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Can Videogames Teach Us About Race?
by Sidney Fussell on 04/21/13 02:33:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

 

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.

Token Minorities 

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.

Next-Gen

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.

 


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Comments


Joy Zimba
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I would also stress the relationship of heroic roles and race.

If what ends up on the screen doesn't add but remove from images that positively represent that race ( or culture/ gender) then yes- developers will have created a racially diverse game - but will people want to play it?

Looking realistically, how many people have played a game with a white male Americanised hero (WMAH) on the box but not even come from the same culture, race, or gender? ( though this has encouraged the "default to white" syndrome in fear of misrepresentation).

I believe players want to be the hero- and (place race of choice here) - in that order.

This doesn't necessarily mean they can't be an anti-hero but it is most certainly doesn't mean having a specific race presented and having them fill the role of a villain to be offed by the WMAH, playing a flunky on the side, enemy number 352 for the WMAH to shoot at or worst of all - a straight up victim- and calling that a good example of representation or diversity in gaming. ( In such cases, I find myself lamenting the LACK of a slider-for-race feature rather than have a race/culture represented in such a manner.)

It is often said it is hard to create truly representative characters but many have argued that Mario isn't a true representation of an Italian plumber - but what we are really feeding off when we play is the fact that "we/Mario" are the one trying to save the princess.

The hero doesn't even have to be human or be even humanoid in appearance for players to play- but a different race is problematic (?).

With this spirit in mind - I thoroughly agree that there desperately needs to be more diversity in games on all levels: culture, gender, disability and race.

Shawn Allen
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I agree 100%, and have been struggling to put my words down in a less offensive on all levels manner as you have here.

The most frustrating thing is thinking of a solution. I'm working on creating more diverse characters, and my development team is probably one of the more diverse in the industry. But I'm only one dude, and my group is straight indie.

This has inspired me to keep working on a post I have been working on.

Bob Charone
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"always feature the “default” of a white male (itself a serious problem)"

isn't that only a problem if the game were sold that way in a non-white majority country, or if the game is set in a place like Hong Kong?

Shawn Allen
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Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of the purchasing of video games, and yet are never represented as a default unless it's a game that only stars a character of their "race".

There shouldn't be marketing that ALWAYS features the default.

Bioware acknowledged and offered up a female Shepherd... but still relegated her to web clips and reversible cover art.

Besides, we have too many covers/marketing campaigns featuring bald white dudes. I don't think throwing a black guy with a cool mustache in your video as the player character for Mass Effect 6 would do any harm to the series.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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You know, the bald thing is mostly because good-looking long hair is very difficult and expensive to do. See the recent Tomb Raider issues.

Bob Charone
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"Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of the purchasing of video games, "

where did you get idea from? according to PriceWaterhousecoopers these are the largest game markets

United States $13.6B
Japan $7.0B
China $6.8B
South Korea $5.0B
United Kingdom $3.7B

blacks and Hispanics are a very small minority (and also less affluent) in two of those countries, and if you look at console sales by region only 30% were sold outside of NA/EU/JP (white or Asian-majority nations/regions)

Shawn Allen
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In the US. I'm obviously not talking on Japan, China or South Korea, where black and Hispanics are not even a factor of the population.

Also the US is quickly becoming a country where just because the largest percent of the country is white, there is a large percent of other racial groups pressing back.

And in this country black and Hispanics are a large buying force, and are not a small minority.

Bob Charone
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well here in Europe most Hispanic people are white. i just check about US demographics, it seems the total population are 72.4% are white, Hispanic or not:

Non-Hispanic White or European American 196,817,552 63.7 %
White or European American Hispanic 26,735,713 8.7 %

either way i would assume since most people in US are white, also most game consumers are white, regardless of race sensitivity it is a good business decision to have a white main character (if you can only have one) if you sell to people in the US

Daniel Jones
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It's a problem because of all the implications of the existence of a default ethnicity in a diverse country like the US. That alienates and strains the lives of non-whites in a myriad of ways.

Filip Lizanna
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Loved the read.I definitely aim to help drive this shift in the perspective on what makes an exceptional character to revolve a game story around. The Walking Dead by Telltale Games did an excellent job of this.

Ron Dippold
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Sexism in video games industry has begun to be treated as an actual problem recently because women in the industry have had enough and are speaking up (#1reasonwhy).

