I am what you might call “ethnically ambiguous.” Tan skin, brown eyes, curly hair, decent cheekbones. My face is a mélange of textures and influences. I am mixed after all – half-Black and half-Mexican. So for years, I’ve quietly resented videogames for not including many characters that look like me. There are a couple – but much like television and film, tan skin like mine is on the fast lane to “buddy” territory. I want more characters that look like me in games. As a critic and a writer, I’m able to discuss the issue in a public forum, but recent experiences have made me question whether such dissention is worth it. When is too much crowing about race in games “too much?” The truth is that it is never too much, and if I want to effect change, it must begin now, through challenging the developers of games through small, pointed examples of inequality and through praising the games that get it right.
Earlier this year, I was excited to see that Skate 3 featured a character editor that would allow me to create a skater that looked me. Character editors weren’t new, but Skate 3 was different. I spent most of my teenage years tagging along with my skater friends, listening to music, and haunting mall parking lots. Skateboarding was an integral part of my adolescence so creating an avatar that looked me was a feat of personal significance.
After spending 30 meticulous minutes crafting my digital twin, I quickly hopped onto a group mega-ramp competition. When my character was introduced, one of the other competitors quickly chimed in, “So who put the nigger on their team?”
I was not stunned – language in online communities is notoriously bad – but I was hurt. I rarely get attached to videogame characters, but in this case, my avatar was connected to experiences that I valued. It wasn’t just me that this guy was insulting – it was a memory that I cherished deeply. So I did what any journalist would do: I complained about it on Twitter.
The response was quick and interesting. Most people displayed disgust and sympathy. In general, most agreed that this was a terrible thing that had happened to me. It was a small act, sure, but it felt important. It needed to be discussed in public. For too long, race has been the quiet topic in videogames. No one wants to talk about race. Journalists have an obligation to write what they see. But the issue of race is tricky in games – it’s writing about what you don’t see.
The Resident Evil 5 debacle still lives on in my mind as a watershed moment for writing about race in games. From Newsweek columnist N’Gai Croal’s initial lament about the problematic images of a white man shooting Africans (zombie-ness aside) to New York Times critic Seth Schiesel’s rebuttal, I saw a lot of dialogue and debate about the depictions of race in videogames. My own analysis in the Wall Street Journal felt like a personal triumph for me – I was able to bring an important issue to light in a clear and measured way and reign in a variety of voices to encourage enlightened debate.
The emails in response to that article were unpleasant. Mostly, fans of the series were upset that I was making a mountain out of a molehill. “Race isn’t that big of deal,” they crowed and many seemed content to ignore Croal’s criticism completely, rather than engage in serious debate. While I disagreed with my dissenters, it did raise a serious question for me as a writer. When should I raise the warning flag and how often?
As writers, it’s a legitimate concern. When is “too much” criticism too much? 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. But how does a writer create a rubric for discussing characters or topics in games that toe the line without transgressing entirely? It seems unreasonable to torpedo any of these otherwise enjoyable games solely on the basis of a single image or character that I find distasteful.
Moreover, exceptions often confuse the issue. Naysayers will cite Crackdown or Madden as examples of non-white characters in games. Or they point to games like Fallout 3 or Skate 3 that allow for customizable characters. Rather than looking at videogame releases in aggregate, these exceptions can fool people into thinking that the numbers are bunk. The cries that there are so few non-white protagonists are countered by the few and fleeting examples that do manage to make it into development. And of course, there’s the generalized complaints that arguing for racial diversity in videogames doesn’t really matter, that people aren’t really affected by what they see onscreen, that we have a black President, and so on.
But to anyone who’s thinking about writing about videogames, I say that race is not a topic to avoid. It is an issue that we should cherish, critique, and analyze.
Never underestimate the power of small statements. Creating change is about building inertia. It’s about taking every small act of unkindness or cultural ignorance and making it public. The tendency for videogame writers is to want to deal with race issues selectively – to only engage when the offense has become so offensive that someone finally decides to notice. That is the wrong approach. While I received sympathy for publicizing my experience on Skate 3, I wasn’t looking for it. People need to be reminded that this kind of behavior still exists and discourages a healthy discussion about race.
We need to stop giving away free passes to the creators of videogames. That comes down to a simple question for developers – why does this character look like he or she does? They should have an answer. Developers big and small should have good reasons for why they choose the people that they do. Game designers have plenty of answers about gameplay features, but the selection of who is going to be the face of the game should be paramount.
New Media & Society published a paper last year that showed that videogame characters are predominantly white and male with Hispanics and African-Americans in particular absence. I addressed the issue last year on a panel at the Game Developers Conference, citing Heavy Rain. Initially, I was excited because the game was set in my hometown of Philadelphia, a city with a majority minority and a long history of African-American public figures (um, Bill Cosby?). Yet the four playable characters in Heavy Rain are white and the only black characters in the plot are predictable stereotypes: Mad Dog, the junkyard criminal, and the kindly old groundskeeper in the cemetery. We need to start chart challenging developers to defend their decisions. Provocation will produce a response.
Take advantage of the web’s capacity for volume. One of the benefits that online publications have is their torrent of content. This allows incremental changes in the industry to be noted – from weapon reveals to release date changes to multiplayer map releases. The same tactic can be used when talking about race in games – rather than burying that troubling line of dialogue, publish something quick that can at least become part of the permanent record. The critiques can be small and pointed (“I know it’s a fantasy world, but why aren’t there any non-white Little Sisters in BioShock?”) as well as comical (“How hard is it to make curly hair anyway?”). The point is that these questions get asked in a public forum.
Finally, let’s make a point of praising diverse work. Think about it on a crass, commercial level. Studios, like publishers, follow their wallets. When there’s more games rated 90-plus on Metacritic featuring a minority creative director or protagonist, that’s when EA or Ubisoft will start to think about the wider audiences that play games and want to be represented on-screen.
They should be good games, of course, but the onus lies on writers to begin to seek out work from those who are not being depicted in games. The film industry has benefitted from the existence of Spike Lee and not just through his filmmaking. The press nurtured Lee’s early films and took him seriously as a filmmaker even as his budgets for films like Do the Right Thing were miniscule. Although many film critics lambasted the content of his films as controversial, the fact that such dissent was in a public place afforded Lee the same respect as any other filmmaker.
Aside from critique, one of the many tools in our arsenal is praise: bright, effusive, and glowing praise. Critics throughout history have been credited with “finding” artists along the way and ushering them into greatness. In other mediums, it’s meant pushing people like Lee or artist Kehinde Wiley or singer Tunde Adebimpe or actor Donald Glover. If we care about videogames, we need to be the change that we wish to see in the world, to paraphrase Gandhi.
Besides, critics get more credit that way.
Jamin Brophy-Warren is the co-founder of Kill Screen, a videogame arts and culture magazine, and his writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Paris Review, and Los Angeles Times.