Ethnic Depictions in Video Games

The Escapist – an online publication best known for analyzing and discussing video games as a cultural phenomenon, rather than a mere form of entertainment, is currently discussing racial [in]sensitivity in games. The article Gangbangers, Victims, and Whores by Christina González, which discusses how Latinas are depicted in games, is a particularly insightful read.

The timing for this week’s Escapist happens to coincide with a bill proposal in the New York State Assembly also taking aim at racial insensitivity in video games. Sponsored by Assemblyman Keith L.T. Wright, the bill seeks to:

Prohibit the sale to minors of certain rated video games containing a rating that reflects content of various degrees of profanity, racist stereotypes or derogatory language, and/or actions toward a specific group of persons.

While this bill may just be the latest in what seems to be an endless crusade on the part of the state of New York against the gaming industry, the concerns raised by Wright are legitimate. Race and ethnicity, and how they are depicted in video games, has been a point of contention ever since games started receiving serious consideration as media. One point that is often made – and that I have made myself – is that video games are severely lacking in hoisting non-white characters to the status of main protagonist.

Those of us who are not white, but hope to identify with the characters we play in games the same as anyone, find the industry to be deficient.  At best we have had to settle for ethnically ambiguous characters, often in non-Earth settings, which while fulfilling an aesthetic need still leave players wanting for a more substantial connection.  When characters of non-European ethnicities are depicted in video games, it is true that they are often stereotypes.

Barrett

Barrett from Final Fantasy VII

Part of the reason for this is that a large number of games come out of Japan, which being nearly homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, and insulated – both physically and culturally – may lack a strong frame of reference for depicting a diverse cast of characters.  Where the games are made in the Europe or the United States, where ethnic variety is more common, stereotypes may instead emerge as a consequence of one-dimensional writing.  Perhaps a developer cannot be bothered to do the research into all of the nuance and idiosyncrasies that rise from a character’s ethnic experiences.

So Wright is valid in his concerns about racial stereotypes in that they not only leave players without a character with which to identify, but with a caricature that debases them or their culture.  Where I think Wright is wrong, however, is in thinking that the solution to the problem lies in more restrictive legislation.  Most games with racial stereotypes are also mature-rated games, and laws are already in place to protect minors from playing them.  The efficacy of these laws is questionable, and so simply imposing a second and redundant law is not likely to fix the situation.

In my opinion, it’s necessary for lawmakers to start recognizing games themselves as an extension of culture, to place them within the general category of “the arts”.  Viewed that way, games may be held to a higher standard, as are film and literature.  Rather than restrict the sale of a game with objectionable material, perhaps it would be better to encourage developers to release material that is less objectionable, or that at least places it in its proper context.  For example, were game developers to be provided an incentive, such as an arts grant or tax subsidy, they may be more inclined to develop culturally relevant and accurate games.  Recognizing games as art could inspire more developers to create games as art, rather than simply to turn a profit.

The restriction on mature-themed games, up to and including the blacklisting of anything receiving the “Adults Only” rating, has done nothing to stop younger players from experiencing them.  Even where parents are educated as to what’s out there and mindful of what their children are playing at home, they cannot monitor what their children are playing when they aren’t watching, or what they learn by proxy from peers who have played games with objectionable content.

It would be more more effective to reward developers who perform admirably, who raise the bar in creating games as art, rather than punishing those who produce fluff.  The fluff will continue to exist, of course, because sometimes those games are just plain fun.  But they could be balanced by an increase in the alternative – games with real substance.

Game developers could then take the time to craft characters and settings that are three-dimensional – in how they’re written as well as how they’re rendered.  Three-dimensions allow for dynamic characterization and provide room for development beyond stereotypes and caricatures.