Race in video games is going to have to have the same bottom up approach - other than body options for customizable characters, it's too much of a political hot potato for a bunch of white guys to touch, much less corporate, unless you're from the rare country where it's not a big issue ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Journey_Down ). You're at risk from all sides - from upset racist players (how come my dudebro isn't white?), outraged conservative media (your Islamic Heavy Rain example), or worst, because you can laugh off the first two, being labeled racist for getting something 'wrong'. You need more non-white-guys in the industry, which is a chicken and egg thing.

Ubisoft seems to be the only major studio that's even comfortable moving in that direction ( AC: Liberation ). But for the most part it seems like it needs to start where these things usually start - Indies. Prove you can do something interesting and unique without being vilified, and more importantly that it turns a profit, and the big guys will come knocking. Walking Dead might be a big step in this direction. I'd like to see it - besides being the right thing to do, the same old settings in different trappings makes for stagnation.

Christopher J
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Well said

Lewis Wakeford
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"...being labeled racist for getting something 'wrong'."

I think that might actually be the biggest part of the problem. It's hard to get the balance between "just a cosmetic option" and "full on racist stereotype".

Christopher J
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I’ve been waiting a long time for more people to start noticing this. Nice article, but with all due respect, it does come across in a way that might push away the people who probably need to read this and try to understand the perspective. Just my opinion. But I do agree with you 100%.

It seems to me that there are 2 parts to this discussion.

First : There is this movement in the game industry about inclusion & diversity. Now this is a great thing. My issue is that the movement really only seems to highlight the issues for two specific groups, gays and women. It seems to me that the assumption is that they’re the only “groups” within the industry that are not being treated as “equals”. This leads me to question the sincerity & motives of this movement. It often feels like they are doing this because it’s good PR or because its “trendy” to be seen as a Gay rights activist. I’m NOT saying that is the case, but it feels that way sometimes.

I feel that in American culture, it has become taboo to acknowledge the possibility that qualified black males are often over looked for “status positions” or positions that require making major decisions that affect a product/company. This mostly seems to affect corporate America which includes making video games. I feel that when race issues become a topic, specifically in regards to African American men, the vibe in the room is “this argument is so 25 years ago”. Or, “we’ve solved all those problems already”. Probably one of the resaons so few have replied to this post. But this sort of attitude makes it real convenient to ignore the possibilities. There is also a philosophy that says that acknowledging this particular topic only perpetuates racism. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

A negative side effect of this lack of acknowledgment IMO, is that when a black male is repeatedly over looked or ignored and is always “trying to fix himself” with no results, the issue of race WILL eventually cross his mind. But God forbid he brings it up to anyone, he will be label as the “lazy black guy”. So he has to just shove those thoughts deep down inside.

Another side to this is that American culture has come to view middle easterners, Indians and Asians as “Smart by default” especially in the tech industries. So IMO they don’t seem to have the same issues as gays, women, and black men when it comes to moving up or getting hired in the games industry. But I have rarely seen Middle easterners represent or be the face of an American tech or gaming company.

Second : When it comes to the typical “heroic white male” over saturating the market, this is a direct result of the decision makers within the company. This is not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s simply a result. A result of the self similarity principle. I try to take race out of the equation and look at it in terms of groups. Groups A,B,C, and D. You have Group A making all of the creative decisions in 1 company and Group B making all the decisions in another. The product that Group A produces will reflect their culture, their life experiences, and their ideals. That’s what they have to draw inspiration from. It’s where all of the groups get their inspiration. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s human nature.

It also seems weird to expect that group A will write believable characters from Group B without their being some authenticity issues that will be obvious to group B. Sometimes Group A will throw in random characters to represent individuals from group B, C, or D as an attempt at being diverse or to make the product marketable to more people, or simple they make think it would be cool to have a character from group D. I find nothing wrong with this nor do I expect the representations to be accurate.

Ultimately what annoys the hell out of me is when group A puts forth an epic campaign in an attempt to bring fourth awareness in regards to diversity in gaming to the public. And they speak of creating authentically diverse gaming experiences and products. Yet they only make an attempt to reach out and include, employ, promote people from group B. They completely ignore Groups C and D. These actions lead me to believe that group A is NOT sincere about supporting diversity and that there goal is to create a better public image as another avenue to gain a few more customers. And could real care less about REAL DIVERSITY… It truly is offensive.

