Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Full disclosure. My goal in writing The First 11 Black Videogame Stars was to get people to think, during Black History Month, about the representation of black characters in videogames. Are there enough? Is there enough breadth? Does it matter?

And I love the variety of responses it generated as well as the additional characters folks listed, some of which I totally should have remembered and some of which I’d never known. To paraphrase the lovely LAist, that’s why the web is wonderful.

One thing I heard over and over in the comments is that the ethnicity of the character you play doesn’t matter. (In fact, I don’t remember anyone saying that it did.) I was happy to hear that because it means that there should be no penalty if developers make games with more diverse protagonists. I am convinced that diversity is at the core of the future of gaming because that’s how we reach out beyond the existing audience — diversity of play styles, diversity of subject matter, and diversity of representation. The high definition era becomes the high diversity era.

But a question crept in: If players don’t care what color the protagonist is, then why are such an overwhelming number of game protagonists white?

Have developers simply not caught up with the market’s (lack of) preference? Is market research telling developers that players really do want to play white characters in spite of the responses I’ve seen? Are developers designing characters that look like themselves or their perceived ideals? Or is it something else entirely?

I’ll go out on a ledge and say I think game developers make games with white protagonists because they think their audience relates to them most easily. But I don’t think that belief is entirely unfounded, either. White is safe and relatable. Anything else is risky. And that speaks volumes about our perception of race, even today.

20 Responses to “Race in Games: The Unanswered Question”

  1. 1 Eldubble

    I agree that white is safe, but that is not why most game protagonists are white or even Japanese. Its because there are not enough black game programmers and developers. Someone like you or me may be more likely to make a character based on images we know. I.E. black images. Since most developers are white/Japanese this what you see reflected in the art. Much like any other art, it imitates the life of the maker for the most part. So race does play a part, but maybe not in the way you think……

    My 2 cents in the bucket.

    Nice blog by the way. Good to see a brother using a computer for something other than “making beats”.

    Lol, I kid!!

  2. 2 Jason

    Eldubble: Thanks for the thoughts and the kind comments on my blog. :-)
    I agree that developers “operating from what they know” definitely plays a role in how game protagonists turn out. But, in thinking about this over the past week, I started to wonder if that’s all there is to it.

    I mean, if developers are prone to creating protagonists with backgrounds they can relate to, I think it’s also likely that players expect protagonists with backgrounds they can relate to as well.

    To make it more concrete: If a developer decides to make each new game with a protagonist that has a different ethnic background, would they see the same level of sales as if they went with an all-white lineup? I’d hope that they would, but I think the reality may be a bit more complex. (For an analogy, have a look at the most bankable movie stars.)

    That said, I’m really looking forward to playing games that push the envelope in this space — can’t wait for that Half-Life Episode where you play as Alyx! :-)

  3. 3 thill

    hey jason. LOVE IT. I am a female in the interactive/game industry and cant say enough that i have been the only black female in my class, game company, game conferences, game professional organization…. and its a struggle to be a part of a powerful industry and be the only one or the 2%. but i must say that i have gotten used to the challenge.
    i have done workshops for minorities to get involved in math science and video game development and honestly i think its an opportunity .. shocked me a lil for them to ask me “how can i make video games?” when i reply “to understand technology, programming, math, animation, etc..” most get discouraged immediately to the challenge. The few that don’t i mentor and expose them to internships and opportunities and courses to take.
    Most developers dig the comfort of making games that reflect them and their idea of how others should be perceived (GTA, Saints Row, etc..)all in all its about $$ .. as long as GTA and games like Saints row continue to go platinum then its beneficial to propel a negative image.
    just my view.

  4. 4 Jason

    Awww…shucks. Thanks, Thill! :-)
    As it stands, I feel like there’s a bit of chicken and egg problem. Players don’t seem to be demanding more diverse characters and the industry hasn’t traditionally had many minorities or women working in it. Which side will blink first? It sounds like you’re doing a lot to make sure it’s the industry and that’s really fabulous. If there’s anything I can do to help your efforts, feel free to get in touch.

  5. 5 Anonymous

    Although the opinion in your article is valid, you’re making a mistake even bringing it up. All you are doing is adding fuel to the fire that doesnt’ even need to be lit. The reason why many protagonists are white or Japanese is because most good games are made in Japan nowadays. The number of black video game characters is probably directly proportionate to the amount of black people in Japan.

    I know that a lot of non-Japanese games have little or no black people, but that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. The most this article will do is make people hate the game industry for not portraying every race equally. That would be uncalled for and unneeded. Most of the games in your list (referring to your last article) were rather old games, which were from a time when nothing was held under the ethnic magnifying class of equality.

