: Sunday Meditation: The State Of Race In Gaming

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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

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New Comment System

Legacy Comment System (17 posts)

Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 1:41:19 AM

Like I said before, people are always gunna look for a place to play the "race card". In the words of Morgan Freeman, "The only way to move past racism is to not talk about it". I wish a developer would just say STFU, if it offends you don't play it!

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 8:34:24 PM

Ok, first lets clarify what Freeman said.

In the context of the '60 Minutes conversation', he was merely talking about "race-consciousness".

That is, he didn't like that people were being branded with colors. This guys is yellow, that one is brown. That other one is black and this one is white.

He also didn't like that after being categorized as a color, a group of people were given a special month of the year to celebrate their existence. Which he found insulting. Since he believes African Americans are an integral part of the US.

So what he said was taken out of context and twisted around to mean that we should ignore racism. And maybe that way it'll go away. That's stupid.

Oh and BTW, he made those comments in 2006. 4 years later Morgan Freeman said: "The Tea Party is RACIST".

So if we going to stop talking about something, it should be quoting actors.

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Monday, May 26, 2014 @ 12:03:58 PM

Let's talk about your comment instead
you're welcome encyclopedia of morgan freeman

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Monday, May 26, 2014 @ 5:59:08 PM

Indeed, let's focus on my post.

Especially the part where I point out that Freeman's point was all about race-consciousness. It had nothing to do with avoiding talking about racism.

Because like I pointed out in my previous post, Freeman did pull the "race card" well after he made that comment. When he branded the Tea Party as being racist.

So I suggest that you quit using him to try and silence people who wanna discuss the issue.

Because this article isn't trying to silence people from being able to criticize games. Because games are a form of ART. And like any art form, it should be open to critique.

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Lawless SXE
Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 3:15:14 AM

Although I have nothing to add or object with, I just want to say that this was a great article, David.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 9:41:14 AM

Thank you, I honestly appreciate the feedback you guys give me. Whether you think it's good or crappy I want to hear about it, a lot of what I do is experimental and truly makes me nervous to put it out there.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 4:44:06 AM

Thanks for a great article. I've never seen a gaming site tackle a subject like race before.

(On a lighter note: in my half-awake state, I clicked on the link expecting a comparison of major gaming racing franchises! What a plonker! Where's my coffee?)

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 9:42:58 AM

You're welcome :)

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 7:13:32 AM

No it was a white man and a black woman at the raffle. I was so happy I was able to throw the ball at the racist piece o crap.

Mass Effect is so good in how it shows racism between REAL races. As in, not by the color of our skin but by the nature of our exterior appearance. In ME2 I loved reading how Prestly overcame his racism and was proud to have worked along side different races. How humanity couldn't have stopped Saren without them.

Honestly, the only thing I've ever felt is racist growing up is when people say something is racist. Like, "oh what a mexican thing to do." That type of thing always bothered me. Peoples cultures shouldn't make them automatically in the negative portion of the race. The same way not every white guy is a KKK member, the same way not every african american is a hardcore gangsta G sauce dawgy slice.

In games, it feels balanced. Sure, we don't see a lead african american male as much as we do a caucasian male but the same goes for an Asian man or woman. A hispanic male protagonist. If the writer is a Caucasian male you can assume the lead character will be the same race as he is.

One thing I do want to bring to attention is how impressed I was by Bioshock Infinite's knowledge of history. Not many people seem to remember that during the times of slavery, the irish were treated just as bad as the african americans. It was not just them. As a history nut that I am I've always been slightly annoyed at the entire "slavery thing" when every single race has endured the horrors of slavery.

This was a pretty adult topic to have a post about and I applaud you for doing it Mr. Nelson. I think you're World, but if I'm wrong I apologize.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 9:15:56 AM

It's World. I also applaud this article. You touch on a good point that protagonists have to be relatable to their writers first and from what I can tell that much of the industry LOOKS to be populated by caucasian males.

Some publishers might also have the same excuse they use for a lack of female protagonists: That they require a male on the cover art to draw attention and make sales. Though so few ( In fact I've never noticed any) titles have ever had cover art with characters of an obviously different descent from caucasian I don't think there's any merit to similar phenomena as a result.

I'll end saying that I feel the industry actually handles race fairly well for a community that takes a lot of flak for violence. They could certainly branch out with perspectives from different peoples and again they'll need writers who can represent those groups well.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 9:41:49 AM

Was it a woman? I just remembered wrong, maybe I'll go fix it just in case.