Duvelle Jones
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Ok, this is something that... as someone who is black, has itched the back of my mind from time to time. I think that the biggest issue so far is that race isn't as simple as skin colour, that are some very cultural elements to racial matters that I think would be interesting in a video game narrative. Let take "Blacks" as an example, you are taking about a cultural span that is American (which differs by state), Carribean (which differs widely by country of origin), African (which again, differs widely by country of origin) and others... not to mention that those distinctions can be blurred due to environment, cultural osmosis and other factors. That makes for some very interesting story-telling.... but...

The problem is that it would cause a HEAP of controversy, because the industry as a whole is really poor at discussing these matters without a defensive reaction. Looking at how gender and sexual orientation is handled currently, I am not sure what gaming could do if and when racial matters are added to that volatile mix. And given that I am sure that this is NOT a discussion that you want to leave in the hands of the players... at least not completely... most publishers would be on their own (if you want to have a look at something to this effect, Resident Evil 5 slided into that divide...).

Ramin Shokrizade
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As you can see by my name, I've played this game since 1979. I've had employers express surprise during first interviews that I was not wearing a turbin. My sister called me a few days ago on my birthday and begged me to leave the East coast because she was afraid I would get hurt. Not because I was near Boston and could get blown up, but because I was near Boston and might get shot by someone that was afraid of getting blown up.

"So you want me to help you monetize your FPS where a bunch of white people go to the Middle East and make it safer by shooting everyone? Er, I think I'm gonna take a pass on this one guys, maybe your next game..."

The only obvious solution is hiring diversity. The problem is that if almost everyone doing the hiring is white, it really should not come as a surprise that the people getting hired are white. Short of government imposed affirmative action on the gaming industry, I think it will have to come down from management to make it a priority. So far when I listen for this all I hear is crickets chirping.

Duvelle Jones
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I would think that you would have to do something like that to get change in the industry. But that would mean that a change in all levels, once that supports other races and the infrastructure to do it from education to hiring.


That will not be easy, but someone got to try to break the logjam.

Maria Jayne
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Can developers learn the difference between race and species?

Jeremy Reaban
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How about this - instead of griping about the games you want are not being made, why not make them yourself?

In terms of tools, there has never really been an easier time to make games. Kickstarter is a new form of financing.

For all the talk about the gender problem in gaming, people tend to overlook the whole casual gaming market, which is somewhat dominated by women. It's funny, they've produced several dozen titles and have sold more than 10 million games, but people have seemingly never heard of Her Interactive, which makes Nancy Drew games (among other things). Or even Big Fish Games, which has brags about billions of downloads. But the only talk about casual games here is either Facebook or mobile titles.

But I digress. There was something similar in pen & paper RPGs. Lots of griping about how every fantasy game was set in faux-Europe. So a guy named Kevin Crawford decided to do something about that, by writing a game based on an faux-Africa, Spears of Dawn, financed by Kickstarter, and releasing all the artwork into the public domain for others to make similar games.

Brandon S
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Actually I agree with Jeremy .I am apart black/culture lower-middle class to , and honestly I don't see what good will come from forcing mostly all white developer to tackle issue that simply not socially connected to it’s pointless really. It would be like forcing someone from Japan to tackle some very specific conflict to American race-Culture and expecting complete understanding and relationships . Frankly these attempts end up the same way like all these other attempts, complete and utter failure. a lot of predictable crying, ultra-progressive white guilt filled controversy and trying to mass market something that isn’t mass-marketable(which is true your not about of that cultural experiences , in this case African Diaspora , very few will pay attention to your voice politically and any attempts at melodrama will be politically lambasted as a patronizing hypocritical white person/outsider complex who desperate to be apart of something to feel morally superior). If you want an issue you’re going to have to make itself and be a part of that experience, budget it correctly and find a small audience who critically interested in it ,basically what Spike Lee does (Equivalent to the Sundance film festival to be honest), I'll support you full on , I just wouldn't play the game to be honest .


