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February 14, 2007

Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Posted in: Games,Race

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.


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