Editorials, Featured

Minority Report: Breaking Away From the White Video Game Protagonist

by on February 1, 2013 11:00 AM 15

As games get better and the creative minds behind them continue to stretch the limits of storytelling and characterization, developers are still held back by their own experience, and it’s because of that reason that we rarely — if at all — see strong Black, Latino, or Asian protagonists. It’s certainly a problem that needs a good fixing. But then, you’re immediately met with the other issue: where do you even begin?

A Cookie Cutter Hero for the Common Man

This generation’s use of the quintessential early 30’s White guy holding a gun is certainly starting to get out of hand. From Gears of War, to Uncharted, to inFamous, to even BioShock Infinite (quite possibly the most ridiculous of the bunch), we just can’t shake the overly average white male lead character gracing the box art of the games that we play.

What’s more interesting is when you find out that a character was created a certain way, and then as development matured and the game went through its focus testing, all of the sudden a character that may have started as Asian, Black, or Hispanic, is now changed to White. How and why does that happen?

infamous-2

Believe it or not, Cole from inFamous 2 was one such character. Early artwork of the game featured a protagonist that had the appearance of being of Asian, perhaps even Latino descent. Eventually, as development went along though, he was changed to the less eye-brow raising (see: White) character that he is today. While this is something you won’t normally hear about after the fact, it makes you think about how often a similar situation happens with other developers and their games.

A more recent character that comes to mind is the half-British and half-Native American Conner from Assassin’s Creed 3. What we’re  wondering is whether Conner was written that way to make him a more complex character, or was that changed somewhere along the way because having a Native American lead character running around and assassinating White colonists wouldn’t mesh too well with a white audience. The same could be said in reverse. Was Conner’s Native origins a way to get players of color to feel more connected to the character?

Why is it always stereotypes?

We take a bigger issue with the role of many minorities in video games rather than their inclusion. If a Black character will only appear as a stereotypical thug or drug dealer, then it would be best if he or she not be present at all.

Is every Asian character fated to be a martial artist who speaks broken English or be comic relief? Before a minority can even be considered for a substantial lead role, these tired token stereotypes need to die a painful death. Should we even bring up Letitia the trash lady from Deus Ex: Human Revolution?

San-Andreas-Art

The best-selling Grand Theft Auto franchise has seen entries with main characters from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. San Andreas starred the black Carl Johnson. Grand Theft Auto III’s Tony Cipriani is of Italian decent. The Chinese Huang Lee was the leading man in Chinatown Wars. Yet, CJ was a stereotypical ghetto gangster, Huang was was a member of the triad, and Tony seems to be designed as a stunt double for Michael Corleone – with a mobster crime family and everything.

This series practically makes a joke out of these sad, prevalent and unfair stereotypes, and yet is one of the best selling franchises in all of gaming. Before the world can seriously view minorities as complex, powerful, relatable main characters, gaming has to move beyond the GTA or Deus Ex frame of mind.

So how about a model example?

If you were to scan the covers and screenshots of many prominent games released in the past few years, you would see an overabundance of protagonists whom are in their mid-30s and Caucasian – as mentioned earlier. This overabundance can also be viewed as a severe detriment. The over-saturation of the 30-something white guy as the go-to video game protagonist could mean that characters whom are people of color could easily thrive.

One of our personal picks for game of the year for 2012 was The Walking Dead episodic series, developed by Telltale. This was for a number of reasons, including the strength of the story, the tense gameplay, and the characters. The protagonist was Lee Everett, and after finishing the game, he remains one of my favorite protagonists ever in a video game. Everett had a personality and back story that was not outlandish, everything about him was believable. Even with what might be a stereotypical “criminal past”, it was never his defining characteristic. It was just one of many things that made up Lee as a character. He was multi-faceted. You felt all of his emotions and you were with him every step of the way; there was a clear emotional tether.

Lee_Everett_Ep_04

His moments of courage, heroism, and nobility were as real and believable as I have ever seen in a video game. Everett does not know parkour, nor is he an exceptional fighter (though he can hold his own), and he handles a weapon like a normal human being. He is not a soldier nor is he a mercenary.

He is a regular, imperfect, human being. And he’s Black.

While there may be a majority of White protagonists, their similarities make them easily exchangeable, and ultimately disposable. Everett stands out and will resonate because his characterization is not based on stereotypes or tropes, nor is he interchangeable with anyone outside of his game; the color of his skin is a part of that, it is just not the basis.

