Next generation video games, diverse characters score big with Minnesota gamers

A collage of four people
MPR News asked Alesha Horn (left), Beth Korth, Alexander Nelson and Courtney Barrick about their thoughts on representation in the video games they play.
Courtesy Images

MPR News asked Minnesotans who enjoy video games and are part of the game development industry how they feel about the representation in the latest games and titles available. Here’s what they had to say.

Interview transcripts have been edited for clarity and brevity. Use the audio players to hear the answers to each question.

a screen grab from a video game livestream
Alesha Horn is a full-time Twitch streamer using the handle MinnesotaMocha.
Courtesy of MinnesotaMocha

Alesha Horn, 27, Bloomington

Video game streamer, Minnesota Mocha

As a Twitch streamer and a gamer — and just in general — how do you choose which content to stream?

I feel like a good analogy is when you go to a restaurant, like, what do you pick? There's so much stuff on the menu. And you gravitate towards what you enjoy or what you like.

So I enjoy playing first-person shooters. I enjoy playing Call of Duty, and they may not be the most popular games on the platform at the time. But I feel like what makes a good streamer, a good content creator, is just realness. People gravitate towards people that are real, authentic, genuine. If you're not enjoying the game that you're playing, people are going to notice that. They're going to realize that, and they're not going to want to stay. They're not going to want to play with you.

A woman sits for a photograph.
Alesha Horn is a full-time Twitch streamer using the handle MinnesotaMocha.
Courtesy of Alesha Horn, MinnesotaMocha

When I'm choosing what to play and what content to push, it's just, what am I going to have the most fun playing? Who am I going to have the most fun playing with? Do their vibes and their energy match mine?

Before you keep reading ...

MPR News is made by Members. Gifts from individuals fuel the programs that you and your neighbors rely on. Donate today to power news, analysis, and community conversations for all.

And I just like to push out inspiring content, like what can I do today? What can I say today? What can I share about myself, that's gonna kind of make a ripple effect and impact somebody watching across the world, across the country, and have a positive impact in that person's life.

I've always been really, really focused and driven on inspirational content, and helping people that may be in a dark space, and just being that light for them. I may not be like the biggest streamer, but I'm really proud of my community and have a really strong connection with the people that watch my content.

How powerful do you think video game influence is?

It's more powerful than people realize. And I think that a lot of like, the older generation sees gaming as like violence, and it's polluting the minds of young people. And it's the cause of a lot of terrible things that are happening like in schools or in the world… but it's such a place right now, where it's bringing people together.

I could be sitting here in my office in Bloomington, Minnesota, connecting with somebody that's in the UK, connecting with somebody that's in California, connecting with somebody that's in Canada, South America, and it's so much more than just sitting in a chair and playing a video game. It's storytelling, it's a fine art, it's a way of expressing yourself. And I feel like it's important for young people — and just people in general — to play video games and see characters or see a storyline and be able to relate with that character, with that storyline.

So I think it's, it's important to kind of push gaming in that direction of different ethnicities and things like that. Different sexualities, things that people can relate to, and can have a positive impact on their life, if that makes sense.

Do you have examples of when you saw a game or character that really resonates with you?

I think it's really cool like games like Apex (Legends), even they have, you know, a few like characters of color, which I think is really cool. And then games like “Grand Theft Auto,” or even like “Cyberpunk,” or I think even “Animal Crossing.” Those games where you can, you can create an avatar, or create a character that looks like you and feel more connected with the game and with the story is really cool.

Sometimes in the gaming realm, you see a lot of like, sexualization of female bodies… in my head, I'm like, “OK, like, why?” but I also kind of get where they're coming from, from like a marketing standpoint. But I would say along those lines, it's a little bit like, “why is that necessary?”

But for the most part, I think it's really cool that these companies and industries are including, you know, characters of color, and stuff like that. And I think there was even — I forgot the name of the game — I think it debuted at E3, where there was like a lesbian storyline, and being somebody in LGBTQ+ community, it's really cool to see those things being pushed in gaming as well.

Alexander Nelson, 25, Duluth

Tell me of a time when you first played a video game, or was there a video game where you actually felt a character really resonate with you?

