I’m clicking through the Fable III villager creator. I name the villager “Dave.”
I answer the game’s questions: Dave is born in the Bowerstone Market district. Dave threatens a dancing woman. Dave thinks he’ll catch a disease from a fitting room. Dave wears second-hand socks, lives in the ditch behind a fish stall, and apparently wants to date “Morris the stable boy.”
I’m told then that Dave is gay (a troubling correlation, since he appears to be an adult male that likes boys) that he is malicious, and that he suffers an “austere existence.”
And then I go to design what Dave looks like.
I get three faces.
Three very white faces.
I realize it’s a good thing I didn’t want to create a black villager. Or a Hispanic one. Or an Asian-American, or Arabic, or Eskimo. Albion, it seems, is one big medieval White Power rally.
I suppose I’m not being fair. Albion, after all, is meant to be modeled after the England of the Middle Ages, is it not? “Albion” is one of the mythic terms for the country of England, with its white cliffs of Dover and its equally pale and pasty people, right? Certainly the England of old was not home to any other races …
Except, we have evidence there of Moors, who were clearly black-skinned. The influence of Romans, many of whom were dark-skinned or who brought slaves of different races, persevered as well. No, the country wasn’t exactly a paragon of ethnic diversity, but it also wasn’t nearly as white-washed as a game like Fable III (or any Fable, really) would have you believe.
England in the Middle Ages didn’t really have werewolves, blood-forged swords, or ancient black spires that channel magic, either. Authenticity as an excuse for such white-washing stumbles on dubious footing. If we can have werewolves, why can’t we have black people? Are we really that worried about strained credibility in a game set in a fantasy world?
I thought, hell, let’s go through a handful of games and see how they fare when put through their paces of crafting characters whose ethnicity is something other than Pasty White Person. I want to put myself in the shoes of a gamer who is distinctly not a White Dude. Can I create an avatar befitting my newly-imagined race? Will I find representation amidst the pixels? Or will my ethnic identity be lost within pink and pale 1s and 0s?
Games often avoid enforcing a non-standard racial choice because they purportedly offer the player the chance to choose their own through character creators like the one in Fable III. A noble thought, but how well does it really work?
A quick trip to other pseudo-medieval fantasy: this time, Dragon Age: Origins and World of Warcraft.
In Dragon Age, I can create a Dwarf, which is really a short, chunky white person. I can also go Elf, which is – what? The fantasy equivalent to a starving supermodel? And finally, I can create a “human,” where “human” is defined purely as Pasty White Person. Okay, yes, you can change the skin tone, but they still appear to have largely Caucasian features – further, your character’s family is still white, suggesting that this is a genetic deviation like albinoism rather than an emblem of true racial heritage. Do a little research and I find that, once again, Dragon Age is modeled after England in the Middle Ages, and that according to Lead Writer David Gaider, “The Rivaini are dark-skinned, and while I don’t know if we’ll ever actually go to Rivain the further north we travel the more common a sight the Rivaini will become.” To gamers looking to create a dark-skinned character, he said, “Sorry you felt left out,” then acknowledged, “I suppose it’s fair to say that we need to be reminded from time to time that our audience is larger than that. While I’ve no interest in making Ferelden specifically reflect our own society, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t let our players feel that people like they have a place in our world – whether or not it’s a fictionalized version of medieval Europe.”
One wonders who the Qunari, with their gold skin, are supposed to represent in this fantasy version of Europe? And once again, what happened to the Moors?
Live and learn, I suppose.
Onto World of Warcraft.
Oh, hey, look. More white people.
Seems again “human” directly corresponds with “Caucasian.” Okay, sure, like in Dragon Age, I can go ahead and change the skin color of these humans, but somehow the characters still look distinctly white – but painted some other color, like that chick from that Bond movie who gets slathered in gold paint and dies.
What’s troubling is that there exists the feeling that the Horde – not necessarily the evil side, but certainly the more monstrous one – is home to the non-white options, with Trolls seeming roughly analogous to West Indian stereotypes, and Taurens fitting under the Native American umbrella. Here, the definition of “Race As Other” is as plain as the nose on a clown’s face: bold, red, and honking.
