Experienced Points

Experienced Points
The Racism Blame Game

Shamus Young | 16 Mar 2012 21:00
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So, MovieBob has been talking about racism, and like many of his Big Picture videos it's a great blend of history, opinion, and weird stuff most of us probably didn't know. It's a conversation starter, is what I'm saying. (Seriously. If you're one of those people who watches Escape to the Movies but skips the Big Picture, you're missing out on some of his best stuff.)

So while MovieBob is holding all of the "talking about racism" aggro, I thought I'd slip in and take a couple of backstabs at the topic. There's something that's been getting on my nerves over the past few years and I want to grab onto one idea in particular and give it the beating it deserves.

In the past I've argued that that we could use more diversity in games. We have a truly shocking, perhaps even an embarrassing number of white male protagonists in this hobby. I'm sure most of us have seen that one image floating around the internet, showing a grid of pasty, unshaven protagonists from the last few years. Note how this is a list of white guys with short brown hair and stubble. If we open it up to other hair colors the list gets bigger, and if we include the long-haired guys then we end up with an army of thirty-something white dudes.

Yes, whenever this topic comes up a few smart asses will always bring up Lara Croft, Samus Aran, or Chell, but if you start listing AAA videogame main characters over the last decade, the thirty-something white guys will quickly outnumber all other ages, races, and females combined.

This is not what's pissing me off.

I'm not saying that all games need to be balanced with a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, all-sexuality, all-genders viewpoint. If you're writing about nineteenth century Great Britain, or Europe in the middle ages, or present day Maine in the United States, then yes, you are probably going to have an overabundance of white dudes in your world and any attempt to change that will probably seem forced or out of place. I'm not asking that some fake, focus-group diversity be rammed into games, and I'm not saying that Doom would have been a fundamentally better or more enjoyable game if the little icon at the bottom had been (say) Asian instead of white.

Individually, there's nothing wrong with these white dudes. (Well, most of them. A few are horrible for reasons that have nothing to do with their skin color.) This is also not what's pissing me off.

I'm also not saying that game developers owe anything to any particular race or gender. I'm not irritated about this because I want "fairness". I just think some diversity would be good for flavor. How many gruff white guys do we need? Don't they all start to look and sound alike after a while? With the industry increasingly being driven by sequels, branding, and name recognition, why does everyone insist on making their signature characters look the same?

This might piss me off a little, but it's not what's really bothering me.

No, what bothers me is the reason given as to why characters are so shockingly homogeneous. The reason we're usually given is this:

Gamers need to have a character they can relate to.

This is what pisses me off. It's bad enough that this industry can churn out an endless procession of cookie-cutter characters. It's a shame and a waste of potential. But to then turn around and blame this blandness and lack of imagination on the audience is what really fries me. The insinuation is that we wouldn't buy a game if it doesn't have a white guy on the cover. The industry is saying to us, "We're not racist. You are!"

I also think the assertion is unsupportable. White people don't seem to have any trouble going to theaters to watch non-white people. Hollywood isn't the most diverse place on the planet, but even the big studios aren't foolish enough to kick Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, or Angelina Jolie out of their film to make room for Mark Wahlberg. Movie audiences are perfectly willing to go and see people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds walk away from explosions while putting on sunglasses and I don't see any reason to think the gaming public would be any different.

What line of reasoning led us here? Did Publishers look at Mirror's Edge and think, "These poor sales have nothing to do with the gameplay, and everything to do with the Asian woman on the cover"? Or is it because the writers are just more comfortable writing what they know? I don't know, but I wish they would stop blaming us.

Make any excuse you like for the lack of diversity in your game, but leave me out of it. Because as long as the gameplay is fun, I'm willing to jump into the shoes of anyone unique and interesting.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and now author. Check out his new book!

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