Sometimes it’s just easier to create based on what you know

It’s a sensitive situation and, while it should be addressed, it’s hard to fault anyone involved with game development. It seems natural that a White developer – consciously or subconsciously – would design a White protagonist, one that they felt able to personally identify with. To take this a step further, it’s believable that the developers envision players that are similar to themselves and therefore want the players to be able to identify with their protagonist as well.

So now you have a White protagonist created by White game developers and intended for White gamers. Trying to pinpoint blame is difficult or impossible. Deciding whether it’s intentional or coincidental is all a matter of opinion.

protagnoists

Before we point fingers at the developers, the minority gaming community needs to look at itself first. What we mean by that is, are we — as people of color — going out of our way to get the the development jobs throughout the industry? I’ll give you a small hint, the answer is no.

In the four years that DualShockers has been involved in writing about video games, even after multiple trips to E3, PAX and and countless media showcases, if we said that we’ve interviewed 20 people of color, that estimation would likely be stretching it — and by a long shot. It’s just something you don’t see. That lack of color on the development side reflects directly through the characters of color that we’re presented with in the games that we play. If we’re finding that the characters of color we see in our video games don’t represent us right, it’s our duty to create games and characters that do so correctly.

There’s a simple solution to making better characters as an industry: make different characters.

Whether a lack of diversity in games stems from developers writing what they know, what they see in the media, or avoiding things they’re too scared to try, there’s one simple solution to making characters of diversity: ignore race. Make new stereotypes.

There seems to be this prevailing idea that writing Black or Hispanic characters need to involve thugs, criminals, or loud crazy athletes, all from the ghetto, or that Asian characters have to involve honor, dragons, and martial arts. That Arabic characters need to be shifty hagglers or militant terrorists. That gay men have to be silly comic relief characters. That women have to be slutty, hyper-sexualized anything. These are ideas and images we’ve seen in the media for years, and they are so embedded in our subconscious that we can’t let them go. If you’re unfamiliar with a certain culture, this is what you know. But more often than not, people of color are like anyone else.

In a city like New York, which is a melting pot of culture, there are, of course, the stereotypes that the media showcases the most. But, growing up here, it’s easy to see there are many people who break these negative or undying stereotypes: there are Asian people who are into Hip-Hop, skating and sports; Black people who are into rock and roll, academics, and have successful families; Arabic people who are sweet, kind, and peaceful, and believe in gender equality; Hispanic people who are strong community leaders, politicians, and have a strong family life; women and gay men who are strong, confident, and as capable as anyone else; and more. So when creating characters, just…create characters.

mass-effect-characters-pane

Diversity is important in the game industry because the game industry is built from diversity. If there’s any subculture that has traditionally and stereotypically been considered outcasts and just plain “different,” it’s the nerds and geeks. Yet, through all the silly jokes and assumptions based on geek culture, we’ve prevailed and now have become the mainstream “It” culture, probably because of our “Who cares what you think?” attitude. Now all the things that were considered as “different” are popular: music, video games, comics, urban art, and technology as a whole. Geek culture has always been made up of all races and cultures. So it’s only fair that we make games made up of all races and cultures: games that relate to all of us, not just a fraction of us.

There are games that may need the use of stereotypes: after all, stereotypes are based on reality (in part), and if a game takes place in a bad neighborhood, or in feudal Japan, or in a fundamentalist part of the Middle East, then thugs, samurai, and terrorists characters may be necessary. But, stereotypes are often outdated concepts: when designing characters of the here and now, or the far future, well…the sky’s the limit on who or what a character can be. It’s up to you — the developers, gamers, and journalists — to make it happen.

Jean Maxime-Moris, Creative Director at Remember Me studio Dontnot Entertainment, said it best during an interview with CVG, where he and the interviewer commented on the overuse of the “30’s straight White man with guns” protagonist:

“How f**king stupid is this industry to only bet on those stereotypes? It’s the only thing you give people, they get accustomed to it and don’t want anything else. So yes, our character, Nilin, is mixed race, she is female, her sexual orientation is her private life, so I won’t go there.”

“Videogames have become such a formatted medium, but it’s the most powerful medium in the world and it has the most potential in the future. Yet everything is formatted. We just wanted to do things differently.”

Nilin-remember-me

Game industry — we speak to you as a whole — don’t be afraid to mix things up. Give us more interesting characters who are fuller, more diverse and three dimensional. Give us something new. We’ve had two decades of the same ol’ same: let’s bring something better to the table.