The other thing to keep mind is (Literal Vulgar/Brutal hyper-rational Realism) Is a Western Artist European Traditions and tied to Modern Enlighten White Culture and beliefs .Other culture had very different ways of expressing art or radically different concepts of art , nor see hyper=rational realism as the pinnacle of Art , that concept of western realism being the pinnacle is ethnocentric itself. So if I made The Ashante equivalent of Dragon Age probably will have no appeal to fantasy fans (Looking for Gritty medieval realism a since of brutality and REAL , Nor would it have appeal to Western Modern liberal elite critics looking for Socially legitimate Oscar “Realism” because the game wasn’t made in the interest of pleasing a Western Liberal White elite) But it would be Asante and relate to the Asante might even be a fun game . It would be like trying to Market "One Piece" to American European Medieval fantasy fans . My attempt would end in failure. While the series it self for the japanese has be going for 15 years and loved by many demographics one of the most popular manga in japanese history.

You can’t mass market something like that (You can find a market for it , but by making choice you will give up appealing to the generic mass market in the process),long as game are required to be mass-market (it like the ethnocentric complaints about Japanese games “Not appealing to my sensibility “) ,it will be problem . Another issue related to what Warren Spencer said . Games are Too Niche and Too Expensive to be produced. The only culture I can think of that even achieved that kind of game appeal is japan ,but that because of the unique nature of Japanese culture (if something is made , they will full fill every possible social niche imaginable with extreme sense of perfectionism and the idea of that the idea of an artist is a kind of relationships with there audience, they make art and the audience return with love) This pretty much let the Japanese make art for any possible niche within their culture without all the debate about if it legitimate or not . I can’t see that happening in the states , For whatever reason American see mass production as the access to "True Art" simply not enough to to allow something to be produced.

We have the exact opposite idea we tend to debate (What can and cannot be produced)and what Central Cultural/religious authority should legitimize it or control everything.

John Albano
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It's rather interesting that the article opens with an image from EVE Online, an online game where the character creator actually supports creation of racially diverse characters beyond just tinting the skin. For example, this is my character: http://image.eveonline.com/Character/1436872270_256.jpg. Additionally, the game has lore and backstory for the various races that both have some real life parallels and affect the ongoing story of the races within the game.

I can understand the author's interest in more diversity but I think his bias clouds his assessment of things.

"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"

But the developer is often in a catch-22 at that point. Take slavery, for example. If they add white characters that were once enslaved then it's seen as avoiding the race issue. If the ex-slaves are black then they devs are being racist. When bringing in real life topics, someone is going to take exception, especially in today's climate of thin-skinned net martyrs that feel the need to get offended for things on behalf of others.

"Imagine a Heavy Rain style videogame starring an Islamic cast striving to survive being on the other side of the Call of Duty setting."

No one is stopping anyone from making those games and selling them to the appropriate demographic. The recently closed Muxlim Online ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muxlim ) created an entire social network and 3D world dedicated to Muslims. On the other side of that particular part of the spectrum you've got Islamic Mali and that stellar airport scenario from COD-MW2.




To make games that offer a culturally different focus, look to the indies. More importantly, look to the various communities that you want to cater to. You'll probably find a wealth of talent with far more understanding of and connection to the themes and storylines you'd be looking to relay.

All in all, if you want a game for a niche audience, looking to the major studios is the wrong way to go unless you can prove the audience and monetary returns are there for such content to be added to games or such games to be created.



@BrandonS: Awesome post. :) O7

O Jackson
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His bias clouds his assessment of things? That's true for anyone, and everyone. We are all products of our environment, but just because we hold to, or fail to acknowledge certain biases, doesn't make our opinions any less accurate. I think it's a complete cop-out to say that if you seek diversity you can support only indie delvelopers, because AAA developers won't find it financially feasible. What a complete and utter load of garbage. That's simply running away from the issue at hand.
"All in all, if you want a game for a niche audience ... ?" You realize that you're referring to the non-white population as a niche audience? As if they're not representative of the entire population. This is the same sort of circular reasoning that won't allow us to move forward in the games industry and society in general.

