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Escapism or Realism: Tackling Racial Bias in Gaming

Should mainstream games depict ideal inclusion or real oppression?

Racism is real. It’s a systemic problem that has yet to truly leave society. While political leaders speak of equality and unity on the podium, the streets are still an unwelcome place for both people of color and individuals whose idea of love strays from the imposed norm. And while games have shied away from depicting prejudice and bigotry in the past, a few outliers have dared to tread uncharted territory by putting players in the shoes of the oppressed. Or those of the oppressor.

But even these well-meaning creators grapple with how to approach discrimination. Should videogames stick to a level playing field that offers a glimpse of a society cleansed of its differences? Or should they confront the matter by letting the player experience racism as a consistent pinprick in their conscience? Picking the latter means having to walk a tightrope between explicit and implicit forms of intolerance as well. It’s a conundrum that could rattle a AAA developer who is already rushing to hit deadlines.

It’s a difficult subject, one that can be approached in a multitude of ways with varying degrees of representation factored in. No approach is perfect but in 2020, game developers cannot pretend like these divides don’t exist. And while token gestures are better than nothing, developers need to adopt this inclusive approach in every facet of the game development process. There’s more to it than statements advocating for the Black Lives Matter movement and the LGBTQ+ community. It’s about taking the veil off something that has been intrinsic to how society sees individuals and reacts to differences. And with that, let’s see how games have fared in the past and not-so-distant past.

Fantasy has always been home to races categorized into good and evil. Source: Dungeons & Dragons.

Glow in the Dark — Tolkien/Dungeons & Dragons

What does it mean to be evil?

In fantasy narratives, your race had a lot more to do with being evil than your intentions did. While Tolkien’s works are commendable for bringing fantasy to the spotlight, it did so with races that were characterized as villainous or noble by birth. In The Lord of the Rings, hideous orcs did little more than rip human limbs and curse their cohorts. They were outsiders good enough to make the heroes look formidable while being no more than disposable cannon fodder. Where do little orcs come from? Are orcs not entitled to love and emotions besides anger? I’d ask the female orcs but they never show up.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Tolkien. But cooking up a race that is evil by default isn’t the best way to create compelling antagonists. While the best villains are the ones you can relate to, narratives have seldom given players reasons to empathize with orcs and other supposed dark races. As with every trope, there are outliers. R. A. Salvatore’s depiction of the dark elf Drizzt Do’Urden in The Crystal Shard struck the right chord with Dungeons & Dragons players. He strayed from the perception fantasy readers had about dark elves, leaving his homeland and becoming a misunderstood outsider. An unflinching resolve and moral values guide his every decision.

“You chastise him for the crimes of his race, yet have none of you ever considered that Drizzt Do’Urden walks among us because he has rejected the ways of his people?”

Excerpt from R.A. Salvatore’s The Crystal Shard, set in the D&D universe.

“In fantasy, you embody evil in a race, and then you disembody it with your sword, and that’s also what mankind has done through the centuries, right? By dehumanizing the enemy so you don’t feel bad about killing them. But that’s just blatantly immoral when you get right down to it, and yet I love fantasy. So that’s the paradox I had to deal with.”

Excerpt from an interview with R. A. Salvatore by Lightspeed Magazine.

Fortunately, games are moving away from this concept of darkness. Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast promises to inject some much-needed diversity into its famed tabletop fantasy experience with a couple of notable additions. Races that were once plot vehicles are now just as culturally and morally complex as their fairer counterparts. And today, game universes have gone beyond these one-dimensional representations of distinct races.

One step for an orc, one giant leap for orc-kind.

Orcs and humans can be friends too. Source: Blizzard.

Art of WarCraft — WarCraft III

Here’s how WarCraft III begins. It’s no surprise that this game has one of the best narratives ever to grace a strategy game, despite releasing in 2002.

“Somewhere in the Arathi Highlands, Thrall, the young warchief of the orcish Horde, wakes from his troubling dream.”

Despite being knee-deep in undead and dragon lore, WarCraft III still gleams with values mirrored from the real world. Right off the bat, you can tell that Blizzard is taking orcs seriously. The orc isn’t angry or hungry. He is troubled. Thrall’s got more than the two brain cells his precursors possessed. The way he carries himself amidst the shamanistic orc society is equal parts measured contemplation and resolute nobility. Thrall is as complex and moved by his moral compass as any human or elf.