[Editors Note: Minority Report is an editorial column and this installment was written by Joel Taveras, Kenneth Richardson, David Rodriguez and Masoud House. The purpose of Minority Report is to explore the topic of Minorities and the roles that that play in Video Games, both on screen and in-development.]

Join the Discussion

  • http://www.gamingtruth.com DeejayKnight

    Sweet, merciful crap, that’s a well-written article. As a black male, I find it difficult to relate to the characters I play in games. It’s why I’ve been such a big proponent of Create-A-Player modes in games: That’s almost the only chance I get to create a character that looks like or is based on me.

    You raise one of the most important issues you can raise: more people of color have to be in the industry in prominent roles to make it happen, or make a mod where the trend continues and we get more than just the cookie-cutter characters.

    I think I have a topic for my next editorial. Thank you for writing this amazing piece, and I look forward to reading more of your work!

    • ChadAwkerman

      Well, the thing I bring up as a response to your comment is more of a question – if you don’t mind, what is stopping you from relating to a Caucasian protagonist?

      There’s a section of the article that talks about creating a human character, first and foremost, and assigning race/gender/sexuality after the fact. It doesn’t matter what race you are, you are still human, and deal with the same stuff other humans of different races do. I never have found it difficult to relate to a character of another race in a game just because they’re another race.

      I relate to characters because they’re human, not because they’re African-American, Asian, or whatever.

      Imagine IF some of the “white male protagonist” characters were, instead, African-American protagonists. What do you think would change? Most of the ones I can think of, the CHARACTER itself wouldn’t change at all. What if Nathan Drake was a minority? So what? I see the games playing out exactly as they have, just with a protagonist of a different color. What if Sazh was the hero of FFXIII instead of Lightning? Would it really matter?

      Another question to ask is – when you create a minority-looking character (let’s say, for example, Commander Shepherd from Mass Effect), does it change the game any? Does it change the choices you get? Does it change how other characters in the game relate to you? No, it doesn’t. Ultimately, the question is, again, why does it matter what race they are?

      I’m not trying to be disrespectful, I’m just curious why you say you can’t relate to a White protagonist, as opposed to a minority protagonist.

      • http://www.gamingtruth.com DeejayKnight

        Great questions, Chad.
        It’s not that I can’t relate at *all* to a character that’s a white male, it’s that when I play games like Mass Effect, I find that the more the character looks like me, the easier it is to consider myself the hero. That’s how I play games where I’m saving the world. I imagine that it’s me saving the world. It’s a part of the ‘escape from reality’ for me.

        I’ve been playing games for decades – over twenty years of my thirty on Earth – and the stories are still awesome. The games are no less spectacular. But as this article mentions, it is nice to see a character that looks like me. You mentioned something from the article, so I’ll do the same:

        “It seems natural that a White developer – consciously or subconsciously – would design a White protagonist, one that they felt able to personally identify with.”.

        I can’t personally identify with Mario, Link, Ash Ketcham, Master Chief, Kratos, Nathan Drake, Sam Fisher or any other character in any other video game ever made because those characters have been set in stone as who they are. That doesn’t mean I enjoyed the games any less, but my personal escape is limited because none of those characters looks anything like me.

        I didn’t take your comments as disrespectful, as they could technically be applied to this entire editorial. The simple fact is that the lack of minority protagonists leaves me wanting. 

        You mentioned Mass Effect 3 and whether the skin tone changes the story/choices/relationships, and of course it doesn’t. Bioware would’ve had untold levels of backlash from that. Mass Effect 3, though, is a game that I could shape my character’s face closely enough to mine that people watching knew I was playing Shepard as myself, which is how I prefer to game, and that’s why it matters. Another way to phrase it would be this: 

        I want to save the galaxy, too.

        While we all can relate to characters because they’re human, you don’t have a lack of characters that look similar to you, which is a fact that spurred this editorial to be written. 

        • ChadAwkerman

          Oh, I certainly understand what you’re saying. To take that even one step further, one thing that makes we enjoy games more is, obviously, relating to the character. I’m pretty white, but even many of the Caucasian protagonists I find it hard to relate to. The more “out there” they are, the less I can relate to them, so making them more down to earth and human from the developer’s standpoint would help me relate to them more.

          In fact, I brought up Sazh earlier because he’s probably the most relatable (to me) character in FFXIII, and he’s of a different race than me.

