This isn’t the type of thing I usually write for this site but I felt like I had to get it out. I’m not sure if its the current political climate or I’ve just reached a boiling point with racial issues and discussing them in the context of video games seems natural but here it is anyway.
Video games have often been thought of as a boys club but a 2015 study conducted by the Entertainment Software Association found that 44% of gamers are actually women. This fact is not reflected in the gaming market as a vast majority of video game protagonists are men (Professor at Redford University, Michele Zorilla, in a study of 49 games found that there was 1 female character for every 5.3 male characters). It is fair to say then that more women play games than are represented in games and that in terms of game content, the industry is very much still a boys club…or more accurately a white boys club.
University of Southern California Professor Dmitri Williams found an overwhelming lack of diversity in video games. Sampling 150 games across nine different platforms and all ratings he found that, “fewer than 3 percent of video game characters were recognizably Hispanic. Native Americans and biracial characters were non-existent. African Americans enjoyed a rate of 10.74 percent, but they were mostly athletes and gangsters.” While these numbers may seem shockingly low they are in fact fairly indicative of the racial demographics of the people who make games. A 2005 study by the International Game Developers Association found that Whites made up over 85% of game developers, Asians made up 7.5% and Blacks and Hispanics made up less than 5% combined. Similarly to women, the underrepresentation of people of color in the medium does not mirror the demographics of those actually playing the games. This study found that Blacks and Hispanics actually spend more time playing video games than their white counterparts (30 minutes and 10 minutes more per day respectively). Clearly the discrepancy in proportion between the number of people of color who make games and the number who play them is not from a lack of interest. This is indicative of a much larger issue facing this country, systematic racism which ensures that people of color remain disenfranchised. Game development jobs are highly technical and often require college degrees and while the race gap in college enrollment has begun to narrow, the graduation rates have not.
Before this article turns into a discussion of systematic racism in America I feel the need to redirect it back towards gaming (but please, if you are unfamiliar with systematic racism then please follow the links above and educate yourself). Once we understand that games are made by mostly white men (the most privileged demographic on earth) then it becomes understandable why they are they prevailing demographic of video game characters. Contrarians and people who chose to remain ignorant will point out the few notable exceptions of women and people of color as protagonists and characters in video games but please understand they are an extreme minority.
There is the common argument that because game developers are mostly white they can’t create games based off experiences they’ve never had. So you’re telling me that Cliff Bleszinski has real life experience fighting off alien hordes with massive guns with chainsaws attached? That anyone at Ubisoft has lived in Renaissance Italy, that developers at Naughty Dog have gone treasure hunting or fought zombies, or that anyone at Treyarch has served as a military Black Ops operative? You know what game developers do in situations when they are trying to create experiences they’ve never had? They bring in consultants. People that have lived through these experienced and can speak to them and provide a certain level of authenticity. Now I know what you’re saying now, “but Youssef, games are so often fictional and extremely unrealistic, who could speak to those experiences?” Precisely no one, they are not experiences for white people, black people, asians, hispanics, men, women, or any other demographic, so why when I play a high fantasy game or sci-fi game that has no basis in reality do I have to play as a white man?
The argument that truly infuriates me more than anything is when gamers say something along the lines of “if it makes sense for the story I don’t care if I play as a person of color but if it doesn’t make sense in the story then it just feels like forced social justice.” If you’re reading this and have found yourself thinking this same sentiment pause for a second and examine yourself. The problem with the aforementioned infuriating argument is that it so embodies the skewed perception held by so many gamers. Why do we need an excuse to play as a person of color? Why must there be a reason for a game protagonist to be black, hispanic, asian, or god forbid Arab? Why are white male characters the default in games? Let me flip the logic on you, what reason does Marcus Felix in Gears of War have to be white? What reason does Cole from inFamous have to be white? Joel from The Last of Us? Booker from Bioshock Infinite? Nathan Hale from Resistance? I could keep going on for a while, trust me. The truth of the matter is that many white male gamers are more comfortable playing as a fictional alien than as a person of color.
