A Further Elaboration on Racism in Video Games
Last week I wrote a piece addressing an article that accused several games of racism. That article produced some thought provoking comments, so instead of writing one uber-length comment to respond, I decided to write an entirely new post to follow up.
To me it seems that the issue of race in video games is a lose-lose scenario, and I’m hesitant to bring it up again for fear of tiptoeing around a minefield. But I’ll try.
When black characters are the “heroes” of games, there will be cries about the context. In the case of the first commenter on my last post, he references Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as a prime example of “hero racism.” In that game, you play as a black man who commits a various amount of felonies ranging from drug distribution to mass murder. Sounds pretty bad right?
The problem is, there are now three other games in the series (GTA III, GTA: Vice City and GTA IV) that all feature a white lead character who commits the exact same crimes in the exact same way. There’s even a Nintendo DS version called Chinatown Wars where you’re an Asian criminal. Is San Andreas racist just because the race of the lead character has changed from the other games? I don’t think that’s a fair claim to make.
Contrastingly, there’s the issue of making black people the bad guys, in this case in Resident Evil 5 and to an extent in Left 4 Dead. A similar argument is made here, for decades there have been zombie games set in dozens of locations all around the world, and now, two such games have come to Africa and New Orleans respectively. Here there are large numbers of black zombies, because that’s mainly what the local population consists of, but all of a sudden the game must be a commentary about “the savage nature of blacks” and their zombification becomes an issue of stereotyping rather than geography.
So I ask of you, what’s the alternative here? Should non-white races be left out of games entirely? What I think you’re going to say is “No, there needs to be multi-cultural characters in games that are positive role models and strong characters.”
I fully agree with that statement, and I do believe that there are a number of characters out there like that, but not nearly enough times in lead roles. Believe me, I’m getting sick of the white, buzz-cutted space marines just as much as you are. The best way I’ve seen this dealt with is Mass Effect’s character creation system, where you design your hero from scratch and he can be any race or gender. I made my guy an Asian dude with blue eyes just because I thought he looked badass. Later, I made a black lesbian with a buzz cut and beat the game again.
So I’m willing to concede that the industry needs to make large steps forward in including other races as lead characters, and not mere sidekicks as they’re mostly relegated to now. But this is also true for movies, TV and all media really. I think it’s definitely a direction we’re moving toward, but claims of false racism in games are only slowing the process down.
If there is a series of games that features a white criminal tearing up the city with drive-by shootings and a rocket launcher, you cannot claim it to be racist when the next sequel in the series has a black or asian lead character. Similarly, if thirty zombie games feature hoards of white zombies bent on eating your brains, you can’t complain when in the 31st game the genre finally moves to a location where the zombie plague logically turns black people into brain eating monsters instead. It’s not a stereotype if the precedent behind it thus far has been all white, and in this case, in the video game world, it’s actually progress. Or at least that’s what it should be.