While I don’t disagree with the premise of the article and in no way defend this trend of white-washing in videogames and other western media, I do have to analyze the idea of alienation occurring from racial incongruity between the player and protagonist: “What does that say to the Hispanic boy, the Arab teen, the Indian woman, who wants to try just such a game? Will they feel alienated? Disconnected from the experience?”
This idea reinforces the idea that there are inherent differences between races, that the small difference of appearance creates more differences in a chain reaction. This concept is just not true. If you were to make a list of similarities and differences between all people the list of similarities would eclipse the list of differences. We are able as a species to connect and empathize with characters over more than just their appearance, we connect with the emotion, needs, and desires of characters, all which are shared traits between races. If they player is unable to connect with the character it is not always matter of racial incongruity, it is frequently of poor writing and characterization. As a white male I have numerously come across cases where I felt no connection with a white male protagonist because the character was flat and undeveloped.
I believe if a well-written and identifiable character is presented, no matter the character’s race, a player should be able to create a connection with them. There is no breaking point where a player would identify with a well written protagonist but cannot only because of a difference of race. Either the character will touch you, or they won’t. Believing the quoted statement from the article above sets race as the most important trait of any character, a trait which trumps all other traits.
The trend of white-washing protagonists in popular media is shameful, but we cannot rely on the “racial incongruity creates disconnection” argument as proof to change this trend. If taken to its logical conclusion it is counter-productive as it reinforces the misguided belief that people of different races cannot identify with each other because there are significant differences. Instead we should argue for the inclusion of racial variety (and other varieties) of protagonists because the greater possibility of a connection exists despite race, gender sexual orientation, etc. because of the multitude of similarities inherent in the human condition.
We need to outgrow the “white is default” mentality, not by decrying the harm and differences between people, but by recognizing the similarities of the human condition.
Thank you for your article, it was an interesting read.
I understand the concern in customizable characters that they simply seem like painted-on white people, but I think the other side is a slippery slope towards stereotypes. At least with some Asian communities (I am Chinese), there is always an uproar and demands for apologies whenever a celebrity or group mocks the language or imitates narrow, “squinty” eyes. Remember Shaquille O’Neal years ago mocking Yao Ming, or Miley Cyrus’s photo making her eyes look Asian? I personally remember the outrage from the Asian communities regarding these incidents.
My point of this regarding game customization is that there is also a danger on the other side if designers cherry-pick certain ethnic characteristics, that there could be a backlash. Maybe the fact that you can only customize your character so much, is a sign of designers being cautious in this regard?
I think the appearance of the characters in Japanese games aren’t a result of ethnic “bleaching” so much – at least one would hope that’s not the intention. Having characters who are racially ambiguous makes it easier for people of anything ethnicity or cultural background to relate to the character. And it helps each character look different. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating to say that some people would have trouble distinguishing between characters if they all had, to quote the article, straight black hair and brown eyes.
Besides, is it typical of most people who fall under the broad umbrella of “Caucasian” to have hair colours such as purple, or bright orange? It’s not necessarily whitewashing, in this respect, because they don’t even look all that Caucasian. I don’t look at an anime girl with blue hair, and think that she looks white. Sure, their eyes might be unnaturally large, and they might have curly hair, but those things still don’t make me automatically assume that they’re Caucasian. And as stated in the article, there are reasons behind that – to give the impression that a character is innocent, or naive – little things like that. We get these cues from their expressions and their facial features, and that’s what they represent – not race.
And if characters appear “ethnically neutral” and makes the game more accessible, how is that a bad thing? Games that just so happen to be made by Japanese developers don’t have to be about Japan. Look at all the RPGs that are set in fantasy worlds. So now all the characters in this fantasy world should look Japanese just for the sake of it? They did intend for people of other cultures to play it too, right? And if we really wanted a game which was more focused on Japanese culture, there’d be one. And maybe it’d be actually set in Japan, instead of in some world created by Japanese designers.
And whitewashing? Most of the Japanese/Chinese/Korean people I know, especially the girls, are paler than most Caucasians are. There is a whole market out there dedicated to making your skin more pale.
