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Video games don't particularly address issues of race
Game protagonists are primarily young, white, fit, able
bodied, males who carry a big weapon, often literally, and those games sell. The original BioShock featured this
well-known protagonist simply named Jack but simultaneously upturned gaming
conventions from narrative to gameplay. BioShock
Infinite, BioShock's spiritual successor, features a similar white man
protagonist named Booker DeWitt who too believes in oversized weaponry in order
to function as a one man army.
Traditionally, the BioShock franchise sets humanity in a contained world
and stretches a moral code to its extreme originating in Rapture and the soon
to be explored in Colombia.
The "foreign hordes"? Sounds similar to the "noble savage."
A few weeks ago, while reading "The BioShock Infinite Primer"
by Matt Bertz in Game Informer issue 239 suddenly I unexpectedly encountered phrases such as "institutionalized
racism" and "separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for the 'lesser races.'" I reread the lines to ensure that I read the
passage property and continuing the read I came across the following:
"When exploring the
fairgrounds, Booker DeWitt wins a raffle and is given a baseball. Attention turns to the stage, where a mixed
race couple is bound to a display featuring cutouts of monkeys. Booker can choose to either throw the
baseball at the couple or chuck it toward the racist ringleader of this
I was incredulous. All
I pictured was a slew of immature gamers suddenly granted the power to choose
to chuck a baseball at an interracial couple who were surrounded by monkey
cutouts as a clear indication that the couple was targeted solely due to race. A game allowing the player to commit race
based violence boggled my mind. Quickly, I tried to remember examples of race in other games and weighed whether or not
the option itself to throw the baseball at the mixed race couple was wrong or
Non-white male antiheroes. Neither one is apparently having a good day.
I realized that gaming does not often address race or ethnicity inequality in our society directly.
Sure, in an ensemble cast there are token support characters of varying
races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientation and gender identity. The only recent direct examples of at least
altering the typical white male protagonist based on race or ethnicity that I was aware of
was the protagonists for 2012's The Darkness II and Prototype 2. After an
internet search their names are Jackie Estacado, a Latino male, and James
Heller, an African American male.
At the same time, without any internet lookups, I can name
Jason Brody, Agent 47, Marcus Fenix, Max Payne, Corvo Attano, Nathan Drake,
Kratos, Ezio Auditore de Firenze, Dante, Starkiller, Sam Fisher, Gordon Freeman, John Marston, Adam Jensen,
Alex Mason, Bruce Wayne aka Batman, and Geralt of Rivia with an after the fact
internet search for correct name spellings.
Understanding each other can be...difficult.
Instead, gaming inherits a specie-ism approach from fantasy
and science fiction which are also games that feature a "make your own
character" option. We see elves, orcs,
dwarves, trolls, and hobbits engaged in long lasting feuds while various
intelligent alien races refuse to cooperate solely because another species is
considered uncouth as well as outright violence against ghouls who physiques
were altered by radiation. Open world franchises
such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fallout, and The Elder Scrolls feature these
species based tensions. The narratives
feature familiar narratives with imbalances of power based on a species previously or
currently enslaved by another, a species viewed as inherently overly aggressive
and hostile, fear from misunderstood cultural characteristics such as Mass
Effects' quarians requiring suits for survival, and physicality based
differences the reason of species dubbed lesser and greater.
These adventures allow the gamer to "choose a side." Mass Effect's Ashley William's bitter criticisms of
Commander Shepard's willingness to allow non-human races about the space ship,
the Normandy, can be condoned by befriending or romancing her. Similarly, we can choose to support the suppression
of the krogans as a species due to fears of future hostility. We are allowed to demean and dismiss Fallout
3's ghoul population based with responses such as "Stuff it, ghoul" or much worse.
Certainly one result of institutionalized discrimination.
Notably, I recall The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim specie-ism. The discovery that the nords, the fantasy equivalent of a majority
white population, openly despise the other species and want all non-nords to
vacate Skyrim, most notably the elves, was not shocking and even expected in an
open world fantasy universe. The story
becomes layered by inter-specie infighting amongst the elves. The high elves disparage the dark elves with
an obvious differentiation of the power base depending on skin tone. The lighter skinned high elves wield power
even amongst their own, particularly the clearly darker skinned dark
elves. Overtop this dynamic is the nords
outright hatred of all elves while forced to at least marginally cooperate with
the high elves results in society sanctioned oppression both verbally and
physically of the dark elves by all.