Last edited by WorldEndsWithMe on 5/25/2014 9:43:12 AM

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 10:26:59 AM

Enjoyed the article. I guess on some level I really just don't understand racism. We're currently having problems in Ireland with the Polish in our community being abused on the streets and attacked in their own homes by people who have clearly nothing better to do with their time. We're all human beings. I.JUST.DON'T.GET.IT :(

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 11:55:40 AM

That's absolutely true what I said about Assassin's Creed Liberation, it's the first game in the series that I'm liking.

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Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 12:15:51 PM

I almost didn't read this article, but I'm very glad I did. I'm impressed World, you've done an excellent job with this topic.

Living in the south, racism is an issue that you're faced with whether you like it or not. I was speaking to a black gentleman on a job site once who almost brought me to tears. The conversation was short, but when he answered me, he would avert his eyes downward and say, " yes sir, yes sir". He was extremely polite and the way he spoke to me was breaking my heart. He sounded as if he had been mistreated by whites.

I didn't play Bioshock Infinite but I would have found it satisfying as well to throw something at the master of ceremonies instead of the woman.

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Deleted User
Sunday, May 25, 2014 @ 3:05:29 PM

I don't agree that every other form of entertainment has a higher segregation of races than gaming or that gaming handles it with much more respect. As a black man, at the time a black teen, I remember playing Streets of Rage and being amazed that Adam Hunter was black. And since then, the majority of games that have black or minority characters in them, are there for the purpose of being that specific race. Wei Shen, Rico Rodriguez, Connor, Aveline, and noe Adewale from the new Freedom Cry expansion, all need to have their race and purpose of being the main character justified. In other mediums, being a different race hardly ever has to be explained and that's how it ahould be. Gaming has a LONG way to go. It's not racist, but it's certainly not equally inclusive. Yet.

Last edited by n/a on 5/25/2014 3:09:28 PM

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Monday, May 26, 2014 @ 10:43:46 AM

I completely disagree with your assessment of characters existing and needing justification for their race being present. Especially when you're talking about characters like Connor or Aveline in a story that takes place at a time when being one of those races carried an immense amount of weight for how they fit in that society and what would motivate their intentions.

For example, you couldn't have made Connor an Asian man who just happened to adopt Native American culture and values. THAT would have been a stretch that needed justification. Same for Aveline as, not only of African decent, but also a woman, who also would have had no political pull. That's not "justification"... it's the way it was for those people. And you'd be daft to suggest those differences shouldn't have to be explored.

I also don't like the tone you use describing "equally inclusive". You make it sound as though the ideal world has people completely ignore culture and race on the basis that "it doesn't matter"... or that it's bad to have people from certain races have a specific purpose for being there or that it's bad to have to explain cultural background to one another. But I completely disagree with that sentiment. I think we need to celebrate and see value in our unique cultures. In fact, diversity is what makes even the corporate world stronger. That doesn't just apply to minority populations, either. My wife and her whole family are Dutch. Very white and blonde/blue eyed too. But their Dutch decent gives them a unique sense of identity that is very different in a lot of ways from my Maritime upbringing. And when we go to one of our good friend's house, their customs are different too, and we'll enjoy a good Eritrean coffee.

No one has to "justify" anything, of course, but we are all very much aware of the cultural differences. They are noticed. But that's not bad, nor is it a sign that we have anywhere we need to go. We enjoy the differences, celebrate them, and are ultimately better off co-existing than not explaining where we come from or what makes us tick.

Last edited by Underdog15 on 5/26/2014 10:45:26 AM

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Monday, May 26, 2014 @ 10:55:45 AM

Some games tried a little too hard back in the day.

Remember Barret in FFVII? Only one other black man in the whole universe, and he was a thug for Don Corneo. Not a single black woman. Not only that, but no one in the whole world talks the way Barret talks. Heck, when you go to his home town, it's like a whole different world than what he was brought up in. lol... tried too hard I guess.

Anyways, it's too bad so many people still don't see the value in diversity. It makes sense... I mean, the more diverse the cultures and people that represent your community, the more strengths and tools that community has to it's disposal, as well as a greater number of countermeasures to weaknesses. Racism and segregation has been the demise of many civilizations in history. Crazy people still don't get it.

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