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Jul. 20 2009 - 12:43 pm | 184 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

A Further Elaboration on Racism in Video Games

gta-combo

Two men, two sequels, a thousand felonies apiece. Is the left game racist while the right one isn't?

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.

zombie-combo

Black zombies live in Africa, white zombies live in the Midwest.

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.

mass-effect-character

Create-a-hero seems like a good solution to this problem.

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Wait, so, GTA:SA isn’t racist because the other games in the series have centered on a white guy? So the fact that Niko Bellic is an Eastern European stereotype and that Tommy Vercetti is an Italian in the mafia that sounds like, well, Ray Liotta, is entirely inconsequential? You need to either be willing to stand alone on the other side of the fence from most thinking gamers, or you need to reassess your position. [Not to mention the racism inherent in your grouping these two very different cultures/races under the same banner as "white"]

    Your criteria for recognizing racism is incredibly arbitrary. I can name a reason why virtually every well received game of the past 3 years can be perceived as racist, but it simply isn’t the responsiblity of game makers to try to predict what might be offensive to people who don’t buy or play their games. Their job is to make good games and to make money. If people are offended by a game or find its premise objectionable, they are free to simply not buy the game.

    Why do you seem to think that a video game cannot exist without making a political statement? Would it be racist if Pac-Man was shaded brown instead? How about the little dots or the ghosts? My point is this: the only thing that gives a video game greater meaning than what is literally on the screen is what you read into it, and it’s cowardly of you to try to shirk responsibility for your own feelings by shunting it off to the people who put these games in your hands.

    [And, for the sake of argument, I decided to hold off on your ideas on the increasing prevalence of customized protagonists until now: This is an absolutely TERRIBLE idea. In case you didn't notice, as a result of the high level of customization in Mass Effect, Shepard (or whatever you renamed him/her to) undergoes only cursory character development, and when he does, it is handled clunkily because the scripting has to deal with all of the potential back stories and personalities you represent, and so, occasionally we get a stilted line from a supporting character that reminds you what kind of character you chose, but no true development, like the development that many supporting characters go through. Game makers can't create a story that develops a character they aren't familiar with, so, allowing the user to customize their character more will weaken the actual importance of this character to the story. I'm not against having protagonists in games that are a variety of races, but I think that whoever the protagonist is should have a full and developed back story, and this simply isn't possible if the main character doesn't exist until the user makes it.]

    • collapse expand
      deleted account

      I think the point about the white characters was supposed to show that claims that GTA: SA is racist against blacks because it depicts a black man engaging in violent atrocities is tempered by the fact that other GTA games have non-black characters doing the exact same things. I dont think it was supposed to show that GTA does not use racial stereotypes for their lead characters.

      But, regardless, why can’t GTA use a stereotype? It isn’t as if there does not exist a person who is the stereotype of the culture they belong to. There are Russians who drink a lot of vodka, there are black guys who where tons of gold chains, there are white women who have purse dogs and wear Louis Vuitton. Are we supposed to bar every story from using stereotypical characteristics in their main characters just because they are stereotypes? That is crazy. Just because GTAs main characters have some racially stereotypical characteristics does not mean that Rockstar is making a comment about all people of that race. The argument just doesn’t make any sense. Furthermore, GTA is a game that is just one big stereotype, from the way they depict NYC to the way prostitutes holler at you from the street. It is supposed to be a caricature.

      As for the game industry having more diverse lead characters, sure, that would be nice. But, remember who it is that writes the majority of these stories: white dudes. So is it any surprise that the protagonists end up being white? Not really. What probably needs to change is the demographic of game designers. But, of course, given how fucked up and racist most of the world is, the barriers to minorities breaking into a competitive industry that requires large amounts of (very, very expensive) education (generally), are pretty slim. So, as much as it would make the game industry better if there were a good number of non-white protagonists, no one is really in a position to tell writers how to write their stories. What needs to happen is a sea change in the way society is structured, and that will invariably lead to more racially egalitarian employment opportunities.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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