Twice the white guilt for half the industry expertise!
I know everyone cringed when they read that title, but hear me out.
There's an article on Gamasutra that talks about the rarity of black women in games, and then broadens its scope to discuss the way that rap, hip-hop, or in whitey's terms 'urban' imagery is becoming prevalent in games. The person writing this piece is named Ernest Adams, and seems to be white, by certain comments he makes during the piece. One of the biggest parts, I think, is how the title is 'something something Minorities in Games' but all he talks about is black people. So that bit of bias in hand, let's look at this thing.
I'll just go ahead and take clips from the piece and hit them on a one-for-one basis.
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.
This is the only part of the whole thing that makes sense, and it talks about how a white guy chose a snooty black woman because he empathized with her. But the fundamental point is valid, you can't find any black people in games, and when you do, they're usually in or escaping from some kind of prison. I was showing off the character creation in the Jedi Academy demo to some guys in the art class yesterday, and when we cycled through to the 'human male' we found that he was black. This was fine, until, when we looked at the choice of heads, out of the three possibilities, only one was black--the other two were white. This was the only case for which the choices involved a skin-color choice. All other characters were the same skin color no matter which head you chose (including the human female, who was white), with the exception of the twi-lek woman, who's color changing was slightly broader, although the closest thing to black was blue, and I don't know about you, but that doesn't cut it. Although, to be fair, Keith was there, and he liked the blue, so I guess I might be missing the point of spray painting a woman bright colors. In any case, I think we can agree that that's bullshit--and not in that 'if you low-kick me again, I'm not playing any more' but more of that 'fuck you, you goddamn jackass' way.
From here on, his bit gets weaker:
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, I don't know about you, but I think the fact that he rescued a woman being held captive in a pit has more to do with the fact that we rescue too many women from pits more than the fact that she was black. Also, it's interesting how he side steps the whole fact that in Dungeons and Dragons, the only 'official' blacks in the game, the Drow (who are in Baldur's Gate) are all irredeemably evil. Now I might be overreacting, but this guys vague uncomfortable feeling from only having one black girl with which to empathize kind of pales in comparison (pun intended).
Also, the real question is what those poor gnolls did to deserve the wrath of this guy's 'posse'.
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 'legitimate' question is whether gaming has a fucking prayer of breaking through the blood, gore, sex, and race that have been perpetuating 'blackface' (whatever the hell that means) by music, tv, radio, government, and pop-culture. Oh, and also, history. And sports. And toys.
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.
The first black guy I remember playing in video games was the ship from asteroids... What the hell is this guys talking about? Black people are kind of orange, and in any case, that's the closest you're going to get simulating the difference between melanin and ASPHALT on that system. Also, the crack about sports is insane. Games are perpetuating a stereo type because the only place that they portray blacks in equal or greater numbers than whites is in sports? It probably eludes this guy that that's a greater social problem more than anything else. If anything, the inclusion of Larry Bird was statistically unfair.
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.
Actually rather than (*gasp*) stereotyping I think what people are more concerned with is the fact that it 'might' be exploitive and morally bankrupt; encouraging negative social trends in a particular sub-culture just so you can sell it to your own socially adrift adolescents after you take away all the reality and artistic value by portraying it a carnival of bitches and guns on MTV. While this bitch is whining about stereotyping, white music/tv/sports/whatever businessmen are creating a society where a black can't get a job unless it's in entertainment, and then only if he's trading on a hostile criminal image.
At this point in the paper, I am already finding this guy's soft-ass approach to be a pain. But since it was important enough for Gamasutra to print, I went on with it.
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.
Well goodness, since you're not concerned with whether money for it's own sake is selling the black-man up shit creek, I guess we'd better just stick to your more formidable complaint that we might be 'stereotyping' people when we portray them a certain way all the time. I love his characterization of 'cool young men spouting urban street slang' for several reasons. First, statistically speaking, black men die pretty young, compared to whites, or other groups in this country in general. So if you find one, he's probably going to be fairly young. As a culture, we're more interested in young people than old ones anyway, because old people have all these irrelevant stories and experience that get in the way of their ability to kill the undead or leap ninja-style onto a guard and snap his neck. I'm just sayin'...
Second, the use of the word 'cool' when what he meant was 'angry' probably isn't the best choice. Of the 3 games I can think of that had black characters as the main character by default (Shadowman, Blade, and Spawn), all of them were really pissed off. There aren't even any 'reluctant hero' black characters. Shit, of the 3 there, one's a voodoo zombie, one's a half-vampire, and the last one was sent to hell and then became Satan's new general. While I find these things cool, I know my mom doesn't, and I think she represents a more balanced view of things.
Third, you can't get a hell of a lot more evasive yet redundant than saying 'urban street slang'. 'Street' is what the last generation of closet racists used to say 'black criminal', and 'urban' is what we're using now--so good show on that word choice, Ernest.
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.
This is debatable and also totally fucked. For one thing, (as an example), Italian Americans are basically off the radar screen in terms of 'stereotyping as newsflash', but aside from one successful drug-laden plumbing franchise, a lot of roles as cooks, and 40,000 leading roles as Mob badguys, they don't get their fair share of healthy attention either. The fact is Italians used to be identified as violent criminals who spoke poor butchered english and treated women like whores. This persists to this very day. Now, if you turn on the TV and look at a rap video, what will be your conclusion other than 'criminal+speaks poor english+treats women like whores'. But now, nobody blinks when a game with a mobster is on the shelf unless its got an errant tit in it or maybe a little too much activity of beating people to death with baseball bats (good and proper Americans shoot people, they don't soil their hands *rolling of the eyes* ). Of course, what caused Italians to be the mob in the first place was that having the good fortune to be mistreated by the jackasses on Ellis Island really just accomplished two things for poor immigrants
1) you were now poor in nasty grimey cardboard apartment complex in the middle of a sewer that smelled only slightly of basil
2) some asshole who spoke a different language wanted you to stick your hand in giant skin-eating machines for 3 cents an hour (or sew until you fell down, or butcher pigs until you were crushed by a steel beam, or sort industrial waste until your organs liquified and shot our your ass in a bid to escape the huge amounts of alchohol you had to drink).