    Even if you want to look at it from an economic standpoint, the bulk of black people that play videogames (hell, for a large number of casual gamers of any ethnicity) play sports games or have submitted to the speech patterns of those from “the wrong side of the tracks.” The LIKE the gangster look. Why do you think mainstream rap is so popular? It’s like writing an essay. Teachers have been telling us for years to think of what audience you’re writing to when you are drafting one. It’s the same principle here. They’re just appealing to what is popular right now.

  6. 6 Jason

    Anonymous: Thanks for your thoughts. I hope the result of my post will not be folks deciding to hate the game industry but rather folks reconsidering the diversity of the characters the game industry asks them to play.

    You mention most of the characters on the list are from rather old games. If you go through and look at the dates, though, I think you’ll find it’s actually skewed more recent. Seeing black videogame stars on the rise is a good thing in my book. Still, if you take the original list in addition to the list folks contributed in comments, you’ll see roughly 30 staring must-play black characters in the past 26 years. (Considering how many people have viewed the post, I’d wager the list is fairly complete now.) Do you think that’s enough? If so, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. Regardless, I think the question is interesting.

    You mention that the characters starring in games are designed to appeal to what’s popular right now. If that’s true, it leads to an important question: Why are the overwhelming majority of characters white? Why is playing white characters popular? And what does that say about gaming and about our society?

  7. 7 Jeriaska

    Hi Microscopiq,

    I read your article earlier this month, and was inspired to write a companion piece for Square Haven called “The First Eleven Black Square Characters.” Surprisingly, at least judging by your list, there are eleven black playable characters in the games of Final Fantasy distributor Square Enix dating back to the 8, 16, and 32-bit eras. I don’t think our article managed to make people think about race differently, or inspired any kind of thought at all. It was one of our most unanimously ignored articles, ever. So maybe the lesson here is that game players today are less concerned with skin color than perhaps they once were. Or Square Haven is boring–maybe that’s the lesson.


  8. 8 cesar blue

    yea i was wondering the same thing, cause all i see is white people be betrayed in every video game i ever played, i mean this is straight up so crazy, i glad you put this on the blog, i mean i’m black and i want to be the hero in the game but i have to be a white guy cause they won’t make the black guy the hero just think about it, what black hero’s do we have in video games you proably could name them on your hand, and i’m not talkin about cj from san andreas,
    really we need to start demanding these video companies to put in a feature were you can be white or black shit i stop playing certain games because of it, and i know most people are going to be it not a big deal, well if your black it is cause i want to be the guy blowing away white people in the game lol, but seriously they need to put a feature in there that let’s us choice black or white, if you think about it we don’t really have any games with black hero’s or villians except spawn, one army game about vets and s boxer in a fighting game this shit is sad, let’s start a boycott for real

    good blog

  9. 9 Johny Zuper

    Playing Guild Wars Nightfall (filled with black characters, by the way), my (African American) wife and me noticed how most people’s avatars seem to be white, even though there’s plenty of opportunity in the game for creating black ones. I think the answer is simply that most people model their character after themselves and that most players are white. After all, not many Africans have access to this technology. And black people tend to be a minority in most rich countries.

  10. 10 Jason

    Johny: Interesting point. I often wonder about how folks make decisions about how their character should look — and what that means. Does modeling a character on yourself create immersion? Does creating a character very different than yourself express a kind of cultural exploration? Is there a space in-between?

    From what I’ve seen, it seems folks play at the extremes. They either create a character roughly in their own image or go completely to the other end of the spectrum, as shown in the recent NYT slide show (from the book Alter Ego). I wonder what that means.

  11. 11 DaveDaGamer

    Thill said it “EXACTLY” Other cultures are not represented in videogames, because the creators are not of that culture. Many Asian games that are developed over there with Asian protagonists have been made Caucasian in the crossover because the publishers here are mostly Caucasian.

    It’s like that in everything we do here in America. I’m in the New Media field along with video game content creation. We are usually the ONLY minority representation at events. There aren’t even minority journalists and game show hosts to bring a different view on why people play games. Look at all the game programming on TV. You have the stereotypical nerdy (or borderline nerd but accepted host and a “hot” babe)

    That’s because there just isn’t a lot of minorities in the field. Take it however you want, thats the fact. Look at all the pictures of the development studios that they publish when they complete a game. You’d be hard pressed to find a minority in them. AND IT’S NOT BECAUSE They are racist, it’s from a lack of applicants.

  12. 12 Bakerboi

    What you all are saying about japanese game makers not putting african people in games because there arent a whole lot in that country is just not true and evades the point.

    They usually model the characters in their games are their native peoples or caucasian westerns, and if they do that then they certainly know african peoples are out there. As few as we are represented in their games they still have time to recieve our music and know about our culture. Seems quite strange, this excuse you use for them.

