Race in Video Games: Why it Matters... And Why Things Won't Change Anytime Soon
A while ago I stumbled upon a Kotaku article talking about race and the portrayal of black video game characters. Being a black male myself, I took a quick look at the comments section below to see what others thought about this topic.
Most of the responses ranged from "It doesn't matter" to "Why should it matter" to "This is race baiting."
This got me thinking about my opinion on the matter.
First off - why does this matter at all?
Here's an example not based on race, but on location: The first time I saw Watchdogs I knew it was based in Chicago. Since I'm from Chicago, I instantly felt a connection to the game whereas normally I would just have looked at it as yet another open-world game with a big city.
Knowing it was set in my hometown formed a sort of connection that pulled me into something that I was familiar with. I was able to look at the buildings and the train and say to myself "Hey, I've been over there before!" And I wasn't alone; friends I showed footage to instantly recognized Chicago and became interested in the game.
Having game characters that reflect you in a positive and meaningful way can give you the same type of connection. Unfortunately, when I play a recent FPS, I'm usually a bald square-jawed white super soldier killing terrorists (COD) or killing zombies. Nothing's wrong with that mind you, I just don't feel any type of connection to what I am interacting with.
It all feels hollow.
There just aren't many lead black protagonist in video games.
Madden 25 or NBA2K13 are the only games in which I control a group of black characters.
To be honest I can't think of a game with an African-American lead character that I have ever played. The only game that comes to mind is Prototype 2, which I didn't play. I know there is Assassin's Creed: Liberations, but I don't own a Vita. Madden 25 or NBA2K13 are the only games in which I control a group of black characters.
That's not to say there aren't supporting characters. You have Cole from Gears of War, Eli from Half Life, Louis from Left 4 Dead and even Coach and Rochelle from the sequel. But in terms of main characters, the variety is lacking.
And the few black characters we do have seem extremely shallow.
When I see my race represented in video games we are typically:
- Thugs whose only motives are to smoke drugs and get money (think GTA 4's Jacob).
- Extremely violent characters who hold gatling guns and shoot everything in sight.
- A Rapper/artist whose sole purpose in the game is to get famous and sign a recording contract.
I understand that certain game developers do not have the knowledge to be able to understand black culture beyond certain tropes and stereotypes. I also understand that most of this is not because they blatantly don't want blacks to lead in their games--it's just because they have more experience or are comfortable with other races. I also understand marketing, and I know in order to tailor to your target audience you must adjust what you are selling to make it look like who you are selling it to.
These things we cannot deny. Yet when we look at American demographics, minorities now represent a huge part of the population according to census data. One wonders when will our entertainment will start reflecting the diversity this country has.
Frankly, it's hard for you to care if it doesn't affect you.
Most of the people in the comments section on Kotaku's website, I'm assuming, are young white men. It's not really surprising to me to hear that most of them don't understand the need for diversity in all forms of our entertainment. If when you buy the new Call of Duty, Watchdogs or Assassin's Creed and everyone already looks like you, why would you care?
I think we as gamers need to take a lesson from the movie industry on how we can start embracing diverse types of people in our media and put them in leading roles.
I'm not proposing affirmative action for video games.
I don't want game developers to throw black characters in games just to meet their "diversity quota." That's how the little Jacobs, Sam B's and the like get created. What I would like to see is a genuine character-driven video game that really builds up the story on a black (or any other race/sexual preference) character. I would like to see them pushed to the forefront instead of sidelined and side kicked.
When you think of a game like Bioshock Infinite, with all its themes of race and religion at play, I wonder how much better that game might have been if Elizabeth was black, or Booker Dewitt was Native American or Hispanic.
Sadly, this won't change for the foreseeable future.
Until we get more software developers and art directors of a diverse background, we won't see more diverse characters in our video games. And since blacks make up less than %1 of the workers in the technology field, we're still a ways off from that. We also have to deal with the stigma that if you put something out that does not fit with what society is used to, they will push back.
But games are just games... Right?
We must be bold... not settle for simple-minded gangsters or scantily clad woman.
There is no real reason game developers should change their ways. I mean when you have games like Call of Duty selling through the roof every year why should you? If no one is asking for it, why should you? And if the market you are targeting are not minorities then why make the change at all? Games are just forms of art right? Why should art be dictated by what a few individuals want personally? Why see color at all? The game is about the game at the end of the day and not about skin tone. These are all valid points that I have heard made by my peers.
But my response would be if we wish to push our medium forward, we must also put forth fresh perspectives and new ideas. We should not be scared that a black face or a red face or a woman's face will scare off potential gamers. We must be bold and not settle for simple-minded gangsters or scantily clad woman soldiers on the battlefield. We must be INclusive and not EXclusive to all forms of people in our medium.
And most of all, I think we can all do better than this.