Also, people with no face really creep me out. Reminds me of that Doctor Who episode … ugh.
I was under the impression that anime characters were designed the way they were to better display emotion and to distinguish character archtypes and personalities. Wide, round eyes typically are indicative of youth, benevolence and/ or innocence and naiveté, as seen with the “moe” archtype, while narrower eyes belong to adults and/or the evil and corrupt. There’s more to it than that but that’s the basic idea.
Bad guys in FPS games set in modern times tend to be Muslim because the biggest threat of violence directed against Americans and Europeans at this time currently comes from people who are Muslim (this is NOT to say that all Muslims are violent). It’s probably not PC to say that, but I believe it to be true. If a game developer is trying to go for “realism,” they’ll make the targets of their FPS members of the group most likely to shoot at the protagonist in that setting. And not too many American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan are being shot at by buddhists right now.
If a neo-nazi faction goes on a massive terror campaign in the western hemisphere, expect to find yourself shooting aryans shortly thereafter in an FPS. The same for an extremist christian sect going on a killing spree.
First Person Shooters are also not a place where you’re likely to find a whole lot of character development or deep discussion regarding the motivations of antagonists, because it gets in the way of the purpose of such games: shooting things. If you want characterization or a deep discussion of issues, look for it in a BioWare RPG or a game like Assassin’s Creed (as mentioned in the article), not Modern Warfare 2 or this latest Medal of Honor game (my dog in Dragon Age had more character development than all the characters in MW2 put together).
That being said, there are ways to balance things out in these games while not diminishing gameplay.
I think that developers are missing an opportunity by not having a FPS where the main character is a member of the Iraqi or Afghanistan military fighting to save their country against extremists. The character could even be tasked with missions that American forces can’t do (clearing insurgents from a mosque, for example). The beginning of MW2 had a brief tutorial on shooting and throwing grenades by having your character demonstrate these for Afghan recruits. They could have had you PLAY one of those recruits instead.
Another area where there’s probably room for improvement would be providing balance or contrast in subtle ways in these games, like having an allied, Muslim soldier praying to Mecca before picking up his rifle and going out on a mission with you (and, if any game developer reads this, please please PLEASE don’t have that character turn traitor, okay?). The sequence could take less than ten seconds, and could happen while you’re selecting your loadout, and the point doesn’t have to be driven home with a hammer. I wouldn’t mind some balance in a FPS, but I resent it when I feel like I’m being preached to. Or YOUR character could be saying the prayers. (That popping sound you hear is Pat Roberton’s head exploding.)
Hell, even a mission where you’re pursuing a group of Sunni Muslims that just launched several RPGs into a Shiite mosque (or vice-versa; I’m not about to take sides in a Sunni/Shiite argument) might help drive home that the bad guys are evil because they do evil things, and not because they’re Muslim.
Hey folks. This is my first Escapist article after being a longtime reader. So thanks for all the feedback, both critical and supportive. A few points:
1) A number of people have pointed out that Germans, Japanese, Russians, etc. have also been stereotyped in games. Um. Yes. But I’m not sure how this makes things any better. “Other people have gotten crappy treatment” isn’t really an argument for crappy treatment being ok.
