Reflecting on Race & Racism in Gaming

This past week we focused our Facebook and Twitter discussions on race and racism in gaming. In my opinion, it was the best weekly theme discussion we’ve had yet. I wanted to take a moment to look back at the week, highlight some outstanding moments, and provide a bit of a reflection from my perspective.

Edit: one quick thing I forgot to confess. I’m White (see, that’s me over on the right — with the shiny white forehead and cheeks). I’m pointing this out in response to a confusing email I just received, and as an effort of transparency (you know, in addition to the giant photo). Okay. Carry on.

The Pigeon-holing of POC in Games

We started the week out by asking people to name a character in a game who was a person of color (POC), then describing a dominant physical trait and personality trait that this character embodies. We wanted to see if the examples people brought up would reinforce a pervasive idea that the majority of POC characters in games are often little more than one-dimensional stereotypes.

Instead, many great examples of layered and supportive portrayals of POC characters were brought up. From Luis in resident evil, described as “resilient, and a good friend,” to Steve Cortez from Mass Effect 3, who was described as “smart, good mechanic, funny, logical and sensitive” and “(is also gay).” Cortez is an anti-stereotype on many levels.

The example that stuck out to me the most was Sazh Katzroy, a playable character from FFVIII. Railenthe Zeal was the first person to comment on the post with Sazh as an example, and described him as “handles ludicrous situations very well, and can (occasionally) kick ass.” The reason Sazh stuck out to me so much is because on the surface level he’s a stereotype (stylish black man with a huge afro and well maintained goatee), but once you get to know him you feel terrible for making that snap judgment. In actuality, he’s a widower who lost his wife and is dedicating his life to saving his son. Super supportive dad. And as a Synergist, super supportive party member. Awesome (not sarcastic).

All this goes to say that while there are certainly plenty of pigeon-holed POC characters in games that aren’t doing much for making games welcoming to people of color (like our leading man up top), there are also several examples of where developers did a great job. So kudos to them.

But that leads us to our next thread, the one that really gets at the root of the issues with race and racism in gaming: the fact that most games are all about White people; and that bringing this up tends to bother White people.

is this bothering you?

The Racial Variant of the Bechdel Test

If you’re unaware, the Bechdel Test is a fun [not really] way to measure the significance of women in particular films. It’s really simple and asks just three questions (modified for our uses):

1. It has to have at least two [named] women people of color in it.

2. Who talk to each other.

3. About something besides a man White person (or the protagonist).

We asked our Facebook community to supply us with a list of games that passed our racial variant of the Bechdel Test and the results were… underwhelming.

Here’s a great quote from Amanda Cales:

“Wow. Only ones I could think of off the top of my head (and Steam library) are Sleeping Dogs and the Fallout and/or Skyrim series…the last two being a bit sketchy since I don’t think they talk to each other very often. (If at all.)

It also took me about ten minutes of full on, glassy-eyed pondering to come up with even that. And I’ve been playing video games since I was 5.”

A lot of games mentioned passed two of three. Well, so do a lot of films. But the point of this test is to determine if POC have a significant role in a game, not just to determine if they exist there or not. The biggest issue was the games folks could think of that did pass the test.

Sleeping Dogs, GTA San Andreas, and Saints Row were the leading suggestions. If you’re unfamiliar, and don’t know why this is problematic, allow me to help: they are all about organized and violent crime. Yep. The main games folks could think of that absolutely passed the tests of having significant roles for people of color were games in which the significant characters were violent criminals. Awesome (very sarcastic).

Oh, and Prototype 2 was also mentioned. I haven’t played that game (honestly, didn’t know it came out), but from what I understand the main playable character is Black and his sidekick is Hispanic. So there’s that.

mass-effect-3-wrex

Single-Characteristic Alien Races

Next we moved the discussion from race (as in Black and White) to race (as in human race and aliens). Eric, our Social Media Manager, posed the following question in in a Facebook post:

“So we’ve established that alien races in sci-fi and fantasy break bias tests, but there’s another issue specific to them. Single-characteristic races.

Star Trek most famously did this to subtly open discussion about our differences. The question: Do we even need to do this any more, or is projecting a single characteristic on a race of fictional people just another way of strengthening stereotypes, and keeping us from really exploring what it means to be human?”

This is something that has always irked me as a Star Wars fan, considering how little there is to know about inhabitants of the different systems beyond one or two dominant traits. What do they do on Kashyyyk when they’re not fighting for emancipation from slavery? Or, as Brad Johnson put it, “I’m still at a loss when I think of what people in Star Wars do for fun.” (besides Pod Racing OF COURSE Games are often similarly lacking in providing depth to characters from alien races.

The majority of the discussion on the Facebook page seemed to echo the idea that we’re past the point of needing one-dimensional alien races as a metaphor to begin discussing racial and ethnic differences on Earth — you know, with humans. Further, Seth Brodbeck brought up a concern with this idea that is particularly poignant:

“The problem with single characteristic species is that Humanity (often represented by white heterosexual cisgender males) tends to get elevated by that approach. Since Humanity already displays a variety of characteristics, unlike the species being contacted, the intended lesson about the benefits of cultural exchange gets undermined. It ends up appearing that they have more to learn from us than us from them. Which becomes terribly presumptuous once you follow the analogy back to human ethnic/cultural relations.”

Well put. And a great thing for anyone to keep in mind as they consider using interactions with alien races as a means to increase a player’s multicultural sensitivity.

A Study: Racism against Black Gamers on Xbox Live

racist-on-xbox-liveWhile anyone who has ever played for more than five minutes on Xbox Live doesn’t need science to tell them there’s rampant racism, it’s helpful (and depressing) to have some good sturdy science to back up our anecdotal experience.