A posed portrait of a man.
While he plays a number of different games, Alexander Nelson noted that there aren't many neurodivergent characters in video games that are shown in a positive light.
Courtesy of Alexander Nelson

Going back a little bit, probably, “The Witcher” games, and I know that sounds kind of weird, but you know, the main character Geralt. He's not very socially graceful, I guess would be a way to put it. Just sort of, you know, mannerisms and that thing I sort of saw myself doing. I'm not a 7-foot muscular guy with gray hair killing monsters. But you sort of see that bluntness would be one way to put, sort of lacking the — I want to say social skills sort of generalized — but you know, those social skills that this character doesn't have, I never developed as a kid.

How does it make you feel having more of these nuanced characters?

There aren't really a lot of good representations, you know, of an autistic person, you know, autism spectrum, that sort of thing in games. So I was drawn a lot towards these MMOs (massively multiplayer online), where you can just build your own character. Where you could, pretend they have whatever backstory. Things like that. Building custom characters as a kid in games like “City of Heroes,” or “World of Warcraft,” that sort of thing.

A lot of these single-player games where you have characters, they were written and designed to be that main character. You know, stereotypical, tall, muscular, that sort of thing. And you don't see those sort of subtle traits, that I myself noticed myself doing. I think one of the biggest positive ways that game developers, story writers, that sort of thing, include autistic representation would be sort of when you have an autistic character doing something, like stimming or not being, you know, extremely socially graceful, things like that, is you have the characters just accept it and you don't make a big deal out of it. Because the more you add this pomp and circumstance to other characters who's neurodivergent, you know, an autistic character, and it makes them look more like a token in my eyes than just, you know, an autistic character.

Do you remember a very negative portrayal of somebody who was neurodivergent?

I can't give a specific example because I cannot for the life of me remember what the game is called, but just in general, you see people with mental illness, autism, ADHD, all that stuff. It demonizes it. You'll get characters who… the stereotypical autistic character, you know, with a photographic memory. Really good at math, that sort of thing.

You'll also get these characters — I don’t know how to really put it — where they make the disability into something. Like sci-fi or fantasy so they make an allegory to like the disability and make it some demon magic or evil space alien thing. I guess the biggest thing that would help that sort of thing is just humanizing the disability. Humanizing autism, humanizing ADHD, mental illness, that sort of thing.

Or just general personal experience is to not have characters sort of treat those autistic characters like children. That's another huge thing I've just noticed. Just generally, throughout my life is, you say you are autistic, they start talking to you like you're a kindergartner. And like, I’m 26, you don't need to talk to me like I'm 10 or six.

If they changed the way they depict people on a spectrum, do you think that it would change the way people actually treat them?

You know, I want to say it would be helpful, but I'm also super cynical because it's just people don't seem to learn or understand when you tell them or show them something. So, you know, even when you're portrayed in this super positive light, you're still going to have these people with all these preconceived notions that are, “well, this person is x, so they must be y,” and that sort of thing.

Do you feel the gaming industry, or video games in general, have gotten better or worse in terms of representation?

A little of both. I still think it does need a lot of work. But, you know, I guess an example of a specific character would be Symmetra from “Overwatch.” It's a first-person shooter, it doesn't have tons of story or lore or anything behind it. But, you know, you get this little bit of a backstory of, “oh… she's an autistic character.” So that's part of it, but they're not making it the whole thing or trying to turn the whole character into this, you know, caricature of autism or what they think autism is.

Beth Korth, 38, Twin Cities

Developer of Verdant Skies, local chapter director of the International Game Developers Association.

What exactly does representation mean to you, as a person who writes stories for gaming?

A profile picture of a woman.
Beth Korth is a developer of the game "Verdant Skies" and director of the International Game Developers Association Twin Cities chapter.
Courtesy Image

I think it's funny because like when I think about where we are right now, I think we've made some really good steps, like some really good progress, because I remember when I couldn't play a female character at all.

So it's been really nice to know that like, there's an effort being made, but what I think is lacking for me is like the representation of specific histories and cultural type stuff, because there's a lot of like, a lot of countries have trouble getting their games like published and developed.