Let me give you an example. The 2013 indie survival game Rust is a mix between Minecraft and Grand Theft Auto. Players are born into the world naked and alone and must find a way to survive. When first released, gamers all started with the same avatar, a bald white man. Following an update to the game, Rust’s lead developer Garry Newman released a change to the game in the form of multiple racial origins to the game, the twist? Players were not allowed to choose what race they were. Just like life, you were given a random racial origin and you could not customize or change it. And just like you would expect, the white gaming community was not happy with this change.
Writing for Aljazeera America, Megan Condis investigated what happened when White players were assigned racial diverse characters (the reverse of which is an all too frequent occurrence for people of color). Condis found two major issues white gamers had with being assigned a race other than white.
The first was that players were upset that they were unable to choose their race, a feature that was NEVER part of the game, they were originally all assigned a bald white man, it seems that only when they were assigned people of color did they suddenly feel as though their freedoms and choices were being robbed. Pulling from various forums and message boards Condis quotes certain gamers as they voice their displeasure with the game’s assignment of race, one such gamers stated, “The problem is not that there are different races in the game. The problem is lack in freedom of choice – which race you want to play as. If the skin color is forced on you, you won’t like it. Yes, in real life you are born as your race, you can’t change it, but you have whole life to adapt.” Regardless of the grammatical and syntactical errors of this posting, the message is clear. It is not fun to have a skin color forced on you. The irony here of course is that this notion, this sentiment, this feeling that it is not fun to be forced to play as a race other than your own is something EVERY person of color has felt at one time or another if not regularly. The comments of course devolve into outrightly racist messages as one gamer stated, “I was going to by RUST today! But I am a white guy and don’t want to take the chance of playing a black character. Also, for all of you saying ‘its just a game and your racist its not a big deal’ it sure must be a big deal if the devs are MAKING PEOPLE PLAY AS BLACK CHARACTERS.” Throwing aside this person’s odd and twisted sense of logic that the latter half of his statement seems to be based on this is clearly some fucked up shit. Just to be clear, a white man refuses to buy a game because there is a CHANCE he may be forced to play as a black character. Also, just to make it clear, Rust is a first-person game that means that while in game the player never actually sees their own character.
The second thread Condis noticed was those of the players who seemed to want to forget about race altogether and dismiss it as an issue, wishing the developer had avoided black and white skin tones and instead opted for unrealistic colors like green, red, and purple. This line of thinking is often used to prove how white gamers don’t care about race or skin color but what it actually does is belittle the discussion about race by trying to avoid it altogether. As Condis says, “They imply that the way to end discrimination is simply to ignore it, that the best way to pursue a post-racial virtual utopia is to erase the existence of people of color all together and to replace actual racial diversity with a rainbow of fantasy races, all of which are treated equally and none of which faced a long — and, to white gamers, potentially discomforting — history of institutional oppression.”
I am enough of a nerd to have brought up this issue on gaming forums before and the overwhelming majority of responses have mirrored those listed above, responses that so frequently infuriate me as a person of color. The truth is, the video game community is racist. “Racist” is probably the biggest trigger word for white people that there is. Everyone is so insulted by the shear notion that something they love, or God forbid they themselves could be racist. The issue here is that there is a notion in this country that racism needs to be overt and blatant, that racism is a white person saying or doing something insulting to a black person. While this type of racism still exists far more than it should in this country, the more prevalent type of racism is much more subtle. It takes the form of systematic racism that disenfranchises people of color, it takes the form of micro-aggressions that little by little demean people of color. You don’t have to use the N-Word or refer to an Arab person as a terrorist to be racist. Feeling that there needs to be an excuse to play as a person of color rather than a white person is racist, looking for any and every reason to justify why most game protagonists are white men is racist. I’m not saying if you feel this way you’re a terrible person and should go sit in a corner and wait to cast your vote for Donald Trump. I am saying that take a good long look at the nature of things and ask yourself why they are that way and why you feel the way that you do. Stop thinking of white as a default or neutral standard and start asking yourself why have we become so defensive and uncomfortable acknowledging the clear and obvious underrepresentation of people of color.
I love video games, and it is because I love them so much that I am so critical of them. I want the medium to be better and anyone else who considers themselves a fan of the medium should demand that it be better.