Incoming train wreck! CHOO CHOO!
I don’t like to believe in racism.
With all the discussions lately with gaming, with the focus on gun violence and the reliance of gun violence in the entertainment industry as a whole as well as Anita Sarkeesian returning having almost finished her thing about Women in Gaming, raising the issue of sexism again (*shrug*), that some have proclaimed this is also the time to discuss another awkward feature in our medium; racism, or rather, the perceived notion of racism. You do have to wonder what they are on about but even at a casual glance, it’s not hard to find actual examples of this in the gaming world. Lead heroes tend to be predominantly white, whilst enemies tend to be predominantly not-white. Whilst it’s certainly the easiest thing to point at, there are other more troubling examples of this.
For example, Lara Croft. Lara used to be a British aristocrat, a fun-loving rich girl for whom the money was not the point; she had money coming out of her ears, her inheritance more than made sure of that. But more than that, Lara Croft was not white. She was British, and therefore her multi-cultural identity was born; her huge lips, her almond eyes and her skin tone all made sure that you didn’t look at this as one of the first predominant female icons in gaming; she was also one of the first culturally-diverse icons of the era. Angelina Jolie may be fair-skinned, but she had the proper pout to carry off Lara and she looks exotic enough too. However, in recent years something has happened, and it is more notable in the new Tomb Raider than ever before; Lara doesn’t look all that exotic anymore. If anything, I’d dare to suggest that over the years Lara has gone from a fiesty, flirty British toff living for the thrill of the hunt to an angsty, angry, broken white American action-heroine tormented by her daddy’s death and her mommy’s disappearance. It’s not just the colour of course; every aspect of Lara Croft has changed, and I’d say not for the better either, but it tells you something that I can show a picture of the new Lara to people and they ask who it is. Even when I say it’s the new Tomb Raider, it doesn’t click for some people. Lara is an icon, and the new Lara… well, she’s not. Because really, someone has to say it – it’s not really Lara Croft anymore, is it?
There’s another current example of this too – Ada Wong from Resident Evil was always very exotic, and I adore Ada Wong in ways you can’t begin to relate to. First proper, proper gaming crush for me in every single way. Ada is an American woman of Chinese descent and in Resident Evil 2, this was very noticeable. In Resident Evil 4, she was whiter but still exotic and toned enough that you knew that Ada was of Chinese descent, it wasn’t really something that would confuse. In Resident Evil 6 however, she was really, really, REALLY pale. She looked almost too white, to the point of albino, and I found that rather sad. Because Ada’s aloof attitude and exotic demeanour – especially in her often flirty, feminine taste of clothes (In Resident Evil 2 she had a see-through top!) – worked for her cultural descent. This is how even now many fantasise about being treated by someone of that descent, but in Resident Evil 6, Ada was snow-white, and dressed in a not-daring at all pair of leather trousers and a red shirt. The flirty side of Ada appeared to have been culled too, with Ada being more evasive than teasing. Again, it’s a real shame.
But really, is any of this “racist”?
The thing is, for me, racism has to be defined by the real nub of there being ill-intent behind it. Racism is hatred. Racism in the world is the ignorant hate of people of different skin-tones, and really I’m not sure we can define many problems in the gaming world as racism because there is no mean-spirited anger behind it; these are, after all, commercial products and promoting racism would likely see your product banned from sale, because it’s not acceptable to be promoting that kind of thing. No, I don’t think any of this is inherently racist – much as I don’t think there’s anything racist about dividing Japanese servers from US servers for Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate. Realistically, you want communication in an MMO and whilst Square-Enix have obviously tried really hard over the years, Final Fantasy XI Online still stands out as an MMO where everyone from every country can play together and mostly they all segregate themselves into nice, neat little linkshelled boxes. Cross-pollination is there, but rare, and because of this segregation you also tend to get some rather douchey occurrences happening on both sides as they all compete, which inherently leads to some spiteful comments from all parties as to the nature of their opponents. It would be easy for us to suggest that the average American may expect people to talk their own language, but that would be perpetuating another cultural stereotype and it’s not really true, is it?
Perhaps then the problem is something else – racial stereotypes and cultural xenophobia, perhaps?