There are great stories that could come out of places that like, I don't see a lot of games from, like smaller countries.

I would love to learn about those people through a story that's authentically told by someone from that group of people. I think that we're doing better with like, being able to have different skin tones, different genders, different physical representations and games, but I think that the stories that are like really authentic and really unique aren't being told as much.

When you and your husband developed ‘Verdant Skies,’ you said that you wished you hired more people who would be able to write stories? Could you walk me through that reflection?

I got the privilege of meeting, Toiya Kristen Finley (a narrative design and game writer)… and she actually offered to do a sensitivity read-edit of some of our characters. And so after getting some feedback from her, it was like, OK… I did OK with this story, but maybe… it could have been a lot better. Because … there are things that are really charged, and really heavy to unpack that, just certain word choices can be really triggering for different communities that like, I'm not a part of those communities, I don't know that.

So I think that, starting to work with her and then sort of thinking about, how do I feel when men tell my story? Like, I know that sounds terrible, but I don't have anything against male developers. Like, I love them. I work with a bunch of them.

But it's different when you get to tell your own story, than when someone tries to tell it for you. I love all the badass women in video games, but I feel like a lot of them do still feel kind of one-dimensional. Because it's like, if you weren't written to be someone with like, all those drives and thoughts and feelings and different experiences, it's kind of difficult to convey that if you haven't lived it.

Can you think of a game that you played where you felt there was a character that you that truly resonated with you?

I tend to play games that like, you get to choose who you are, and you play as like your main character. I'm one of the “sit in character design for an hour before you load ‘Skyrim’” kind of person. So most games that I play, I put myself on to the character that's being played.

I just started playing “Guild Wars 2” last year. And the storyline to that, I felt the character that you play says things that you don't get to pick. I mean, you get to choose some things, but she basically makes decisions and says things. And I felt kind of like I identified with her, not because she was a woman who was a badass — I mean, she is a badass she uses her foot to kick open doors. That’s her key, it’s a joke. “Can you use your foot key, ma’am?”

But she makes mistakes, she screws up, and people get hurt. And she just keeps going. That’s something that I really like in a story, is like, not perfect characters. I mean, everybody makes mistakes. Everybody.

That was kind of cool in “Dragon Age: Inquisition.” You start out the game and you’re the chosen one. Or are you? You don’t know. And as you play through it, you can choose to play like you’re absolutely sure you are, or [act like] I’m definitely not. And just being able to make those decisions and make those decisions and make bad choices where people sometimes die. I think those stories are what make me feel like I can connect with it. Because it’s like a human thing. Like, I make mistakes. Oh, they really screwed up. Oh it’s OK, I do too.

When we're looking at creating something for gamers in general and what they're looking for, what does it mean when we're looking for representation?

When I think about representation in games from a developer standpoint, I feel like I'm more of an advocate… because I know that I can't tell all those stories.

So I think one of the things that in tech, in general. You get better products, when you have more voices at the table when it's being created, right? So games are the same way. And that's one of the things that I've been, like, kind of dedicated to, over the last like five years or so is trying to open more pathways for more diverse people to be making games.

Because there's a lot of people who don't think it's an option. There's a lot of people who don't really know that the other art that they do could become digital art and stuff like that. So I think one of the things is just getting more voices in the room when games are made.

Triple-A studios, I don't know how they do that, because they're gambling every time they release a game because they have billion-dollar budgets or whatever. And so independent developers, like myself and a lot of my friends… we don't make the game for money, we make the game that we want to make. And so that's kind of why I think you see a lot more diversity and representation and a lot more like unique and risks taken in smaller studios because there's not a lot to lose either.

But I think even triple-A studios are starting to get like actual units where they have like, consultants, if they aren't going to hire someone to write it, they'll at least ask someone to read it and make sure that it's not terribly offensive. But that's the solution is more voices in the room when they're being made. That's the only way to get like that authentic representation.

Courtney Barrick, 34, Minneapolis

What got you into video games? What do you love about them?

I started playing video games when I was little, my dad is the kind of guy who like, likes new electronics.

