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Shelby Gray, 2023 2nd Place Identity, Culture, and Languages

The Identity, Culture, and Languages category welcomes submissions that focus on exploring elements of identity, culture, or languages, through the written word. This category seeks writing that investigates the human experience, particularly through perspectives that are frequently marginalized or excluded, which may include members of the LGBT+ community, people with disabilities, non-citizens, and multilingual writers. Submissions are open to projects written in any course, at any level. There are no length limits for this category. Shelby Gray wrote the 2nd place submission in the Identity, Cultures, and Languages category for the 2023 President’s Writing Awards.

About Shelby

Gray is sitting in a yellow lounge chair outside of a London train station. They are smiling with the sun in their eyes

Gray is a junior majoring in Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication. They are from northern Idaho with this being their first year at Boise State, having transferred from North Idaho College. Outside of academics, their best friend is a grey and white poodle mix named Goose, who has an affinity for cheese and stealing socks. Together, the two will often be seen roller-skating on the Greenbelt or wandering around campus terrorizing the local squirrel population.

Winning Manuscript – Pokemon and Diversity in Gaming

The goal is to be “the very best, like no one ever was.” The Pokémon games allow each individual chance at gathering and befriending strange creatures and becoming the champion. They allowed people to put themselves inside the game, and because of that, they have been a greatly successful franchise. However, for a game that allows the players to experience something otherworldly, it doesn’t allow for the player to truly exist within the game: to have an avatar that fully represents themselves. The popular gaming community, as a whole, is not accepting or adaptive to those who aren’t the classic demographic of men.

For many players, the gaming community shows how non inclusive it is to people who are different. Bee, known as Mythlow online, is a non-binary highschool student who has struggled with seeing themselves in the games that they play, especially from a young age. They play a wide swath of games ranging from relaxed games like Pokemon and Animal Crossing to intense first-person shooters like Overwatch and Call of Duty. Being outside of the gender binary, they say that “it’s rare that I can really be myself in a game, most playable characters are male or female”. As a result, “it really takes me out of the game when I am greeted with a ‘young lady’ or a ‘young man’ by a character in a story game”. Despite that, Bee has been a long-time player of the Pokémon games even though their avatars have never felt quite right (Mythlow).

The first set of Pokémon games to release, Red, Blue, and Yellow, featured a single playable character. This character was similar to the well-known Pokémon trainer in the show, Ash. Most of the following games were similar in that respect. There was little demand for the ability to directly inject the player into the game. Many games around this time in the early 2000s were like this.

The games emulated the show in that respect. You got to control the main character of the show but also have a hand in the events in the Pokémon series. Work your way up to the top, gather your team, befriend the wild creatures in your pocket and you might just get there. The catch was that you had to do it as the male main character; you couldn’t truly be yourself within the game.

The gaming industry is difficult to break into for people who are not men. So much of the popular games, even today, are marketed as being masculine and the communities reflect that. In the 90s there were games marketed towards girls but they had their downfalls. These games were centered around what young girls could do for the world with product production and problem solving (Kafai et al. 129). This pushes a lot of girls to view the vast majority of games to not be for them and the ones that are for them are incredibly limited.

Around this time as well, there were games that allowed for a strong female character to be playable. Games like World of Warcraft provided such characters, but yet they still didn’t apply to most of the female player-base. These characters were little more than a thinly-veiled sex appeal to promote the games, their minimal outfits were far less than realistic for the fighting activity for the characters (Kafai et al. 21). While the gaming industry was indeed providing representation to the player base that weren’t men, it was clear that they still considered men to be the primary audience.
The sexualization of women within the gaming community, however, doesn’t stop at the in-game characters. According to a report by Daniel Fu at UCLA, the actual experience of being female in the gaming community is sexualized (15). If you search the term “gamer girls” into Google, you will be faced with unrealistic provocative versions of women who play video games. The marketing focus on men in the early phases of video game culture helped perpetuate how unwelcome non-men were in the community.

Up until 2013, the options of actual playable character representation was nonexistent in the Pokémon franchise. With the release of Pokémon X and Y, the trainer now had options: you could play as male or female. The player could choose from a limited amount of clothing options to make this character their own.
The more recent set of games that have been released, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet (2022), are still within these confines. At the start of the game, the player is presented with a question: “What do you look like?” They are then asked to select a player card with the options of male and female with varying hair and skin colors. This decision affects the ways in which the non-playable characters refer to you in terms such as young lady or man along with the pronouns used in dialogue scenes. While clothing and other customization options are no longer locked behind the player’s selected gender, it doesn’t meet the needs for representation of the player base.

What the Pokémon games still lack is the possibility for gender expression. People who land outside of the gender binary: non-binary, genderfluid, and others who don’t identify as just male or female, have difficulty seeing themselves represented in popular video games. Bee talks about how each time they start up a new game, they consider how their choice of character selection will affect the gameplay. “I’ve restarted games several hours in simply because I couldn’t stand the set of pronouns or gendered phrases that came with my character’s looks and I couldn’t change it without restarting,” (Mythlow). With the options being within the binary, Bee, who falls outside of that struggles with conceding to something they are not.
Unlike many modern games, the gender presentation that is selected at the beginning of the game affects major details of the storyline. Non-playable characters that the trainer interacts with refer to the player with heavily gendered terms that reinforce the gender binary that may not apply to the player.

Non-binary people like Bee, who are those who fall outside of the binary (male and female) don’t have an option that suits them in the character selection screen and will be referred to with gendered pronouns and terms throughout the Pokémon games. In addition, gender-fluid people, who experience different genders and expressions over time, aren’t able to adjust their character’s gender throughout the playthrough and still don’t have the options that truly make sense (Reuvini). For a game that emphasizes the player themselves becoming the trainer and immersing them in that world, this is entirely counter-intuitive.

