputation when it comes to representing marginalized people, either by neglecting to include them entirely, or only representing them through harmful stereotypes. With player demographics steadily shifting and diversifying for decades, recent AAA game releases show a gradual interest in involving more diverse characters and environments, but mostly at a cost to players. Companies producing DLC have been criticized for selling intentionally omitted content rightfully belonging in the core product, and in the same vein, diverse characters and storylines are often withheld from games to be sold as optional add-ons for additional cost. What was originally justified as a means for developers to add more content that they didn’t have the space or budget to implement for a game’s release, has become a questionable practice of holding diverse representation ransom.
In 2013, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us to overwhelming critical acclaim, with reviewers making particular note of the writing and character development. The game focuses on the relationship between co-protagonists, Joel and Ellie, a middle-aged man and 14-year-old girl who team up in their effort to survive an apocalyptic outbreak. The character development for Ellie received positive feedback for its insightful portrayal of a teenage girl, but important aspects of her identity were clearly withheld from the game, only emerging in a prequel chapter released as DLC a year later. The Last of Us: Left Behind cost $9.99 on top of the $60 price for the original, offering players a ~3 hour game exploring the relationship between Ellie and her friend Riley, who — as we first learned in the core game — passed away before Ellie meets up with Joel.
What the original release leaves out, however, is that Ellie’s relationship with Riley was more than friendship. While Left Behind offers a beautiful scene of vulnerability between the two as they shared a moment, and a kiss, Ellie’s sexuality and the full scope of her relationship with Riley was conveniently left untouched until this prequel, despite the fact that the game’s writer, Neil Druckmann, wrote Ellie as gay. The decision to omit this element of character development in the original release was no doubt influenced by capitally-driven conservatism; the inclusion of an openly gay teenage girl in a AAA game could lead to cultural backlash, an outcome that is unfortunately not uncommon among the subsection of gamers who prefer their media straight, male and white, like them. Opting to make the big reveal in the DLC ensured an original release untarnished by controversy and an eager audience for the prequel. With Riley’s death already revealed in The Last of Us, the team could safely portray a romance between the two in Left Behind without players fearing their relationship would carry on into further installments of the series. After all, the Bury Your Gay trope is a long-standing issue in mainstream media’s depiction of queer characters, most commonly playing out as a main character’s love interest or partner dying a violent death, effectively presenting a more palatable representation of homosexuality relegated safely to the past tense.
Image of Ellie and Riley from The Last of Us: Left Behind
The Heroes We Need (Are Not on the Cover)
Isolating marginalized representation to DLC demonstrates the industry’s conditional interest in portraying diversity, open to offering new diverse content so long as it can be easily detached from the primary product. Diverse characters and skins are rarely offered as recurring options throughout a game series, existing in small self-contained universes and contexts, replaced or removed at developer’s discretion. For example, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag offered follow-up Freedom Cry featuring supporting character Adéwalé, an ex-slave turned assassin carrying out raids against the slave trade, inspiring a rebellion, and freeing slaves from bondage in the process. Freedom Cry is humanizing, evocative and well-written, a notable departure from AAA games’ history of limiting and stereotypical depictions of Black characters. As Evan Narcisse wrote, “For the few hours I steered Adéwalé through his saga, I didn’t feel horribly under-represented or taken for granted in the medium I write about. It’s a feeling I could use more of.” But the long-overdue representation cost $9.99 on top of the price of the core game, leaving Black players to pay over $70 for the experience.
Image of Adéwalé from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag DLC Freedom Cry
Elsewhere in gaming, Naughty Dogs’ other critically acclaimed series, Uncharted features a roguish, Indiana Jones-inspired archetype, with the expected constellation of attractive women orbiting his exploits. Women are rarely portrayed outside of rewards or sexualized scenery in contemporary western action games, and Uncharted is no exception. The majority of women characters wind up in bed with Drake, sometimes as a means of humour, settling the score for a male rivalry. Take his story arc with Rika Raja: Raja was introduced in the series’ motion comic, Eye of Indra and was subsequently offered as a multiplayer skin in the Uncharted 2: Among Thieves DLC for $2.50. Unfortunately, her inclusion was a one-time offer, to be used exclusively in that chapter.
Though offering diverse content through DLC offers AAA companies a profit, their main priority is to continue pandering to white male demographics, appearing as politically neutral as possible. Mass Effect 3 has garnered recognition for offering players multiple options to romance and build relationships with the game’s’ characters regardless of gender or sex, but the series’ gradual build to include the option reveals the industry’s insistent consideration for straight male sensibilities: Mass Effect 1 offered the option of gay romance, but only if the relationship was between two female characters. While many would mark this as a step towards progress, lesbian sexuality has long-been hijacked and objectified for straight male consumption in mass media. The decision to roll out a lesbian relationship before offering other options was no doubt influenced by what would more likely titillate than threaten their target straight male demographic. In response to whether Bioware was making a political statement, co-founder Ray Muzyka said “We’re neutral. It’s the player’s choice. It’s a role-playing game.”
Fire Emblem Fates takes a similar approach to the possibility of queer relationships, depending on which edition players purchase. In the Conquest edition, the male main character has the option of marrying a male character after bonding in battle. Similarly in the Birthright edition, the female main character may marry after bonding in battle. But the option to play in a universe that allows both, is only available in the third edition DLC, marking the version with the most diversity of choice as the most expensive option.
Here again, test-driving diversity through DLC treats diversity as an optional upgrade rather than fundamental world building and game design. With their focus insistently trained on the white cishetero male demographic, games companies continue to treat them, in both story development and design, as the default human, marketing inclusion of all other characters as additional, unnecessary, or extra. Marginalized players are so far from the default concept of human, that their only option in many cases is to pay an appearance fee to catch a glimpse of someone even remotely resembling them.
Keeping marginalized characters out of the base game and tucked into additional paid content ensures that they needn’t be included in marketing or press material, saving the latest brooding white male protagonist from sharing the box art cover with human props, and avoiding consumer complaints that inclusion of a few marginalized people threatens the medium’s white male uniquity. Additionally, DLC tacitly communicates a studio’s tentative commitment to such content; they’ll provide it at a cost to players but rarely, if ever, extend those characters opportunities to be front and center, included in the cost and campaign of the main game.
Video Games: Now with 68% more Diversity (if you can afford it)
Some of the best depictions of marginalized people in recent AAA games were introduced exclusively in DLC, presenting marginalized players with a harsh ultimatum that the games industry would never bring to white cishetero male players: pay extra or go without representation. AAA games are sold on average at $60, taking costs for a single game including DLC as high as $80. This makes for an expensive hobby, especially for marginalized players who — due to systemic pay gaps and discrimination — are less likely to earn as much as white male players and subsequently offer their disposable income to the medium. With more racial and gender minorities playing games than ever, leaving consideration for marginalized players out of core narrative and game design enables games companies to thoroughly monetize the inclusion of diverse content without making true concessions to the sizeable demographic.
Coding characters of colour and gender minorities as unnecessary, additional components of large-scale, elaborate worlds denies a huge population of players the escapism and fantasy AAA games purport to provide their audiences. The only people who are given free reign to escape into media are white cishetero men, the default human ideal under which all character and story design is influenced. Jane Espenson said the following about writing sci fi, but it applies to video games as well:
“If we can’t write diversity into sci fi, then what’s the point? You don’t create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones.”
Continuing to market and design games with a singular demographic in mind not only robs digital media of enriching, varied content, but insidiously implies whose patronage entitles them to games’ ostensibly universal escapism… leaving all others to prove they’re worthy of representation through further capitalistic commitment.