Instead of the barbaric warmonger trope that fantasy writers tend to adopt, orcs are free-people turned victims in the WarCraft universe. They are effectively slaves to human-kind at one point. They eventually break free but fight for honor rather than sheer bloodlust. Thrall even joins forces with humans in their fight against demonic conquerors who had temporarily infested his green-skinned companions. The demons were the real reason behind the orcs’ slavery, not a wanton rampage from the folks in green. And while this is certainly a hoof in the right direction, even Blizzard isn’t exempt from mistakes.

The Horde faction from World of WarCraft. Source: Blizzard Entertainment.

Off to the Races — World of WarCraft

WarCraft is home to numerous races, from the bog-standard human to the hulking Tauren tribes. In stark contrast to the social constructs in real life, races are real in the WarCraft universe. And while things seem cohesive on the surface, racism is more than skin deep. In the name of diversity, Blizzard ends up tying a lot of things to biology. Even morality at times. For instance, dwarves are stoic by nature and orcs don’t entirely let go of their vicious past inherited from Tolkien. This topic alone merits an article and fortunately, someone did do the research.

An article published by Melissa J. Monson shines some much-needed light on how World of WarCraft treats its races. Diversity has the potential to let players detach the thought of race from the body, making them rethink the very concept of what a race means from a human standpoint. But unfortunately, design choices that were originally meant to promote cultural diversity end up reaffirming real-world assumptions of racial superiority. Despite having the option to pick the skin color of your character, white human characters outnumbered black ones by 12:1 in Monson’s 2012 study. And while the game is moving from its encumbered past, it is still a point worth examining.

“Among other things, race determines alliances, language, intellect, temperament, occupation, strength, and technological aptitude. The cultural representation of the respective racial groups in WoW draws upon stereotypical imagery from real-world ethnic groups (American Indian, Irish/Scottish, Asian, African, etc.).”

Excerpt from Essentialism in the World of Warcraft.

Lovable traits don’t have to be genetic

Adding insult to injury is World of WarCraft’s racial trait system. While it sounds like a novel way to distinguish between races and effectively offer identity tourism of sorts back in 2004, these races end up being generalized statements defining cultures with little space for experimentation. For instance, gnomes have a +15 bonus on engineering and while you don’t have to head into the sheep pen the game builds, there’s a strong tendency for players to head in said direction. Occupational success becomes dependant on what you’re born with. In fact, not every race can access every class. Here’s what Blizzard had to say about law-abiding trolls and giant pandas without Chinese-sounding names.

“Be careful about making exceptions of racial attributes. Each race has their own quirks and characteristics based on their history and the kind of race they are as a whole. While sometimes it’s fun to make an exception to the racial type, it’s important to be careful about how many exceptions are made. If everyone made an exception it wouldn’t be unique anymore and part of role-playing effectively is finding a way to be unique in an almost ordinary way.”

Excerpt from The Official World of WarCraft Strategy Guide.

Despite these differences under the hood, World of WarCraft doesn’t confront the issue of racism head-on because non-player characters tend to interact with the player the same way irrespective of race. To quest-givers, you are more than what your origins dictate. Blizzard is taking the safe route here, a path most big-budget titles opt for to avoid controversy. Fortunately, the publisher of the iconic Baldur’s Gate series had other ideas.

The cover image for Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader. Source: Black Isle Studios.

The Heart of a Lion — LionHeart: Legacy of the Crusader

They looked down on my claws. My thick skin. Because I was different. Even simple conversations were tense. These differences shackled me, true. But I soon gained the skills to make up for my apparent weakness. Little did I know that a 2003 role-playing game would prepare me for the future.

Lionheart’s stable of characters treated me unfairly if I happened to have undesirable physical traits, ignoring the literal demon within (one possesses you in the game). It’s a mode of assessment that humans have institutionalized since time immemorial. Even non-playable character dialogues and conversation options changed if I was from a race tainted by magic. Just as the game taught me, I saw color as a weakness. A disability, a debuff, an inevitable product of circumstance.

It’s a scathing critique of how racism has fundamentally altered how we see people and the game certainly takes a bold step towards ripping the veil that hides systemic racism from the very masses who normalize it. While the game’s limited budget led to a half-baked but promising second half, Lionheart remains a testament to the fact that videogames from established studios can and should take risks on the path to greatness. And to this day, I can only think of one game that hedged its bets on revealing racial injustice in a system riddled with white privilege and discrimination. It left no stone unturned in capturing with painstaking detail how racism dictated social interaction. That game is Mafia III.