Beyond that, video games have always been a space for people to explore different facets of the world and their own perception of that. They allow people to experiment with different gender identities. “Having the ability to adjust how my character acts or dresses regardless of what gender was chosen at the beginning of the game is really important,” Bee notes, “Sometimes how I want to present myself in-game changes over time and video games are a great way to play around with that” (Mythlow). Being able to experiment with different expressions, aesthetics, and identities is a significant portion of the video games. This aspect of video games was especially near to Bee’s heart: “As I was first starting to learn about my gender identity, it was a safe place to learn about how I saw myself and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through that without that outlet” (Mythlow). And thus, when games like Pokémon allow for some freedom of choice, but not all of it, it sends the message to questioning LGTQ+ youth that they are required to stick to “the norm”.
The anonymity of a simple display name combined with opportunities to create a character that the player enjoys helps these games stand the test of time. The 2014 sandbox game, The Sims 4, is one of the most popular diverse games available today. According to The EnglishSimmer, an active advocate for LGBTQ+ representation in the gaming community on Youtube, “the Sims 4 has been a pioneering beacon in the gaming community” (TheEnglishSimmer 2:09). The game allows for free expression of gender and sexuality without bias. Recently, the game even came out with a pronoun update, allowing the player to adjust and change the character’s pronouns and gender expression independently.

The communities backing up the games are a major part of how inclusive the game itself becomes. Kitfox games has an excellent article on how game developers can contribute and foster a welcoming community, even before the release of the game. Here they say “We design the community outside of the game that these communities will interact in, as well as the tone, the rules, and the experience they will have in these spaces” (Tran). This sets what the developer and the leaders of the project expect of the community and can market towards their audience. This allows for spaces on social media to be created and expectations to be set far before anyone plays the game. Most importantly, it helps the developers shape the community’s thoughts about the game before the players truly interact. This helps the lifetime value of the developer’s career: it creates connections and encourages players to return to play the new projects the developer is working on.

With larger-production studios like Pokémon, this isn’t seen as important as it would be for a smaller studio. Thus, these games tend to encourage a wide swath of attitudes within the community, and they’re not always positive. Online competitive games like League of Legends promote toxic and harmful behavior, which occurs in 60% percent of their online matches (Fu 23). The anonymity and the ranking system embedded in the game causes players to have the confidence to attack someone else without it feeling personal to the attacker.

Not only that the toxic culture surrounding these games centers around minorities, often using slurs and stereotypes to put others down. For women specifically, this is incredibly difficult because so often “female gamers felt that they were playing as a representation not of their own ability but were representing all female gamers,” (Fu 15). Their own success or failures aren’t entirely their own. When they win they receive backhanded comments like the popular: “you’re good, for a girl.” This all combines to deter people who aren’t men from games, which then perpetuates the stereotype that video games are for guys and especially not for those who are different.

The hostility seen in these online games pushes a large demographic away from interacting in online lobbies. Bee has been playing games like Overwatch and Call of Duty for several years now and they have only spoken a handful of times in random lobbies, something that is common for most players. “My voice is quite feminine so most people assume I’m a girl and start with something along the lines of ‘go make me a sandwich’ or I’m just flat-out ignored or spoken over” because of this reason and people’s hostility towards anyone, Bee avoids speaking in online random lobbies. “It’s just not worth my time, I’d rather just enjoy my time than get called slurs,” (Mythlow).

With smaller games and production companies, the representation of the LGBTQ+ and female demographics are far more prevalent. These developers care much more about the people who are going to be playing these games rather than profit. Cozy Indie games who’s developers focus on the community before launch tend to be excellent examples of excellent representation. The game Mail Time, which is still in its Beta testing, has a range of different customization options for appearance with a gender-neutral model of the main character. More importantly, the player is prompted to select their pronouns at the start of the game with the opportunity to change them and the chosen name at any point in the play-through. This allows for the player to experiment with expression and identity freely, which is such an important part of video games.

Overall, the gaming experience should include and represent people from every facet of life. For players like Bee, the gaming community is non inclusive and restricts them from much of what videogames have to offer. They are great tools for allowing people to explore facets of themselves and appearance and thus could do better in accommodating those who are different. Allowing for some customization for a select group of people, while ignoring even more of it is counter-productive when immersion is the selling point, like in the Pokémon franchise. While the gaming community has made substantial effort to include and represent the player base, it should continue to develop and evolve over time.

Works Cited

  • Fu, Daniel. A Look at Gaming Culture and Gaming Related Problems: From a Gamer’s Perspective.
  • Kafai, Yasmin B., et al., editors. Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. MIT Press, 2011.
  • League of Legends. Windows PC version. Riot Games, 2006.
  • Mail Time. Windows Beta Test. KelaMakesGames, 2021.
  • Mythlow, Bee. Interview. Conducted by Shelby Gray. November 28 2022.
  • Pokémon Red, and Blue. Game Boy. Game Freak, 1996.
  • Pokémon Scarlet and Violet. Nintendo Switch. Game Freak, 2022.
  • Pokémon X and Y. Nintendo 3DS. Game Freak, 2013.
  • Reuveni, Victoria. “#Tuesdayterms: Gender Fluid, Genderqueer, Non-Binary, Agender.” Center for Positive Sexuality, 22 June 2021,
  • The Sims 4. Windows PC version. Electronic Arts 2014.
    TheEnglishSimmer, director. More LGBTQ+ Representation in The Sims 4. YouTube, YouTube, 16 June 2019, Accessed 19 Sept. 2022.
  • Tran, Victoria. “Designing Communities for Kindness.” Medium, Kitfox Games Development, 9 Sept. 2020,
    World of Warcraft. Windows PC version. Blizzard Entertainment, 2004.