The Needles

The Needles
A Short History of Race in Games

Andy Chalk | 16 Aug 2007 20:00
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Accusations of racism cuts deep. It's one thing to be a jerk, an idiot, even an asshole, but being called a racist - when not accompanied by the hope-no-one-heard-that laughter that comes with "those" jokes - is a far weightier and more serious barb. Everybody's a jerk once in awhile, but very few people will admit to bigotry.

The nature of the racial divide has changed over the years. Name-calling and "back of the bus" are bad memories these days, but many believe a subtler and more insidious form of bigotry continues to hang over us. Mainstream racism is no longer about overt hatred between ethnic groups; it's about the inability of these groups to perceive one another without the taint of all that has gone before. "Color-blind" is a nice phrase, but the reality is something entirely different.

The recent furor over the slaughter of black zombies by the very white Chris Redfield in Resident Evil 5 isn't the first time complaints about game-based racism have been raised, although it's certainly one of the most tenuous cases. While examples of overt bias in videogames are rare, they tend to attract disproportionate levels of attention because, well, they're videogames. The medium is a lens, focusing and amplifying everything - violence, sex and prejudice - beyond their inherent values. What's often forgotten is just how far we've come.

One of the newest additions to the minority group videogame character yearbook is Domasi Towadi, better known as Tommy, the Cherokee protagonist in Prey. Like a recently-dumped 17-year-old at the high school dance, all he wants is to find his woman and get her outta there. Unlike the high school dance, however, Tommy's woman is being held in a Dyson sphere hundreds of miles in diameter by a protein-obsessed "Mother," who seems less than inclined to let her go.

Although a full-blood Native American, Tommy has spent his life rebelling against his heritage; he begins the game by referring to Cherokee mysticism as "shit" and tries to talk his girlfriend, Jen, into permanently leaving the reservation with him. Even after the action begins, Tommy is hesitant to embrace his spiritual side, and when he finally does he sees it only as a tool to help him get some payback from the alien horde.

Perhaps reflecting lessons learned, Prey was one of the first videogames featuring a non-white lead character that, by and large, didn't catch any heat for negative stereotyping. Tommy is a Cherokee, but more importantly, he's just a guy who finds himself stuck in a bad situation he's really not interested in.

A character that did take heat over inappropriate stereotyping was Superfly Johnson, from John Romero's infamous 2000 release, Daikatana. While not a playable character, the AI-driven supporting actor is often held up as an example of racial bias and/or failed irony in videogames. A huge, bald black dude, Superfly actually began life as a fairly atypical and multidimensional character: still black, presumably still huge, but French, he was originally named Superfly Williams (after Jim Kelly's character in the 1973 Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon) and was meant to spend the game searching for his true identity.

Unfortunately for Superfly, the release version of the game brought with it a few changes in the character: He was now a jive-talkin', ass-whompin' mean mutha who would spend the game talkin' jive and whompin' ass. While not necessarily an outright-negative portrayal, Superfly was notable primarily for his laughable blaxploitation-era presentation and behavior, and the character would likely have been the target of more focused criticism if Daikatana package hadn't become one of the most spectacular flame-outs in gaming history.

Originally intended for development alongside Prey and Duke Nukem Forever, Shadow Warrior was the only title in 3D Realms' much-hyped "stable of the future" to be released anywhere near the way it was intended. As it turned out, it wasn't necessarily good news: Depending on your perspective, it was either a smart, satirical send-up of the chop-socky movie industry or a mouth-breathing, ham-fisted attack on Asian culture thinly disguised as some sort of violent slapstick. The outrage surrounding the protagonist, Lo Wang's, exploits was universal: Even those who saw it as harmless humor had to admit that the whole thing was a bit dicey. There was just no getting around the fact that the game was built around a sexed-up, slack-jawed Chinese "ninja" that shouted, "Who wants some wang?" during the heat of battle.

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