In this opening sequence I just kept wondering what did Lee did.
Suddenly, I recalled Telltale Game's The Walking Dead's main
character, Lee Everett, an African American man as the leading character of a
game celebrated by many as game of the year.
The Walking Dead is lauded and derided for essentially presenting an atypical game focusing on the narrative more than the gameplay. However, in a narrative heavy game that posed
a multitude of morality story arcs about no less than the cost of survival if
we abandon our humanity in the process, race was not discussed directly. Race remained an undertone to the central
An image that stayed with me long after I turned off my Xbox.
We can discuss the fact that Lee as a very rare African
American protagonist begins the game handcuffed in the back of a police car
during a transport to jail after he was determined guilty or that he continuously
wrestles with whether or not, and how, to divulge his criminal history to the
mostly all white supportive cast, or that Clementine, Lee's young charge who
acts as the gamer's moral compass is depicted as a very light skinned African
American child, potentially a basis of a continuing storyline of other survivors repeatedly asking about Clementine's and Lee's relationship.
"Honey, do you know this man?": The first of many such questions. However, Lee is an adult man in the zombie apocalypse escorting a young child.
Certainly none of these conversations are easy and without
explicit race based references or actions non-race reasons exist as the potential
basis for the behavior in the above mentioned scenarios. All the more reason for my sheer surprise
that BioShock Infinite is directly tackling a race narrative with no sly innuendos
or separate species obstructing the message of white privilege. While the multitude of gaming heroes and
antiheroes are snappy dressed and overall good looking white males leaving room
for yet another conversation about stereotypes.
In the video game industry race issues are not often directly confronted
and BioShock Infinite presenting racism set within an Americana universe is
commendable. Personally, I cannot afford
the game upon release. With the
surrounding controversy of the atypical franchise catering to the most common
denominator in the gaming fan base through its cover art, I am not sure what to
expect when the game releases but I will be watching to find out.
Excuse a quick side note, as a 2013 New Year's resolution I
set out to blog here weekly in order to participate in a way that fits my
schedule. I struggle with finding gamer
friends and I wanted to at least participate in a gaming conversation. My blog topics are mostly set in advance thus
I began drafting this blog long before the God of War: Ascension trophy name
debate. Regardless, I recognize that
this blog is posted in the context of the past week's trophy controversy.
In my day to day work, I assist housing discrimination
victims. I am extremely lucky to turn an
architecture degree into the assessment of newly built housings' compliance
with design and construction laws, primarily regarding wheelchair access, and
creative work for a nonprofit such as brochures and flyers. Daily I witness the end result of housing discrimination that regardless of whether the behavior was
intentional, a person and/or their family are not provided equal access to housing
and housing choice. As a quick Public
Service Announcement, under federal law, in the Fair Housing Act as amended in
1988 housing providers may not provide different terms and conditions or
otherwise deny housing based on race, national origin, color, religion, sex, disability, or
familial status (families with children).
So no, "Your wheelchair will damage the carpet" or "I would rather not
have kids in this building." Local
governments may add to the act but not take away thus in my area we also have
included age (over 40 years old), sexual orientation, and gender identity. Keep in mind the newness of the Fair Housing
Act which was enacted in 1968 as Title 8 of the Civil Rights Act. Disability and familial status were added in
1988 and I was born in 1985. Until I was
3 years old a landlord, mortgage broker or real estate agent could legally deny
my parents housing because I was child and because my family is deaf.
Why this child is rejected while another is not is one of many unanswered questions for the upcoming BioShock Infinite.
I struggle with separating when to take a stand and when to "just
play the game." Both are acceptable
decisions. I grimaced at the narrative
but enjoyed the shooter sandbox of Far Cry 3, I weighed Assassin's Creed 3's thoughtful
but over nostalgic approach to depicting Native Americans, and wondered at
Hitman: Absolution recruiting ex-convicts and prostitutes as female assassins
dressed in fetish religious clothing.
I am not attempting to single handily twist gaming into my
own ideals but to develop my own understanding of what constitutes a person in
power making decisions based solely on issues of race, sex, religion,
disability, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Here is hoping that gaming bravely addresses
these nuanced conversations as well.
What gaming moment
handled race (or specie) relations well?
Do you think the
carnival game in BioShock Infinite' preview is appropriate?
Did Lee's race impact
your Walking Dead playthrough?
Thank you for reading all the way to the end!
Good luck for your week ahead!