The Needles

A Short History of Race in Games


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.

Released in 1997, Shadow Warrior almost immediately came under fire for everything from its offensive stereotyping to its apparent ignorance regarding the source material. Elliott Chin wrote in the August 1997 edition of Computer Gaming World that the game was “patently offensive,” and displayed “great ignorance” through its seemingly-random mixing of Asian stereotypes. As a ninja, the game’s main character was presumably Japanese, but his name was unmistakably Chinese. He would occasionally shout out remarks about Hiroshima while butchering coolie-hat wearing enemies and scarfing down fortune cookies to regain his health. For gamers looking for any sort of cohesiveness in their ethnic stereotyping, it was confusing to say the least, and while the Build Engine-powered game was actually quite a bit of fun, the whole thing turned out to be an embarrassment for the company. It received decent reviews and admonishing finger-wags in roughly equal measure and faded from sight relatively quickly. Plans for expansion packs were dropped, and 3D Realms seemed happy enough to pretend the whole thing never happened.


But none of these compare to Custer’s Revenge, a 1982 train wreck for the Atari 2600 whose very existence is nearly beyond belief. The “plot” features a nearly-naked General Custer, equipped with nothing but a hat, boots and a boner, who must work his way past various obstacles in order to have sex with a naked Native American woman named Revenge – who just happens to be tied to a post. Leaving aside the criticisms leveled at the game as a result of its crappy (and sexual assault-based) gameplay, the game took heat from various corners over its apparent trivialization of sexual violence against Native Americans.

It can be difficult to focus on Custer’s Revenge as a racist game – rape has a way of being the focal point in just about any list of wrongdoings – but imagine for a moment if this had been a game of “white guy rapes white girl”: It’s a safe bet nobody at Atari would have even admitted knowledge of the thing’s existence, much less allowed it to be published. Yet by adding the racial conflict, the game somehow became framed in a context that left it tasteless and objectionable, but still marketable. Utterly inconceivable today, the game actually sold around 80,000 copies, hardly a smashing success, but given the small, niche status of home videogaming in the early ’80s, far from a dismal failure. At the end of 2002, GameSpy rated Custer’s Revenge as the most shameful videogame ever, calling it “either a monument to sexual abuse or to sheer stupidity.”

Luckily, newer releases have made better use of ethnic minorities. While Prey is the most obvious example, F.E.A.R.‘s chief supporting characters included the Korean technical officer Jin Sun-Kwon and the black Delta Force soldier Douglas Holiday, both of whom fill prominent roles. Half-Life 2‘s oh-so-capable (and sexy) Alyx Vance and her father, Eli, leader of the human resistance, are also African-American. Carl Johnson and his brother Sean – better known as CJ and Sweet – may not be any parent’s ideal role model for his children, but there’s no questioning their popularity in the San Andreas chapter of Rockstar’s wildly successful Grand Theft Auto series. And Tracer Tong of Deus Ex fame, who turned out to be a pretty solid guy, was Chinese.

We’ve seen tremendous changes in attitudes over the years, and videogames reflect those changes. I think it’s a bit sad that we’ll never again have the opportunity to see Lo Wang (or his brother, Hung Lo) swing into action, but I have to admit it’s probably for the best. Over the years, we’ve done good. We’ve done bad. And yes, we’ve done really bad. But nobody can say we’re not getting better.

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