Gaming's uneasy relationship with race
One of the funniest moments in gaming culture in 2012 was when white supremacist online forum Stormfront found out about the then-upcoming Bioshock Infinite and got a little bit upset about it.
Luke Plunkett at Kotaku put together a compendium of some of the more appallingly racist and anti-Semitic comments (warning: seriously nasty content at that link). The really funny part was the number of people saying that you would never be allowed to make a game that depicts white people killing non-white people.
Have these people played a video game in the past decade?
The modern military shooter phenomenon is based around the core theme of white people going to developing nations and shooting hundreds of brown people. I had to stop playing Medal of Honor: Warfighter last year because, after a few levels of slaughtering nameless, faceless dark-skinned people, I was just too horrified to continue.
I was reminded of this recently when I played a few hours of Electronic Arts' new co-operative shooter Army of Two: The Devil's Cartel, developed by Dead Space creators Visceral Games. It features a pair of white American guys going down to Mexico and blowing apart countless brown-skinned drug cartel goons with high-powered weaponry.
It has been savaged by many critics, but I didn't actually think it was too bad. From a gaming perspective, it's an enjoyable enough experience, if a tad shallow, and it uses the Frostbite 2 engine's large arenas and destructible scenery to great effect. It also uses its co-operative mechanics well, forcing players to work smartly together and split up from time to time.
The racial aspect of it really bothers me, though, and I don't think I will be able to finish it. There are only so many brown-skinned foreigners I can dismember with a helicopter-mounted minigun before I start to feel dirty.
I was feeling similarly overwhelmed by Far Cry 3, shooting never-ending brown-skinned pirates, until the story shifted to the southern island and I started to tackle predominantly white military contractors instead of swarthy pirates. It makes me cringe to recall it, but I did say to myself, "Oh thank god, I get to kill some white people for a change."
In general, I think the issue of race is something that video games need to get better at handling, but it is going to be a very difficult problem to unravel, for a whole host of reasons.
First of all, most games have to present us with an enemy, a hostile "other" that we need to defend ourselves against. Conflict is the core of drama, after all, and if you don't have conflict, you don't have a story. Generally, this enemy will look different from you - a different uniform, a different skin colour, or a different body shape, such as Nazi soldiers, Somali pirates, or alien troopers.
This difference has a twofold effect. First, from a narrative perspective, it reinforces that these beings are different from you, so you cannot sympathise with them but must destroy them without mercy. Mechanically, it sets them apart from allies and makes it easier to know who you should be shooting at. One of the issues I had with the online shooter Brink was that there was too little visual differentiation between the factions, so I often got confused about who I was supposed to be shooting at.
If your game is based on modern day Earth, the simplest way to differentiate between good guys and bad guys is to make them a different race. Even when you move into fantasy, science fiction, and horror, though, there is still that sense of the "other". What are orcs, after all, but dark-skinned people in monster make-up?
Fantasy author NK Jemisin recently wrote a blog post responding to a reader who had asked something along the lines of, "When are you going to write some real fantasy, y'know, with orcs?" In it, she described herself as "orcophobic", and explained that she sees orcs as "an amalgamation of stereotypes", essentially a socially acceptable stand-in for the dark-skinned savages that so terrified the great colonial powers.
"Orcs are fruit of the poison vine that is human fear of 'the Other'," she wrote. "Orcs are a 'fun' way to bring faceless savage dark hordes into a fantasy setting and then gleefully go genocidal on them." The fact that Jemisin is a woman of colour, a very rare thing in fantasy literature, gives her analysis a personal weight.
Taking this thinking over to games, think about how orc-like these ostensibly human enemies are in modern day shooters. There are no good Somali pirates in Medal of Honor and no reasonable Mexicans you can negotiate with in Army of Two. They are a mindlessly aggressive marauding horde, no more relatable than Tolkien's orcs.
I worry that the net effect of all of these depictions of foreign races as inhuman, nameless enemies that can be shot down without mercy or regret is to bolster the fear of the other that we already have too much of in western society. Video games do not cause racial violence, of course - I would never argue something so extreme - but they are just one more ingredient in the poison stew of fear and distrust that we are all fed every day.
It doesn't help that video games are typically marketed toward demographics that tend to be male, Caucasian, English-speaking, and wealthy enough to own a console or computer. Making video games is a business, of course, so studios and publishers will make games that they think will appeal to the groups that spend the most on games.
As such, we predominantly get games with male, white, American protagonists, and their enemies need to be distinct from them. If your game is fantasy, make them orcs or dark elves or demons. If it's horror, make them zombies or mutants. If it's science fiction, make them aliens or robots.
But if your game is set on earth in the present day, what choice is there but to make the "other" a different nationality, a different skin colour, or a different ideology or religion? Even poor people aren't immune to this, with the Condemned series telling us that homeless vagrants are poised to attack us as well.
I don't know what the answer is, and I can't offer any easy solutions. All I can realistically hope for is that young people who play video games and who grow to love them enough to want to make games themselves will be aware of gaming's problematic relationship with race, and that they will try to keep these issues in mind. Maybe the best thing we can do in the long term is simply to talk about it.