The obvious example of this in the real world is the sort of tasteless stuff Germany has to put up with from your a-typical British person along the lines of “Two world wars and One world cup!”, that stupid isolation of a country from the obvious breaking down of the cultural barriers in the last few decades. And the reality of this is that every country does this. If anything, we have advanced as a species so much that our cultural identities haven’t really caught up with us yet, and in some cases are still deep-rooted in a strangely archaic fashion into the past.
Japan does this quite obviously – Resident Evil has always been a rather culturally xenophobic sort of game. Everyone in the first game was… white. In Resident Evil 2, the token black guy died very very quickly and turned into a zombie as part and parcel of the shock value. Resident Evil 3 was frankly full of satirical wit, in every way – from the American way of life to Japanese sensibilities. Resident Evil 4, 5 and 6 however did career somewhat into the racism accusations however because of the settings; Resident Evil 4 I think handled it well, Resident Evil 5… well… not so well. I totally understand the whole idea of being in Africa you will see African people whose skin-colour is going to be darker, but all too quickly we descended into this tribal setting where they wore loin-cloths and yeah, it didn’t come off very nicely. I don’t think it was intended to be racist though – it showed a real deep-set ignorance, of course, but racism? It’s not far off, but again, you have to assume ill-intent.
Of course, the Japanese aren’t the only ones at this and nor are the British. The Americans are these days in a class of their own when it comes to this kind of cultural isolation, which is demonstrated in most First-Person Shooters these days. If you’re not American, then you are generally the enemy, and the reliance on cultural and racial stereotypes in order to quickly demonstrate the point can be pretty insulting and degrading. From Africa to Pakistan to the Middle East, India, Mexico and others – it seems no-one is safe from the ideology of the American Dream, which is primarily the problem in such cases; the idea is to bring ‘freedom from oppression’, but is this really the right style of propaganda to use for this? Because Americans get all the sexy guns and the cool toys, as well as bringing their cultural sensibilities with them thinking that everyone should and must think like an American to be free. That’s not really freedom though, is it? That’s actually cultural oppression, and as we’ve seen in real life, this is certainly how many people see America (and the United Kingdom in tow). Not only the gun trade, but the rebuilding work after being sub-contracted out somehow to those not of the country in question, meaning locals end up losing out on work, money and therefore become poorer and more desperate. It’s not nice to say it, of course not, but it’s hardly a secret. This isn’t somehow suggesting that it is racist – just perhaps, culturally and even economically speaking, unacceptable in this day and age.
Of course, I couldn’t talk about Xenophobia in gaming without easily the most pernicious example of it in the industry – exhibit a; Gears of War.
To be honest, there are many horrible things inside Gears of War but gender politics and the 1950′s sensibility of it I will leave to people who have been far, far more scathing than I can ever be. Instead I want to focus on this whole thing between the Locust and the Humans. Seeing as Gears of War plonks you right in the middle of this war, with varying degrees of propaganda from the off, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the Locust who shot first – that it is the Human race fighting for their survival. But such an opinion would arguably be wrong. For you see (having read up on this only to further fuel my actual real dislike of Gears of War), many many years prior to Gears of War, there was a mutation in the Human genome. A mutation that shouldn’t have been, and therefore there was a big cover-up, and these mutants – who were and are the Locust – were driven from the surface by suspicious humans who didn’t trust them because they were ‘different’. Okay, so you have an entire race of people who have come about by a mutation in the gene pool being forced to go underground to somehow make the upper world look nice and human. If that isn’t enough, that you’d force an entirely new species underground because of your prejudices and ignorance, some years later you find the humans are at it again, their new miracle fuel is leaking into the ground – leaking directly into the civilisation the Locust built for themselves, not only destroying countless years of architecture and real estate, but killing tens of thousands and infecting the whole race with a parasitic infection that will ultimately cause them to all lose any semblance of human emotion that they may have had.
