Hello, my name is Zack Kotzer. I am a young, straight white male with facial hair. While I may not be daring, adventurous, fit, or classically (or even unclassically) handsome, I am essentially the target audience of every major video game.
There’s little struggle for me to identify with the majority of AAA video game stars when I browse through the cover art of white males holding weapons on any given shelf. The record of representation within major video games, and within the companies that make them, leaves a lot to be desired, and that’s been the case for a while.
When the first art for Far Cry 4 surfaced online recently, most people saw a glimpse of the new Himalayan setting, a scatter of some guns you’ll be able to shoot, and a fab, foreign villain you’ll be trying to kill. Other gamers, though, saw an image steeped in colonialism: a fairer-skinned overlord stroking a submissive native, with broken Buddhist statues being used as a throne; in other words, sensitive cultural images of a marginalized group dolled up for shock value. Some gamers even took to Twitter to voice their concerns with the racist undertones of the game.
— Veerender Jubbal (@Veeren_Jubbal) May 15, 2014
“In a week I had more than a thousand mentions,” says Veerender Jubbal, a Canadian writer who tweeted his concerns immediately and retweeted all the controversy around Far Cry. “I had vitriol. I had derogatory slurs. I had death threats. People were talking about me on NeoGAF. There was a blog post written about how I should be punched in the face. People are telling me to man-up, that I was being overly sensitive, that I was just complaining about a non-issue. I wrote two tweets. I had responses for ten whole days.”
Jubbal called out the game for its questionable portrayal of race an cultural identity and subsequently got a lot of heat. “It’s culturally insensitive to eastern religions,” he told me. “Looking back at Far Cry 3, there’s enough criticism for that being racist, for treating people of colour with a fetishization, that they’re objects, plot devices, having a white man trying to ‘save them’ because he has to intervene.”
A larger crop of Far Cry 4's leaked cover art. Image: Ubisoft/Lazygamer.net
And it’s true. Far Cry 3, while getting applauded for its technical aspects, flunked at portraying non-whites as anything but weird tropical others. The Far Cry series’ hallmark is exotic locales, but the third entry in the series steps things up with sensationalist people, an unhinged pirate lord named Vaas, and tribes so exoticized they’d make a Tales from the Crypt comic blush. Judging by the latest images, there’s not much to suggest Far Cry 4 will scale things back, though that didn’t stop Veerender’s detractors or the general games press from washing the issue.
Over at The Escapist, Jim Sterling took shots for Ubisoft’s lack of context as self-damning, while IGN’s Colin Moriarty defended on the game’s behalf, saying the the evil looking fella is clearly the villain (as if people hadn’t clued in on that), and games should be able to show whatever atrocities they want. Lack of context was never the issue. Far Cry, and its entire ilk of AAA games, have an ongoing history of turning players into adventure seekers in colonial wet dreams.
Maybe it’s fractured egos, or a protection of the precious niche, but few game writers seem comfortable admitting that a portrayal of racism is a task blockbuster games haven’t proven they can handle. Games are an art, sure, but not every game has critical sensibilities, especially those with a similar budget to the Transformers movies. Most of these games, to justify their steep investments, focus on the pew pew and bang bang kind of fun stuff and leave the critical thinking by the wayside.
For example, Resident Evil 5 raised plenty of red flags when it unveiled its epidemic-epic would be set in Africa, flags they tried to pull down with a second playable character, Sheva, so that the game wouldn’t just be a svelte visiting white man shooting villagers in the face. But that didn’t do much good when the game came out, and by level three you were knee deep in grass skirts, throwing spears, and tribal masks.
Most of the time when games address racism itself, they first replace people of colour with elves, lizards, and cat-people, like in Skyrim. “We’re more likely to be a dragon than a person of colour,” said Veerender. Other times it’s a new headache when games explicitly decide to storm racism, only to stop caring halfway through. Which means it’s time to bring up how badly Bioshock Infinite fumbled.
Near the outset, Bioshock Infinite made it pretty clear white supremacy and its place in Americana would be huge themes. The game started by addressing race, classism, and segregation, firmly reinforcing those themes throughout the environment, but the game didn’t end with it. Around the second act, the entire discussion drops out, uncompleted, and is replaced with pursuing a story about pseudoscience and baptism. Worse still, the oppressed characters jarringly become the enemies you shoot, presumably for variety’s sake, though they have identical abilities to your previous enemies.
“I was crestfallen and ashamed, but mostly I was angry,” wrote Soha El-Sabaawi, a prominent Toronto-based game maker, on Infinite. “I could not believe how poorly oppression and racism was handled simply to advance the stories of a white man and woman… I found myself wondering: ‘Did the writing team even consider how offensive this is to black people?’ And I decided that the only solution to properly represent stories of colour is to have people of colour write them.”
The takeaway isn’t that there are zero video games that can address racism in society. Smaller games made by smaller, more focused teams can and have made that message their priority. Likewise, it doesn’t mean that the people who make games at Capcom, Ubisoft, or Irrational are all malicious, but it does show how ignorant the industry can be.
On a whole, the diversity of the people making the games does not reflect the diversity of people playing them. As long as that’s the case there’s going to be a lot of game studios making bad creative decisions without realizing it. Gamers being hostile to those who identify a problem, however, is absurd.
“If (video games) are going to tackle something like racism,” says Veerender, “they need to have people of colour on that team. They need to bring in writers of colour, white people don’t experience racism. It’s beneficial to have writers of colour to be on board in the team to talk about that.”
It would be great to be proven wrong. Telltale’s Walking Dead series has been applauded for portraying a wide range of characters without reducing any to a stereotype. But consistently we see heroes who look like me: young, white males. We see them saving others, an internalizing colonial message to people of colour that they don’t get to be the star or—worse yet in games about vilifying racism—they don’t even get to be their own saviours.