Simone Tanzi
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I will be the bad guy here... but talking about including diversity in game to me makes as much sense as talking about including diversity in Leonardo Da Vinci's paintings.
What about "what makes sense in a certain game"?
Should we include black and asian on a fantasy world vaguely based on romanticized northern europe medieval world?
The same goes with women.
I do totally understand the issue, really, and I'm totally sympathetic to it.
I actually don't recognize "races" in my everyday life... we are all people, and we are all different. I have no more differences with a man that has a different skin color than the ones I have with a man with a different Hair color.
And aside from obvious anatomical differences the same goes with women.
(and don't get me started with sexual preferences)
Why don't we just make games that make sense.
Make great gameplay, great stories, and stop making clumsy attempt to create a morality in gaming...
And I'm not saying that because that would be wrong, I say that because it's pretty hard to make it right.
Actually chances are you can't possible make it right for everyone, and in most cases making it wrong is way worse than not making it at all.
For example I find the article itself rather offensive as is suggesting race is something beyond pigmentation... because really, that's all it is.
Maybe you are talking about different cultures, not races... and they by the way have nothing to do with race or pigmentation.
Are you suggesting that a white french guy and a black french guy have an intrinsically different culture?

then you talk about the idea of reverse call of duty.
That's kinda interesting ... but you do realize the potential disaster?
I'm not talking about sales... what I'm saying is that idea has a huge potential to backfire.
First of all... who would develop that game? Actual middle east islamic developers or USA citizens that just think they can relate to them? and can they? really?

Also you don't talk about some games that did that and did it good, like the first assassin's creed. basically playing the other side of the crusades (and I think they did a good job about that).
I doubt they were planning on making a reverse call of duty for cultural reasons...
They were planning a game about assassins and the rest came naturally.
Let's strive for a natural way of creating concepts instead of a forced one that introduce themes that should not be the main point of the industry (because the main point of the industry in case someone forgotten is to make games that are actually good) and the positive representations of races sexes religions etc will come by themselves.

Russell Watson
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I have to agree with the sentiments of Simone Tanzi in regards to race + culture.

Brandon S and John Albano also hit the nail on the head.

As someone in a mixed relationship with a mixed-race daughter, I find the OP to be generally ignorant or naive, not to mention actually staggeringly offensive.

I also find it amusing that when discussing race, particularly black, the categories are always African-American, Caribbean and African. I guess Aboriginal Australians aren't worth thinking about? Or the complex heritage of those who come from areas of the world in parts of the Indian ocean.


@Shawn Allen
"Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of the purchasing of video games"

This statement is factually incorrect.

R G
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I think its funny how people talk about racism but say "white". I'm Irish, but I don't call a Japanese man "Asian". I call him Japanese.

America is a melting pot. There doesn't need to be a "culture" slider because culture isn't tangible like skin or hair color is.

Also, this idea IS out of date. Development studios are very much varied, and games from this Gen did a great job in diversity. From Fallout, Gears of War, Halo, and even Call of Duty (surprising I know) there has been great representation.

Brb re-reading Things Fall Apart.

Tom Aram
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"The “fantastic racism” in games like Skyrim (..) and Dragon Age are among the best representations of societal prejudices in the medium."

Oh come on, complaining about white characters in a swords and dragons fantasy setting? That whole aesthetic is based on white medieval europe and fictional stories from the same era. Knights in armour, kings and castles, dragons and dragon slayers have nothing whatsoever to do with black culture.

Complaining about racial prejudice in Skyrim is like playing a game about Samurai in feudal Japan and complaining that the game has too many Asians in it.

I also agree with the general sentiment in these comments - If we want games that focus on another culture entirely, and represent it honestly instead of simply offering characters with a different skin colour, then people with knowledge and experience of that culture need to step up and make those games. It's probably not reasonable to expect white middle class American/European game designers to produce a game that accurately portrays the culture of Jamaica/Black Africa/Insert Whatever here.

That's a disaster waiting to happen, as getting it wrong could lead to claims that the developer is making an insensitive play on racial stereotypes.

R G
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Precisely this. I should of made some examples like you posted!

Russell Watson
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Exactly.

To illustrate your point just look at IO Interactive's Hitman franchise. Repeatedly there are unbelievable racial stereotypes and cultural ignorance displayed towards Asian people.

Jonathan Lin
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@Tom
4 likes for misreading the article. Hmm...

"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."

That sentence was NOT complaining about white people only in fantasy settings. The author was in fact praising said games for having a more sophisticated look at race. It's just that said games take place in fantasy settings, not one based in the real world.


On a similar note, there have been attempts of varying success by caucasians in creating worlds of other cultural origin. Of personal experience, there's things like the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, the movie adaptation of it (feel free to pretend this doesn't exist), or game-wise, Jade Empire and Sleeping Dogs.

Christian Nutt
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Yeah, you completely misunderstood that part.