A person holds a game controller and looks at the camera.
Courtney Barrick is a gamer who lives in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Courtney Barrick

So we got like a [PlayStation 1] when they first came out. Well, probably I got hooked with Math Blaster on my computer, which was like my favorite game of all time. I just remember playing it for like hours.

And then. Yeah, just into all I've only ever had Playstations so I'm pretty biased to PlayStation, but I guess I have a [Nintendo] Switch. And I had a Game Boy when I was little but yeah, I just always been playing games. I was obsessed with Spyro when I was young, and Crash Bandicoot and all those games. And now I'm playing Playstation, of course still. I've been playing for I think it was like during pride month, they had like a best LGBTQ games or stuff like that, that you could play.

I have always hated the Assassin's Creed games, just because they always seem so dude-centric, which that's every game. So I was like, I want something different. And then I saw that you had the option of playing as a guy or girl in the most recent ones. So I've been playing “Assassin's Creed Odyssey,” which is really fun because I'm also a history nerd. And I don't I really should have played the Assassin's Creed games earlier, but because I'm like, way too into it. Like that. And then I played the “Valhalla” one right before and now I'm just pretty much waiting for the new “Horizon Zero Dawn” game to come out.

What do you look for in a good character? In terms of substance or representation?

I feel like when I'm looking now, I'll, I don't just start in game stores anymore. Because there, I have more choices, which is nice. Like in the past, I would just go to a game store and be like, “oh, there's a girl there that looks cool.” Or, “Oh, the story just sounds interesting.” But now I definitely look and read blogs, or whatever I can, to make sure people have full stories. Because, you know, like, a lot of time with diverse characters. They just sort of throw them in there. They're just sort of there to like, fill the quota or whatever. And it's just like, no, that's not interesting at all.

Like I don't want to just play another white dude. Like, I want to play someone who's interesting. I didn't even know about “The Last of Us” games, which I am obsessed with. I looked first because I love survivalist games. And I was like, OK, this story sounds cool. In the first game, you know, (Ellie is) just a little kid. And so there's not really like the whole, she's, she's not queer or anything like that. But she is in the second game, which, you know, connects with me because I am as well. So that wouldn't be like it even more.

But when I was looking for that game, I remember just hearing a lot of good things about it. And a lot of women were posting about it. And so that made me like, OK, that's more interesting. It's different people writing about it more, you know, more diversity in the writing about the game itself. And I think that's what really pulled me in. But yeah, when I'm picking, I just look for more diverse writers.

Where do you feel games are falling short in terms of representation?

I think they're getting better about writing, like women's stories, but they're not better about reading the first stories within that. You don't see women of color. You don't see, as often, you know, in the mainstream games at all. In indie games, I feel like you get a lot more of that. But that tells me that that's just a problem with funding within major games, they don't want to fund that storyline. And I think that's something that's definitely missing.

I also think, just like location-wise, I was trying to think of games set in like Minneapolis, and the only one I could think of was like “Tony Hawk Pro Skater,” the first one. There's like the downtown skating section, which was my favorite cuz I always played as Elissa steamer that's just like skating around. But I was like, there's, I mean, maybe Chicago? Chicago probably has quite a few games, but you don't get that much Midwest representation in games. I mean, I lived in Seattle for a while. And that's, I mean, there's quite a few games that are set in that area or the East Coast. I think it'd be interesting but you could do some cool like games in the Midwest, so it's just stuff like that, I think but they're really missing out on.

How do you find games to play? Where do you find your recommendations? Who do you look to to find games to play?

A lot of I think definitely so like small indie games are where I find like new interesting games and I find it on recommendations on Twitter from people I follow or Reddit. My wife is obsessed with indie games, so she knows everything. Usually, whatever she recommends I'm into playing.

As far as like big studios go all they're putting out at sequels anymore. Like there's no good original major games really. And so I keep an eye out for the games I love. I love the “Elder Scrolls” games. I love all the “Fallout” games and I like “Red Dead Redemption” and “Horizon Zero Dawn,” but I'm not looking at those for new games. I'm looking for new versions of old games.