Racism in gaming

Despite what the title of this post might imply, I’m not going to go into a rant or discussion about racism about the gaming community. With female activists and other groups like Gamergate dominating the discourse of inclusiveness in gaming, protagonists in video games remain largely male and Caucasian. Further, few legitimate game productions deal with racism with any maturity or as a central theme. Even female characters will occasionally have that token moment where the female protagonist or a love interest will be shown as “bad ass” for physically beating down a creepy loathsome guy trying to sexually harass or abuse the character. I won’t retread those arguments here.

Rather, I would like to write about what I perceive to be ignoring an element of society. Suffice it to say, the gaming community is largely immature. The anonymity of the internet protects and gives forum for those who pursue exclusiveness to their hobby or outright bigoted views. Many gamers will go to great lengths to espouse how video games are becoming more and more like an art form. Certainly, there are plenty of legitimate comparisons. The most common comparison is a movie or TV show. While they are indeed visual mediums and there are many crossover elements, my experience in improv makes me lean away from such a classification because those forms are very much static and largely done with little to no input from the audience (except through targeted marketing and focus groups). The player is given a certain level of agency within the framework of the game. A first person perspective, which is difficult to pull off successfully in movies, has a built in immersive nature to the experience. You can literally look straight into the face of racists!

There are ways to tackle this subject. The most obvious is portraying more visible minorities as protagonists in games. This is the ideal situation to tackle the problem. From a business perspective this is viewed as very risky as conventional wisdom is to appeal to the larger community base (traditionally white males). Sidekicks, antagonists (when not goofy or racist portrayals themselves) also work. I’m in favour for more inclusiveness period. Showing, rather than telling is the best method. Preaching to people will fall on deaf ears or infuriate the hardened racists and potentially fail to reach people who could be receptive to the story and egalitarianism. These methods are preferably subtle. When someone acts cartoonishly racist or vile, you highlight only the worst offenses but ignore the minor and more pernicious ones.

A game proposal

The Shadowrun gaming universe was one of the few games to tackle racism as part of its themes. For those who are unfamiliar with it, imagine a dystopian future Earth crossed with Blade Runner/Matrix/Johnny Mnemonic meets Lord of the Rings. Fantastical humanoid races like elves, dwarves, orks and trolls live alongside humans. In fact, many of the first to “appear” in the world are humans who are transformed at the onset of puberty or during their teens.

Now, some of you might already see where this is going. My suggestion would be a game where the protagonist, in Fallout 3 fashion, undergoes a tutorial level where he goes through a few life events as a human in a very privileged and mildly racist environment. Eventually, your character undergoes the transformation into an ork (without changing skin colours). You are then unrecognized by family and friends. Cast out and forced to live on the streets, you must strive to pull yourself out facing difficult but not entirely insurmountable odds. The game wouldn’t be about racism entirely, but rather it would be a theme set in the personal development of the character. The main plot line would be something else. If racism was the central theme, it might turn off potential buyers or make the game feel too preachy for the general public. Sadly, I find myself having to advocate a more subversive technique. Hopefully, immersing oneself through the first person perspective and having to confront racism head on would play well.

Obviously, the non-player cast of characters in the game would have a wide range of views. Some might be accepting and helpful. On the far other end of the spectrum, there would be those looking to start lynch mobs and the like. There’d also be the aspect of some might be racist towards an ork, but perfectly accepting of an elf because they are more aesthetically pleasing to our eyes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, is that there are numerous shades of grey in the world and only by casting a sharp light to them will we find the contrast and hopefully improve society as a whole.

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