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Aisha Tyler on Race, Sexism and Video Games (Q&A)

"There's always going to be haters, but it's definitely improved."

Courtesy Aisha Tyler

In April, the Entertainment Software Association touted this figure: About 48 percent of all gamers are women.

A heartening figure perhaps, but the mainstream of the gaming industry still has a sexist problem. Not to mention a racist problem. And a homophobic problem. And an anti-transgender problem too.

Still, in a recent interview, actor and longtime gamer Aisha Tyler said the industry is learning — slowly, but surely. On Monday, Tyler will host Ubisoft’s press conference at E3 for the third consecutive year, helping to premiere some of the new titles the gaming company thinks will energize its base.

She also made a cameo appearance in Ubisoft’s new game Watch Dogs as a non-playable character in the game’s virtual recreation of Chicago. Tyler spoke to Re/code about how she thinks the gaming world is changing as it grows more diverse.

Re/code: Two years ago, you wrote a widely shared post on Facebook about the backlash you’ve received from people who don’t believe you’re a “real gamer.” In those two years, has anything changed?

Aisha Tyler: Yeah, I think so. I’ve always been playing, but the more time I spend talking about it, I think the reaction is changing. But still now, even, I’ve been tweeting a lot about Watch Dogs and people will go, “Wait a minute. You game?” But the tone and the percentage of negative responses has definitely diminished over time. There’s always going to be haters, but it’s definitely improved.

What is it specifically that those haters are reacting to? Is it the assumption that only guys play games?

Tyler: It’s kind of a very boilerplate, “Oh these girls that show up at these shows are trying to glom on to our culture. They don’t really play.” It may also be a reaction to the videogame equivalent of car girls that show up at conferences and they’re meant to lure guys in. There’s just a general idea that they hired some actress who doesn’t know what she’s talking about. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. The thing I find fascinating about it is, it’s a marginalized culture of gamers, and the associated culture of nerds, a group of people who’ve been ostracized and excluded. And now they’re really busy trying to exclude other people. It’s like, “I was hazed. And now I’m going to haze.”

And you think that culture as a whole is improving?

Tyler: Yeah, totally. The more people who come forward and talk about how much they love gaming, how much they talk about individuality and diversity, the more gamers of color that come out, and gay gamers that come out and everybody talking about what they love — that’s what the community has in common, a love of gaming. Instead of focusing on, oh, there’s a black lady who plays videogames, focus on that there’s another person out there who loves the same stuff that you do.

One of the big issues people talk about in games is representation, making more main characters who are women or minorities or from other under-represented groups. Do you agree that that’s important, playing as someone you look like in real life?

Tyler: I think that’s happening already, especially in games where you create your own avatar, something like Mass Effect or Fallout. Players are playing themselves, and they’ve been doing that for a long time in MMORPGs [massively multiplayer online role-playing games]. In some of the games that are campaigns, I think some of the most successful games of the past few years — something like Gears of War, where the secondary lead in the co-op mode is latino, and then a game like The Walking Dead, the lead is a black man.

And Clementine [in The Walking Dead], for all intents and purposes, is probably half-Asian. I think we’re starting to see an evolution in characters, for sure. They’re starting to look more like the real world. The NPC [non-playable character] population in Watch Dogs is a pretty diverse population, it resembles the population of real Chicago. If you’re going to create an immersive open world, it has to look like the real one. Otherwise, there’s going to be cognitive dissonance.

Devil’s advocate to that, though: In Watch Dogs, you still have to play as a white dude.

Tyler: Yeah, that remains. I’m not saying we’ve had some kind of cataclysmic change overnight. I think it’s slow, but I think it’s happening. I thought the Walking Dead was a good example where it was a black male lead and an Asian kid, and that game was incredibly successful.

So to continue that change, is that something where game companies like Ubisoft or Telltale Games need to be taking the first step? Or does the audience need to speak up first?

Tyler: I don’t know. It’s hard because you can’t legislate creative diversity. I think it’s more that the gaming community’s more diverse, and they’re going to ask for more diverse experiences. They’re going to demand them. If you’re a game company, you want to create a singular gaming experience, and part of that is doing stuff that nobody else is doing. If you’re trying to create a game that feels different, you’re going to create a lead that feels different. It’s not going to be just another white guy.

As we go forward, people are going to want to play as those characters because they feel different. They don’t want to play the same kind of character over and over again. Some gamers always pick an avatar that looks just like them, but others want to live a different identity inside of a game.

It always makes me think of Super Mario Bros. 2, where Peach was just the best character in the game.

Tyler: Someone once came to me in a Q&A and said, “I want to write strong female characters, how do I do that?” I was like, “Just write a strong character. Don’t worry about writing a tough female character.” Just write robust characters that are interesting, and if you make them a female character it’s going to add a layer of complexity than if you write another 28-year-old special forces white guy.

This article originally appeared on

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