“I have a dream! I have a dream, that one day, black and ethnic minorities will no longer be represented in videogames by overtly offensive caricatures using sloppy racial stereotypes, but that they are portrayed as the fine, good, upstanding characters they are, with dignity and integrity. An integrity lost when this feature’s headline was drafted.”
Take a second to let the headline sink in. Yes, one of history’s most-revered equal rights campaigners has been unashamedly attached to a blog post about computer games. It’s been 50 years since Martin Luther King made the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech and already I’m whoring out his memory.
Offended? Don’t be. It’s no more repulsive than saying, “What would Jesus do?” Or, “How would Germaine Greer react?” That said, MLK tends to stand head and shoulders above fictional characters and naggy botherers of the phallocentric establishment. Dignity hasn’t been totally jettisoned by using Martin Luther King’s good name. It’s valid on the most superficial level.
Let’s talk racism in videogames. Here I’ll highlight cases of blatant racial profiling and stereotyping in current generation titles that are in danger of finding their way onto the next iteration of consoles, in the 21st century.
1. Resident Evil 5:
Capcom’s much anticipated and wholly disappointing Resident Evil 5 was never going to fly the flag of equality in videogames. In 2009, Chris Redfield, white man and founding agent of the UN paramilitary group Bio-terrorism Security Assessment Alliance (or S.H.I.E.L.D., sorry BSAA), found himself in Africa gunning down infected hordes, many of them black. There would’ve been more native black folk if developers hadn’t gauged public opinion late in the day and decided to throw a few out-place-place caucasians into the melting pot, no doubt there on a gap year helping out at the local orphanage. As you chain one graphically exploding cranium to the next you’re inclined to dismiss Chris’ cries of, “THE NATIVES ARE HOSTILE!” as factual statements. As it turns out, this is just one of the games’ offences of insensitivity.
Resident Evil 5 depicts an outbreak of Plaga, a fictional parasite that transforms hosts into strong, weapon wielding crazies. Though it manifests itself very differently many parallels have been drawn between Plaga and a very real world international human health catastrophe – HIV and AIDS. The Resi’s solution to dealing with this outbreak? Total annihilation. Only each Plaga-filled flesh bag represents an Earthly link to a disease that has ravaged the African continent for decades.
Some critics highlight a hypocrisy in labelling Resi 5 as racist on the basis that gamers are asked to put bullets in black people when previous titles feature almost exclusively white (Resident Evil 1-3) or hispanic (Resi 4) aggressors. But inclusion in this manner is not justification. Not when black people have suffered years of discrimination, oppression and slavery in The US, Redfield’s homeland, long before (and after) MLK walked the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Unfortunately the introduction of Chris’ black sidekick Sheva only infuriated observers further who dismissed it as patronising and insensitive. Stick to zombies Capcom. Always stick to zombies.
2. Deus Ex: Human Revolution:
Letitia is a bum. Often found rummaging through Detroit’s public bins, she has a suspiciously in-depth knowledge of the city’s sewage system (perfect if you’re looking to break into a restricted area) and she knows exactly how to get her hands on unlicensed firearms. All this information is for sale. The go-to undesirable can be bought for cash and alcohol. Tish’s biggest crime though is that she’s black. Eidos Montreal decided to burden her with the thickest Southern drawl and the type of inflexions that would be at home in a Tarantino Spaghetti Western.
Innovation and the infinite item library make Scribblenauts a unique joy. Its charming, cartoon wrapping pushes the game into the realms of education; a problem solving experience for children. I’ve spent hours with my nieces and nephew helping Max cross bodies of water, boosting him up dizzying heights and guiding him through police academy and firefighter school. But Scribblenauts is also for me.
When I conjure a zombie to devour a burglar and the devil to flame the undead, then God to vaporise Beelzebub and finally an atheist who dispels Our Lord, the kids look very confused at the sight of happy tears are streaming down my face. I wore the same confused expression when I first used the term Sambo (as an experiement) in the game. Sambo is a derogatory term for a black person. Sambo generate a watermelon. Black NPCs have been known to chase down the fruit until Max hands it to them to scoff before falling asleep. Don’t worry. I served up chicken, rice and peas as a main.
4. Call of Juarez: The Cartel:
This cowboy shooter is one of the worst racist offenders of this generation and so is the franchise that has the most cleaning up to do if it wants to be taken seriously on the new platforms. The Cartel takes place against the backdrop of a Mexican drug war. An ideal opportunity to cast some strong hispanic characters but instead Techland go the other way and lazily pander to racial stereotypes. The game’s crimes against minorities are numerous.
At one point the player has to lay waste to wave after wave of black and latino enemies to the point of feeling a complete disconnection from the human atrocities being committed and the foot-soldiers are relinquished of every shred of humanity. The Cartel then turns this mini-genocide into a badge of honour. In one level “our hero” is fighting his way through a slum instigating gang warfare as he goes. At this point there’s an achievement for killing as many natives as possible. Despite all this mindless, super-offensive violence Call of Juarez: The Cartel does attempt to comment on a very serious issue – sex trafficking and slavery. Unfortunately its version of this heinous practice, where white folk are traded among rich Mexicans, is not necessarily how it works in the real world.
5. The Legend of Zelda:
27 years. That’s how long Nintendo fans have turned a blind eye to one of the most embarrassing depictions of a minority in videogame history. Since the birth of the Zelda series, Link, another white man, has always fought Ganondorf. The main antagonist in Nintendo’s most famous action adventure franchise is normally always the culprit behind the abduction of Princess Zelda. No biggy. Every good story needs a villain. Unfortunately, Ganondorf, or Ganon, is a racist stereotype, and no, it’s not just because he is black (or dark green according to Wikipedia). It’s because he is the head of an entire culture, a culture of people, an entire race, written into the Zelda universe as criminals and thieves. Perhaps Nintendo believed making them enchanted thieves would magically make this profiling more acceptable. It should take more than slight of hand to distract from the racial stereotypes so lavishly applied to Ganon’s character but it seems Nintendo fanboys have been under a spell for over a quarter of a century.
Features including “What Would Jesus Do? Five Videogame Portrayals of Christianity” and “How Would Greer React: Five Sexiest Sexist Moments In Gaming History” coming soon.
Got an example of racism in videogames you think should highlighted? How many sexist moments in gaming can you list? Let me know in the comments box below.
Dean Samways // @Deanways
- The best videogame stories ever (gamesradar.com)
- No More Helpless Damsels: One Gamer’s War on Sexism (wired.com)
- Suda 51 on originality, videogame sexism and next gen development (edge-online.com)