          So, I guess I initially posed the question to you because I relate to characters based on how they’re written, not necessarily their race. If there’s nothing written about them or in their personality that I can relate to, then I just can’t – regardless of race. If there is, then I can, again, regardless of race.

          It’s just interesting to get different standpoints. :)

          P.S. I play a female Shepard because I much prefer the voice actress – nothing else – but I guess you can kind of call strong female protagonists a minority these days, as well. ;)

  • Jack Monahan

    I think making more people of color available is good for everyone, including white players. Perspective taking is one of the finest and yet least utilized strengths of games.

  • http://www.facebook.com/NYCBravado Kareem Abdul

    People
    want to feel like something they’re investing in is as realistic or as
    engaging as possible and many people don’t feel that they can save the
    world quite as solidly as a person of Caucasian descent would.

    • http://dualshockers.com Joel Taveras

      I think you might have opened up a completely different can of worms there, that statement almost runs parallel to the broken window theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broken_windows_theory) which basically says something to the effect that if something is considered the “norm” (in this case, only a person of caucasian descent can save the world) then it’s something you should simply “go” with.

      I think that’s a very unfortunate way of thinking and terrible view of the world.

      Honestly, that comment seems like something Samuel L. Jackson’s character “Stephen” from Django Unchained would say, and I’m not even remotely trying to be funny when I say that.

      • http://www.facebook.com/NYCBravado Kareem Abdul

         Well its not said to allude that white characters are more realistic to me being the savior, but again, there are social norms that are considered to be law. Which is why there are tons of roles constantly on TV, Movies and other forms of popular media that use a Caucasian image as the positive leading role. Now you do have roles like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, James Heller in Prototype or Wei Shen in Sleeping Dogs, these are very few far and between. Racial stigmas are hard to overcome as you already know

        • Juli

          Which is why they need to be challenged with well-written characters of diverse backgrounds/genders/sexualities/etc. When people see someone ‘like me (or them)’ on screen or in a position IRL that moves past stigma and barriers, it opens minds and opens doors. Perceived “norms” can be changed.

  • HLoveMoneyMusic

    Good article! We def have to get with the times & start thinking more out the box. Im still waiting on the day that theres a main character on Final Fantasy thats Dominican, damnit! Lol

  • RandomReduX

    It would be GREAT to see more POC as lead characters in gaming, though I disagree that the onus for this change falls on the shoulders of non-whites – current devs (and their marketing departments ESPECIALLY) need to be more open to the idea of non-white leads, and put more of them in, before we can tell POC that it’s up to them to step it up. I mean really, why would they come to gaming as much as whites, when gaming already makes it clear it’s more interested in whites than anyone else as a focus? It’s already sending the “This Isn’t For You,” message, whether it’s intentional or not (I honestly believe it’s unintentional – just a weird need to ‘play it safe’ by marketing and their focus groups with an unfortunate implication rather than any conscious racism). It’s got to feel extremely alienating at times, to see an industry that overwhelmingly chooses white over anything else. I know that this is a complaint I see echoed in the world of comic books as well. Perhaps when gaming starts to become a more obviously inclusive space, even just a bit more to start, more minorities will be interested in coming into it and then the diversity can continue more and more. 

    And the more people with more varied experiences that we can get working on games can only mean more new ideas in them, and that’s a great thing.

    • http://www.facebook.com/giuseppe.nelva Giuseppe Nelva

      I respectfully disagree. Writers should feel free to write their leads as their creativity dictates, not to satisfy or “include” this or that ethnic group (caucasians included). 

      Which is why having more writers of different ethnicities would probably create more diversified leads without forcing people to write something that is dictated more by political correctness than by their creativity. 
      Personally, though, I never had any problem relating with character of any color, and I tell it as someone whose favorite games feature Asian characters. I can relate MUCH better with Kazuma Kiryu from Yakuza or Wei Shen from Sleeping Dogs than with any Italian (and Caucasian) character featured by the gaming Industry. So yeah, I do find it hard to relate with those that needs a character to match their color in order to feel fully immersed in a game. It’s a character, protagonist of a story that isn’t real, so yeah, obviously that character isn’t me, and won’t look like me. I look boring anyway. 

  • Vetericus

    I’m going to try to reply to ChadAwkerman and a few others but it’s going to take some time.  It’s sometimes difficult for one to explain things in a way that the other person can relate too.

  • bs

    am i the only one seeing the reverse racism here?  you know.. the only real racism that actually exists today. 

    • http://dualshockers.com Joel Taveras

      Please elaborate.

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