Race and video game player characters

by guest contributor Pat Miller, originally published at Token Minorities


Wired’s Chris Kohler had an interesting piece over at Game | Life a while back about the race of player characters, centered around a NeoGAF forum discussion regarding the race of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil:

From the article:

Ellis, a self-defined “activist”, is writing this article to raise awareness; he speaks of the lack of black characters in video games as a problem that needs to be solved. “A friend in the game industry suggested that one reason is that there are very nearly zero black folks making games. That needs to change because, frankly, I’m pretty damn sure there are a good deal more than zero black folks playing games.”I imagine that more black protagonists have been suggested, but ultimately vetoed, for game projects for the very reasons that I’m talking about here — that designers and marketers might worry that the (predominantly nonblack) video game audience might not buy a game with a black main character. The evidence doesn’t really suggest that this is true, however — look at the success of Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. And even though they’re not very good games, I wouldn’t faint from shock if I heard that most buyers of Shaq Fu and Michael Jordan’s Chaos in the Windy City were suburbian white kids. I just don’t think it’s that big of a deal.

All this is to say that I think Ellis, even if he didn’t realize it at the time, has suggested a very intriguing solution: video game protagonists whose race is so ambiguously defined that everyone, be they black, white, Filipino, or Greek, automatically, without even considering otherwise, comes up with their own answer.

Kohler, perhaps unsurprisingly, is treating race in video games as a problem; having carefully studied his Guide to Being White, throughout his post he is careful to distance his discussion of race from a discussion of racism, the worry being, of course, that one can’t discuss one without indirectly accusing someone of being the other. (”Player: Why aren’t there more people of color protagonists in video games?” “Designer: Hey! Are you calling me racist? I have black friends!”) Race is detail, Kohler argues, and detail prevents us from projecting ourselves onto the player character.

Of course, anyone who has been reading this blog for the past few months (and, ideally, anyone who has a college education…but I digress) should realize by now that even if Kohler’s “solution” to the problem of race – making a “color-blind” and therefore “race-neutral” player character – was possible (how are blonde-haired, blue-eyed white Americans going to project onto Jade?), it simply prevents us from discussing how meanings are assigned to race. That is to say, video games now have the potential to inspire discussions about what it means to have a person of color doing whatever it is that the game has them doing. Certainly something like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas would have much different effects on its audience if CJ was white. To return to the race-neutral player characters of the 8-bit days would be to deprive video games of another way to mature.

Moreover, I don’t think that the “Jade solution” would really solve the “problem” Kohler poses. On one hand, a racially ambiguous character may allow some players to more easily project themselves into the character. However – as mixed-race individuals all over the world can surely attest to (myself included!) – visual racial ambiguity can lead to a lot of bizarrely uncomfortable situations. I have experienced first-hand, as have many of my friends, questions like “So…what are you, anyway?” coming from complete strangers who feel compelled to know with absolute certainly exactly what box I check on the US Census – and I admit that I experience similar kinds of intense curiosity when I can’t peg someone, either. They’re flip sides of the same coin, and I have a feeling that if a designer were to use a Jade-esque character with a more active role in asserting herself throughout the game, audiences would be alienated from her for exactly the same reasons that they seemed to like her in Beyond Good and Evil.