2) Re: Mafia II and the Italian gangster stereotype: While this, too, is offensive to some folks, I think there’s a pretty huge difference (as some here have pointed out) in being the HERO, even when the hero’s a criminal. Nowadays when moviemakers want a mobster they rarely go to the Italian American stereotype (there’s a reason Mafia II’s historical). Usually now we get the Albanian/Serbian/Russian etc. mob. But while Niko from GTA IV is a criminal and thus fits this new stereotype, he’s also the POV character, the one we’re rooting for and controlling. We get the moving story of how he got to be the way he is. We laugh at what he laughs at, get pissed off by the things that piss him off, etc. That’s a huge difference. Similarly, Altair from Assassin’s Creed is a cold-blooded killer trained by a fanatical sect — on the surface, a Muslim stereotype if ever there was one. But he’s humanized and fleshed out b/c he’s the protagonist. That’s different than an endless horde of might-as-well-be-orc towelheads who exist just to be mown down and deserve it because … well, they’re *bad guys.*
3) A number of comments seem to basically start “Well, until Muslims stand up and refute the extremists … ” So let me ask you: if you’re White, do you feel the need to constantly apologize for the actions of the KKK? If you’re Christian, do you feel the need to constantly apologize for the nutjobs that bomb abortion clinics? If you’re American, do you feel the need to constantly apologize for the actions of a few soldiers at Abu Ghraib? Probably not. (See http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2010/08/please-forgive-me-for-the-actions-of-extremists-i-have-never-met-who-commit-acts-of-violence-that-i-.html)
4) The idea that this is ‘just entertainment’ is both wrong and right. Of course I realize that most gamers are not so zombiefied that they totally confuse the images of gaming with the real world. I mean, even *I* played the *hell* out of Metal Slug 2 back in the day, blowing the little SNK Ay-rabs to kingdom come and didn’t feel compelled to then go blow away my relatives. But anyone who claims that videogames don’t have any effect on our culture, or that media doesn’t help in subtle ways to shape our perceptions about who’s a good guy and who’s a bad guy is just not paying attention to reality.
The answer to a lot of your questions can be found pretty easily in your own article (both this one and the older Wall Street Journal one you linked).
Why aren’t there more ethnic characters in videogames? Because …
“[…] Ms. Flanagan says that to deal with violent images, particularly ones that involve people of color, the game should be nuanced and confront issues of race head on.”
“He says the choice of race can be difficult and they wanted to avoid stereotypes.”
“What about the dread-locked Mojya Corps of LocoRoco or the similar sambo-like characters in Patapon 2? What about maniacal, trash-talking Cole Train in Gears of War? I know plenty of black dudes just like Cole, but when he’s the only one, it distorts who black folk actually are. All of these examples could be part of a strong case that racist imagery continues to pervade videogames just as it does all other forms of media.”
The long and short of it is this: feature white characters, and tell the story you want to tell. Feature non-white characters, and tell stories about tolerance and racial issues.
“That comes down to a simple question for developers – why does this character look like he or she does? They should have an answer.”
So … How do you answer this for non-white characters without getting accused of stereotyping? Why IS that particular character the ethnicity they are? What do you think the reason is for Alyx Vance being Black/Asian? For Faith being Asian?
“I know it’s a fantasy world, but why aren’t there any non-white Little Sisters in BioShock?”
The Little Sisters all share a model. They can ALL be white, or they can ALL be black, or they can ALL be Asian, etc. Which do you think they should be, and why?
It’s interesting to see how many of the posters are being, let’s be honest, a tad condescending. Basically saying “What is teh big deal? Why should race matter?” etc., etc.
Truth of the matter is that race, or ethnicity, does matter. I don’t whine about it precisely because of light handed responses this article seems to be getting, but even you guys do have a point.
There was an article, I believe it was in Destructoid, that pointed towards the overabundance of white protagonists with short brown hair and stubble. Just think about that.
It’s quite simple yet that one single thing points towards a wide cultural divide in our society.
There is an expectation of achievment for the majority of the population, and then there’s another for the minority. Unless there is a concise, directed cultural effort from both, the minorities will be swept aside. But I don’t think it is so much as the majority trying to be insensitive more than the simple fact that its output swamps all available channels and the minority is still struggling with other things to put more of a concerted, directed effort.
Also, it can always be summarized as the following: If people of color want to be equally represented then, at the very same time they are creating social conscience, they should start making the games themselves.
But, who is making the games? Nerds, geeks, techies, or in short, very educated people.
What is the nerd, geek, techie stereotype?
Where are the mexicans, inidigenous, black guys, mixed, etc. Don’t believe me? Watch a sitcom named Big Bang Theory that represents and pokes fun at its subject matter. But, hey, at least they’ve got an indian guy, right?
Again, proactivity within minorities is paramount, but the majority should take steps to facilitate the opening of the channels. That’s it.