Game Trailer representation responsibilities

by Brandon Pham
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If a game trailer is intended to be a summation of a game, then one of many factors it’s important to consider is how it represents different genders, cultures, ethnicities, ages, etc.

For example, the Mass Effect series allows you to play as either a male or female version of the main character Shepard, but its trailers didn’t feature female Shepard until Mass Effect 3’s Female Shepard Cinematic Trailer and Gameplay Trailer. Does only two trailers for one game out of a trilogy represent the game creators’ wishes?

You might think making multiple versions of the trailers qualifies as more work but only if you believe those multiple version are not essential or valued elements of the trailer campaign. For example, I think most trailer makers would not consider fancy motion graphics inessential or lacking value even though they are indeed much more work than simple white text over gameplay. It’s only “more” work if you treat it as inessential.

I do my best to make these considerations in my work, but I fully admit that as a privileged, cisgender, heterosexual man, I’m sure I have my own blind spots. I think blind spots can lead to things like the gender representation in this trailer for Tetris Effect: Connected.

The first 5 people in this trailer appear to be male presenting, and only after then do we first see some people who are female presenting. The gender and racial diversity of the people in the trailer expands from there, but it still seems to favor men over women. Tetris Effect’s themes and experience are about being connected with the people of the world. Seeing as women are at least half of the world’s population, I think it only makes sense to have representation as diverse and as possible in this trailer down to how they’re split up as they appear one by one.

To be clear, I don’t think the trailer maker did this maliciously or is a bad person. This is just one detail which may not have occurred when inserting the people featured in the trailer. It’s up to the trailer makers to be aware of their game’s politics just like it is to know about white flashes of light possibly causing epileptic seizures. It’s something in the trailer which will help inform the audience about the game.

Politics can get extremely complicated and nuanced, so I’m limiting the topic of this to representation because it’s a fairly common choice I’m faced with when making trailers if/when I see a game appears to care about it. For example, the game Empire of Sin is about Chicago mob bosses in the 1920s and features male and female characters of many ages and ethnicities. Just from looking at the character select screen, and dozens of side characters, I could see the game developers cared about the diversity of the people represented in the game. Therefore, I knew I’d be remiss to make the cast of characters in the gameplay trailer any less diverse. I was also careful to do this for the pre-order trailer I made.

If the situation were reversed and this was 7 women and one man, I suspect there would be a lot of comments asking why. So why not ask the same for this?

If the situation were reversed and this was 7 women and one man, I suspect there would be a lot of comments asking why.
So why not ask the same for this?

I did see some YouTube comments from people decrying the people of color represented in the game (as if they didn’t exist in the 1920s), but I didn’t view this as a failure as far as the trailer is concerned. I think a trailer should help both people who would and would NOT like a game make an informed purchasing decision. Just like I want to inform fans and haters that Empire of Sin is a tactical strategy game, I want inform people who do and don’t want a diverse cast of characters (if they don’t care either way, then they’re still covered)

This sort of consideration usually only comes up when there’s a game with multiple playable characters, or variety of NPCs, but I try to be very mindful of it when I’m working on those games. Making game trailers is a lot of work, and it can be easy to show a very homogeneous cast of characters especially if the game requires some more digging for characters who represent minorities.

Especially in a game where there is no one default character, in the trailer there should be no assumptions about who is in the majority of the shots, or if anyone has a majority. It’s just another part of the conversation with the creators of the game to hone in on the best way to make a trailer which reflects their creative decisions.

Empire of Sin's cast of characters also allowed me to include a range of ages.

Empire of Sin’s cast of characters also allowed me to include a range of ages.

I think the real tricky territory is if for example the trailer is for a game where say 90% of the cast is white men, but the rest are people from marginalized communities. Since a trailer is very short it might be possible for the representation to look very diverse because there’s only time to show say, four or five characters if not fewer. By watching this trailer the audience might be led to believe there’s a wide range of diverse characters to choose from. So as the trailer maker, what is the most responsible choice to make?

Personally, in that situation I’d likely just show mostly white male characters because that would feel like an honest depiction of the game. But what if the game is more like 50-60% white men and women? How closely should the ratio of characters in the trailer match that of what’s in the game? Ultimately, these are conversations to have between the trailer makers and the creatives behind the game to figure out what is the most genuine way to address this one of many creative decisions.

The sound during this part of the Romeo Must Die trailer isn't a hit/whoosh, it's my eyes rolling upon seeing it 🙄

The sound during this part of the Romeo Must Die trailer isn’t a hit/whoosh, it’s my eyes rolling upon seeing it 🙄

This is just one of many reasons working with a diverse team of people can make the work better and easier. We all have different lived experiences which feel second nature to us, but completely foreign to others.

For example, as an Asian-American person, whenever I watch media made by largely or entirely non-Asian creative teams, in my head I count down the seconds until one of the Asian characters mention the word “honor.” This is something which pops up all the time in media, and yet never in any way in my lived experience or that of my Asian-American friends. And yet, in so much Western media, Asian characters seem to talk about honor about as much as the Klingons in Star Trek. So if I were working on a trailer for a game focused on Asian characters I would probably call out the use of the word in something like the title cards as cliché and eye rolling.

In a perfect world, games with diverse casts of characters would make it difficult to NOT be representative of a wide variety of people, but until then be mindful of the representation in your game trailers. Just like many other factors in a game’s design, it can be the difference between someone deciding whether or not your game is for them!

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