Why do developers rely on outdated and offensive stereotypes to represent non-white and female characters?
Recently, Ubisoft revealed cover art for the latest instalment of their successful Far Cry series and it was met with a less than enthusiastic reception. Depicting a rich, fair skinned man atop a throne with his hand placed on a submissive, darker skinned man’s head, the cover art was the final straw for many in the gaming world given the the pervading lack of diverse and non-stereotypical representation.
Whereas mainstream gaming used to be filled with a creative array of characters to play, from blue hedgehogs to female archaeologists, the new releases of recent years have featured the same macho white male over and over again. Arguably blockbuster films are guilty of the same trend but gaming, by it’s very nature, is an intensely personal experience and therefore major companies’ failure to stop whitewashing is all the more upsetting. Similarly, the lack of female main characters, considering the size of the female gaming community, seems a lazy attempt to appease an upcoming generation of white male gamers who have never had to identify with anything other than an avatar of themselves.
Taking what is currently the most prevalent franchise as an example, Call of Duty really epitomises the problem. Despite the franchise having been around since 2003 it is only with the release of Call of Duty: Ghosts earlier this year that there are finally playable women in multiplayer. While the decision to make gender an entirely aesthetic choice with no affect on gameplay is a commendable one, as many people have pointed out, it is questionable that playable dogs came before playable women. Moreover, executive producer Mark Rubin’s excuse that their reason for only just introducing playable women is that their engine couldn’t handle it is an exceptionally poor one.
But why are large gaming companies pushing these cookie cutter main characters? White males are the main demographic of gamers, as can be clearly demonstrated by a cursory glance at game history, and playing as an avatar of oneself can be fun but it is not integral to immersion. Take the most successful game franchise of all time: is Mario’s success indicative of a large Italian plumber demographic? No, they’re simply very well made games.
Obviously, making a great game isn’t actually that simple. Independent game developer Steven Burgess points out that “the main character typically gives you an instant sense of what the game is about, how it might play, what type character you are … half of the marketing for the game is done before anyone gets to play it”. Therefore, character trends are likely borne out of companies wanting to make their game’s content immediately identifiable and, owing to the first person shooter currently being the most successful game type, explains why burly blokes currently dominate the character pool. While this makes perfect business sense it seems decidedly uncreative for one of the most creative modern mediums.
However, as Burgess also highlights, Assassins Creed has made an interesting leap away from this trend. Considering that the game series is synonymous with “casting the usual angst, white male it chose recently to tell the story from the perspective of a half Mohawk, half British protagonist” and was still a profitable, mainstream release. This shows that game companies can give players more credit for being a discerning audience and have more inclusive characters without incurring a detrimental effect on their game or its success.
A mixed race main character is of particular significance considering the recent Far Cry furore. To some the reaction to the image may have appeared to be a disproportionate knee-jerk however it is a reaction to years of people of colour being omitted or relegated to supporting and tokenistic characters. Whereas characters like Jade from Beyond Good and Evil and Jacob from the Mass Effect series are well characterised and not governed by their ethnic background, characters like these are few and far between. Often the only opportunity a player has to play as a non-white race is when the player character is customisable. Naturally, therefore, when a diverse fan-base is presented with yet another poor depiction of themselves they react with the full force of years of frustration.
A similarly frustrating rarity is a non-sexualised female character (of which the aforementioned Jade is an example). So many female characters exist only as goals to be won or commodities to be trampled on. Undoubtedly, this is indicative of a larger societal problem but it would seem that video games, due to their displacement from reality, can push the boundaries to worrying places. The worst culprits are games like Dead or Alive (putting most of its effort into breast gyros) and the gross Ride to Hell: Retribution. These instil the notion that girls in games equal sex and little else. An MMORPG player said that she had been left “feeling betrayed and disempowered” when her characters would act in a sexual and titillating way if stood idle and there are similar stories of embarrassment and disappointment all over the female gaming community. There are exceptions to the rule; FemShep from Mass Effect and the latest incarnation of Lara Croft are both intelligent, interesting, female main characters. They are sexy but unlike most of their counterparts they are in control of their sexuality and this makes for an infinitely more rewarding player experience.
Thankfully, things seem to be getting better – if only very slowly. A wealth of homogenised mainstream games still exist but the Far Cry controversy is a clear message to the gaming industry to be more attentive to diversity. No doubt there will always be a market for macho white men and half-naked women but these portrayals should not be the majority, and for once some companies seem to be in agreement on this. Only last month, Manveer Heir (a Bioware gameplay designer) spoke at the Games Development Conference on misogyny, racism and homophobia making it clear that games had a “social responsibility to mankind” to represent people in an accepting and progressive way. He got a standing ovation. We can only hope this attitude makes it out of the conference room and into gameplay because true representation is so desperately called for and long overdue.
Images; Ubisoft, Activision, Take Two Interactive