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The Designer's Notebook: Not Just Rappers and Athletes: Minorities in Videogames

August 27, 2003

So here I am, a few years back, firing up Baldur's Gate for the first time. This is gonna be great! A huge multi-disc CRPG with a decent storyline and tons of gorgeous artwork, the reviews tell me. I can't wait. First things first, though; gotta create my avatar. Forget the suggested, pre-built person they give me -- this is my big chance for self-expression. I'm looking through the portraits available trying to decide what kind of a person I'm going to be. Nice selection. Hey, there's a black woman! I can play a black woman! They're scarce as hen's teeth in computer games. She's got her head tilted back and her eyes half-closed in the snootiest expression imaginable, and she's holding out her hand for it to be kissed - what an attitude! I warm to this lady immediately. I'm gonna be her and we're going to be a Heroine together.

So I play along through the game for a while, gathering my posse and talking to bartenders and killing things and selling slightly dented armor down at Ye Olde Dented Armor Shoppe, the way you do, and after a while I decide to check out the gnoll fortress. After seriously whomping on a whole lot of gnolls, I come across this female mage being kept prisoner down in a pit. So I get her out of the pit and she joins the party. She's called Dynaheir (weird name… a descendant of Alfred Nobel, presumably). Her stats are pretty good, but she's an Invoker, limited in the kinds of magic she can perform. She'll do until somebody better comes along.

However, there's something odd about this woman. Unlike everybody else in the game, the clothing in Dynaheir's portrait doesn't match the clothing that her character is wearing in the main window. In fact, her character's clothing really matches my portrait. What's going on?

A quick look at a Baldur's Gate fan site gives me the answer. I've accidentally stolen Dynaheir's head. I unknowingly used her portrait for my own character, so the game has substituted a different one for Dynaheir, one that doesn't match her character. The Heroine of this story wasn't really supposed to be a black woman. There's only room for one black woman in this game, and she's a second-rate mage being kept prisoner in a pit.


Now, this isn't meant to be a criticism of Baldur's Gate. It's a wonderful game, one of the best I've ever played. But my experience does point up a longstanding problem: there aren't enough minority characters in games, and the ones we do have are confined to too narrow a spectrum of roles. Back in 1999, the New York Times ran an article called "Blood, Gore, Sex, and Now Race: Are Game Makers Creating Convincing New Characters Or 'High-Tech Blackface'?" It was a worthy question then, and one that doesn't seem to have received an answer in the intervening four years.

The first black character that I can remember in any video game was Julius "Dr. J" Erving, in one of Electronic Arts' first titles, Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One-on-One, a basketball game. The machines it shipped on had such limited graphics capabilities that it was essential for the athletes to be different colors so players could tell them apart. (If I remember correctly, Larry Bird was white -- bright white -- and Dr. J was actually orange. The background was black.) So began a long tradition of black characters in games… as athletes. Tiger Woods has been a huge seller, too, but that doesn't have much to do with black people in the larger social context.

More and more games are starting to feature rappers and hip-hop music, and some games are beginning to incorporate black urban slang as well, for its "cool value." There's a debate among black game developers about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. Some people think it means that games are finally starting to recognize the energy and vibrancy of hip-hop and rap music. Others see it as the publishers co-opting that music simply to put more money in their own pockets -- primarily white pockets -- trading on the popularity of hip-hop to sell games. A few people are concerned that it could actually be a form of stereotyping.

Tiger Woods: huge seller.

I don't have a personal stake in that debate, but I do know that publishers follow the money. If it's financially profitable to include (or exploit, if you prefer) hip-hop and rap, they will do so, and if it ceases to be financially profitable, they will stop. My concern isn't about whether the publishers are right or wrong in incorporating this hip-hop and rap music and youth culture. My concern is that, if that's the only way in which we depict black characters, then it definitely is a form of stereotyping. If all our black characters are cool young men spouting urban street slang, then we're ignoring the rest of the black population, and creating an artificial impression that that's what all black people are like. People don't stop being black when they hit 25. They don't stop being black if they live in the country or talk like Sydney Poitier.

Personally, I don't feel that this (as some would argue) is caused by a culture of racism in the commercial game industry. If there is racism in commercial gaming, it seems to me that it derives from ignorance and inattention rather than malice. Of course, there will always be a few examples of actual malice, in nasty homemade titles like Ethnic Cleansing, but they're certainly not part of the commercial mainstream. No retail store is going to stock overtly racist games; no publisher is going to advertise them.

