Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

Gaming Empathy

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.

Why are Black Game Characters Failing the Audience?

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.

1 archived comment Why no more comments?
  1. Clawdia Shannon wrote:

    When I was GM’ing, I always knew it was time to reign somebody in when they talked about the set of stats that make up their character as (Character name)-first person away from the table.

    But even then, people relate to their PC, and the NPCs around them (I’m using pen&paper RPG terms here, never got into any computer game I couldn’t get through in 10 minutes, like a super solitaire)

    With the images around, the PCs, and even the NPCs become “real” and the game environment even realer than a LARP (yes, if you teach a class and have 4 feet from you a TV screen of you teaching the class, same size, people watch the TV!

    TV was bad enough at representing minorities in the days pre-Norman Lear, when minorities and women for that matter, were as a federal report said (and was entitled) “window dressing on the set) As G. Roddenberry allegedly said about Star Trek (original) “We had the first black prime-time character and we made her a telephone operator.” Harlan Ellison tried to have a script which began with one of the 400-odd Enterprisers a dope dealer, and some low-level crewman (both expected to be male whites) a customer who created the crisis in the episode extensively as (City on the Edge of Forever) because Roddenberry wasn’t going to admit the 400-odd 99.99% white crew might include a couple of imperfect folks.

    A friend of mine from NYC was really glad that, after moving to Bloomington to profess Neurobiology, he had Star Trek TNG for his young kids to watch – a show where even green and orange folks from whatever genders were shown as everything from heroes to mass murderers. At Indiana University, it seemed 99.99% of the black folks were Athletic Scholarships – not just regular intelligent black folks from Indianapolis.

    The fact is, the President aside, we live in societies that are still too often divided into “US” and several groups of ‘lesser’ everybody elses. It is no surprise our computer games, some written in countries even more prone to ethnic division than ours’, allows minority members to disappear from the field of ‘good guys’ and gals too, though a majority of players are allegedly male. It doesn’t even stop at race – while the full story has never been told, an employee at the shop where Sims are made allegedly quit over homophobia – the reason he slipped some frames of hardest-core male/male porn as the ‘reward’ for hitting a high score in Sim Helicopter. Now that games are coded to present fellow characters as fellow human friends and enimies, with history and story lines, it might be interesting to make about 50% female without 15 pounds of silicon silicone per., 13% or more "black" (whatever these racial terms mean) 10% gay- if they have game sex lives, @9-10% speakers who are obviously ESL, these days mostly Hispanics, followed by the Slavic language groups and Asians, (some ‘groups’ have a tendency to wards specific “non-white” facial features and skin color, though having an accent of one sort or another still means your characters can come in barely possessing any skin melanin to any extremes and all possible sizes, shapes (in places where the guys abs are all carved down – I guess to provide electrons to embellish the gals), colors and appearances humans come in. If they have a religious life (I’d personally avoid that along with sex life as just too much information) they have to also vary. The bottom line is if you want your games to appeal to all purchasers, and present a view of the Real World players will take away, it would be a good idea to let the humans look and speak and act like the human population of the country or planet, depending on scenario. Acceptance, though is strange – I am still amazed at the lack of outrage when “Mario” first walked across the screen – as surprised as I was when this country proved itself ready to elect a guy who is taller, smarter, better looking and darker-skinned to the Presidency. (The latter delighted me – I was getting damned tired of presidents having to come off as dumber than the average guy to win office, Kennedy, the first Catholic, was also an exception to the rule that seems to have begun with Eisenhower) Posted February 25, 2009 at 1:02PM