Tuesday, May 27, 2008

I Am Tired Of Being The White Guy

A Far Cry 2 trailer has been released from the recent Ubidays 2008 event. Far Cry 2 is a first-person shooter in development by Ubisoft Montreal and takes place in Africa, with the player being sent to assassinate a man known as "The Jackal". The trailer starts with a reporter, seemingly of African decent, narrating. At first I thought this was the in-game character narrating the trailer, setting up the story. Soon I realized, through the narrator's usage of the word "you" continuously, that the character was not the player but rather another character talking to the player's character.

Towards the end of the trailer, actual in-game footage is shown. I see the arm and hand of the player. He's white. Again. Why, oh why, do I have to play as The White Guy(tm) again? I am tired of playing as The White Guy. I played as The White Guy in BioShock, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and Condemned: Criminal Origins this year already. Not to mention countless other games throughout my life.

Here comes Far Cry 2, with its story set in Africa, with clearly African characters. And once again, here I am playing as The White Guy. Now, I don't know too much about the game and its story itself - I've only watched a handful of videos on the game, read some blog posts, and checked out the official website.

Maybe there is a fantastic reason for you being The White Guy in this game. Maybe it wouldn't have made sense to be a African, Asian, or Hispanic man (or woman). I have no idea if Clint Hocking, Patrick Redding and company discussed having a player character of a different race. I sincerely hope they did, and have no reason to believe they didn't at least discuss the issue.

The fact remains, you are still The White Guy. It is the default of this industry. Being The White Guy is automatically what occurs in a game, unless there is a good reason not to (for example Prey). This is especially true of North American and European developers.

I am not about to claim racism on any level on this topic, and not out of fear to use the term. No one (at least hopefully no one) is saying "Oh, I hate black people, so my character will be white." However, at the same time I have doubts that we consider alternatives. Do we give true consideration to other ethnicities?

This is not meant to point fingers at one game, or even a handful of games. Rather, I want us as an industry to look within and discuss the problem. Is this because our demographics as developers are skewed, especially in North America, to white and male? Is this because we are creatures of habit and this is the way it always has been? Do the same issues exist in television, film, and literature? I don't know the answers to these questions. I do know, however, that I am tired of playing The White Guy.

Let's just default to another color. What if, as an industry, we just defaulted to all characters being black for the next year, unless there was a good reason to do otherwise? It couldn't possibly be that terrible. Even if nothing else changed about the game, but the character was a different skin color, that would be a start. If you read that and thought to yourself that it's silly to change the ethnicity for no reason other than just to change it, you are correct. There's no reason to not change the ethnicity either.

That is the point. It makes no difference.

What if in the next Halo game Master Chief took his helmet off and... he's black. Truly think about that situation for a moment. What would the forum and blog posts be like? Would the topic of his race be discussed? Would it be discussed more than if he took his helmet off and he was white?

I think one of the first forum posts would be along the lines of "OMG Mistar Chef is teh black!" That's how we know the issue of race in video games (and in our society) isn't a non-issue yet - a discussion of race would occur in the case of Master Chief being black, where it would not occur in the case of him being white. Two black football coaches cannot coach in the biggest game of the year and not have the issue of race discussed. Why would Master Chief or any other game character be any different?

We need to diversify our characters. We need black, brown, and yellow characters. We need gay and lesbian characters. We need realistic women, not just large-chested ones. We need Atheist, Catholic, Jewish, and Sikh characters. We need all of these types of characters. Most of all, we need to talk about these subjects as a community and create something different. We don't have to always use The White Guy as our protagonist.

I am not trying to single out Far Cry 2 or any other game, but rather use them as a launching point for a true discussion. This issue has bothered me for some time, and it took the trailer to make me think about it more. Had Far Cry 2 not been set in Africa, had it not had an African man narrating, I probably wouldn't have thought much of it.

That's the problem. We don't think much of it. Let's start.

14 comments:

  1. This happens for the same reason it's been happening in movies and television for years--the people creating/marketing the White Guy main character justify themselves by arguing that their core audience better relates to the White Guy persona than they would an African American lesbian, for example. While this may, unfortunately, be true, you're right that we as developers should push for more diversity.

    A great game could have an alien midget as protagonist and still, of course, be received well.

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  2. *sigh* I know what you mean. I wanted to make the main character for my game (which isn't story based, it's more of a casual game and the race of the character plays no part at all) African-American. But I was told from on high that the character design was fine, he just can't be black. No explanation, nothing. I've run into the same issue for trying to have female characters as well. It's really frustrating from a designer's point of view. I want to change the games so that a wider range of people can relate to them, I'm just not allowed to do it.

