Racism and Games: Representation

There is a lot of racism in games. Much like sexism, some of this racism is overt and intentional (although examples of unintentional overt racism also exist), but thankfully, I suppose, for the most part games developers are not racist, they just don’t fully understand racism. Sometimes it seems that very few people do.

In gaming, as well as other popular mediums, it is mainly the use of lazy racial stereotypes that most commonly contributes to the poor representation of people of colour. Racial stereotypes are almost ubiquitous in gaming history but, if you needed some proof try some of these. The explanation for their use is simple: it saves anyone writing or designing games having to think about characterisation; with a legion of two-dimensional (not talking about graphics right now) racist caricatures to call upon, most of the work is already done for them. Don’t get me wrong – flat characters are fine – it’s just that when their characteristics play on damaging racial stereotypes, those stereotypes are being reinforced. Black character? He probably lives in the ‘hood, and gets by on petty crime (*seriously*, read that background). Asian (or a panda)? Then it goes without saying that they’re a martial artist. Russian or German? The go-to villains, because they’re obviously all monsters. Far too often, developers take one stereotypical racial characteristic, and extrapolate it into an entire character. Above all, it’s just plain insulting – to the racial and ethnic groups being depicted, and to the intelligence of anyone playing these games.

Most popular modern games offer up extremely alienating depictions of various racial and ethnic groups. The impact of this alienation has several implications, but most significantly it imposes a sense of ‘otherness’ on non-white, non-American/English (not British – an important distinction) racial and ethnic groups, which can lead to alienated groups being devalued, or even dehumanised. At the core of alienation is the philosophical concept of ‘the Other’, which is concerned with defining the self through difference from others; distancing the different from one’s own humanity. However, it is a concept with demonstrably significant social implications; it enables the systematic stripping of humanity from those who are not ‘normal’. The effects of alienation echo through history; it has served as the internal justification for persecution, slavery, and genocide. In a global society where white, heterosexual, cissexual men are widely considered to be the dominant group, alienation distances anyone who does not belong to this dominant demographic from the ‘norm’. The effect is twofold: firstly, it reinforces entitlement in the dominant group, and secondly, it damages the subjugated group’s self-image, sometimes to the point where negative stereotypes become self-fulfilling prophecies. It’s pretty despicable, yet we see it all the time.

Another effect of racial stereotyping in games is that it pushes the notion that gaming is an exclusive medium – whites only. Protagonists are predominantly white (and male, as previously discussed), whilst the best anyone else can hope for is to be a sidekick, and a dull, caricatured one at that. In fact, many popular games that do significantly feature people of colour are actually about organised crime, so well done the games industry for going entirely the wrong way again. The craziest thing is there’s no reason for it – why couldn’t Adam Jensen, Leon Kennedy, or Nathan Drake be black or Asian? Ok, I know Drake is supposed to a descendant of Sir Francis Drake (who actually had no children, so there) but there’s plenty of room in Nathan’s fictional ancestry for him to be Spanish. But instead, white people are perpetually saving the world. What a bunch of heroes we must be.  Without racially and ethnically diverse representation, fewer people from underrepresented or misrepresented groups will engage with games, and that’s a genuine shame.

Following on from that, there is a distinct strand of ethnocentrism in popular modern games. I’m immediately reminded of the recent furor over a game in which players had the *option* to play as a member of the Taliban. The contempt for this attribute of the game seems to stem from the notion that playing a game in which killing members of the Taliban (in their own country, via sizable invasion and occupation – not that I’m saying nothing should have been done) is moral, but killing US/UK troops is absolutely immoral. Ah, but the Taliban are aligned with Al-Qaeda, and they’re terrorists! Well, I’m not really in any position to argue with that. I mean, Al-Qaeda killed thousands of US civilians, on US soil. Of course they’re terrorists. Let’s just conveniently sweep THIS under the carpet, and we can all get back to believing that the US and UK are the ‘good guys’. The point I’m making is that the game in question – Medal of Honour – is actually noteworthy for its challenge of ethnocentrism (although I think the games industry has yet to produce its first story from a bombed Afghan ghetto that didn’t star the morons who bombed it), and therefore stood out as a focal point for derision in an industry that normally supports the idea that the terrorists live in Afghanistan, and the terrorised live in America, with no other views to be entertained. There are two sides to every conflict, and everyone fighting in those conflicts is a human being, with human motivations and feelings and experiences, and just by paying your taxes you could be supporting terrorism disguised as liberation, all around the world. Put that in your game and smoke it.

I know I said in a previous post that it’s not all doom and gloom, but actually it is. Even the boldest ethnic protagonist in recent memory – Nico Bellic, of Grand Theft Auto 4 (GTA4) – is starring in a game about violent crime. In the game’s defense, at least Nico is a reluctant criminal, simply looking for a new start away from his war-torn home (mostly). GTA4 took a big risk with an illegal Eastern-European immigrant for a protagonist, given the context of its release, at a time when Eastern European immigration to the US and UK were extremely hot topics. It was a brave choice, and offered as humanising a story as could be done within the parameters of a game about organised crime. Nico was as much a victim of war as a perpetrator, and the cruel culture he encounters in America simply won’t let him put the gun down. He is distrusted, manipulated, and betrayed by almost everyone he meets. At some point we have to step back from his story, and think about the immigrant experience – legal or otherwise. That’s powerful, and, were it not for the dissonance caused by participating in a necessarily violent video game, could put GTA4 up there alongside important social commentaries like Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle‘.

Just to bring the point home, and possibly repeat myself, games are an extremely influential social medium. Games developers have an obligation to question the values their games transmit, and to question the ways in which characters within games can challenge or support racial or ethnic stereotypes. Yes, it makes a difficult job slightly more difficult, but laziness is hardly a justification for misrepresentation.

I’ll close by ruining your childhood: Street Fighter 2 was racist. Thank you and goodnight.


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