Response To Polygon.com’s “Colorblind… Gaming’s Race Problem” Article
There are times when disbelief of the reality we live in simply leaves us speechless. The problem is that deciding not to force something out of our mouths in response is just as bad as saying something ignorant. Still, my Spidey sense is tingling. The waves of change are surging… I hope.
As I’ve journeyed further and further into social media in the past few years, I’ve found myself on both ends of the emotional spectrum at what I’ve seen. The age of the hashtags have seen blistering debates over diversity (see #GamesSoWhite, #GamerGate, #BlackLivesMatter, etc.), and the energy and passion within are both exhilarating and disgusting at the same time. I always tend to soak in debates and discussions like these because, oftentimes, emotion can make one irrational and unable to ‘listen’.
Listen. It’s a beautiful word because it typically leads to ‘understanding’ which is an absolutely GORGEOUS word in my opinion.
Recently a brave and superb writer for Polygon by the name of Tauriq Moosa penned an opinion piece named “Colorblind On Witcher 3, Rust, and gaming’s race problem“. There he pointed out how indie survival MMO RUST has altered how player avatars are chosen in-game. “As lead developer and studio owner Garry Newman wrote: “Everyone now has a pseudo unique skin tone and face. Just like in real life, you are who you are – you can’t change your skin colour or your face. It’s actually tied to your SteamID [how the game recognizes you].”
He went on to comment on how some white players even shunned the game’s decision based on what they called ‘forced politics’. “Many white gamers expressed concern, as Megan Condis documents, disliking being forced to think about race and having to play someone who didn’t match their own race. “The problem is lack of freedom of choice,” one claimed.”
The irony in these comments are yet another example of hypocrisy when discussions of the importance of diversity in media arise. What these gamers fail to realize is that there are a number of games that ‘force’ the avatar upon the user and I’m certain they had no problem playing those games (Tomb Raider, TellTale Games’ Walking Dead, Grand Theft Auto San Andreas, I.e). Yet for some reason, this MMO doesn’t get a pass because they aren’t getting to choose and “may have to take the chance [!] of playing a black character.” It’s clear that the developer is taking a much needed stand to diversify gaming in general and this method is one that I enjoy.
As gamers, we are always expected to take on the role of a protagonist that is different from who we are. For years, female gamers had to question whether or not they’d ever get female representation until Ghosts hit the scene. Native Americans got a shocker when Prey and Assassin’s Creed 3 hit the scene with their heroes as well. Recent games from major and indie publishers are finally beginning to pepper the scene with more diverse heroes and heroines to finally do what it seems other forms of media are having trouble doing or maintaining (a la Hollywood). Still, the key word is ‘pepper’. Considering the gaming industry is undeniably dominated by white males, you will see the majority of the product put out by major developers will represent that demographic simply because it is what they know.
“So, go out and do it yourself”
This is something you’ll always hear in an argument and, while it is valid, it misses a reality in this country (and probably many others). Those in power will lean towards either hiring or producing what is ‘comfortable’ to them and, as a result, you are left with stereotypical representations of minorities and/or women. Basically, it is one of those ‘easier said than done’ kind of things. Jessica Conditt wrote an article on Engadget.com called “Gaming while black: Casual racism to cautious optimism.” In it she interviewed a biracial developer named Shawn Alexander Allen who has worked with Rockstar Games and has his own studio called Nuchallenger. In it he states the following:
“The games industry is hurting badly as a creative medium in terms of diverse voices. We don’t see many prominent black or Latino (or really any other minority populace) representation in protagonists, critics, marketing or creators. I mention prominent because while many other cultural forms like music, movies, and writing have a dearth of black voices, they at least have people who are out there making their culture better at all levels and are very visible.”
With that said, you can see why the industry is being questioned in the way it is. Those in power will bring their friends, familiar former co-workers, and others that their friends can vouch for with them to build their new gaming studio. This makes ‘getting in the door’ harder. Not only that, the ‘do-it-from-scratch-without-major-company-help’ makes it even harder since marketing and getting their voice out there AND HEARD is even harder.
People often forget how powerful portrayals of minorities are in major media. Since many portions of the globe are segregated, their only encounter with people ‘different’ from them are in movies, TV shows, and even video games. If all they see is a black person selling drugs, getting out of poverty, and becoming a hip hop star, then that is what they associate with blacks in America. Of course, the truth is so far from this it isn’t even funny.
In the last part of Moosa’s article, Witcher 3’s lack of diversity was also mentioned. A key part of that argument was that if the mythology can have fantastical creatures like dragons and elves then why can’t it have people of color (PoCs)? To that many commenters answered, “because of historical accuracy”. The ‘historical accuracy’ they speak of is referring to specific regional mythology that have their own fantastical tales of creatures and such (in this case Slavic) where little or no mention of people of color exist. As a result, we are left with an entire genre where a majority of the popular stories regularly leave out people of color. Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and even the original Star Wars trilogy have come under fire for their lack of diversity.
In my opinion, writers of stories that lean heavily on existing mythology have every right to use ‘historical accuracy’ as their excuse to leave out people of color, just as so many stories have done before. Totally their choice. The issue with that is they have purposefully chosen to not challenge themselves “from a writing perspective” to appeal to a gaming culture that is clearly multicultural and is STARVING for more diverse stories. If these developers and studios genuinely wanted to make a difference and stop adhering to the usual Eurocentric themes we always see in fantasy media, they would see the opportunity for them to create something true epic that touches and reaches MORE people. In short, the gaming community deserves better. Saying “Because that is how it was always done” is no longer a valid excuse. As a result, I think the criticism is justified. I think even George RR Martin recognizes this in his recent success, as he’s vowed to begin writing in more significant roles to people of color in the books. He sat in various panels and received questions from a fan base that was more diverse than he probably anticipated. He cared enough to make a decision to change his typical approach of having non-essential characters as people of color and to begin writing more in his upcoming books to include them. Even HBO has made a point to inject a more diverse cast in some roles that were either not defined or were ‘white’ in the books. Essentially I’m saying that if CD Projekt Red recognized the diversity of their fanbase, maybe they would see the value of breaking out of the norm and morphing the story that is already ‘based’ upon a previously written book. Skilled and imaginative writers could find a way to make the interactions and atmosphere true to the accepted canon without taking the easy and typical route of simply ‘reskinning’ a white character as a dark skinned character.
Just because something is and has always been doesn’t mean it always needs to be. Fantasy is fiction. It can be WHATEVER. If you want your FICTION to be POPULAR (especially worldwide) then you will open yourself up to appealing to multiple cultures and races. This is fact. There is nothing that stops the creator from breaking the unnecessary mold and injecting something different in there. Scared about poor representation or misrepresentation of a culture or race? Great! That means you care. It also means you can look for those who live and breathe that culture/race to help make the representation authentic.
Look. I love Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and I praise the developer for even touching on the racism that various shades of white see in European culture. That is a topic that many probably don’t even recognize. Seen and explained by one of the commenters in Moosa’s article, I even had to take a step back when thinking of whether to criticize CD Projekt Red of their ‘color omission’. Then again, I am glad they didn’t simply toss in a couple of black people in the background with cornrows and then mark that check box and call it diverse.
In the end, we just want companies and developers to recognize that people of color play and have played their Eurocentric games and stories for years. It is time for a change and other cultures can provide just as many appealing heroes and heroines.