    Yes, one does portray something that looks like them in art, but it never stops them from portraying monsters and using names and ideas from other cultures west of themselves now does it?

    It has been seen that in some MMORPGS and Other consoles games that when there is a lack of a dark-people in a game an abnormal race is there in their place representing their features similairly.

    Also, with Companies like Capcom who almost always has produced games with a multitude of races in them, that excuse just cannot be used as tempo.

    Its just the effort and the ego that determines whether or not to open that door and bring in something different. And as it’s seen the dark people of the world just dont obtain that height of respect or recognition for say a company like, Square-enix, to not think twice about place an enthic character in a game that has a large part.

    In FFXII, however they have two african characters in the game. One, from a race of both dark skinned and light skinned rabbit-folk, and the other a human man.
    With this issue I’ve seen some fans of the game claim that she isn’t black.

    The same has been claimed on a few other characters in anime series such as DBZ.

  13. 13 Bob

    What I personally think is that race is linked into practically every video game and is thought of as a problem when it comes to the conflicts of reality . For example, the game Gta San Andreas ties many prejudices towards ethnicities into humor and violence for pure entertainment. The main character is a black gangster from east los angelas with black gangsters, hookers, and drug dealers surrounding the streets he travels in. This is considered racist because there are not only black gangsters in america there are white, hispanic, and asian as well which all three of those races are vaguely intertwined with the main story line. What is being stressed in the video game world is generally racism and violence affecting the youth and culture of the world. Up coming video games like resident evil 5 and manhunt 2 are being looked at as politically incorrect because it will poison our youth. First of all resident evil 5 seems like a very entertaining game but is being bombarded by the press that a game where excuting black zombies will make children who play this game hate black people which is totally false in my opinion because there are many other games where you kill black people and should it matter that the person is black white asian or latino that is doing the sensless killing in the game. Beyond the point any violent video game you play you are never thinking about race or gender you are in your zone trying to complete your level, mission, or objective. I for one totally disagree with rascism but in a reality sense of course. A video game is a fantasy world where you make up the rules, yet you should have an awareness to racism but it shouldnt be condemed and taken off shelves of stores because its about a white army commando killing zombie black villagers in africa.

  14. 14 Jon

    Jason: from your last comment I’d like to leave an answer coming from a die-hard African American gamer. Yes, creating a character like the player gives the player a sense of immersion and yes, some people make completely different characters to explore new things. Sadly I’ve seen some blacks who feel better if their character is white so they put on this “mask” if you will, to feel accepted. This is also seen in society. It’s a pretty deep concept to grasp but ALL of this is really psychological. There is no logical answer because there are so many possible answers from so many different perspectives.

  15. 15 Josh

    I think the reaseon you dont see alot of black main characters in games is because most people of the race think its un-cool to play most games besides sports or shooting games. They think the only people that play games like finalfantasy or fable are unatractive white nerds with no social life. And most developers beleave the same thing.

  16. 16 dragonfire3333

    perosnaly i really don’t care what race or color a protagagists is as long as it has a good plot and good game play i don’ think that anyone will care. but for why there aren’t alot of black people in the games is probally becasue the game creaters design the characters after what kind of person they would lik eto be or it would be how they view other people and/ or there native peoples. at least that’s what i think.

  17. 17 sam sniddons

    stop whining and write the code – is eveything you enjoy given to you or do you ever get tired of pissin and moanin and just create the life you want – you insuferable cryin infant – do it and take responsibility fr the world you inhabit instead of complaining about the world others have CREATED

  18. 18 sims796

    sam, shut up, please. You sound stupid. Not only have you shown to have no idea on the actual topic, but you come off as a massive hypocrite. The very fact that he made this article to promote discussion on a sensitive topic shows that he is doing something, rather than bitching and moaning like you are.

    He is taking responsibility, just like many others have. Words like this has changed the world by propmoting ideas. It’s a helluvallot more than other whiners do, you whiny little pussy.

  19. 19 Ryu

    It never, ever ends. Never.

    WIth blacks, everything comes down to race.

    Let’s give you what you want: all characters black, they talk black, black hair, black cities, we’ll even make the controllers all black.

    What I don’t understand (maybe I do) is why if you love all things black, why not live where the blacks are: Africa. No honkies, no crackers there. Hey, you don’t even have to speak english!

  20. 20 Florence

    First of all, I want to think you because I always ask me the same question and as I see we are not the only one.

    For the kid, have since 2010 a video game on Tiana, the principale charater of Princess and the frog from Disney and since 2008 I think have the character Kirikou and the Beast sauvages from the animation movie. But I want to be sure that I have it correclly. Did you put Jade from Beyound good and evil in the category of a black caracter? Interresting. Thanks!

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