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  3. hi,

    thanks much for the email and the great post! it's great to get the perspective of a developer with some time in the industry. hope you keep reading!

    pat m.
    tokenminorities.wordpress.com

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  4. Rayna, when you say you were told from on high, are you able to elaborate on that? Are you an indie developer whose publisher said no? Or were you turned down by other developers (the lead designer or project lead maybe). I'm curious, because Raven is owned by Activision. Therefore, we work on more IP which often has characters already established. This still doesn't mean we couldn't do a better job, of course.

    Anyone who thinks anything that I wrote in this post is even remotely close to being true, should check out Patrick's blog (tokenminorities.wordpress.com). He's done a fantastic job of making an entire blog about race issues in the gaming industry

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  5. On high would mean the company execs and directors. And we're a publishing/development powerhouse, so not indie.

    I'm following his blog too:)

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  6. Agreed 100%. When designing characters, I try to make a point of asking myself if there's any reason not to switch their ethnicity or gender. There usually isn't, so I usually do.

    Although, it should be pointed out in this case that Farcry 2 will apparently have 9 playable characters to choose from, and I would be surprised (and disappointed) if they were all white. However, it has been confirmed that they're all male.

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  7. yeah, that's a piss-off too. I loved Mass Effect because I could choose to be female. I love that you'll be able to do the same in Fable 2 (and even get pregnant!). I like that most RPGs have female protagonists you can select. It really does make a difference to me when I'm selecting a game. If there are a handful out that I'm interested in. I find that I'm more likely to choose one that I can play as a female.

    In this day and age, there's no reason not to have a female option.

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  8. Just some notes and thoughts:

    One note that might interest you: I am not certain that FC 2 locks the player into the role of a white protagonist. Rather, recent reports indicate that the game features 12 characters. 9 are male. 3 are female. At the outset of the game, you select one of those characters to be playable. The remainder of the characters remain NPC Friends.

    (Source: http://kotaku.com/5011415/far-cry-2-no-girls-allowed)

    You may not play as any of the female characters. The current explanation for that is that it would require doubling of all a lot of the assets, including rerecording of dialogue that might
    otherwise be interchangeable.

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  9. Yeah I saw that Kotaku post the DAY after I post this - wonderful!

    That's really good to hear honestly though... I'm not sure if they are going the CoD4 route where you play different characters at different times or that you just show off your character at the beginning.

    Again, however, this was not meant to be an indictment of one game. Just one game made me re-think about a larger problem. If Far Cry 2 goes against this grain, it's not in the majority. It's in the minority.

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  10. geez
    better ask question why we are always play as Amercian/British characters.

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  11. My friend Nav wrote a related post a few months ago on the identity disconnect of being a "brown" person playing a "white" guy, I thought it might interest you.

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  12. In the specific case of Far Cry 2, the marketing might show "The White Guy" but when you play the game you get to select your character from a choice of several, those you don't select then becoming NPC allies within the game. Each of these characters seems to have a different racical and cultural background.

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  13. You've got to be kidding me. Bloody kidding me.

    What's next: affirmative action in video games? Quotas? Underprivileged or disproportionately represented nationalities or minorities getting extra HP or auto-aim?

    I mean.........................seriously people.

    Given that ~64% of the US is white, 15% Hispanic, 13% Black, and 5% Asian, I feel that the proportions of representation are maintained in video games. From my personal experience in 20+ years as a gamer I have more often than not found that any time players are given a choice to customize their character they have the option of altering skin tone. In the case of games where your characters identity is pre-selected... well... um... that's the way the story is being told by the designers. I mean I guess we could throw creative control and successful marketing out the window in favor of a vapid goal like "social justice" (all morons are welcome to comment on this post to define wth that actually means) and go back and re-release all the different chapters of Half-Life, for example. But THIS time, instead of you playing through the Black Mesa meltdown as a security guard a.k.a Blue Shift, there would now be a racially adjusted version of the game for each politically correct racial category. Black-Life, Hispanic-Life, Asian-Life; the only difference being the skin color of your characters hand/fingers that hold onto the weapon protruding from the bottom of the screen/HUD. Kind of ridiculous if you ask me, but hey. That's social justice. It's "fair". Now we have equality.

    I don't think that helps anyone. Trying to "force" equality has caused some of the most egregious harm in human history and this is true of race relations as well.

    Again though...

    You've. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.

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