Gaming and Race in 2012, or, Cut it out White Devils

The end of 2012 (I know its February. Just go with it. God)  means somewhere in the neighborhood of several hundred of the best and worst lists of the best and worst everything of the last twelve months (Again – just go with it).  Don’t get me wrong it can be fun to look back on the year in games and movies and music and bicker about which lists are and aren’t meritorious, but slapping ten paragraphs and ten pictures on your blog isn’t exactly the most thought-intensive medium for discussion on earth. Which is whatever, because I’m totally going to do it anyway.

IGN has been mixing things up a bit with articles discussing the year in video game sex and violence.  It’s an interesting tradition that will only get more interesting over the years as readers look back and compare head shots and executions from 2012 to head shots and executions in 2022.

It’s a dope idea and I’m going to steal the shit out of it. But I would argue that 2012 was a much less interesting year in sex and violence in video games than it was for race in video games.

Games like Prototype 2, Assassin’ s Creed 3, Far Cry 3, The Walking Dead and Journey all, intentionally or not, provided some pretty interesting commentary on race in entertainment.

Telltale Games’ episodic adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead does a fascinating job of flipping stereotypes on their heads right ofF the bat. Players take control of Lee Everett, a black man who starts off his zombie-slaying journey in – go figure – the back of a cop car. Not exactly the most progressive interpretation of a black man in America.

Or is it?

Classic.

Classic.

Within the opening minutes we learn that Everett is being jailed for a crime of passion and that before this violent outburst he was a professor at a university. It’s an interesting twist on racial representation in entertainment today and an intelligent way to start off a game that ended up being nominated for a slew of Game of the Year honors.

The real genius of The Walking Dead, however, is that after players’ introduction to Everett, race is by and large left to the side. The game is far from whitewashed, with a cast that could round out a game of demographic bingo in a heartbeat, but it never draws attention to it. Everett isn’t a black man, Kenny isn’t a hick, and Clementine isn’t an adorable little Asian girl – there all just survivors. There amongst the living and few if any of their other characteristics matter, because zombies are the great leveler.

Of course for those of you seeking a great leveler without the shotgun pumping action of an undead apocalypse, a mask, a robe and a ridiculous scarf can always do the trick.

journey-ps3-01-720x720

Hot. I think. I don’t know.

Just as assuredly as you probably have no idea what the hell you’re doing or where the hell you are in Journey, you also have no idea who the hell you are. Are you some white lady going to the top of a mountain for a Downton Abby marathon? Are you an Eskimo looking for an igloo? Are you Giancarlo Esposito? You have no way of knowing. And that’s just one charming facet of an infinitely charming game.

The face under that weird little unibrow mask could be anyone – even you. Disguising the nameless protagonist of Journey removes demographics and preconceptions from the table and allows the game and the story to stand alone on their own strengths.   It’s a bold and massively rewarding move from thatgamecompany, the independent developer of Journey.

2012 was a great year for independent developers like thatgamecompany and Telltale who both pushed gaming to new heights by breaking conventions like their lives depended on it. Unfortunately the same can’t be said, by and large, for the larger household name developers.

Look at Ubisoft who, as far as I’m concerned, made two of the most entertaining games of 2012, Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 3 (Yeah, yeah you hated Assassin’s Creed 3. Shut up and let me write my stupid blog). I put a lot of hours into both games (Yeah, yeah I’m part of the problem. Shut up and let me write my stupid blog), but entertainment aside it’s pretty hard not to notice some pretty curious skewing afoot.

Assassin’s Creed 3 casts players as Connor Kenway, aka [insert his really long Native American name here], a half-pretentious-white-guy/half-mysterious-Native-America-lady assassin guy throughout the years of the American Revolution. It’s an exciting time period that hasn’t really been explored in video games and walking the immersive streets of revolutionary Boston or New York is pretty wild. But whether I was slaying the shit out of beavers on the American frontier, causing a ruckus at the Boston Tea Party, slaying the shit out of more beavers on the American frontier or slaying the shit out of even more beavers on the American frontier it was hard for me to escape a nagging observation. A game surrounding the building of America and the fight for liberty from tyranny somehow all but completely overlooks slavery.

Assassin’s Creed 3 doesn’t perpetuate the Hallmark-Thanksgiving mythology and is pretty up front about the mistreatment of Native Americans at the hands of colonists and the British alike, but glossing over slavery as it does is still a glaring shortcoming. At the end of the game Connor looks to a slave auction as if to say “This happened too I guess, and we showed it, so… check that box off the list,” and that’s the full extent of the impact of ACIII’s singular nod to a huge part of American history.

Far Cry 3 may fare slightly better, if only because it isn’t based in American history – but it still hangs its hat on some odd, antiquated colonialist sentiments. The protagonist, Jason Brody, is a trust fund  punk ass  who, in between shopping for Ed Hardy gear and going to rainbow parties, winds up trapped on a crazy pirate island with his trust fund punk ass friends.

Rook Island, the aforementioned crazy pirate island, is a messed up place and has been since at least the Second World War. A war mongering psychosexual tribe called the Rakyat runs around high on crack or peyote or whatever and spraying blood left and right while fighting with a bunch of kooky human-trafficking pirates in some sort of nebulous blood feud that’s been going on for God knows how long.

But hey! Hold up every body! Now Jason Brody – certified white man – is here to save the day, despite his entire lack of combat experience. It’s Avatar. It’s Dances with Wolves. It’s some hapless white guy whose racial purity outweighs any and all of his shortcoming and saves the day from the savagery of lesser men! HUZAH!

But not every big-name release this year was whitewashed and oblivious. Radical Entertainment’s decidedly “meh” sandbox sequel Prototype 2 provided a fascinating portrait of race in America against the backdrop of a viral-apocalypse.

prototype-2-image-1Players control James Heller, a black man and marine turned shape-shifting badass by the personified-virus Alex Mercer, the first game’s protagonist.

A large part of Prototype 2’s gameplay involves the deception of a country-club-white military force occupying a quarantined New York City. Often times in order to get information or take out specific targets Heller will have to sneak into military installations, but with his own visage Heller can barely make it within a block of a government facility without being attacked by every piece of weaponry at the army’s disposal. To sneak amongst the military Heller must absorb clueless soldiers, all of whom are either white or masked, and assume their appearance.

The concept of the military or the government seeing race as a threat, even in the abstract, is fascinating and definitely something worth discussion. Radical Entertainment should be sincerely complemented for putting forward a unique experience that can prompt a worthwhile dialogue amongst gamers and consumers.

Do I think Ubisoft is racist? No, not really. Do I think Ubisoft and their brand-name game developer peers are a part of some sort of far-reaching Illuminati conspiracy to white wash Western entertainment as we know it? No. But kind of definitely.

How many protagonists do you play as throughout the course of a “Call of Duty” campaign? How many of them are white?

Do we really need to see under Master Chief’s mask to know what he looks like? Because I can venture a guess.

Beyond whitewashed entertainment being offensive and presenting an extremely atypical representation of the American whole it is, on a blunter note, stupid.

Why would every pair of forearms attached to a gun be white? Video games offer players a chance to step into someone else’s shoes and experience some small modicum of the impossible, whether its rescuing some bimbo princess from a dragon turtle thing or rescuing some bimbo planet from a bunch of octopus robot things. In an industry that thrives on diversity in aesthetics, gameplay, distribution and narrative, why is such a simple aspect of gaming so rigidly stagnant?

And don’t even get me started on gender representation in video games.

There were a slew of games in 2012 that really pushed boundaries with their characters just by making them anything other than a white man. Let’s hope that in 2013 that isn’t such a radical notion.

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