I've been in this game for a long time but comments like this still surprise me, somehow.

Gene L
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"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."

I think this mentality is actually more harmful to the cause of minority character inclusion because you're essentially advocating the marriage of race with a set of particular intellectual or personality traits. Even if somehow justified--I don't even know how you'd go about doing that--you're reducing the three-dimensionality of these characters, and, implicitly, making a statement about members of this minority group.

Solid Snake, Niko Bellic, Super Mario, and Razputin are all "white" characters that, I'd argue, are not projecting some homogeneous cultural narrative.

Christopher J
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It sucks that most of the responses to your observation is “There is no problem here, you’re the problem by bringing this up” or “stop complaining and make your own games”. This says so much about our industry and only confirms the point of your post. If this post was written by some one of the LGBT community or a Woman, I feel there would have been more support. Could some one explain why that is?

But I guess our observations are invalid, irrelevant, have no credibility, aren’t worth a conversation. We should “Stay in the closet”. I do appreciate your post. Understand that there are people in the industry who feel the same way as you. But it looks like this conversation isn’t ready to be had.

Simone Tanzi
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I simply think the "problem" is tackled in the wrong way and with the wrong perspective.
there is a confusion between race and culture and the need for a game to be an actual compelling idea and not simply a way to portray a personal idea about races (because that's a personal Idea, I find the notion that someone with a different skin color should be pictured in a different way unnecessary and potentially offensive depending on the way the thing is displayed).
We could talk about a cultural diversity, that's something very interesting but very hard to achieve unless you are very fond and expert about that culture or you belong to it.
I have here in the extremely white Italy (to most people you are italian if you are white, the notion of being of any other color is associated to being a immigrant) I have friends that struggled a lot to be considered Italians, being born and raised in italy by italians and possessing the an Italian culture.
What the article seems to say is that my friend, having a different skin color, should act somewhat different and have a different culture, and that's just wrong.

Russell Watson
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"It sucks that most of the responses to your observation is “There is no problem here, you’re the problem by bringing this up” or “stop complaining and make your own games”. This says so much about our industry and only confirms the point of your post. If this post was written by some one of the LGBT community or a Woman, I feel there would have been more support. Could some one explain why that is? "

You must be reading comments I can't see because I cant seem to see those comments, I can see 3 comments that suggest that out of 25. Your reaction makes you more part of the problem. The heart of the issue isn't solely relegated to race, but also culture ( you cannot however associate the two ). Let's take the heroic white male discussed, it is almost always a culturally American heroic white male.

Most of the responses are discussing the OP's definition of race and attaching culture to it. There are huge problems with this for the very same reasons he is critiquing the "random white developer" in the first place.

Christopher J
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I agree with both of you, and maybe I miss interpreted something in this post. For me there is a difference between race and culture. Which is why above I broke it down in terms of group A, B, C, and D instead of Race. But there is such thing as the Self Similarity principle which at its root has nothing to do with Race. For example, If you have a networking event filled with Lawyers and Architects, it’s a fact that the Architects will have more in common with each other. And The Lawyers will have more in common with each other. Like will gravitate towards like. Like promotes like.

People have a tendency to give opportunities to people that they have things in common with culturally. And unfortunately physical features and attire ARE the first indicators of someone’s culture. The less in common culturally that an employee has with upper management. The less likely he will move up in that company. It trends more towards relateablity and less about Ability. This is an issue that is in all industries.

I feel that the ONLY factor in someone’s elevation in a company should be based off of their output. Obviously they need to not be a jerk. But other than that, their quality of work should be the only factor. But, this is not the case, there usually isn’t a lot of diversity in the top of gaming companies, this is a result of people promoting people that they can relate to. A byproduct of this, is the content in the products that they produce reflects the culture of the decision makers at the top of that company.

The fact that people deny that people tend to promote people that they can relate to, or have more in common with is a large issue that people choose to ignore. This is why game content is overwhelmingly not diverse and in general the all the same.

Ignoring the fact that certain people that are the cultural minority within a studio are not getting the same opportunities as the majority is an issue. Whether it is a company full of Northerners who won’t promote Southerners, or a studio full of FPS fans not promoting RTS fans. First we need to except that we promote/hire people we have things in common with, and then accept that this is to some extent a problem, and this isn’t necessarily the best way to increase diversity in the decision making roles of a company (but maybe that’s not the goal).

