Gamers Get Game

Gamers Get Game
Guns, Gangs, and Greed

Thomas Wilburn | 18 Oct 2005 12:00
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Causes, Symptoms, and Caveats
Don't worry, I'm not going to scapegoat Rockstar, GTA's developer. For all its flaws, San Andreas doesn't deserve the blame that it gets as a bad influence. First, like South Park, Grand Theft Auto is a satire and an equal opportunity offender. It would be a mistake to take its intentions too seriously. Second, the game is an homage to gangsta dramas of the '90s. In presenting a picture of urban blight and thug life, it's only being true to the (fictional) source material. The real problem with San Andreas is not how it depicts the lead character, but that it's practically the only game with a black lead. Combined with how Rockstar depicts that lead, the picture of African-Americans painted by video gaming looks bleak.

In a fascinating September 27th article for the Washington Post, Jose Antonio Vargas sheds light when he profiles players of (what else?) GTA: San Andreas in the affluent suburb of McLean, VA and in South Central L.A. The rich kids believe the game to be the creation of "a diverse group of guys, blacks and whites and Latinos," but the less wealthy West Coast kids are more accurate when they credit it to "gringos."

Rockstar North is based in Scotland, a country separated from the American gang experience not only by an ocean, but also by cultural differences and histories. It's not exactly a hotbed of diversity, either: the CIA Factbook places the country's black population at 2%. American studios aren't all that integrated either, and there's a serious lack of African-American developers. Industry statistics from the International Game Developers Association peg the balance as mostly white (more than 80%), followed by Asian (around 8%), but only about 2% black. It's entirely possible that gaming's virtual whiteness is due to a corresponding real-world phenomenon.

So if most developers are white, but the games they produce draw on stereotypically black music and culture, is there an element of minstrelsy here? Consider Pulp Fiction, a movie charged with racial tension and exploration. In the last vignette, director Quentin Tarantino steps in front of the camera to play a white character using extremely sensitive racial language. There's an element of shock to the performance, but it also suddenly highlights what the audience may have forgotten: The frank dialogue batted about by the African-American actors was written by that same Caucasian director. In a way, Tarantino is playing with the attitudes we have toward race and words, and opening himself to questions of its usage. However, in a video game, the white designer and staff have rarely caused us to question their motivations in the same way, even when their subject matter may cross the same lines or give the impression of "authenticity."

Does a designer have to be black before he can work with hip hop culture? Should he be? Is it "better" if violent games starring African-Americans in stereotyped roles are made by actual African-Americans? Is the white audience engaging in a little metaphorical blackface of their own with these games?

These are questions without clear answers. Clearly, hip hop influenced games sell, and not just to minorities. Upcoming games from artists like Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent are banking on their star power, but also their crossover appeal.

In her speech at the 2005 Game Developer's Conference, Brenda Laurel (VP/Design of now-defunct Purple Moon, which produced games targeting girls) called this focus on the basic tropes of crime, violence and warfare "the Spectacle." In that atmosphere of bread and circuses, it's easier to create unsophisticated stereotypes than nuanced portraits. Perhaps the Spectacle of mainstream gaming, with its emphasis on creating big-budget, violent set-pieces (and their sequels) without emulating the wider array of situations available to other media, has caused the industry to target only those aspects of hip hop that share a similar viewpoint - guns, gangs and greed.

The Fix
The first solution to the hip hop gap is obvious: If the gaming industry is overwhelmingly White, we need to diversify it. I asked Mario Armstrong, a founder of the Urban Video Game Academy, about his approach. The UVGA is a program that he runs for kids that might not normally see game development as a career path - in other words, those who aren't white males. "I don't have a clue how to break in," the students tell him. As a tech commentator for NPR and Baltimore's Chief Technology Advocate, Armstrong sees diversity (within gender, ethnicity or sexual preference) as the key to making great new games that break out of the Spectacle-driven nature of the industry.

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