And the humans response to this isn’t crippling guilt, it isn’t that revelation that they are the biggest assholes in the universe and that the Locust may genuinely have a bloody good cause to be pissed off and want to war against the human world. Their response isn’t even to negotiate. It’s to fight until you end up with a weapon that effectively destroys the entire race. Yup, in Gears of War, genocide on a global scale is cause for celebration and not one person in the game stops to ask themselves if this is entirely disproportionate or perhaps something that might be the most unbelievable dickmove in science-fiction history. And trust me, there have been many, MANY sci-fi dick-moves over the years, but none quite so brazenly unforgiving as the deus-ex machina in Gears of War 3. It was the point where I simply had to ask what the hell people saw in the game narrative. No-one could sit down, look at this story and think, “That’s a jolly chipper and balanced sci-fi tale I’d love to tell the kids someday!”. It’s just disgusting, abhorrent, vile trashy filth and quite honestly I would rather watch the Twilight Saga start to finish than play a Gears of War game again, because at least the Twilight Saga doesn’t somehow insult every sense of my being – it still insults most of them, but you know, I can scrub that out. Gears of War is a stain on the industry people have convinced themselves is rather good. It’s not. It’s just not, and it’s the perfect example of xenophobia in video gaming. It’s hate-filled propaganda, not just on a conscious level but on a deep-seated cultural level; that Humans must always win, and right and wrong does not apply to us. Of course, some can construe “America must always win and right and wrong doesn’t apply to us!”, but I’d again rather leave that to more professional sorts who can dissect the intricacies of the Gears of War mythos. Preferably whilst wearing rubber gloves. And this is before we get to the racial and cultural stereotypes in the actual cast; Baird is white, loosely-British in a sense coming from a wealthy, moneyed family born with a silver spoon in his mouth and therefore a bit untrustworthy but good repairing stuff. Cole is African-American, a former sportsman (American Football in all but name) with a massive self-inflated ego speaking in street-slang. Marcus is your grizzled American war hero.
I wish I could be making all that up, but it’s all there. If we want to discuss a game this generation which demonstrates everything wrong with our cultural sensibilities, Gears of War is it. Cultural and racial stereotyping, massive xenophobia and guns guns and more guns…
But I didn’t say racist because I don’t believe that Gears of War is racist. Not in any ill-meaning fashion. Again, for something to be inherently racist, for me, it has to have a real core of unpleasantness, that it is its sole intent to insult and offend. Gears of War is unpleasant in many ways, ignorant and nasty yes. But most of this isn’t really because it is a horribly racist game; it’s largely because a lot of this is culturally acceptable in the Western world. We accept racial stereotypes, we have regressed somewhat into an expectation of 1950′s values and we do perceive ourselves to be the only true heirs not to the world, but the universe. In an era people want to discover alien life, where people want to believe we’re not alone in the Universe, it’s our racial isolationist attitude, this superiority complex, this assumption of god-given right to do as we please that ultimately will only ever cause problems if someone decides one day to extend a visit to Earth. As a species, we’re culturally incapable right now of this higher state of thought; we’d want them to teach us how to travel the universe, to make cheap energy, to solve pressing political problems. And if they refuse? Well… hate to break it to the human race as a whole, but in those cases our next step tends to be violence and enslavement. What we can’t get by asking, we take by force.
But maybe I am missing the point. Maybe Gears of War is more of a satire. Perhaps I should accept that it is a reflection of what is bad, rather than being inherently bad itself. Sometimes we can blame the people holding the mirror, rather than what we’re seeing in the mirror itself.
And in an age where our minds are expanding and potentially priming themselves to ascend into a better state of being for us all, our cultural and racial stereotypes, as well as our general isolationism in the world where countries have a little too much pride and not enough common sense to back down, don’t seem to have caught up. It’s like we’re trying to move on with our shoelaces tied together. You’re not going to get far before you fall flat on your face and probably break a tooth in the process. For games to move on, we can’t simply just fix sexism and guns, because then this kind of stereotyping will be even MORE exposed, even more readily there. And people will call it racist, when really, this has been the cultural norm for decades. We’ve tolerated it so long, we’ve watched in soaps as a little Chinese girl disappears with her mother only to return ten years later… well… very white and not at all Chinese. We’ve accepted the token “Black Guy Dies First!” and “British bloke will die or turn evil!” tropes without question. Crying racism now does seem to be a bit late, the horse isn’t in the stable – it bolted a decade ago, and heck knows where it is now. We’ve just hit the point where if we strip everything away, we strip away the guns and the violence and the plot and the dialogue and examine the core components that we’re using in not just video games but in the entertainment industry in general, what we’re left with is something that reeks because we’ve left it go a bit too long; it’s not going to be pleasant to deal with, but deal with it we must.