The real problem was that a bunch of anglo-saxon protestants didn't think Italians were human in quite the same sense that they were, and since capitalism doesn't have rules such as 'decency' they just exploited the work force for what they wanted--perpetuating the shitty existence that led to the crime and the stereotype which perpetuated it.
Blacks are going through the same thing, only, instead of working in a dehumanizing factory under awful conditions (we've moved all that good stuff off-shore so the chinese or various pacific island nations can pick up that slack), they're unemployed until they get a recording contract or draft number.
The fact that this retard thinks it has to be at the 'Ethnic Cleansing' level before it represents a giant fuck-up for society is sick and wrong. Ethnic cleansing is only a short step from an apathetic society--and we have at least 3 wonderful examples in the 20th century alone to prove it!
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.
This is just remarkably idiotic because it misses out on the fact that the japanese are so racist as a culture that they portray their own kind in this rediculously distorted way--in characature--as a regular part of their media. Characture has total integration with the Japanese approach to entertainment. To an Urban japanese person, a rural japanese person is about as intelligent as a monkey. That's to say nothing of what they think of Koreans or Chinese. Rather than excuse their perspective, I'd say its even less acceptible. The only thing that makes it worse is the fact that Americans let the japanese give us games where the only black guy is some chimp-like total psycho (like the kick boxer from Street fighter III) and we simply 'tsk tsk' it and let it slide.
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.
That's because the Japanese wouldn't send us a game where the white people had gigantic eyes and excessive body-hair. You're not getting the message, guy--it's not that the japanese are damaging 'your people' with their portrayal of blacks, it's that you don't even realize that your own culture excludes them as well.
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.
I'm sure most black people will agree that high-priced lawyers and doctors represent the common black man about as much as oreos represent all of Nabisco's fine products. The teacher and cop thing is good too, but there's a lot of tension there, from what I understand. I don't know if it's relevant, but in Sarafina, a movie about Aparteid in South Africa, there were black cops as well--they represented yet another branch of an oppressive society, as well as social divisions within the people who were struggling for some kind of parity with the oppressors. Black people are moving into general society and being treated more regularly, but it's taken too long, and it's by no means the rule. For every 1 black person who's at this school being treated like a normal individual, there's 100's who are in racially homogenous neighborhoods with poorer schools, job potential, and more 'police protection'. The only reason this show works is because it's set in Manhattan, and New York has been the actual realization of the whole 'melting pot' theory that this country supposedly works on--and it hasn't been on purpose, either--only by sheer accident and a couple hundred years of not getting along is everyone now treated equally poorly.
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?
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?
Of those 3 games, 2 are japanese, and 1 is just another 70's black side-kick, like Supafly Johnson from Daikatana. Sure, he's cool, but second fiddle to a white man is bullshit. If duke Nuke'em were black, he'd be heralded as the worst stereotype that gaming has ever perpetrated on blacks. If Lara Croft were black, it'd make even LESS sense why she was wandering around in daisy dukes inside a frozen ice-cave for the first half of the game. Guys like to look at the female figure, and some guys are so starved for it that they'll look at reasonable fascimiles. There IS no way to tell what white people think of black main characters because no one will produce a game that stands on the strength of its main character being black without explanation or apology or setup. Spawn and Blade are based on successful franchises. Shadowman, as far as I know, isn't breaking any sales records. Besides, it's a dangerous issue. If you have a black guy be the main character for GTA:Vice City (rather than the guy who befriends the main character and then turns out to be a traitor) wouldn't everyone think you're being an asshole for putting a black in that kind of role? Let's start small, shall we? Let's just try including an equal number of black faces as any other race in games where you can choose your avatar :P
As for that crap about sports games, well, that's just connected to a whole other shitstorm I mentioned earlier... so I'll move on.
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.
Uh, forgive me, but that's a perpetuation of the black-as-friendly servant crap that's been in movies from the beginning. Only now, instead of being an overt 'can I shine your shoes?' it's a more subtle 'can I get your back while you kung-fu kick evil in the groin?'. Se7en is a movie that's closer to parity, but that's only because Morgan Freeman is another Sidney Poitier, and as a script writer you fuck with that at your peril. But that's what it takes: if you don't have the personal magnetisim of John Wayne as a black guy, then you're not going to be in a serious role that requires a neuron.
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.
and long overdone. What about a movie where the good white guy with kung fu skills who has to save humanity by doing a triple back-tuck and killing fifty people with his barehands is a black guy, and the awkward 'getting too old for this shit' middle-aged silly black guy is white? I'd pay to see that. The only example I can think of is Men in Black. That's the only one. Well, and Independence day. So that's two. Both featuring the same... and Wild Wild West.. I'm sensing a theme here. The only possible explanation is that Will Smith's Kinder Gentler family-friendly rap is the wave of the future for blacks in america. Haha, no just kidding. I'm not sure he's, strictly speaking, black, anyway. As far as I can tell, the only black guys who've had any success at being black are Samuel Jackson and Denzel Washington. But that's just the beginning of starting to think about the possibility of change.
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.
This is what white guilt is all about. A long awkward piece of crap to make a good, but extremely obvious point. Also, if it's all the same, I'd rather not see Queen Latifah in any role other than as a mailbox or perhaps a lamppost.
Anyway, if you've made it this far, thanks for listening, and I'll be in on monday to get that cap in my ass I so richly deserve.
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