Racism & Video Games

This past Saturday a twitter war broke out relating to probably the most sensitive issue, not just in gaming but in all media in general: Racism. If you haven’t been following I’ll give you the quick version. Gearbox released Borderlands 2 last September, like it’s predecessor it features of all sorts of quirky and fun characters, one of which is an unstable 13-year-old girl named Tiny Tina, who uses a vocabulary similar to “ghetto” African-Americans. This apparently made some certain players uncomfortable and one player in particular sent out this tweet. This resulted in several other tweets between Gearbox and various players. So, keeping in line with the theme of discussing larger concepts for the month of February, this week’s topic is going to be about the relationship between racism and video games.

To be fair, I would question the mental stability of anyone who has the word badonkadonk in their vocabulary.

I can’t help but feel frustrated by this news. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Tiny Tina’s “ghetto” vocabulary is invoking racial stereotypes, but not to show that she’s a racist character, but to show her naïvety. A mentally unstable thirteen-year-old girl probably lacks the wisdom to see past a racial stereotype. I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume Tina thinks “ghetto” talk is cool; hence it’s easy to conclude she’s a naïve character. What bothers me even more is not just that most of the people who complained about Tina’s dialogue were white but that this event shows that regardless of context, video games aren’t “allowed” to use any racial stereotype. This is further reinforced by the fact that Anthony Burch (who wrote Tina’s dialogue) actually offered to change her character in response. Even though it’s a legitimate part of Tina’s character, the very person who knows the character best is being apologetic in the face of criticism. Burch isn’t at fault here; anything he says ultimately reflects Gearbox so he has reason not to say the wrong thing. This type of attitude however, reflects a deeper problem within the industry.

Race is a topic that few video games attempt to approach in any context. To be honest, for a medium so early in its history, that’s not something to be ashamed of. Race is something that even the film and television industries struggle to discuss. Another problem though is the ethnic uniformity that video games, movies and TV shows suffer from. Developers can’t even be bothered to address this issue, let alone tackling the topic of race. As a result the topic is left unexplored. What saddens me is how effective video games could be at discussing racism. Imagine a lead character in a video game who was treated differently because of their skin color, imagine how that would affect the player. If such a game were made it could let anyone, even a white male, experience racism directly.

Instead the industry is more concerned with playing it safe. The very best that video games have done in terms of ethnic representation is to ignore racial background entirely. Mass Effect does this with Captain Anderson; no one ever points out his race throughout the entire trilogy ( In fact, the same thing occurs if the lead character has non-white skin coloru). This isn’t a bad thing, in fact I greatly respect this approach. In a perfect world, skin colour would be as important to a character or person as much as their eye colour. But this is an idealism that only lives within fiction. In the real world, racism is still very much present in our culture.

There’s currently a divide between how developers use video games to explain the world and how the world actually is. Of course this comes with the territory, video games are for entertainment after all. I don’t accept that this is all video games are. Video games are an art to me, and I think video games have the capability to address racism in a way that other art form is even capable of doing. I just really want to play a game like that.


About Sam Hale

Autistic, young adult and lots on my mind.

Posted on February 8, 2013, in Game Design and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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