Minority Report: Breaking Away From the White Video Game Protagonist

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?

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.]

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