This was an excellent essay! Thanks for posting! Diversity matters in popular culture and it’s something we should actively strive for, not something we sort of shrug our shoulders about. That means getting more diversity in the creation process as well as represented in various kinds of popular culture.
Conversations like this benefit from concrete discussion of the actual presence of black women in videogames. The analysis is good, but some survey of the field is called for here in order to ground it in the subject matter. E.g. something like this:
Quite typically for articles of that type, the gamers in the comments section provide a much wider range of games with playable black female characters and show that, while the author was on the right track, they didn’t bother to do a whole lot of research.
In a related vein, I appreciated the Diversity in Gaming look (in one of their YouTube videos) at current character creation screens in popular RPG’s like TES and Dragon Age: Inquisition. This is an interesting area of gaming (and critical race studies) that delivers on a lot of the talk, which has been going on since long before the technology even existed, of “avatars.”
I guess I am an exception, but the games I have been playing usually seem to have playable characters of several races, and plenty of diversity for the ai characters as well. I do hear some criticism that game producers cannot properly portray the experience of people not of their own race, which becomes a sort of circular argument. it becomes some sort of appropriation or stereotyping if they try inclusiveness and fail to meet everyone’s standards, and a different kind of racism if they do not include those characters. I am glad that I am not in the entertainment business.
Excellent essay, with one minor quibble: the Strong Black Woman may be a stereotype, but it’s hardly “derisive.” Simplistic though it may be, it’s a better starting point than the Damsel. Nobody likes escort missions.
I think this is probably partially true, but that can be solved in two ways - greater engagement on the part of people who make video games now in culture that is written by and for black women (in this case). By this I mean, reading books, watching films, etc (fiction and non-fiction) on the lives of black women and taking what those things have to say seriously. Of course, you can’t ever replicate others experiences, but you can come to a greater (if not perfect) understanding by taking what they say seriously. ]
Then, you can work to diversify the production end of gaming - actively seek out POC and women to help make games. And when they are there, actually listen to them and don’t dismiss their unique perspectives on the world, even if they don’t fit their experiences.
Both of these require people to take a humble stance in that they don’t know “the one true way” the world works, and they have to admit that the experiences of other people matter just as much as theirs does. Once again, you can never fully understand other experiences, but there are just too many people unwilling to even attempt to understand.
I think it’s the whole “stereotype that’s positive” thing? Like, a black woman is not a REAL black woman unless she’s like Foxy Brown or whatever. An Asian isn’t a REAL Asian unless they are good at math. Etc. It still denies them the messiness of being fully human, I think is the point the essay makes.
I had a whole response written, realized it didn’t work, and deleted it.
Bbs university should be a thing
We all have something incredibly useful to offer, I think.
It’s the Positive Stereotype thing that always gets me. In comp sci security you are beaten down by looking for stereotypes.
Ack, I need to go watch Bojack.
Yeah, I get that, but “derisive” is still the wrong word.
I think at this point even the SBW stereotype is a step up from the ubiquitous green-eyed, light-skinned, straight-silver-haired, not-really-black fantasy/SF trope the author also brings up. More Michonnes and fewer Neytiris would be a good start, even if they don’t achieve the emotional depth and complexity that every other video game character type also fails to achieve almost all the time.
It’s less emotional depth (which is probably lacking in video games) and more social depth, I’d argue? The point is that the emotional depth is more up to the player projecting themselves onto the characters. But to do so, you need some characters that are believable, yeah?
But I get your point about derisive, to a point.
From what I have seen and read, for some developers and authors it’s used as a cop-out to not have to worry about writing about POC characters - and it’s often the same excuse used for a lack of female characters.
I mean, if you look at most devs or authors, they can write realistic characters when they want to - space rangers, medieval soldiers, superheroes, dwarves, elves, whatever - without experience as that particular character. So it’s really just laziness or recalcitrance on the part of creators to put the effort into realistic POC characters without relying on stereotypes.
LIke @Mindysan33 says, it’s not difficult to make the effort. The effort just needs to be made.
Developers and authors aren’t likely to get criticized by elves or space rangers when they get something wrong about those cultures though.
Putting in the effort to get it right is easier said than done. Here’s one developer’s eventual learning experience: How Kachina Became Donut County
@Mindysan33 hit most of the big points. The best solution is to hire more POC and female developers because they’ll be offering authentic, lived experiences which is the most valuable tool in making diverse characters.
The other is to understand that western society sees whiteness as the default. In fact, I’d argue that this is now a global concept because of imperialism. Mindy touched upon this when she mentioned that minority characters aren’t seen as “real” unless they ascribe to a prescriptive archetype.
Minorities are viewed through a binary lens. An Asian guy is seen as either representative of his entire race or an outlier. A sexless Asian nerd on TV is seen as representing all Asian men. It’s how you expect an Asian man to be portrayed. When an Asian male character who is sexually active and confident comes along, it’s viewed as (1) inauthentic, (2) atypical (“a bad Asian”), or (3) pandering. This is all rooted in the assumption that sexually active Asian men or confident Asian men don’t exist, or rather, they shouldn’t be allowed to exist. Asian workers who display dominance in the workplace are viewed as uppity by their white peers because it doesn’t fit the narrative they have in their heads of how Asians are supposed to act.
Meanwhile, white characters and white people are seen as individuals. None of them are ever avatars or outliers. When you see an awkward white nerd on TV, no one sees a white nerd. They just see a nerd. When you see a white gangster on TV, no one sees a white gangster. They just see a gangster. There’s no inherent racial association with emasculation, criminality, or deviancy when it comes to white characters.
