This story begins at a low-key birthday party of a good friend of mine. Rather than opt for a decadent college bacchanal, she simply decided to invite a few friends to dinner at her family’s house, somewhere in the manicured sprawl that is Orange County, California. While her (white) mom and (Asian) dad put the finishing touches on their (Korean) barbecue, my friend and I relaxed in the backyard, alternating between eyeing the rain clouds that come with SoCal winters and chatting with the other guests: her (white) boyfriend and her two other good (white) friends.
Now, all of us had been known to enjoy the occasional videogame every now and then, so the conversation quickly turned to the latest release – Shadow of the Colossus. One of the other partygoers asked the birthday girl if she had ever played Shadow‘s well-known predecessor, Ico. She stared blankly. “What’s it about?”
“Well, you see, you’re a boy, with, uh, horns, and there’s this girl, and … “
How would you describe Ico? I sure as hell don’t know how to describe it. But blame it on the social awkwardness of being surrounded by upper-middle-class white people, or on having to be the fifth wheel – for whatever reason, I found myself jokingly interjecting:
“Actually, it’s an allegory of race relations in the United States – the white woman is using the brown man to keep the black man down.”
Blank stares all around. I tried again.
“With a stick.”
Homeboy turned to me with that you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut- butter look.
“So! How about that Phoenix Wright? Did I mention you get to yell ‘Objection’?”
With each new generation of consoles, videogames have grown up a little bit more, gradually coming into their own as a medium of expression. While videogames tackling serious themes and subject matter is nothing new – see Missile Command and its depressing outlook on World War III, for example – videogames are rapidly becoming more and more accurate facsimiles of the real world. And with these increasingly realistic game worlds, we will be bringing in, consciously or unconsciously, more and more of our very real-world problems. Race is on the tip of our tongues these days, whether we’re watching Chappelle’s Show or Crash. But pick up that PS2 controller and no one dares drops the R-word. What’s going on?
We are, by and large, concerned with the propagation of racial stereotypes in any form of mass media; we want to be depicted as people, not shallow, refined characterizations, and yet most of us barely notice that most black videogame characters are boxers or basketball players. Asians show up as ninjas and kung fu masters and, sadly, you probably won’t find a whole lot of Chicano-Latino individuals outside of Border Patrol.
This is a larger issue than simply that of window dressing. While Street Fighter II‘s Balrog will have the same standing Fierce Punch regardless of whether he’s white, black, brown or yellow, the images we take in through different channels of mass media all affect the way we understand race. If all boxers are black and all Asians know kung fu in our fighting games, we will come to strongly associate boxing with blackness and kung fu with yellow. Our news teaches us that black people loot and white people find, our movies teach us that Asian people in the United States simply can’t speak English and, by and large, our games are teaching us that heroes are invariably white. As videogames continue to grow as a medium, it becomes less and less absurd that they might be dictating, as well as reflecting, our racial common sense.
Perhaps we can take a look at a similar and potentially parallel ongoing discussion. Sex and sexuality in games is a hot topic, whether it’s on Bonnie Ruberg’s “Heroine Sheik” blog or that oh-so-overblown Hot Coffee business in GTA: San Andreas. Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that gamers, by and large, like sex: We will masturbate to Rez, we’ll rate our Second Life hookers, we’ll even give public sex a shot in World of WarCraft. For all the hubbub about sex and nudity in games, it’s very rarely the gamers themselves you’ll find rallying against pixelated boobies in our videogames.
But wait until a group of self-identified queer gamers is advertising their guild as “LGBT-friendly” (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender), and all we hear is “Why can’t an orc just be an orc?” It’s been my experience that for all the criticism gamers are willing to dish out at the people who make games and occasionally the people who write about them, they are singularly unwilling to criticize themselves. Sex is fine with gamers as a feature; once it becomes an issue, and a potentially divisive one at that, games are escapism, not reality, and we just don’t want to bring our real baggage into our fantasy worlds.
Whether we like it or not, race, like sexuality, is intricately woven throughout our videogames, and we are astonishingly capable of ignoring it even when it’s staring us in the face. We have no problem assigning essentialist, natural meaning to racial categories when we’re rolling our D&D characters; trolls are strong, elves are agile, “humans” can do pretty much everything. But could we ever, in good conscience, write “black” on our character sheet because we need the strength bonus?
Regardless of whether a film intends to thematically engage race or not, we will scrutinize it; but by and large we refuse to do the same for games. Frankly, we can’t afford to wait for the videogame equivalent of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled to begin discussing race and videogames; we have scarcely begun to dissect the videogame equivalents of Friday and Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. Barring Sony’s recent excursion into poor taste, people are generally unwilling to discuss the topic much further than simply shouting down the few who do take notice of some of the more ridiculous racialized imagery, themes and rhetoric that moves through videogames and videogamers.
