For Those of You Just Joining Us...
The recent panels at the Game Developers Conference and overall timbre of articles in both independent and industry supported blogs reveal an exciting and reflective conversation on women and gender in videogames, galvanized by the re-birth of Lara Croft and the release of Anita Sarkeesian’s Women vs. Tropes in Videogames. The conversation has moved beyond simply arguing for less revealing clothing and “more agency” for fictional women, towards dissecting a paradigm shift for the entire industry, highlighting the role of women as both consumers and producers of videogames.
And while anyone at least casually interested in social equity will no doubt find this thrilling, the conversation is overwhelmingly white, with all these calls for industry-wide changes in favor of equal representation completely omitting race. The conversation has been disappointingly monochromatic, but, has at least shown that the industry is “talking back” to both internal and external critics and is, however tepidly, evolving a capacity for self-reflection.
That said, why are we talking about gender in isolation? Why aren’t we talking about race in games? The biggest deterrent to a meaningful conversation on race is that we’re still striving for “diversity.” Unfortunately, developers and players alike have adopted the misguided belief that simply adding black and brown people to games without any context will somehow evade accusations of racism in games. This is best seen in the character creation mechanic. Personally, I love the ability to alter my character’s appearance – but this isn’t “diversity” in any sense. The promotional material which blankets websites and game stores will always feature the “default” of a white male (itself a serious problem) and in-game, when altering the protagonist to become a person of color, their race comes down only to appearance with no effect on the story. But as we know, race affects all our stories.
And frankly speaking, it is extremely offensive to reduce race to one’s appearance. If you were to ask me the racial differences between a white person, and myself I wouldn't reply that I was further to the right on the melanin slider. Faux-intellectuals often dismiss such a definition of race, opting for a literal prima facie perspective by emphasizing that there is no biological evidence for “race” beyond pigmentation. And that’s true - racial differences are social constructs. But this visually discernible difference, while arbitrary as hair or eye color, is imbued with the cultural meanings that create the logics supporting racial divisions. Unfortunately, videogames have historically viewed diversity as a disparity in "representation" with this superficial understanding of race. An actual conversation on race in games isn’t simply about adding X number of Y-colored people. It’s about acknowledging that social acceptability is linked with people’s racial identity, with whiteness being the ideal.
Filters and Fantasies
Oddly enough, it is fantasy games that most closely reflect this reality. The “fantastic racism” in games like Skyrim, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are among the best representations of societal prejudices in the medium. The Dunmers' seclusion to the “Gray Quarter” in Windhelm, the impoverished City Elves cut off from their culture in Dragon Age or Mordin Solus’ guilt over the genophage are valid (though hyper-fictionalized) representations of racism because they discuss race in connection with history, oppression, privilege and power.
But a similarly complex understanding of race set in our world has yet to materialize. This isn’t incidental. Consider this: when developers sit down to discuss historical time periods to set their FPS, action, adventure, etc. games in, notice which time periods are featured and which are not. Consider Dishonored’s WWII setting, Dragon Age, Dark Soul’s, Dragon’s Dogma take on the Middle Ages of Europe, Skyrim’s Viking locale, L.A. Noire’s 1940’s and multiple shooters’ excursions in the Middle East starring American soldiers. Another major deterrent to talking about race in game, specifically to connecting race to history in games, is that developers choose time periods accepted as only having white heroes. Certainly there are both heroes and villains of all colors throughout American history, but this norm of setting games in time periods where white heroes are the only “realistic” choice is an industry-wide filtering that once again privileges whiteness.
Imagine what a videogame, which allows us to inhabit and build empathy towards an infinite amount of settings and characters, could do to teach players about racism, sexism etc. Imagine a Heavy Rain style videogame starring an Islamic cast striving to survive being on the other side of the Call of Duty setting. What could that story teach us about race, religion, empathy, geography, etc.? Videogames can teach us about race.
Does every videogame need to explicitly detail the mechanics of racism or sexism? No. But it is no coincidence that we’re witnessing the most strident internal criticism of video games since Columbine only a few months before the release of the “next-generation” of hardware. The social media boom has allowed gamers to hold developers accountable for the shortcuts and concessions in their products - consider the maelstrom of bad press summoned by gamers disappointed in the Diablo 3 and SimCity releases. The conciliatory tokens of acknowledgment that worked in the past are no longer acceptable and, I believe, that through online dialogues gamers can hold developers to the same degree of accountability in their treatments of both race and gender.
We've come a long way, but have a long way to go. But if the GDC panels and progressive bloggers such as myself are correct in believing that we can push games further and create real emotional connectivity, then videogames have evolved the maturity to discuss complex issues in depth. As we prepare ourselves for the leap into the next generation, we should push not simply for a technical expansion in terms of hardware, but a conceptual expansion in terms of the subject matters, emotions and contexts in games. We are ready for this conversation and, as a lifelong gamer, I can’t wait to see it “play” out.