There’s a potentially intriguing story in a recent article written by Darion White for Edge Online. I’ll link to it, let you read it, and then come back.
While I agree with his premise (that black characters are under-represented in games, and heavily stereotyped where they do appear), I think the piece doesn’t really build up much of an argument, and mostly serves as a “look, see?” kind of writing. He also extols the virtues of Will Smith as a popular black media star while ignoring the usual criticisms that Smith has honed his image to be as non-black (and thus non-threatening to white audiences) as possible. I know not all game writing has to be of critical literary value, but Edge usually does better than this.
While the article got me thinking, my point is a different one. And there’s a small tangent coming here, so please indulge me.
In Their Shoes
Before I found myself in games, I was a theatre person through-and-through. I mostly focused on directing with the occasional splash of playwriting or lighting design, but like all theatricals, I acted from time to time1. I remember doing exercises about trying to think, move, and behave like another person. “How would Creon brush his teeth?” “Would Macbeth eat all his food at once, or one item at a time?” And so on.
While going through this process, it dawned on me why artists were traditionally viewed as “liberal.” When those around me decried Hollywood as a place of deviants, what they were really referring to is the overwhelming sense of tolerance they express2.
And that’s the crux of it — actors are trained to place themselves in someone else’s shoes. To think how they would react to something. A straight actor can think through: “OK, I’m not gay, but if I was, how would I act towards this person? How would I feel?” Any actor who sticks around long enough also tries to make their portrayal real instead of a caricature, and so they’re forced to find the truth, the humanity, in someone who is potentially very different from themselves.
They Used to Call Them “Players”
So what does this have to do with games? We frequently cite the participatory nature of games as their defining one. But we nearly always plop the player into some character that’s already been vastly over-represented in media: nearly always white, nearly always male, nearly always 18-353.
Games have such a power to make players identify with a protagonist, and it feels like they’re squandering it by going with the easy path for this fundamental design choice. Why not have a game that really gives me the experience of being a young black boy in South Central LA? Or a woman in Afghanistan under the Taliban? Or a young mother in China who desperately wants to save the baby girl her husband abandons? A gay man in the American South? Or in Africa?
These games don’t even have to be about the Serious Issues™ that I described — you could still make a decent adventure or shooter out of most of those with some effort. But why not use the great identifying force of avatar representation and use it to make the player think “OK, I’m not this person, but how would I react if I were?”
1 By the end of my theatrical career, the acting roles were solely based on my knowledge of stage combat. I would get in costume, take a punch, throw a punch, then not even have stick around for the curtain call. It was great fun. :-)
2 I don’t in any way mean to over-simplify or mock the conservative viewpoint — I grew up in a very conservative household and tend to think most issues are far more complex than either side is willing to admit.
3 I used up my “nearly always” quota on that sentence.