But we must not complicate the issue by stating this is racism. Because the problem with that tag is that people use it as the means to end a discussion; it’s a Godwin’s Law sort of thing. Once it has happened, there is very little left to do but stop. Because someone has thrown down the race card. It sits there like a big pile of dog poo on a pristine white rug. You can’t really argue with someone who has concluded that something has to be racist, or is racist, because their minds are made up. Whatever you say next is therefore racist. Your justifications are meaningless, your words pointless, because they have played the Racism Card. And that really is a massive problem we have with this whole cultural issue; people would rather play the racism card than to accept that something might just be misguided by sense of culture, or because the writer is religious or because a programmer got a colour shade wrong. We assume the worst and we think we’re doing everyone a favour by saying something is racist, but think about it; racism has to be the actual hatred of other skin-tones. If someone jokingly says “Yo Dawg!” in a thread or topic discussing Snoop Dogg’s appearance in Tekken Tag 2, is that racist? Misguided, perhaps. Silly, yes. Racist? I… I think not.
Can we really ever get rid of these stereotypes? Truthfully, I doubt it. But we can be more aware of them. We can learn that racism isn’t inherently always the same as a stereotype, or a cultural notion, or a joke or a comment. We can relax and enjoy things without being so picky, and yes. Some of us will have issues, because I won’t ever like Gears of War. It’s just not narratively up my alley, so to speak. But I can say it’s unacceptable and tacky and rather horrid without trying to stop people telling me why they like it. Actually, I do like to hear what people see in it. Not because I am merely open to the discussion but because I BELIEVE in the discussion. I believe it’s one worth having. I believe it’s an issue worth talking about.
Anything that stifles the discussion, for me, is the real enemy. Anything that stops us having a decent, serious and good-spirited exchange is ignorant. Racism is ignorance. But the assumption of racism is also ignorant.
And the same can be said of sexism in games, and ageism and a whole lot more. Sometimes we’re a little too eager to assign a post-it note to something, to label and explain it away because we simply don’t have to spend any time dealing with it. We think we’ll deal with it another day – that other day tends to be when it occurs again, where do the same thing. The procrastination is impressive but ultimately, only serves to delay the conclusion and solution. We leave it for the next generation, for the next generation to come up with answers because we can’t think of any better alternatives.
The time to deal with these things is coming, if not already upon us. We may not have the answers… but at least we can then box it away and say we tried. We had a go. We did our best.
Sometimes that is all we can do. And whatever your nationality, skin colour or regional accent, we’re all human beings and we all share this planet. It’s time we stopped being afraid of insulting each other and get down and tackle why we feel the need to even suggest that what we’re about to say may cause offence. And if it is wrong – why do we continue to perpetuate the status quo so?
We need to be careful. I am not offended – I am a mixed-race disabled man in my thirties. I don’t assume people look at my walking stick, or my skin tone. I don’t assume this because I don’t think many people are that inherently cruel or mean-spirited. I like to think people are nice. It’d be horrible to assume prejudice at every turn; I may have anxiety problems, but paranoia is perhaps above and beyond my remit these days. Life is simply too short to assume such things, and shorter still to concern myself about a dying breed of silly intolerant people who refuse to move into the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.
The discussion will be good to have. But only if we can ensure by discussing it, we can ensure that people don’t stifle it. Uncomfortable truths will come up. Awkward questions may be asked. Acceptance can be hard but letting it rot further will only cause issues further down the line.
If we’re going to discuss what is wrong in video games, let’s do it and be open about it – it may not go away, much like I doubt guns in games will somehow disappear, but we can at least reach a point where we’re talking about it and willing to accept the notion that we may need, universally on all fronts, to culturally grow up a little bit.
We have to face it sooner or later. Let’s do so with an open mind, and leave those race cards in a locked box buried six foot underground.
Even that would be progress.