Why Do Videogame Covers Matter?

There’s been a lot of fuss over the recent Bioshock: Infinite cover, causing the developers to respond by including a reversible cover. It leaves the theme of the past games’ covers, and instead of featuring a Big Daddy, it features a manly character looking down with his head and up with his eyes as explosions and patriotic colors burst in the background. While this cover isn’t entirely misleading—those patriotic colors might hint at a world based in reality, but greatly altered—it does sell the game as more of a manly shooter than the emotional and compelling story that reviewers have painted it to be. In the end, the decision to go with this color was founded in reason—it’s what sells. It doesn’t look bad, as far as aesthetics go, but it’s still a terrible cover—and this is why.

Covers are the first thing that gamers look at when they see a game behind the glass case. The cover attracts new customers and gives them an impression of what they’re looking at. When you see a copy of Diablo II, you don’t expect to be going on a devout journey to spread the word of god. You expect to slay some demons. Likewise, when you look at the cover of Bioshock: Infinite, you don’t expect to be wandering around in an underwater city; You expect to have a patriotism-laced FPS experience where you shoot at strange objects first and ask questions later. While the cover is aesthetically pleasing, and will certainly propel sales, it’s not indicative of the main game and it leaves out a crucial character.

Why was the character left out? No word from the source, but the reason is still pretty clear. It’s because the character was a woman. I don’t normally rant about sexism, but this is a case where publishers are clearly afraid to put a woman on the cover. It’s not impossible: the newly revealed Last of Us cover features a woman in the foreground of the image—but only after Naughty Dog adamantly defended her spot on the cover. Publishers wanted to move her to the back. With a fairly equal gender distribution among gamers (despite what prevalent opinions will tell you), prohibiting half of them from relating to the cover character is a silly move on the part of publishers.

The issue of standard cover design isn’t limited to gender issues—it also extends to genre, audience, ethnicity, and sexuality. What we have on the market now is a vast majority of games featuring a stubbly white man with explosions or mist in the background, wielding his weapon of choice while looking incredibly serious. They don’t look bad, but they do look the same. If there is no variation in cover design, we are left with what is certainly a very diverse array of games with just a single target audience, whether the games were intended that way or not. If there are no risks or variations in cover design, both the games and the publishers suffer for failing to reach out to new audiences.

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