Microsoft’s Project Natal Doesn’t Care About Black People?

by Latoya Peterson

I spent a lot of last week traveling and grinding on deadlines, so I missed most of the E3 coverage coming out of the gaming sphere. While I plan to catch up with BawdyJane on what she spotted there later, one project in particular caught my eye.

Dan Hsu over at BitMob has the goods:

During E3 2009, journalists, developers, and even Hollywood celebrities got wind of the secret demonstrations Microsoft was giving to select individuals and were pulling every string they could find to get in. Even Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto went to the secret area of Microsoft’s booth and got a private VIP demo.

Demian and I got to give Natal a go, and we came away extremely impressed…and neither of us are of the easily impressed variety….

“No matter how many buttons you put in a controller, you can’t get this kind of fidelity,” says Natal Creative Director Kudo Tsunoda. We’ll see later if gamers (especially the hardcore) even want that sort of fidelity, but what we’ve seen so far supports Tsunoda’s statement.

The device measures 48 different joints on your body, so it’s able to distinguish your hands from your forearm, your forearm from your upper arm, your upper arm from your torso, and so on. It can detect forward and backward 3D positioning as well, unlike old Vision Cam games that see your silhouette as a 2D physical object. It even knows how fast you’re moving your body parts toward or away from the television (keep the snickers down to a minimum, please).

Awww, yeah! Reminds me of what they were going for back in the day with those clunky virtual reality helmets everyone swore would be the new hotness. You can even use your feet to kick at things instead of keeping all your movement from the torso up, as indicated in the shot below:

Whoo! So I was properly geeked…until I caught this little note:

When game consultant and former Newsweek writer N’Gai Croal gave Paradise a test drive, however, the game had trouble reading his steering actions. The footwork (gas and brakes) worked fine, but Croal couldn’t steer his car at all. It wasn’t clear whether this was a problem of calibration differences between Tsunoda and Croal’s very different body types, or if Croal’s crazy dreadlocks threw Natal off. But it was working just fine when Tsunoda was at the “wheel.”

It’s not about the dreadlocks, Shoe. N’Gai is brown-skinned. Sensors did not compute. Damn it, gaming people. Race issues are harshin my squeez again.

Luckily, this was a technology issue and not a character or plot issue, so instead of denials, we actually got a swift statement back from Microsoft. Gamezine.co.uk reports:

Research into the issue resulted in a study concluding that near-infra-red cameras did indeed struggle to read movements from those with darker skin.

However, Microsoft has responded to these worries, telling Gamezine that all ethnicities will be able to use the technology.

“Last week at E3, we gave a taste of what to anticipate when Project Natal launches. As we mentioned to everyone who had the chance to play, we were working with tech demos and, as we all know, these can be temperamental,” Microsoft told Gamezine.

“The goal of Project Natal is to break down the barriers for everyone to play, and it will obviously work with people of all shapes and ethnicities at launch.”

So hooray for Microsoft. They are handling the situation and should have it fixed before Project Natal hits a store near you. And, as another thing in favor of Microsoft, it appears that N’Gai’s copy could have had a glitch. Other folks with dark skin (like Sugar Ray Leonard) tested the game and appeared to be able to participate just fine:

However, the whole situation got me thinking about the assumptions inherent in gaming, particularly within character design and applications.

One of the reasons I really enjoyed Ryuta Komaki’s presentation on mixi at RESI was that his research proves that we can program our own biases into the technology we create.

In this case, it does not appear that Microsoft failed to do due diligence and test with a range of skin tones. This error seems indicative of the technology used, and a long standing issue to boot.

But what about when people are programming characters? Or testing technology like this when there may not be any brown skinned people in the room? How do assumptions of who is representative of a gamer and who is playing impact the final results?

In the paper I presented at RESI, I used an example from 2007 when Acclaim moderators assumed whiteness as a default. In their game Dance, the default avatar was white. When a black character asked why he had to pay for a darker skin to personalize his avatar, the moderator replied that black was an extra feature, and therefore, had to be paid for.

THE REASON, there is no available choice at the moment is because, being white doesn’t necessarily have to represent you color in game. To change your skin color in the game, IS a special feature. It makes you STAND OUT. Therefore, your going to have to pay for an extra feature. Maybe in full release, there will be a bit more leeway, but for now you have to stick with what you got and test the game, and don’t worry so much about your character they’re going to be wiped regardless… We didn’t mean for this to be a racial bash. But the default skin tone we have in DANCE! is white. If you want something extra your going to have to pay. Nothing in life is free.

Tekanji from the Official Shrub Blog breaks down the core assumptions at play:

This situation is, perhaps, one of the most clear-cut examples of how the privileged groups are normalized and the non-privileged groups are Othered. First of all, this game seems to be still in the development stage; they’re testing out game mechanics and the like. Just as with Fable, as I discussed in my gender-inclusive video game thread, treating a female option as an “extra” rather than an intrinsic part of a game that supposedly lets you be anything, Acclaim’s Dance treats white as the default and non-white as an extra feature. As one of the moderators on the board explains, “Black is an EXTRA feature. It makes your person look unique, so that is an EXTRA feature. Therefore, you having to PAY for it.” [...]

Acclaim wasn’t aiming to be racist. I would say that no successful company — at least none that want to stay in business — tries to be racist. But the whole point about privilege is that you don’t have to try to be bigoted, but you have to actively try not to be bigoted because of the way the bigoted point of view is normalized in society.

See, privilege is about not having to see yourself as the Other. The moderator quoted above — and the company he represents — don’t see the hypocrisy in saying that they didn’t “mean for this to be a racial bash” and then in the very next sentence say that “the default skin tone we have in DANCE! is white”. They don’t think of it as racist because in our society being white is “normal”, it’s the “default” and it’s certainly nothing for anyone to get worked up over.

White people, who do already have it so that the avatars “represent [their] color in game” (and in most games, movies, tv shows, comic books, books, etc), have the luxury of seeing race as an extra, as something to do to make yourself unique and stand out. People of colour, who aren’t automatically represented in this game or most other parts of society, don’t have that luxury. If they want to have their avatars represent someone like themselves — something a white person doesn’t have to think about if they don’t want to — they have to pay. They get to see themselves be Othered and then told that they should be grateful because they are seen as “unique” and something to be desired. What is a fun accessory for a white player is a necessary component for a player of colour who wants to have the same ability as the white person to allow their avatar to represent their real life self. Privilege is not having to think about how the “extras” afforded to you come at the cost of allowing non-privileged groups the same basic representation that you take for granted.

Video games – and development – are new and exciting fields and when we are experimenting with new technology, glitches are going to happen. But one thing the field needs to remember is always to question the underlying assumptions surrounding how we test, how we develop, and who we are developing for. Microsoft handled this situation well, but they are an exception to the rule. Most houses prefer to pretend these issues don’t exist, or try to justify bad decisions (like charging for a skin tone issued freely in real life.)

Other gaming spots, take a lesson from Microsoft. If it’s an issue that lies within your control, just fix it.

(All images pulled from the Bitmob blog)