Sadly, our reluctance to use our critical lenses isn’t restricted to the medium, either: We are, by and large, just as blind toward issues of race and racism within our own communities, as well. Certainly, the anonymous nature of the internet makes it easier to bring racist dialogue into any discursive space – from a public chat room to a lightsaber duel – and I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s seen racial slurs tossed around in an otherwise friendly game of Counter-Strike. Make no mistake, there is far, far more to look at here than just a bunch of punk kids spamming their racial-invective-of-the-day chat macros.
An example of gamer humor gone racial comes from Counter-Strike: About a year or so ago, a video clip of a young, presumably black man named “C-Note” playing CS on a public server, complete with voice chat, made the internet rounds and enjoyed a brief stint of popularity. The clip is a series of mashed-up highlights of some of C-Note’s choice dialogue, which consists of bizarre one-liners (“Oh, nigga, is that a bazooka right there? Nigga, that’s my bazooka” in reference to the AK-47), random braggadocio (“Nigga I c-walk down the street”) and occasional threats to sic his older brother (“He’s 6’7″, 250”) on other people on the server.
The joke in C-Note’s video is not easily accessible to anyone who doesn’t play Counter-Strike; recognizing his flamboyant beginner-ness requires a certain amount of knowledge of the game, of course. But neither is it his newbie yelling that makes him entertaining to those that do get the game. Sure, it’s loud and obnoxious, but that’s not the joke. It isn’t until you become used to the kinds of voices and diction that you find on Counter-Strike‘s teamspeak channels that you start to see why some people found the C-Note video so funny. C-Note is a joke about being clearly, unavoidably black in an online space where everyone is assumed to be white and male until proven otherwise. While there’s nothing bad about fish-out-of-water humor, per se, laughing at Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in Rush Hour is substantially different from mocking some hapless kid for committing the social faux pas of being black in white-space.
Race is no less innocuous when it enters our virtual worlds voluntarily, either. Lisa Nakamura, author of Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, studies the LambdaMOO, a text-only MUD (multi-user dungeon), in her essay “Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.” LambdaMOO, like most online communities, provides no explicit space for players to indicate race, so it’s up to the player to describe himself however he wishes. However, Nakamura observes, “Players who elect to describe themselves in racial terms, as Asian, African American, Latino, or other members of oppressed and marginalized minorities, are often seen as engaging in a form of hostile performance, since they introduce what many consider a real life ‘divisive issue’ into the phantasmatic world of cybernetic textual interaction. The borders and frontiers of cyberspace which had previously seemed so amorphous take on a keen sharpness when the enunciation of racial otherness is put into play as performance. While everyone is ‘passing,’ some forms of racial passing are condoned and practiced since they do not threaten the integrity of a national sense of self which is defined as white.”
From here, she goes on to describe an online world where the most common occurrences of race are white men playing either as Asian men named “Mr. Sulu,” “Musashi” and “Bruce Lee” or Asian women named “AsianDoll,” “Miss_Saigon” and “Geisha_Guest,” the latter of whom was described as a “petite Japanese girl in her twenties. She has devoted her entire life to the perfecting the tea ceremony and mastering the art of lovemaking” and has “spent her entire life in the pursuit of erotic experiences,” and, if you read the rest of the character description, apparently isn’t wearing panties. Race, here, is unacceptable if you bring in real-world Latino or African-American baggage, but racial roleplaying of classic Asian stereotypes – Asian men as sexless engineers and fantastical warriors and Asian women as sexual objects – is clearly not unusual. Here, we are not only implicitly condoning these stereotypical characters as acceptable roleplaying material, we are also announcing that Asians are somehow less marginalized than blacks or Latinos by regarding the stereotypes at hand as somehow innocuous and less threatening than if we were performing as black or Latino in LambdaMOO. Even though this space is virtual and fictional by nature, the way we handle race in our virtual spaces can have very local and very real implications.
All of a sudden, the internet is looking less like a colorblind haven and more like second grade, where everyone thought the two Asian kids in the class knew kung fu, could speak Chinese and were related. And maybe, just maybe, we could compare this to GTA: San Andreas again, and see what it would be like to roleplay the stereotypical black thug in LambdaMOO. How is it different when a white male racially performs as black? Or when an Asian male roleplays as white?
I’m writing this to you, videogame community, because I love you. I have played through the same stories as you. I have cursed King of Fighters boss characters like you. I have had controllers thrown at me, probably by you. I have borrowed games from you and not returned them because you lost my copy of Nights Into Dreams. I have owned you, and I have been owned by you. I see the same incredible potential for telling new stories with new technology that you do. I want a game to be truly Mature when it’s labeled Mature, because I know just as well as you do that boobies and dead bodies aren’t enough to hold on to my interest these days.
But sadly, amid our chatter of $600 PlayStation 3s, we’re glossing over some of the important stuff, the ugly stuff, the revealing stuff, and, yes, some of the genuinely Mature stuff that we have in the games that are already out. We are so unwilling to take our beloved medium seriously, we just shrug and brush it off when we have to check our real-life identities at the login screen. Many of us just don’t think about why this could be relevant to you and the people you play with.
Race and videogames may not quite be two great tastes that taste great together, but they’re both here, and when they’re staring us in the face it would be nothing but childish and irresponsible to ignore them.
Even in Ico.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.