For an industry that is preaching diversity, I see a lot of action towards bringing awareness about the issues affecting only a few minority groups. But EVERYONE is a minority in some shape or form. And EVERYONE should get fair opportunities within any industry regardless of their cultural influences. And lastly to pretend that Race is not a factor or to ASSUME that racism no longer exists is absurd.

Russell Watson
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Now that is ultimately the core of the problem and obvious differences, like race, are the top most layer of that onion that needs skinning. What you describe I think is what all of us want to work towards

But that problem is still present even in an environment that is entirely made up of geeky white males aged 20-30. What you describe is a problem that applies to the entire human race, of which racism forms a part.

I haven't found racism to be an 'institutional' problem in hiring and promotion within game studios that I have worked within where I am. I have encountered racist individuals, sure.

America specifically I have found has, generally, an unhealthy obsession with race from my time spent there. But have not worked there, so I can't comment on the hiring/promotion practices within American companies.

E Whiting
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Anyone familiar with contemporary genetics (including consumer-oriented services such as 23 and Me) should be aware that racial heritage of an individual can be determined with over 99.99% accuracy from just a DNA sample. The author of this article claims otherwise, asserting without any evidence whatsoever that race is purely a "social construct." I'm not sure how we're supposed to have cogent thoughts about race in games when our starting point in this article is demonstrably false.

Mike Griffin
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This presumes that racial heritage should be a guiding factor. There's no need.

Take a DNA sample from any person, and with 100% accuracy it will reveal that they are a member of the Human race.

That's the only commonality that should actually matter.

We're still such weak-willed creatures, commanded by the reptilian relics of our brain and drugged-up by chemicals and hormones designed to regulate our animal behavior and protect localized genetic propagation.

In 100 years they'll be laughing their asses off reading historical accounts about such obstacles to achieve integration in the face of ignorance and misplaced social traditions.

But we'll evolve.

We're already the same people. Only individual behavior determines a human's merit.

Lou Vassilev
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I am not sure I understand the point of this article. Why is the end result (most game developers are Caucasian) of any significance when everybody has equal opportunity to become a game developer? Anybody with a desire to develop games can educate themselves on the Internet about the basics (there is virtually limitless amount of information about how to make games only a google away), use the free tools available (Unity, Blender, etc.) to make a simple game, go to school and get a degree in Computer Science (there are plenty of scholarships and funding available) or Game Design or what have you, and then apply for jobs or start their own Indie company and make a game with characters from any and all ethnicity their heart desires.

To, instead, sit there and complain and insist that game developers should somehow be forced or coerced to include characters with certain skin color is just silly and doesn't make any sense. Some previous poster even suggested the government should literally regulate (via Affirmative Action) the skin color of videogame characters. That's censorship and it's a bad, bad idea. Talk about stifling creativity. Making videogames is an art. If you throw in political correctness issues in it, it could only result in mediocre, polite, sanitized games.

So to go back to my previous point, for whatever reason, mostly caucasians (in the USA) gravitate towards game development. There is nothing wrong with that, just like there is nothing wrong with mostly African-Americans gravitating towards football, basketball, and hip-hop. Just like there is nothing wrong with women gravitating towards fashion and modeling. For the author to suggest that somehow there is something wrong with any one ethnicity gravitating towards some professional field, given they all have equal opportunities, is offensive.

At the end of the day, this sort of articles and indeed, mental attitude, boils down to plain old complaining. Bottom line, if you want a game with certain skin-color and cultural background of characters, make it yourself. Don't try to force somebody else to make it for you.

Emppu Nurminen
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In other words, the problem is really how game developers are eager for keeping players in their cozy comfort zones while playing and most of the time this comfort zone is defined by 20something white dudes. I think this is valid criticism despite so many are eager to speak it down for feeling being accused for racism or some other mental issues; how games can ever evolve, if they keep wallowing in that small comfort zone? Surely, it can be profitable, when money talks. Yet when games are made for more creative freedom in mind, it's sort of hypocrite to use word "creative" if there is no willingness to step out from that comfort zone.
It's sort of ironic, how people find political correctness being the way to solve these kind of issues, while it's merely covering the problem than understanding it. Acknowledging the problem is just the first step for understanding the problem and I bet everyone does agree that understanding the problem is far better option than just noticing there is a problem.


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