I know the first thought most people will have reading this: “What does a middle class white male with a Master’s Degree know about racism and diversity?” And you would partially be right; I do not have a lot of experience with racism first hand. I have not had to deal with racism as an integral part of my life. But you would also be wrong, though not in the way you expected.
Peggy McIntosh wrote a great essay talking about white privilege, and it hits very close to home.
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
It is a very true statement, and applies to the video game community in a heavy way. It was something I never really noticed for a very long time, because I was taught not to recognize white privilege; which in this instance was all the white influence in video games.
Well, I am standing up right now and demanding better diversity within video games.
Not because of a “holier than thou” cause.
Not because I want to see everyone equally represented (even though I do).
Not because it will increase the player base of gamers in the world, and promote inclusivity (but it will).
Not because I want to see people with different skin colors in games (one sided diversity).
To me, it’s never been about that, at all… It’s not about fairness, it’s not video game affirmative action. It’s about actually pushing our medium to make better games, to tell better stories in our games.
That’s what I’m talking about. Sure, diversity is the right thing to do for many moral reasons, and reasons of equality, but everyone can get behind the idea of better stories within games. There are thousands, if not millions, of narratives and ideas that can still be told in the video game world; let’s open up and find out what those are.
Create a discourse and move the world forward. Unpack your knapsack.
The inherent racism of developers
“But Jacob!” you say, “I don’t see this racism you’re talking about. Games have ideas ranging from historical settings all over the globe, to the completely fantastical!” You would be partially correct. The answer is not a simple one though, so bear with me.
One of the biggest issues I see with racism and diversity within games is not the people within games, but the developers and designers of games. As I stated before, it is not conscious racism, it is not the racism associated with the pre-1960s in the U.S. (Separate But Equal), and the civil right’s protests. It is racism that is blind in one eye, and partially uneducated. I will show you an example of what I am talking about. (quick note: I am not calling developers racist, I am trying to point out a subconscious pattern of thinking that [almost] all of us have)
Mists of Pandaria
Can you see it? The inherent racism here is not in the actual design in this picture. I think it is great that designers are looking to other cultures for aesthetic design. The problem is that of all the characters and everything else that exists within this game (in this case, World of Warcraft), there is not one person in the game that is Asian. Even the “Humans” within the game do not have an option to have Asian features. (Pandarens do not count, give me a break) Explain to me how you can import this amount of Asian culture into a game, and ignore the people? Sure, it may seem like a minor thing, but who cares about sitting in the front or back of the bus? I think that this subtle concept is what Peggy McIntosh is talking about with her essay.
Here is the counter argument that is going to come up right away: “But WoW is a fantasy world, and has all kinds of races that aren’t even human!”
Sure, but they are all still inherently white. Or, if not, they are stereotypical of another race or culture in an almost offensive way. “But that is ok! It is just a video game!” Wrong. That just perpetuates the cycle and nothing gets better. Diversity (especially sexual diversity), is very lacking in WoW and other games.
Why are dwarves stereotypical Scotsmen that drink too much, with a Scottish accents and kilts?
Why are trolls stereotypical “Jamaicans”, with their Voo-Doo and accents?
I cannot count the number of times goblins have been called the “Jersey Shore” of WoW, especially with their starting zone.
2 out of those 3 examples are even racist to a sub-culture of white people. It is racism within the white race (which in itself is a generalization).
If you want a quick video to get an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a great one from the Extra Credits crew at Penny-Arcade. Or go read a book about it (Chapter 4).
Now, I realize that all of the traits of these races are a part of WoW lore, and I am not suggesting they change right now, I am just pointing out the inherent biases that a predominantly white video game community has when trying to create diverse games and story lines. It is actually good game design considering the current gaming demographics; it has been proven that people like to play games that reinforce their self image. The problem is, if we (the gaming community) are only reinforcing the self-image of one select group of people, we are excluding everyone else. If the gaming industry would like to keep growing, that means different gaming populations. Which means diversity. Plus, we want to be inclusive here, amirite?
It is not something that will change overnight, but it needs to be talked about and discussed. It needs to be in the light of day, and it needs to be improved upon. Big props for the community at Guild Wars 2 and their Blog Carnival on Diversity. This is a great step, and more of the communities should be doing things like it.
Here is another example of a game moving the racial dialogue forward. The new Assassin’s Creed game (3) will feature a minority hero; a Native American that belongs/belonged to the Mowhawk/Kanien’kehá:ka. I am sure there will be some things about the portrayal that will be completely accurate and racially sensitive. Other things in the game will probably be on the opposite end of the spectrum. But, they are moving the conversation forward. Taking risks, expanding story possiblities, and reaching out to new audiences. Good for them. I will be buying this game just to see the story and how it works (even though I love AC 1 and only played 10 minutes of AC 2 because of boredom, this story change has guaranteed my purchase of AC3).
Racism within games
This needs to be mentioned briefly, but I will not pay much attention to it because it detracts from my main point; the racism within the community of gaming. The players themselves are the worst offenders, but that is a post for another day because it touches on many larger issues.
(Aside: If you are one of those people that shouts hurtful/racist things online or in games, calling people “f*g” or “n*gger”, I will call your ass out. every. time. That shit is not cool.)
The long tl;dr
As an individual, I may not be the best person to talk about diversity or racism because of my background, but I do not think that should matter. The discussion needs to happen, and I will step up to the plate and take my chances with it, even if I get hit by the pitcher. Everyone else can walk around with their invisible knapsack; I want to unpack mine.
Do you have any other examples that fall inside these lines? What about suggestions to improve diversity within the gaming world?
Everyone in the game industry needs to have the courage to stand up and create diverse games, and to play diverse games.
Ding! You’ve leveled up! Please see your local librarian for training!
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