I’d like to address something near and dear to my heart: issues and concerns with depictions of minorities in video games. The thesis around which most of my assumptions, claims and issues are based is this: Video games take many cues from cinema in terms of presentation, structure and characterizations. Bioware in particular is a prime example of this. In being so influenced by cinema developers take on a lot of the same trope baggage cinema at large does in dealing with issues of sex and sexuality, race and gender. The attempts at diversity are mostly typical of the affirmative action diversity common on TV and in movies and rarely attempt to do anything new. I can understand taking babysteps, but come on, we’ve been taking baby-steps for going on 20 years now. Grow up.
Primarily my focus is on RPGs and sandbox games because these should be the driving force for diversity in terms of particularization. Early RPGs such as Ultima, which drew inspiration from Dungeons & Dragons - one of the most customizable RPGs around, offered at least something in the way of diversity be it NPCs or customization options. Obsidian, and their precursor Black Isle Studios, hasn’t done poorly either, having fairly diverse casts. The original Fallout’s were meant to have alternate races available for the Vault Dweller which were cut due to budget constraints. Their characterization and writing has also always been excellent. Veronica in Fallout: New Vegas for example is a great, well written character. A similarly presented character is Cortez in Mass Effect 3, and I thought in that instance Biowar did a great job in dealing with few short scenes about dealing with the grief over the loss of his husband. But like anything it’s been a process, and a fairly slow one that has not been without faults. In my Fallout post I touched on how a specific problem with the Slavers in 3 is mirrored by a similar issue in Black Isle’s Fallout 2 with Vault City.
I’d like to address this post by David Gaider on the Bioware forums about the lack of black characters in DAO:
There are indeed black people in Thedas— the Rivaini have skin tones ranging from dark tan to ebony. You’ll find them scattered in various places. As to whether or not we would ever have a party member who was Rivaini, we’ll see. I don’t think we would include it just for the sake of including it. As a character concept, representation of a real-world ethnic group is pretty weak if that’s all it is. Source
I’m going to address the first claim with this selection of pictures:
NOW LET’S COMPARE THESE TO THE FIRST PAGE OF A GOOGLE SEARCH SHOWING RESULTS FOR THE KEY WORDS “ebony skin”:
They got dark-tan down I guess. Sort of. But there’s nary a single character in the game who I could use ‘ebony’ as the adjective to define their skintone. Even putting aside the skin-tone issue, you can’t even make a character who has particularly African features, which I’m assuming is a conscious choice on the part of the developer because there are no people with African features. I should also note that Bioware’s games also have lighting issues that make it seem a character is darker in one setting (particularly the character generation screens) but in the more open, outdoor areas they’ll be two or more shades lighter.
NOW, addressing the later point; that’s a bullshit excuse. That’s fine and dandy you don’t want tokenism. But it sounds like he thinks inclusion has to have some ulterior motive behind it, or else why would anyone want to see dark-skinned characters? Like the only reason you can introduce jew-familiar race is if you’re making some statement about the holocaust, or blacks and slavery, any indigenous american group and genocide, etc..
You want, nay, need a reason? How about doing it to design against Whites as being the Default Human in RPGs? Just because something is inclusive in terms of culture or ethnicity does not make race an issue any more than it was when it was an all-white cast. Part of writing is creative thinking, and if the only way you can work in inclusion is to have it just for inclusion and so you make excuses to defend yourself, that’s on you.
I would like to direct and quote this article referencing the same thread, detailing some abysmal community management by former, thankfully-fired, “Quality Assurance Analyst” Stanley Woo:
A player on the official Dragon Age 2 discussion boards posted the following question yesterday:
Do we know if DA2 will have a better range of racial diversity? I was dissapointed that Dragon Age, a game that seem to use elves as an allegory for black slavery and the treatment of native Americans lacks any black or asian people. That and it’s a fictional fantasy world that’s not based on anywhere specific so it just seems thoughtless to the point of discriminaton to not include other ethnicities. Not to mention that the character creator doesn’t really let you make a black or asian character with its messed up colour settings.
Will this be changed for DA2?
It’s a legitimate question. One that many of our readers have commented on here at the Border House. Regardless of Dragon Age’s inclusiveness with gay characters, the game is not racially diverse in any fashion. Stanley Woo, who appears to be a Quality Assurance employee at Bioware responded to this question.
In response to elves as a metaphor for black slavery:
It can also be an allegory for the Jews, North-American Japanese during WWII, the poor, the Romani, Yu-Gi-Oh players or any other peoples segregated and ghettoized for reasons other than race. :p
In response to the world being fictional:
We should include all real world ethnicities into a fictional fantasy world why, exactly? How does it fit into our fantasy setting, or are you trying to tell us what our fantasy setting should look like in order to be “fair”?
According to this guy it’s my/our job to write their story.
In response to changing the character creator to allow a wider variety of races in characters:
You should probably play the game to find out. i have not yet met anyone who disliked a game because of “lack of racial diversity.” Most folks will concentrate on story and gameplay, but what do I know? That’s just my opinion.
Wait, what? First of all, you are representing your company Stanley Woo – it’s not “just your opinion”. Your argument that most people play Dragon Age because of story and gameplay and not because it is inclusive goes against everything we believe at The Border House. Has Dragon Age not received praise for allowing same-sex relationships within the game? Has BioWare not been known as a more inclusive RPG storytelling company? I was under the impression that diversity is actually quite important for BioWare based on their previous titles. Sure we play your games because the stories and gameplay are particularly impressive, but we have applauded you in the past for making decent attempts at inclusiveness in that story and gameplay.
Your sarcastic commentary about how elves could be an allegory for Yu-Gi-Oh players? Really? That’s how you professionally respond to concerns involving race in your game? This is why companies have Community Managers to do the talking.