Fuck it, I think. Time to leave this White People Planet behind.
In space, I find some small solace.
In Mass Effect 2, I can change the skin tone and features of my Commander Shepard to correspond to someone who is distinctly non-white, yet still very human.
In EVE Online, I don’t even know what the hell I’m looking at. These characters are human, but of nebulous race – swarthy, severe, all glistening as if covered in a sheen of oil. I can definitely create someone who looks Asian. The Brutors (a tribe of the Minmatar) are … dusky of flesh? But not exactly black. (Though the game lets you modify skin tone.) I can’t create perfect analogs of those races found here on actual Earth, but at least I feel like I’m looking at a racially diverse group, even if those races are entirely fictionalized. Humanity remains diverse, even if the end result is the product of pure invention.
Comforted in some small way, I head back to Earth, where I hope things have changed after my time away amongst the twinkling not-necessarily-white stars, the red dwarfs, the yellow suns.
The world is ruined. Somebody fucked up, and now it’s all Fallout 3 outside.
Apparently, the radiation has gone and turned our distinct ethnic differences into a turbid, muddy broth. I boot up the character creator and at first I’m heartened – I have the option to create a character of four different racial makeups: Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, or Asian. (One wonders why one is listed as “African-American,” which specifically designates an American of African heritage, where the other classifications are purely racial, but I suppose that’s splitting “politically correct” hairs.)
Then I try it out.
Caucasian guy looks like a dirty-cheeked white person.
Asian guy looks like … a dirty-cheeked white person.
Hispanic guy looks like … mmm, yes, a dirty-cheeked white person.
The female analogs don’t look much better. They look like white people who have had their faces rubbed in ashtrays and were then kicked out into a raging sandstorm.
The best is the African-American character, who actually looks … well, black. Some ethnic identity remains apparently unmolested by the DNA-scourging radiation that washed over the Capital Wasteland.
The Sims 3 is probably as good as it gets. The facial sliders are robust enough where, with a nudge here and a tweak there, I can create babbling morons of any race I choose. I could, were I a non-white player, create a family that looked like my own and have them cook sushi or drain their pee meters or die in a kitchen fire. The universal experience.
Of course, the muffin-headed Sims all sound the same: like some white goob suffering from aphasia after he was kicked in the head by a cranky mule.
But we’ll take diversity wherever we can find it.
I am, of course, being a little harsh. Further, I’m not suggesting racism is at work in the creation of any of these games. What I am suggesting, however, is that the game industry can do better.
Race in games doesn’t reflect race in gamers. Gamers come from all walks of life and are born of every color and creed imaginable. And yet, the main characters in these games – avatars representing the player, or at least the player’s motivations – are predominantly white. Everybody else is under-represented as a protagonist, and some groups – Arabs, for instance – appear almost entirely unrepresented.
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? By ensuring that the play experience is limited to characters who are predominantly white – or at least white-seeming – then the audience for those games is suddenly cut short and kept out by a tall cultural fence.
A white picket fence, you might say. Clean, plain, power-washed: A perfect watermark of the suburban Caucasian experience.
Perhaps not inappropriately, it’s the science-fiction games that get it right – or, at least, better. Games like that look forward, while, so far, it seems that fantasy looks backward – but at least we know that it’s possible to move in the right direction.
Let’s see character creation possibilities that allow for us to create avatars that represent at least the look if not the lives of those who play these games – can’t we start there? Isn’t that a safe place to begin? To embrace The Other and realize it’s not Other at all, to ensure that diversity doesn’t mean “I can play a white human or a dark-skinned moon-goblin!” In the age of a half-black president, of a Hispanic Supreme Court judge, of a supposed “post-racial era,” isn’t this the best time to end the reign of the Pasty White Person in videogames?
Isn’t it time to say goodbye to Dave the White Villager?
Chuck Wendig is a novelist, screenwriter, and freelance penmonkey. He’s written for the pen-and-paper RPG industry for over 10 years, and is the developer for Hunter: The Vigil. He is represented by Stacia Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency. His website and blog is Terribleminds.