Sunday Meditation: The State Of Race In Gaming
[Disclaimer: I fully recognize the controversial nature of this topic, if something I say bothers a reader greatly or they simply disagree I only ask that they be civil in their responses and criticisms. What matters is that the conversation exists because it is worth having.]
Race is a subject that only comes up once in awhile in gaming news, and for good reason.
A few days ago there was a moderate controversy over an image promoting Far Cry 4. It showed a man that some people interpreted to be Caucasian in a dominant position over a darker skinned man with his hands tied, clearly a captive. The developers responded that the “white” man was not Caucasian anyway, indicating the image had been misinterpreted. The conversation that ensued around this topic included a lot of personal opinions on race representation in general.
Personally, I did see what people could be upset about but basically gave them the benefit of the doubt. The reason I was inclined to do so is that in recent years the topic of race and race relations has been dealt with in video games on a regular basis. Racism appears in some of the best games of the last generation, usually through racially charged imagery and an influx of protagonists that represent more than fearless white males. Though race and racism comes up in these games, the games themselves aren't racist.
As I said, video games deal with the topic deftly and with more decency than any other entertainment medium in my opinion. In Bioshock Infinite when I won the raffle (avert your eyes if you haven't played it yet) and saw that my reward was to bean a black woman in the head with a ball amidst a group of howling laughing racists I felt disgusted. It was one of those visceral gut feelings. Then I immediately realized how important that was, a game had really touched a nerve in me, thereby making its world more real. It was then more satisfying to switch targets and throw the ball at the master of ceremonies. Also I probably wasn't the only one who had a twinge of sympathy for Lee in The Walking Dead in that comedic scene where Kenny assumes Lee knows how to pick a lock. That kind of thing wouldn't be as emotionally powerful if we, as players, hadn't formed a connection to that virtual world and its people.
When a game story hits you in your gut you know it's good. Bioshock Infinite didn't feed us some lame “racism is bad” message either. That sort of thing would just insult our intelligence. No, we also got to see the other side of things in that game, what the mostly black resistance called the Vox Populi (Voice of the People) was capable of. Justice became blurred. All of this was just a part of the game's story, not the sole focus, and so was an issue dealt with in a fair way to bring about some thought on the part of the gamer. How does one respond to a giant billboard degrading black babies? Virtual worlds let us sometimes see what common reality was once like, and so it becomes a part of the experience. I've never heard a serious adult person criticize how Bioshock Infinite handled that, but perhaps there are some out there. What's important is we not be afraid of the conversation.
I mentioned before the rise of more diversity in video game protagonists. Obviously it isn't a brand new thing, we've had characters of many colors and creeds all the way through, but only now are we able to experience some of the real drama of their virtual lives. Playing as C.J. in GTA San Andreas just isn't the same as experiencing the criminal rise of Franklin Clinton and his son-father relationship with Michael in GTA V. Delsin Rowe of inFamous: Second Son was greatly motivated by the pride of his Native American tribe when fighting against the oppressive D.U.P. The historical story line in Assassin's Creed III has a half British and half Native protagonist in Connor Kenway. I am especially enjoying the story surrounding Aveline, an African American woman, in Assassin's Creed Liberation. I loved getting into the Chinese culture with Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs and who could forget the amazing open world antics of Rico Rodriguez in Just Cause 2? Granted, just having multicultural main characters isn't enough to say that everything is hunky dory but I have a point in listing them. These are successful games, that tells me what I've always suspected, gamers really don't care much about race and gender issues when it comes to our hobby. We just want a great, fun game. Getting to be a part of virtual worlds presenting different cultures is fun, all gaming is role playing and we are attracted to great characters whoever they are. I'm sure there are board rooms where marketing people try to push developers to go with the hulking white male every time, but as time goes on we have more and more examples that it isn't necessary for high sales. That means developers are free to tell the stories the want to tell with the characters they believe are best no matter what color they are or how they identify themselves in this complex socially constructed thing we call race.
Finally I'd like to talk about the gamers themselves. When you are in the trenches and bullets are flying, experience points are on the line and your buddy is covering your retreat you don't stop to think about whether the human being on the other end of the broadband connection is anything other than a gamer. The game avatar is a great invention, it is a digital representation of a human being, nothing more and nothing less. In real life people aren't perfect, it isn't a black and white issue of “Gotcha! You're a racist!” or “This guy is a Saint, he sees no color,”; people have biases, fears, and faults that happen on a subconscious level. Human beings are complex, emotional creatures. When you're mind is free of your body and inside a game all of those things tend to disappear when the game world takes over. I think that can be an amazing thing. Again though, it isn't all worldwide hand-holding. There are still a lot of racial slurs used online mostly by young folks that are still having trouble controlling themselves. We shouldn't let that speak much for how gamers really are though, all young people push boundaries and act foolish. I think on a very basic level across the board the issue doesn't permeate gaming the way it does other media. When it comes to music or movies or TV shows most of the time they have a high degree of segregation. Black folks get a lot of Tyler Perry movies and shows, there are comedies that feature mostly black characters and the same goes with music groups and their major fan base. While films like The Butler and 12 Years a Slave may be winning awards, mainstream entertainment still has a basic structure which only plays at diversity while seeking blockbuster status. There's nothing wrong with entertainment made mainly for certain cultures; folks tend to relate to things from the culture they are used to. Gaming has a culture all its own, I don't see segregation in gaming, I see people with a common interest getting excited about the same things. That brings us together.
Race is always a sensitive issue, and it will continue to pop up in news stories about games. Whenever old scabs get picked they tend to heal over quickly because the product just never turns out to be the awful racist thing people talked about. More often than not the game handles the issue expertly when it comes up as with Ken Levine's Bioshock Infinite story. If you do feel that having more heroes representative of all the different shades and styles of humanity then you probably have to admit that the state of race in gaming is improving greatly. We've come a long way from Perfect Dark where the West got a white Joanna Dark and the East got an Asian Joanna Dark. In many RPGs we have the option to make our character any race we want, either to match them to ourselves or to just be someone else. In other words, everyone is welcome. My feeling is, for gamers, there's not much to worry over when these news stories come up.
After all, we've been living in harmony with elves, werewolves, vampires, aliens, and immortal gods for decades. Human races? That's kids stuff.
5/25/2014 David D. Nelson