But racism that derives from ignorance and inattention is still racism. Japanese games often depict black characters with exaggerated negroid features. Japanese developers may know that their domestic market doesn't mind, but they probably aren't aware of how this will be perceived in the United States, where there is a long, unhappy history of drawing blacks with clownishly exaggerated features for its "humor" value.

Unfortunately, the animé style prevalent in Japanese games traditionally exaggerates everybody's features, so it's sometimes difficult to distinguish between a peculiarity of the style and the influence of an actual racist attitude. But regardless of the underlying intention, a little more sensitivity couldn't hurt. An American developer probably wouldn't ship a game to Japan that depicted Asian people with slanted eyes and buck teeth.
The TV show Law & Order is one that seems to have gotten this right. Set in Manhattan, it incorporates a complete cross-section of Manhattan society. African Americans in the show are portrayed as prostitutes and gangstas, but also as high-priced lawyers, doctors, shopkeepers, teachers, and of course cops. The African American characters aren't either tokens or stereotypes; they're people, doing whatever it is they do. It's an example to learn from.

You might be asking yourself, "Who cares? They're only games." But games are not "only" games any longer; they're an increasingly powerful and meaningful part of our society. They don't merely reflect our culture; they help to create it. The answer to the question "Who cares?" is "A lot of your customers, actually." The same people who care that there aren't many books written, or movies or television shows made about black people (and Asians, and Hispanics, for that matter; or in Britain, Pakistanis and West Indians). It's not just a question of finding work for black actors; it's a question of acknowledging the presence of minorities in society and making them feel included as customers we want to reach. Just as little girls get tired of reading adventure stories featuring only male characters, so black people get tired of playing videogames that feature only white characters. Why alienate potential buyers when the fix is so easy?

Def Jam Vendetta leverages hip-hop and rap culture, and has been credited with injecting new life into the wrestling game genre. But is it also perpetuating stereotypes that we ought to be trying to break free of?

It's not as if there are no black characters in games - obviously we can point to Barrett of Final Fantasy 7, Eddy Gordo of Tekken, Taurus of Interstate '76, and others. They're fairly common in fighting games. But in most of those cases minority characters are included simply to add visual variety. The more important question in my mind is, "Could Duke Nukem have been black? Could Lara Croft?" Duke Nukem's attitude towards women is such that, had he been black, 3D Realms would probably have been accused of portraying black men as sexist. But I think Lara Croft could easily have been black. Would Tomb Raider have sold as well? Maybe I'm being naïve here, but I think it might. Men didn't have any trouble getting over the notion of playing a female character; I'd like to think that whites wouldn't have any trouble getting over the notion of playing a black character. If they don't mind in sports games, why should they mind with action-adventures?

In any case, there's a lot more that we, as game designers, could be doing. For example, we could deliberately play against type, reversing the tired old stereotypes. Two film examples come to mind, movies that were groundbreaking for their time: Lethal Weapon and Se7en. Lethal Weapon was a mismatched-buddy flick with a twist: instead of pairing a young, hip black cop with an older, conservative, white cop, it gave us Danny Glover as the 50-year-old suburban family man, suddenly having to deal with Mel Gibson as his rash, hotheaded partner. In Se7en, made a few years later, Morgan Freeman plays a quiet, middle-aged homicide detective who always dresses impeccably and spends his evenings in the public library, opposite Brad Pitt as the loose cannon. In both cases, the combination is interesting and enjoyable. We don't often see middle-aged black men acting as guides and mentors for young whites. But we could, and we should.

Lethal Weapon: buddy flick with a twist.

It's possible to do this badly; a lot of what made those movies work was the chemistry between Glover and Gibson, and Freeman and Pitt. With actors of less stature, the result might have been awkward or laughable. But the biggest hurdle was making the decision to do it at all. For us, that decision is long overdue.

I want to see Morgan Freeman as a lead character in a game. I want to see Whoopi Goldberg and S. Epatha Merkerson. I want to see Sydney freakin' Poitier, I don't care how old he is, I love the man. And Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne and Queen Latifah and Beyoncé Knowles. And Chris Rock and Halle Berry and 50 Cent. I don't want only want to see them in urban environments, whether committing crimes or fighting crimes -- I want to see them everywhere, doing everything, being all kinds of people. Take all of Joseph Campbell's archetypal character types: Hero, Mentor, Ally, Trickster, and so on, and I want to see black characters in every possible role. Not just as rappers and athletes. It's time the game industry gave minorities their due as full-fledged members of the cast.

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