I’ve always considered Lara Croft’s Peruvian guide from the original Tomb Raider to be a tragic character. From the first time I saw him mauled and killed by wolves after leading Croft to Qualopec’s ancient tomb, I wondered what his story was. Did he have kids waiting for him at home? Was he going to be paid well for the job that ended up killing him? What did he think about this rich British woman coming to his country to steal its treasures? We never find out. Croft coldly leaves his body in the snow along with the wolves she’s dispatched, anonymous and forgotten.
Though videogames often take place in exotic locations around the world, the actual residents of these places are almost never given the starring roles. They’re the helpless villagers, the ruthless thugs, the background NPCs used to provide ethnic atmosphere. Lara Croft’s world-hopping in the Tomb Raider series is just one example of how the majority of videogames treat countries that aren’t the United States, Britain or Japan. Places like Peru are exploited for their scenery, but all exploration is superficial. Their populations are just the supporting cast. Like Croft’s nameless and silent Peruvian guide, the people exist only to tell someone else’s story.
In a supposedly globalized world, videogames do a poor job of telling globalized stories. Of those that take place on Earth, most are told from the same American, British or Japanese perspectives. Videogames squander their unique power to allow players to assume the roles of other people by limiting those roles to a disappointingly shallow few.
Take World War II games for example. They’re overwhelmingly focused on Caucasian American and British soldiers, either completely ignoring or giving only token roles to soldiers from the rest of the world. Many critics say the World War II setting is overdone, but the real problem is that developers are not tapping into the amazing range of stories a World War II setting could provide. Why can’t we play as the Filipino soldiers who fought alongside American forces at the Battle of Luzon to free their capitol city, Manila? Why can’t we play as the Rhodesians (now Zimbabweans) who fought with the British military against Axis forces? It was a world war, after all. Why don’t developers see the value of telling these unique stories instead of giving us the same “good ol’ boy” Yankees and “stiff upper lip” Britons that were already clichés when they were first introduced?
As a Canadian, I was overjoyed to be able to finally play as a fellow Canuck in Call of Duty 3. Considering the significant role Canadian forces played in World War II, it took way too long to get a playable character from my country. That’s just the way things go. Canadians are used to being ignored, particularly by a certain southern neighbor. Our population is small, so we don’t have enough clout to convince publishers to market games to us. Even though Canada is the third-biggest videogame-producing nation, only a handful of games feature the country or its inhabitants. Sure, a Canada level in Sly 2: Band of Thieves featured some maple leaves, and Bear Hugger’s bio in Super Punch-Out!! says he’s from Canada, but it would be nice to have some Canadian content that’s more meaningful.
It’s frustrating to see Canadian stories go untold in videogames. It’s frightening, too, considering what a large role videogames will have in our culture years from now. How will a generation of Canadian kids learn about their country when their primary source of cultural engagement ignores it? I’d almost be willing to put up with developers stooping to stereotypes and giving us games like Igloo Tycoon or Moose Rider. Who knows, something authentic might accidentally slip in.
Much better would be games that tapped into the country’s rich culture to provide experiences that could share Canada with Canadians and the world. A game could give players an open-world simulation of Canada’s fur-trade era, pitting them against the harsh Canadian wilderness in a time of exploration, rivalries between French, English and Native settlements, and the growing power of often-ruthless trading companies. A game could follow the story of a Toronto police officer – a second-generation Chinese-Canadian – as she investigates a series of crimes affecting the city’s population, one of the most diverse and multicultural in the world. A game could capitalize on the huge international popularity of the Anne of Green Gables series of books to provide a Sims-like adaptation of turn-of-the-century life on Prince Edward Island, which would surely be a big hit among the growing audience of young girl gamers.
Canada is not unique for having a wealth of stories that are going untold and a culture that’s being ignored. How many games take place in Australia, Austria, Turkey, Indonesia or Swaziland? How many let gamers take control of a character from Tibet, Norway, Costa Rica, Libya or the Czech Republic? It’s embarrassing to admit how few there are. Yet each of these countries has a history filled with fascinating stories that could launch a million games. They all have cultures that would provide compelling backgrounds for sophisticated and enthralling game worlds. Every country is filled with a population that could provide thousands of compelling, original characters. The world is a giant untapped well of ideas, but game developers seem content to keep drinking out of the same tired bucket.
We get game after game set in New York, Los Angeles, London or Tokyo. Too many games feature the same stereotypical American, British or Japanese protagonists. Developers need to branch out. A simple location choice has been enough to generate a lot of extra interest in Resident Evil 5. Its African setting has earned it most of its hype (and controversy). It will also feature a playable African protagonist, although the star of the game is still a white American. Likewise, the Prince of Persia games, developed by Ubisoft Montreal since 2003, are notable for loosely depicting the ancient culture of an area known mostly in videogames for producing terrorists. S.T.A.L.K.E.R., developed by Ukrainian company GSC Game World, uses Russian history as the basis for its alternate-reality scenario. Grand Theft Auto IV features a Serbian protagonist from former Yugoslavia. Why not a game set in Dubai, a country with improbable architecture, a unique culture and a complex political climate? Developers should set a game in the natural wonders of New Zealand, one of the most beautiful countries in the world as the Lord of the Rings movies showed us. Set games in Seoul, São Paulo, Budapest and Lagos and let us play as Koreans, Brazilians, Hungarians and Nigerians.
And don’t just give us a level in each country. Make games that really show off the places. Let us meet the people who live there. Better yet, let us experience what it’s like to live as them. Avoid devolving into “edutainment,” but let us learn something about the world while we’re having fun. Why do we learn so much about the imaginary cultures of Hyrule, Tamriel, Azeroth and Ivalice before we’ve learned about the thousands of cultures that actually exist here on our own planet?
It’s obvious from the amount of fantasy content in videogames that gamers aren’t averse to playing as characters from foreign cultures. Game developers need to stop babying their audience. American, British and Japanese gamers can handle experiencing perspectives outside their own cultures. If the game is good, sales won’t plummet just because your main character is from the Republic of Namibia, Singapore or Paraguay. Developers could be doing something rare and innovative in an industry many believe is stagnating. They could tell us new stories from new places and help make the world of videogames a little more colorful.
Chris LaVigne is indeed Canadian, but has never built an igloo or ridden a moose.