Mafia III constructs a society where systemic racism is prevalent. Source: New Game Network.

Systemic Racism in the Flesh — Mafia III

In a bid to cater to the increasing need for inclusivity in popular media, games have begun to feature protagonists who break the white-man shaped mold. And while this is a stepping stone with potential, it is a safer mode of delivery that promotes ideal inclusion instead of grappling with the imposing matter of race itself. Unfortunately, games rarely make meaningful contributions beyond the token face swap.

A black female revolutionary leader is no less devious than a white supremacist in BioShock Infinite, bringing up equality without really sinking its teeth into it. Beyond Good and Evil also sidesteps this with Jade, whose race is intentionally ambiguous to make more people feel comfortable in her shoes. Gears of War’s Cole Train and Crackdown 3’s Terry Crews end up bolstering black macho stereotypes. As for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization, the title says it all.

Grand Theft Auto’s black protagonists are casually criminal, effectively becoming walking stereotypes. Assassin’s Creed 4: Freedom Cry did a good job tackling slavery but it tied in-game upgrades to slave liberation, riling gamers. Characters like Miles Morales from the new Spider-Man or Marcus Holloway in Watch Dogs 2 don’t get death stares from idle policemen. But Mafia III’s Lincoln Clay does.

Here’s what Mafia III gets right

Mafia III does a stellar job at depicting racism because its world treats black people differently. Vietnam veteran Lincoln Clay isn’t spared from this pervasive hatred seeping into every facet of New Bordeaux, a reimagination of New Orleans in 1968. The escalating tensions at the time form the backdrop for the game’s robust narrative. The research behind every detail is evident, serving a fresh template on how games ought to illustrate racism. Even if you aren’t a person of color, themes of loss and uncertainty make Lincoln a protagonist that many can empathize with. Right from the radio alternating between ’60s music and protests, the game speaks to you in ways few others have.

Racism isn’t drastic or monstrous in Mafia III. Instead, it hangs over your head like a sentient storm cloud, weathering your mountain of morale drop by drop. Racial slurs are soon dismissed as inevitable. The details that culminate in this sense of dread all find a place in society even today. Depending on how white your neighborhood is, police response times vary. Look at a police officer the wrong way and you’re promoted to a target. And it didn’t just depend on Lincoln either. Steal a car from a black person and the first responder makes a mild suggestion to an officer. But if you go Grand Theft Auto on a white man’s snazzy ride, the police are out for blood. The worst part? It isn’t just the police who treat you this way.

White women will noticeably clutch their purses as they walk past you. Dock members smoke in groups separated by color. If you enter a store reserved for white people, prepare for management to call up the police if you don’t bolt out of there. Even the “police alert” meter that is standard fare in open-world games has an added nuance: it works differently for a black individual. Instead of using tinted glasses to either show an ideal or appalling world, Mafia III serves you a fresh dose of real American racism. It brings social conversations to the forefront in ways few games have accomplished. And while it is by no means perfect, Mafia III does get a lot right.

Art from Grand Theft Auto V. Source: Rockstar Games.

Where do we go from here?

If you think Mafia III’s polarizing approach is overkill, it has succeeded in cultivating a sense of empathy in the player. The developers admitted to being terrified of how the game would be received. I’m glad they armed themselves with extensive research to boldly venture into a topic very few games openly discuss. And by no means am I discouraging developers to take back their infant steps in combating misrepresentation. Abolishing fantasy races that are inherently evil is a blessing that fights both racism and poor villains. Black characters appearing in prominent roles is a good start, one that needs to be built upon with more daring iterations.

As for whether games should go the inclusive or the oppressive route, people want both. And with more studios getting into the business of creating novel gaming experiences, it’s a pain point that should definitely be addressed. While many see games as a form of escapism from their identity, others want them to send out a message and mirror real-world instances of prejudice. And for games to start leaning towards either approach, we need more developers from marginalized groups showing up in both indie and big-budget studios. Representation in gaming is an uphill battle worth fighting.

Present a child with a childhood of equality and they will grow up unfettered to a society that looks down on those of social and economic differences. They will be free to focus on their dreams instead of proving that they are just as good as everyone else. Free from believing they entered the world with lower stats.

Take it from a guy who appeased bullies with free food. Life could be better.

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Antony Terence

Antony Terence

0.2M+ views. 5x Top Writer. Warping between games, tech, and fiction. Yes, that includes to-do lists. Words in IGN, Kotaku AU, SUPERJUMP, The Startup, and more.