See, there’s unwitting, then there’s unwilling, and more and more it seems in large part that companies such as Bioware are grouped up with the latter more than the former. Inclusion doesn’t stop at allowing depictions of sexualities, religions, and whatever else that you don’t share in common. The problem with tokenism isn’t that it’s inclusion for the sake of inclusion, it’s inclusion for the sake of claiming there is diversity. Tokenism by defined by the desire to create the appearance of diversity; real diversity comes from having more than just 1 or 2 black, asian, gay or hispanic character, instead having a wide sampling of all the above and beyond.
My primary concern with sandbox games is that they are either ignorant of the part they play in this or else indifferent, but, really, it applies to almost any game that has any sort of character customization. Having White’s as the human default isn’t just a problem in the characterization of NPC’s but also the player character. in most RPG games that allow hair to be customized you have no options for afro-centric hair styles. You could argue for some games, like Mass Effect, that it’s because a setting thing. “Sheppard is a military woman so it doesn’t make sense for her to have an afro.” Ashley and numerous other human females can walk around with a full head of hair longer than most other women in the game though and no one bats an eye. The difference is their hair is straight.
The real reason has to do with how natural curly hair is seen as unprofessional, unkempt, dirty, unacceptable, undesirable, etc etc.. Chris Rock’s ‘Good Hair’ that addresses this in part as do many other works detailing the specifics of hair politics, but the long and short is that the hair of those of afro-descent is very much tied in to feelings and expressions of worth and acceptance, especially in places of business. The history of how hair is treated among those of afro-descent is rooted in assimilating and conforming to a white standard of beauty. Intentional or not, by denying players the option to play characters who don’t look like their European counterparts these games are promoting and reinforcing that same assimilation. In a previous post about Fallout 3 I aired similar concerns about the lack of immersion when it came to hair selections for characters and will note that in Fallout New Vegas, Obsidian has an afro hair option available for use. It’s a nice start and I appreciate the inclusion, but it’s still only one hairstyle among more than a dozen others.
Secondly, skin pigmentation [tone]. All of Bioware’s games simply do not allow you to play traditionally black looking characters past a certain point. The very best they give you is a strange, tannish concoction that I don’t even know what it’s supposed to be.
This does not look black to me. Yes, it could be black; Black people come in just about every shade of skin possible, but if you’ll note that slider is all the way over. You can’t get any darker than this, effectively, and it’s a problem persistent in every Bioware game I’ve played. If you mod DA:O to have custom skintones to allow for darker ones, you can see that the skin textures were NOT created with PoC in mind at all: You end up looking like you’ve got some really, really bad acne and some kind of fungal growth all over your face, and your skin won’t change to the proper color unless you’re wearing certain armors. I’ve not tried modding DA2, and I’ve not found any similar mods for ME, but I imagine it would be much the same.
It’s a tradition in visual media that people of color (specifically women) have to be a certain lightness of skintone to be acceptable for casting in certain roles. PoC come in more than just the lightest paper-bag shade of brown you see on TV and in movies but Bioware and any many other developers consistently do not give you the option of playing a dark skinned character. Why? Would it really be so bad if Hawke/Sheppard were dark like Aïssa Maïga? Would it take anything from the character?
I emphasize again, though, these issues are problems with games and popular media in general - not Bioware alone. This is why I keep bringing up cinema and how games are similar to them in how they present themselves: most games take cues from movies. Look at the Modern Warfare series whose campaign largely plays out like a B-Grade action movie, or Heavy Rain who’s entire gameplay premise is basically a continuation of the Interactive Movies of the mid-late 90s. The storytelling path might not be the same but both are approached from the same angle and have many of the same flaws. A somewhat ironic fact is that Asian-made games have been far better about giving you the option to play darker characters with options for natural or styled afro-hair. Dragon Dogma, an RPG by Capcom which came out quite recently, has a fairly diverse set of options for character creation that allows for dark skinned characters of varying heights and builds, although not on a slider system like other RPGs.
I really hope someone from Bioware or Bethesda or Obsidian will see this and sit down with the creative team to address these problems. I hope other game developers see this and think about how inclusion ties into the concept of their games because, frankly, most people don’t think about it. I’ve made suggestions to several independent game developers that they diversify the options in their character creation systems to allow for People of Color to see at least some representation because more often than not the white default is all that occurs to people. I’ve never heard a single “Oh, well that’s in the works.” or “Our art guys are working on that already.” - pretty much always the thought of adding a brown-skinned sprite never occurred to them. And that’s not even bringing up hair.
Dealing with inclusion of PoC as characters in sandbox games – or any game with elements of character generation – isn’t that dissimilar to dealing with inclusion and diversity in most other types of media. The primary concern should be that no matter what the Player creates to represent himself or the character he is controlling they feel as though they are part of the world of the game. I can’t help but find myself less immersed in a story set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland when every person of afro-descent is chemically straightening their hair (or worse, all have permanently straightened hair somehow).
Diversity cannot just stop at including a few black, hispanic or asian characters, and/or including one or two afro hairstyles. It has to be about portraying and treating them with the same sensitivity, thought and attention as every white character they’ll be playing beside. You don’t need to go the Star Trek route with campy cultural sensitivity that was edgy 30++ years ago. There just needs to be carefule thought and consideration put into how a character would be seen within the context of the whole picture.
I’m writing this because I’m scared to play my games because I don’t want to be reminded of the problems I have with them and feel guilt at enjoying them the way they are. I want to remember them the way I did when I first turned them on and absorbed myself in the imaginary world and the story of my character(s). But that was then, and now I have reservations and feelings of guilt about playing these games without having my problems aired out and potentially addressed. No matter what any detractors may say this is a problem that needs to be addressed at some point if developers like Bioware want to be as inclusive as they say they are.