Minority Report: The Non-White Gamer's Experience

Fergus Mills searches for the words. It's clear he wants to say this carefully. The 22-year-old from Macon, Ga. is black. His Xbox Live avatar is black. Except that it's not.

Drawing it out of him, Mills says it's because of the avatar's body language. And while Mills doesn't say that's really a white guy on his screen, palette-swapped to look like him, he's pretty clear this representation is not from his neighbourhood.

"I can make him look like me, but have you noticed, when he's standing right there, the way he moves? It's ... weird," Mills said. "He puts his hand on his hip. He twirls his head. I've never seen people who act like that."

It's a little thing and the discussion moves on. But it is evocative of just how conscious one becomes of these differences, during a life spent playing as characters who look nothing like you.

And in matters ranging from avatar creation and character representation to the marketing and affordability of games, non-white gamers' experiences speak of a video games community that is, at best, insensitive to their membership in it, sometimes to the point of obliviousness.

Kotaku sought out several non-white gamers, some of whom also write about their experiences, to discuss what being an African-American or Hispanic gamer means. In an American games industry dominated, marketed to and consumed mostly by white males, discussions of race and class can quickly hit a wall, blocked by insistence that the subject is inappropriate for a pursuit that should be colorblind in basis. Ideally, yes, it should. But race matters—it always will—in a different way for video games.

Recognisably You

Rafael Sanchez is 23, lives in West Covina, Calif. and has enrolled in graduate school to get a master's degree in computer science. He wants to go to work in game development. If he does, Rafael would be among the 2.5 percent of developers who are Hispanic, according to an International Game Developers Association survey of its membership. A similar percentage of "recognizably Hispanic" characters can be found in video games, according to a study released recently.

Sanchez considers this matter from a game design perspective. "Looking at the casts of fighting games, it really is the only genre where you get a diverse cast," said Sanchez, who writes on the blog Latino Gamer. Many of them begin with a small cast, he said. "As each grows, the initial token, it's a black guy that's thrown in - Eddy Gordo in Tekken, or Zack in Dead or Alive. You usually see the black person first, because they make the most obvious contrast to the white characters on the roster.

Because a "recognizably Hispanic" man is difficult to reduce to visual cues such as black or white skin, "it's harder for [game developers]to think of how to include us," Sanchez says. "And when they do, they can't think of any way to do so other than stereotypes of Mexican wrestlers."

He doesn't say any of this bitterly. "I don't think there's anything malicious behind it; you write what you know," Sanchez explained. "If the game developers and writers are largely white people, I can't really expect them to understand my reality."

The same IGDA survey said its development community is 83% white. Blacks comprise 2%. Asians make up 7.5%, but in a sector with such a strong history across the Pacific, the issue of their representation is notably different from that of black and Latino characters.

Mills, the gamer from Georgia, is resigned to the reality that the characters he plays, reads in comic books and sees on television at best represent him in the values they carry, rather than what they look like. Mills' brother Reginald, nine years older, loved comic books, and parked Fergus in front of the television when the cartoons came on, indoctrinating him to Batman's continuity. Bruce Wayne's upbringing made him "almost like a role model."

"You become so used to it," Mills said. "You turn on the TV, the main character is white. Play a game, the main character is white…You don't think about the underlying meaning of it. It's just what's going on. People really do think of it as the norm; you make a character, he's going to be white."

Why should any of this matter? Dmitri Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, who conducted the study of demographic representation in video games released last month, argues that they represent a market opportunity for publishers.

"If we could get past the issue of racism and think market dynamics, if I'm a young Latino kid, I'll probably be more interested in a game if it has Latino characters," Williams said. "The strong backlash people have is: This is a political correctness issue, and ‘I'm being told how to think and feel,' and ‘I'm being told I'm a racist.' None of that is necessary. You can just look at the numbers and see that some groups should be showing up, in games, in greater numbers."

He points to the cultural impact a generation earlier, when black characters began appearing on television in meaningful roles.

"Any time someone from an under-represented group made that first appearance, it was a big deal for that group," Williams said. "Bill Cosby starring in ‘I Spy' (in 1965), that was a real breakthrough role for African-American actors [on TV] . And it led to whites and African-Americans thinking of themselves in new ways. The simple presence of a group is important."

But if minority gamers represent a market opportunity, game publishers seem slow to pursue it. In fact, another aspect in which non-white gamers feel excluded is in the marketing. If games are pitched or made with their interests or lifestyles in mind, they feel it's usually the next sports title.

"I walk into a GameStop, and they probably think I'm there to buy NBA 2K9 or Madden," Mills said. For the record, his favourite game is Metal Gear Solid 4. He prefers action/adventure games.

Gary Swaby, 23, a Briton of black Caribbean ancestry, living in Luton, England, believes that marketing reinforces, more than anything else, the image of gaming as a predominantly, if not exclusively, white activity. "They're definitely trying to market to the masses, and the white families would be their biggest audience," Swaby said. "Most white people are probably in a better financial space than black families, or those of other cultures, and that would mean they're the market [publishers]are going after. I can't remember seeing a Wii commercial with a black family. Blacks are assumed to be poor. That's definitely an issue that can't be ignored." Swaby said he spends between 400 or 500 pounds ($660-$830) annually on games.

