Friday, February 19, 2016

Q Attack, Round 28 - Do Video Games Need to Diversify?
Tiger and Rabbit discuss the sensitive topic about race and its place in video games. Using their experiences with multiple games, these fuzzy buddies examine how race in video games impact their viewpoints.


Tiger: Well, you picked a doozy of a topic for this week, what brought this on?

Rabbit: I was playing Dying Light which is set in Harran, a fictional Turkish city. I was really surprised by the setting when I first booted up the game, it’s not a place that is common in video games.

Tiger: The only other games that come to mind with a Middle Eastern setting are Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and a few military shooters.

Rabbit: The thing that got me about this game is that you’re still playing a European-American character in Kyle Crane. It would have been cool to play as a native but nope, you’re playing another European-American male character.

Tiger: Oh, please don’t bring up the character’s sex, that’s a totally different wormhole.

Rabbit: But don’t you get tired of it? There’s Crane, Gordon Freeman, Chris Redfield, Cole MacGrath, Nathan Hale, Nathan Drake, and so on.

Tiger: I’m more tired of the name “Nathan.” I do see your point; we generally play as the same kind of character, especially in shooters. The last five games I played that didn’t feature customizable characters; all had European-American protagonists.

Rabbit: I don’t get why the protagonists in video games all tend to be the same when you can do literally whatever you want. We have games that send you into space to fight aliens, games that have you hunting demons, and I’ve even been locked up by a maniacal bear! You’d think we’d have more variety nowadays.

Tiger: You actually mentioned a couple of games there and I think we should clarify something.

Rabbit: What’s that?

Tiger: That we have two very broad schools of video games; western and Japanese. I think you could say that both styles have their own forms of racism and stereotyping but let’s just focus on western games for this Q Attack.

Rabbit: Very true, but even western developed video games come from all over the place like Europe or Canada. So, why do you think that European-Americans/people of European descent are predominantly featured?

Tiger: I think it’s a case of “you write what you know,” it doesn’t excuse the fact that there’s a lack of diversity but I think it does explain some of it. Just look at the developer interviews from E3. While there was a mixture of ethnicities shown, the vast majority of the developers shown were of European descent. But it hasn’t been all bad. Ubisoft did feature a Native American as the protagonist in Assassin’s Creed III and a female African-American Assassin in Liberation. You Mentioned Cole MacGrath but don’t forget Sucker Punch also had Delsin Rowe who was Native American as well.

Rabbit: True but Liberation was a Vita game that didn’t get the same coverage as the other AC games. Similar to the Asian Assassin in the 2D game they did recently. AC III and inFAMOUS Second Son were much larger games but I still felt like their cultural backgrounds weren’t done justice. What about the stereotypes that we’ve seen in games? Saints Row 2 comes to mind.

Tiger: That game kind of stereotyped a lot of things.

Rabbit: Ohio State University did a study with Saints Row 2 that showed video games can promote racist thoughts and behaviors. They randomly assigned European-American or African-American avatars to players and documented the results. Those who had been given African-American avatars tended to be more aggressive and violent than those using a European-American avatar. Afterwards, the participants were asked to rate how well they agreed with predetermined statements. Again, those who played with African-American avatars exhibited negative attitudes towards African-Americans.

Tiger: Point of order, I do want to point out that this study was done pretty poorly. The small sample size, how they generalized their findings, and the fact that they often “led” the participants with the questions shines a light on the validity of this study. That being said, I can see how always negatively portraying certain ethnicities by their stereotyped behavior can impact people’s views of that culture. I get tired of seeing how Asians are portrayed on television and in movies. We do not all look the same!

Rabbit: Or how they’ll take characters that are clearly Asian and have European-American actors play them.

Tiger: Another study by Ohio State University used Mass Effect 3 to show that video games can curb racism. Participants, both European-Americans and African-Americans, were paired together in teams. The cooperative behaviors promoted during multiplayer matches showed that the pro-social benefits often assigned to video games could also include reductions in racist thinking. Though the study has yet to publish its findings, other studies have documented the increase in the pro-social behaviors of video games, even when played competitively.

Rabbit: That’s great that video games can break down barriers but I still think it’s sad how blatant the stereotyping is. Going back to Dying Light, a lot is made out of Crane being an American. While there are other Turkish characters, most of the focal characters seem to be foreigners. And with Assassin’s Creed III, oftentimes Connor felt like an outsider in the game, largely in part of his ethnicity.

Tiger: I think Assassin’s Creed III’s protagonist was kind of a miss but not because he was Native American, while I enjoyed the game, it felt like they were trying to do too many things with the character while keeping him the “blank slate.” I think a lot of video games want the main character to be ambiguous so it’s easier for the player to project his or her identity onto the character. After all, what’s more boring than a European-American male character?

Rabbit: Ouch. I see your point but argue that you can have an enjoyable experience with a well defined non-European-American character. Faith from Mirror’s Edge was pretty cool.

Tiger: They didn’t delve into her as a character too much. I liked what they did with the new Lara Croft, she is white but at least she’s more diverse than what we’ve seen from her in the past.

Rabbit: You know who I’d really want to play as?

Tiger: Bugs Bunny?

Rabbit: Abigail Mills from Sleepy Hollow. Not saying it has to be that specific setting but I love her character archetype. Maybe even Dutch or Two from Killjoys and Dark Matter.

Tiger: Mayday, mayday, we’re veering off course again. Those are cool characters but I’d prefer Mills over the others. The Syfy characters feel like they were just written to be sexy, badass chicks and nothing more.