Enter Deviant bodies, stigmatized identities, and racist acts: examining the experiences of African-American gamers in Xbox Liveexactly the kind of science I’m talking about. The link will get you to a downloadable .PDF of the study if you’d like to read it yourself (always recommended).

If you’re more of the TL;DR type, here’s the run-down as we shared in on Facebook:

Racism that used to be evident in our culture bled into online spaces, where it became normalized because of its sheer volume, its ability to escalate, and inability of the abusers to realize they were actually being racist. Black gamers faced racial slurs daily. DAILY.

Daily.

Again, this probably isn’t a surprise if you’ve ever traipsed into those waters, but it shouldn’t make it any less distressing. It should be distressing, not just “not surprising.” We should be distressed by this. BE DISTRESSED! And do something about it.

The first and most perfect in its simplicity comment to that post on Facebook sums up why Gamers Against Bigotry exists: “Reason #1 I don’t play online games.” Sorry to hear that, Sean, but you’re not alone.

A few closing thoughts, and a brief response to shouts of “reverse racism”

It’s clear that racism is an issue in gaming, both in an overt, aggressive way (via the prevalence of race-based slurs), but also in a passive, marginalizing way (via the exclusion of significant POC characters in most games). But it’s also clear that games have come a long way in a short time and that a few developers/studios in particular have gone to great measures to create multi-dimensional, positive versions of POC characters in their games. This is progress. Progress is good…

inigo-montoyaUnless you’re one of those people yelling “reverse racism!”

“Reverse racism” isn’t a thing. Well, it’s a thing, but it’s not the thing you think it is. For one, reverse racism isn’t “racism against White people.” That’s just called racism. But having that perspective is an awesome way of indicating your racial privilege — to think that any racism against your race is somehow backwards. Touché.

Reverse racism is meant to describe possessing racist beliefs against one’s own race (e.g., a White person who holds prejudice or discriminates against White people). But that’s also not what we’re ever talking about here. What we’re talking about here is diminishing all forms of racism.

We have a long way to go before people of color can feel as welcome in gaming as White people currently do, and it appears we’re moving in that direction, which is great. But I want to reassure White people everywhere that this does not have to mean we won’t feel welcome. We can de-marginalize one group without marginalizing another; we can stop perpetuating racism against people of color without inviting racism against White people; we can lift one group up without tearing another down.

So let’s do that.

Finally, on a personal note, I wanted to say that I really appreciated reading all of the comments and discussions this week. As always, I’ve learned a ton from all of you, which will allow me to do my job better. So thank you for being involved. I look forward to learning something new this week!

GLHF,

Sam Killermann
Founder & Director of Gamers Against Bigotry
Organizer of Kashyyyk Bingo Night
Reverse Racism Reversal Reverser

  • mrlister

    I don’t think you can argue that Sleeping Dogs or Saint’s Row is racist. Sleeping Dogs is set in Hong Kong, so obviously the characters are mainly Asian. It would be wrong to suggest that the triads were not ran by Asian families and mob bosses.
    Saint’s Row has criminals from various ethnic groups, so I don’t know where that came from.
    San Andreas is the only listed game with any viable arguments, but still the links are tenuous in that the whole game plays out as a massive parody of 90s rap culture. It’s not being blatantly offensive. I don’t think any white people were offended because the majority of criminals in Vice City were white, because it’s satirical and not at all focusing on racial stereotyping, which is a theme which runs through the whole series.

    • Thanks for the comment, and for sharing your perspective. None of this is black and white (ha! pun), but here are my thoughts.

      Re: Sleeping Dogs, from a commenter on FB: “As a Hong Konger, there’s lots to to say about Sleeping Dogs. I think it’s got its heart in the right place depicting Hong Kong as a city of contradictions and cultural hybridity, but there’s definitely some orientalization going on too.”

      Re: Saint’s Row, you’re totally right, in part. There are certainly criminals from various ethnic groups. The issue that I’m bringing up in the article is that Saint’s Row was one of the ONLY games people could think of that had significant characters that were people of color (period), and it just so happens to be that they are criminals. Even if it’s an accurate depiction of race and crime, it’s one of the only times we get an “accurate” depiction of race. See the issue?

    • Also, passing/failing a Bechdel test isn’t a sign of quality or even of an egalitarian attitude. It’s just a gut-check to make you look a little closer at the content. Many good movies fail the test, and some terrible ones pass. I think many Rockstar games should be praised for their portrayals of minority characters, unlike Heavy Rain (which made me cringe a few times).

    • Stephen Accetta

      With SA, I think it’s less that SA itself is a big problem so much as the fact that SA and SR are just about the only series that fit the bill, and BOTH are about gang culture, is the problem when looking at the big picture. It’s the absence outside of those two that should be examined more than those two in and of themselves.

  • Videogames aren’t so easily subjected to the Bechdel test. How do you deal with non-anthropomorphic characters (like, say, Sly Cooper)? Games with user-created avatars (like Skyrim)? Non-narrative games (like Tetris)? It seems like the discussion only applies to a subset of certain game types, and we haven’t really defined that subset yet.

    Still… a good discussion to have.

  • Ya know, I’d like perhaps a little less discussion of failures, and more about praiseworthy examples of inclusive portrayal. Not trying to shut anyone up, but I think we can only say so much about the scope of a problem, and discussing solutions is more interesting.

    • All in good time, Raphael. All in good time. It’s important to fully understand a problem before you try to solve it.

      • Not sure I agree that we need to dwell on bad examples before discussing good ones. I think that conversation has limited fruit to bear.

  • Brett Rogers

    No, reverse racism is discrimination against the racial majority. Usually brought about by (sometimes perceived) special privileges for minorities that the majority are not entitled to. For example, “he won that award because he was black”.

    Far Cry 3 would pass your test wouldn’t it?

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