Sanchez, while not endorsing stereotype, does find some truth in his own experience as a Hispanic gamer with not much of a disposable income for games. "I walk into a GameStop, I go straight to the used PS2 rack," he says. With tuition for California State-Los Angeles coming due, the games he's writing about on his site, lately, are older, cheaper games. "If I'm talking to someone with more money, and I mention the last game I reviewed, he'll ask why I'm talking about that instead of some $US50 or $US60 game. I'm straightforward. These are the games I can afford right now.

"When someone has more money, they are able to be more lighthearted about these things," Sanchez continued. Those of us who can't afford the $US50 as easily, we put a lot more thought into our purchases. Before I got my Wii, I had been thinking about it for months. [A friend]was very surprised by how much thought I had put into it."

What could be marketed more to Hispanic gamers? "Well, racing games," said Andreas Almodovar, 28, of Oldsmar, Fla. "We love getting into the car industry, love customising our cars. I think the gaming industry, like [with]Midnight Club and Need for Speed, have tapped into something. I just wish they would take it a bit further."

The Importance of Being Louis

The Koalition, a site dedicated to the interests of the urban or hip-hop gamer, as they put it, was just cited as the best tech blog by the Black Weblog Awards. Swaby and Mills are contributors. A.B. Frasier, 23, of Newark N.J. is its managing editor, and he says the site was created in part to introduce and expose African-Americans to other types of games, since the community is largely seen as sticking with sports and shooter titles.

But his site's efforts can only go so far. "A lot of kids play games, and I could sit up here and try to introduce these games for the black community, but the truth is it still has to appeal to them. And I think a black character does that," Frasier said. "But it has to be done in a way that everybody can accept."

A good example? Frasier picks Louis from Left 4 Dead. Louis is a black protagonist and a playable character who participates in a way that is not conspicuously or stereotypically "black." He wears a tie. He looks like he stumbled out of the office to start blasting at zombies. Frasier says he even saw Left 4 Dead advertisements on hiphop sites, and says the game has very strong uptake in the black community.

"Valve really did a great job putting a black character in their game," Frasier said. "Not every black guy speaks like Cole Train [in the Gears of War series.] "

Hardwiring a minority character into a game, without stereotype, is a powerful statement, above any game that allows customisable avatars of any ethnicity. As Williams, the researcher, sums it up, "People are probably not going to opt in and say, ‘I've got my squad, but I really need a black guy. I really need a Hispanic guy on it.' They're probably going to create guys who look like themselves."

Game character diversity is not just an issue about the interests of non-whites but about the effect it has on white gamers. Williams brings up the subject of "mainstreaming", something highly debated in communication science. Basically, the theory holds that watching enough images starts to move one's perception toward what they see in the images. Williams, who has studied video games for 10 years and calls himself a hardcore gamer, did a study early in his career that showed that, after playing a game, people said they thought the game world they'd visited was more like their real world. "That's a cultivation effect, and it happens," Williams said. "There's no reason to think it wouldn't happen with race as well."

So the upshot there: The more a white gamer—or a gamer of any ethnicity, frankly—spends time in a homogeneous environment, the cues about race and ethnicity sent by games become even more important. Especially if they're the only or the predominant mass medium being consumed. "Imagine a Latino kid, who lives in an all-Latino neighbourhood," Williams said. "If they were only exposed to images of white people through the media, those images will probably have a bigger impact. Contrast that with a Latino who lives in a diverse neighbourhood who interacts with white kids all the time. The images from the games won't matter as much."

Walking in Someone's Shoes

Asked what they'd like to see most, all the non-white gamers I talked to have their preferences. Almodovar would love to see Hispanic characters in the Battlefield 2 series and why not? The US military's Hispanic population has grown steadily over the past decade.

Frasier? "Why can't a guy like Hip Hop Gamer be in G4? One 30-minute show, would it really hurt that much?" Such programming would go a long ways to inclusion, he feels. Sanchez, a role-playing game enthusiast, "would love it if there was a Square-produced RPG that had a brown protagonist."

Swaby wants to know "why can't we make a game with a black character, and market it to everybody?" Of course, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas stands as the most notable effort in this regard. The game also is five years old.

But what they don't want more of is pretending that race somehow is not an issue, when it is one in every other mass medium in this multicultural society. The consumption of white-dominated mass media by a diverse consumer base is a legitimate, serious topic.

And if games belong to that equation when the discussion is about their artistic value, or their economic impact or cultural relevance, then they also belong in the discussion of the consumption of white-dominated, high-demand mass media by a broadly diverse consumer base. Holding up one's hand to declare it's not an issue will not make it go away.

"It's because a lot of people haven't been taught it's important," Frasier said. "A lot of people playing games now are young, and brought up in areas where everybody gets along, so I don't think they see the problem. You have to live the life in the shoes of a person of colour to understand where they are coming from."

For certain, he's lived enough lives in the shoes of a white character.