Rabbit: I just wish I could play as a character I identify with. I get tired of playing a guy all the time and wish there was more out there. I don’t want every game to feature a Japanese female lead but it would be nice to not always play the heroic soldier archetype that exists in almost every game.

Tiger: Now, you are so going to hate me for this but I actually really identified with my Khajiit character in Skyrim.

Rabbit: *shakes head*

Tiger: No really, hear me out. I think the Khajiit in Skyrim are treated a lot like ethnic minorities are in many places. They are ostracized, stereotyped, and subjected to inflammatory racial slurs all the time. Yet many of the characters that you meet don’t let these negative assumptions define them. Of course, some just choose to kill everyone that insults them, but I thought it was somewhat insightful for Bethesda to include that. So not every game makes you play as a big white dude. Then again, Dovakiin was always portrayed as a big white dude.

Rabbit: See! The only game I could think of where the main protagonist was a minority was Prototype 2. I know there are others, but there aren’t a lot of them. Not as many as there should be in this day and age.

Tiger: I’ve noticed in recent years there have been more female protagonists; especially at E3 we saw new games like Horizon: Zero Dawn feature them as well. Does it bother you when you play as a character that doesn’t match up with your identity?

Rabbit: I’m not sure I’d say it bothers me but it does get grating at times. While it’s not as prevalent, there was a time where every game I played felt like you had to save the princess. I like seeing women portrayed in different ways.

Tiger: This is going to go against the grain but I don’t always like having the tough and rumble female character because oftentimes they feel very shallow and poorly written. It’s like Michelle Rodriguez in every movie she’s ever been in. While she seems cool at first, you quickly realize that her characters have no substance. Plus, you can be protected and strong at the same time. Look at Ellie; while Joel does protect her, she is also capable of saving herself.

Rabbit: I really enjoyed how the women in Mass Effect were portrayed. That’s probably why I always played as a male Shepard. All of them had dimensions to their characters; they weren’t always strong or always needing saving. They evolved over time, and I think that’s what I want from my video games more than anything. I want characters that evolve and change, characters that can grow. I just want something different from the cookie cutter mold that plagues video game protagonists.

Tiger: What you said about growing reminds me of Ezio. Technically, he’s another protagonist from European descent but he stands out because of how he changed over the series. Even in just Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio started out as a brash youngster but then throughout the game, he was forced to mature. Not many characters ever feel like they’re evolving. Now, here’s the question. Do intimate scenes in video games bother you when you’re playing as a male character?

Rabbit: No, why would they? It’s not like I project myself so strongly into the protagonists that I become them.

Tiger: Just wondering, one of the other studies mentioned along the OSU study actually mentioned that male gamers were generally uncomfortable with intimate scenes while playing with a female avatar. Even situations as minor as holding hands or kissing, provoked this reaction.

Rabbit: What, were they using a bunch of thirteen year-old as test subjects?
Tiger: *laughs* Ah no, but I bet the results would have been very similar. Anyway, so I take it that you think video games should diversify?

Rabbit: I do think they should, it’s about time they do too. As much as I enjoy exploring different worlds, times, and scenarios; I want to be able to do that with different people as well. Let’s see what it’s like to be a Russian during the apocalypse.

Tiger: I think that’s already happened.

Rabbit: Then how about a little kid from South America or an African-American who isn’t portrayed as a gangbanger. Maybe, let’s not have the hipster kid with the glasses be some uber hacker or have the middle-aged guy be the soldier type. I understand why stereotypes are used, it’s an easy way to build a culture very quickly in a game, but I would like to see more substance. One of the reasons why Mirror’s Edge interested me right off the bat was because it had an Asian female protagonist. Wow! Shocking! I’m not saying that every game needs to have an ethnic minority as its protagonist or to just slap one in so you can check that box. What I want is a real effort to make an interesting character that we haven’t seen before. I think that the male European-American totally has his place in video games. I love Nathan Drake and other characters like him; I’m just asking why we have to have every video game protagonist be the same. I want to see someone new in my games and I think it’s about time to do that.

Tiger: Well, I guess I’m going to sound like the hateful racist here for saying that they don’t need to diversify more, but it’s not because I don’t believe that they should be diverse, it’s because I think we’re already heading there. While I know that player-controlled characters are predominantly European or of European descent, there are a lot of diverse characters out there. I do think more can be done but I don’t want developers to throw them in a game like they’re zombies.

Rabbit: But everyone loves zombies.

Tiger: You can overdo zombies, like you stated; it should be done with a purpose, not because developers feel pressure to make everyone happy. I think if they do a half-hearted job like that then no one will really be happy in the end. Video games are already diverse and will continue to trend that way as developers themselves become more diverse. We saw it at E3; there were so many studios that came from various parts of the world, many that did not have a major developer before. The stories they tell and the characters they craft can only be as diverse as they are. It’s coming, we just have to wait. And I can understand the logic behind using a European-American male character for a protagonist. After all, the majority of gamers are male and are of European descent. Again, not stating that this is the way it should be but it is what it is. Publishers don’t want to take the risk on a character or concept that may fail. We could easily argue that video games aren’t diverse in a lot of areas from setting to even gameplay. That’s why we have thousands of shooters, they sell. I am hopeful with games like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, which has a male and female protagonist, that more gamers will be accepting of the changes. It’s only a matter of time.

Rabbit: Things are definitely trending that way but if they’re creating protagonists based off of their target demographic then why don’t all video games feature thirteen year olds?

Tiger: Now that would be a nightmare.

Do Video Games Need to Diversify?

Tiger     vs     Rabbit

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