Now, all that said, how do you make interesting minority and female characters? Easy. You write them, first and foremost, as individuals.
I did a Q&A a few weeks back with Scott Alexander, the head writer who handled the Shadow Warrior reboot. I hated the original game when I was a kid. To this day, it’s still one of the most appallingly racist titles I’ve ever played. The original Shadow Warrior derived all its humor by turning Asianness into a minstrel show.
Which is why I was so impressed with how Alexander rebooted the series. Usually when stuff like this gets rebooted, the characters in question get whitewashed (as was the case with The Mandarin in the Iron Man movies), alienated so far from the source material that it might as well be a new character, or completely shelved altogether. The new dev team managed to find that sweet spot of presenting the new Lo Wang as a fully humanized, engaging character without compromising his Asianness.
How’d they do that? Well, they did away with the short hand racial stereotypes used to describe the character. You get shitty characters and stereotyped characters when you build from the outside in.
Who was the original Lo Wang? Well, he was Chinese, he was really good at kung fu, he used samurai weapons, and he was arrogant. If you start building a character that way, then you end up with a snowball of even more problematic traits, so the original Lo Wang was also incredibly sexist (preying into western notions of misogynistic Asian men), arrogant, and macho.
Wild Hog Studios decided to take the opposite approach by building him from the inside first. Okay, so first step, toning down those racially charged yellow peril undertones from a time when the white world thought hordes of Chinese men would rape all the white women and establish a Chinese world order. That absolutely has to go.
But being an arrogant, macho dude is kind of Lo Wang’s appeal, as well as his Asianness. How can you preserve those qualities while keeping him from feeling too over-the-top? Well, you put him down a peg by introducing a companion character who constantly makes jokes at his expense. That way he can’t ever get too cool or macho, and it’s in those moments where Lo Wang’s humanity comes out. You see his inside, not just his outsides.
The new Lo Wang is a bombastic action hero in the John McClane and Bruce Lee sense, but like those heroes, he also deals with personal struggles. Throughout the game, Hoji is speaking through Lo Wang’s head, constantly scrutinizing everything he does. Sometimes he makes Lo Wang feel like an ass, and sometimes he’s surprised when he sees Lo Wang in some moments of vulnerability and tenderness. Lo Wang might be a demon slaying badass, but he still embarrasses himself by messing up simple tasks and feels guilty for letting down his friends. We may not all be demon slaying badasses but everyone can relate to those things.
And to top it all off, Shadow Warrior 2013 turned Asian culture from being the butt of the joke to the central appeal of the game. In 2013 Shadow Warrior, being Chinese is part of why Lo Wang is cool. It’s why his weapons are cool. It’s why the mythology of the world is cool. It’s the same reasoning behind The Boondock Saints – Conner and Murphy are cool because they’re Irish. Their Irishness is never treated as something to demean and laugh at.
True, but as a geek of color, I gotta say, I’m getting pretty sick of fantastic racism. One of the running jokes among game journalists is that videogames are the only medium where you’ll see more orcs, dragons, elves, robots, and aliens than you will women and minorities.
The trope itself is not inherently bad, but it’s just so overdone. Okay, so your game is exploring themes of bigotry and prejudice using make-believe creatures. Yeah, you and 5 other titles this year. Part of this is because the cultural diet of most game designers has been typical geek shit – sci-fi, fantasy, anime, pop action films. That’s why you never see games about sex trafficking or police brutality or domestic abuse, but there’s no shortage of games about a post-apocalyptic world or “the depravity of man” or whatever.
BioShock Infinite came really close. Before release, Ken Levine was bragging about how the game would be exploring all these touchy social themes like Manifest Destiny, systematic racism, religious fanaticism, and American Exceptionalism, all very relevant issues today. Awesome! Then when the game came out, it turns out all that was just advertising fluff. All those themes get completely dumped by the second half of the game when it becomes about infinite universes and different dimensions, so in the end, BioShock Infinite was yet another typical geek game.
Like, it’s insane how we’ve never seen a game like We Are Chicago until now, but I can name a dozen games featuring Space Jews or the Trans-Elven Slave Trade.
Write women and POC characters with the same consideration that’s given to white male characters. Treat them as individuals, which means you’re building them from the inside-out. Often the best way to achieve this is simply hire more women and POC artists.
There is also the issue of geographic lack of diversity. A Japanese writer might have less experience with other races than an American writer would. So they might fall back on writing characters with more or less universal human basic traits, and try to just add a few clues to differentiate the character as a Black woman or whatever. Hopefully, those clues do not turn the character into a stereotype, but there is always a risk of that.
Isn’t that most often because the effort wasn’t there?
I didn’t know you had a significant population of Neanderthals or Denisovans in the US.
Perhaps you meant “cultures”. Now there I would partially agree with you - but I have met far too many monoglot anglophones to want to generalise.
The Shadow Warrior reboot was a great game! (Also, I looked up your interview and really enjoyed it.)
Usually, when I play a game with such spectacularly brutal combat and smooth mechanics, I know in advance that good story has been sacrificed on the altar of action. But really I was surprised by the occasional moments of subtlety that undercut the relatively simplistic if continually enjoyable macho action hero humor. I wasn’t expecting the level of interaction and character development between Lo Wang and Hoji that the game wound up delivering. Hoji actually becoming a fleshed out character with a history and an active, even tragic role in the story…totally refreshing. Maybe Halo’s Cortana was the first character to receive such treatment in recent memory but even she was more of a passive damsel in distress when she became a part of the plot.