    I didnt bother reading this since im not black. FIRST :P

    @ annonie:
    Yes, you should stick to the 1 paragraph articles.

    First of all, I'm white, so I won't get all 'white mans guilt' on anyone. The article was full of insight, excellent points and unlike some people, for instance NGai Croal, these guys brought over their opinions without you feeling you were being screamed at for being a 'white devil'.

    I do understand in retrospect that the clear majority of times a black person is in a videogame it does subscribe to a certain type of stereotype, and that's the hip hop one. When they're of an older age, they're the solemn wise fatherfigure, such as Sams boss in Splintercell, which isn't a bad thing.

    But again, I think they left one out, and thats those two Resident Evil Online games, where a main character was a black policeman. Left 4 Dead did provide non-cliches, but lets see how Left 4 Dead 2 handles it?

    Games such as Final Fantasy have had Barrett for instance as one of the protagonists, Barrett really didn't subscribe to the stereotype either. You're unlikely to get a black protagonist in a JRPG due to the fact they seem to prefer theirs young, white and slender female looking male.

    I'd also personally like to see more culture brought into games though. Being Australian, I can't honestly think of a game that's had an aussie protagonist in it since Ty the Tasmanian tiger... and if we wanna talk stereotypes there...

      True enough on aussies not being in that many games but we're not exactly hurting for expression when it comes to media given our own local content, if theres demand for an aussie in the global market then he will be shoehorned in faster than you can say crikey.

      While I'd certainly wouldn't be against having more Australian characters in video games, people need to learn to do it right. The best Aussie portrayal I've seen so far is of a generic marine in Halo 2, and that was a bit part and pretty average at that.

      Most Australian characters I've seen have totally missed the mark, or have even been quite insulting. It takes a lot to insult me, as I'm pretty open-minded, but does anyone remember Marine the Racoon from Sonic Rush Adventure? Nearly every single sentence was peppered with the use of 'strewth' or 'blimey', and she was made to seem quite lacking in intelligence. And when I mentioned how insulting it was to me as an Australian on the official board for the game (I was bored and needed something to do), I was told that I needed to grow up and that Australians act and talk like that. I (being Australian) was told by a bunch of Americans, that I didn't know how Australians act or speak.

      While I know for a fact that there are a ton of other groups that get it much worse (a few of which this article went into), Australian characters in games isn't going to go anywhere until people realise that 99.5% of the Australian population doesn't act or speak like Steve Irwin.

      Although now that I think about it, having an Australian character in Halo: ODST telling other marines how to capture an Elite as you would a crocodile during battle would be pretty hilarious.

    I'd love to see more black and hispanic characters in games. I'm sick of playing as a white american male all the bloody time.

    Catch 22, baby!
    Dev put minorities (other than Asian, or Nazi) into the game, those character gets hurt, then people yell and kick and scream.
    And clearly if they don't, then people whine.

    Ultimately, diversity should never trump story telling. If a game or movie is set up in medieval Europe, it should never attempt to include black people. Lest you get Australian TV and books--where characters that clearly does not belong in the story made their ways in just to make the show more diverse.

    Im Asian-Anglo-Spanish Aussie. What we call a 'bitsa' here- as in bitsa this, bitsa that.
    Growing up, at no stage was I thinking, 'My people are under-represented in popular culture" We had the Cosbys, ALF living with white people and Dinosaurs- and never do I remember distinguishing them by skincolour. Sure I copped a little at school on occasion, but hey, you get that. I got picked on just as much for reading books and knowing stuff.
    Games that I played the 90s were quite fantastical for the most part- I never saw Alex Kidd as whiteanglosaxonprotestant, just some kid with huge ears and an appetite for both hamburgers and Janken. Similarly Sonic the Hedgehog does not represent any particular demographic to me. Though he did have some big-ass shoes.
    The culture shift since then has been immense. The increased realism of games-esp FPSgames- in the last 15 years has made it more likely for developers to use stereotypes and cliche for the sake of truncating character arcs in favour of getting down to shotting stuff. Just like Michael Bay has done with Tyrese in the Transformers movies, or Michelle Rodriguez in... well anything. At the same time many 'minority' personalities are emerging as popular, it is usually for being a minority representative. The Wayans Brothers and Tyler Perry have not helped matters. This is evidenced in games as well- esp in FPSs like Halo and Killzone where we have the requisite black NPC sidekicks, walking in a certain way and talking with a certain vocabulary. Having a 'token' character for sake of diversity is lazy, but at the same time we still complain if older black male character in a movie is NOT played by Morgan Freeman. We are conditioned to associate one with the other. GTA and Saints Row go the other way, celebrating ethnicity with tongue fully in cheek, at same time as typing it- Saints Row 2 character creation is a prime example. Never has there been such a rainbow of pimp-limp walks and Latino swaggers to choose from.
    Hopefully the more decent writers and development teams we get, the more truly diverse our gaming/TV/movie experience will become.
    Im still waiting to see a Filipino protagonist. And no, Batista from WWE SvR does not count. I guess I will have to wait for a game about IT professionals, or otherwise the game conversion of America's Best Dance Crew...

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