Racial Identification: The Secret Strength Videogames Forget They Have

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As a sequel to Far Cry 3, or perhaps rather a fraternal twin, Far Cry 4 might be best described as perfectly serviceable and somewhat unremarkable. For me, however, it might have been 2014’s most important game.

The story of Ajay Ghale, a Nepali-American returning to his home country for the first time in his adult life, might not matter to most people, but it was the game to make me realize that videogames and I have had a fundamental disagreement for nearly thirty years. After playing Far Cry 4, after hearing accents familiar to me and foreign-sounding names being Americanized by the people who owned them, I realized what one experience videogames have offered so many players all their lives and never me—identification.

If you were to condense the history of videogames into a minute, the playback would be breathtaking. When I consider my passion for this medium, this is how I choose to remember it, as moments overlapping each other in quick succession showing demonstrable progress. It has journeyed from an abstract form of tennis to genuine events, capable of begging the discussion of artistic merit. But in the area of racial diversity, in the recognition of how racial identification matters to players, these issues have become a pileup in the videogame industry’s rear-view mirror. We elect to go full speed ahead on the celebration of advanced cloth physics and cover systems without knowing or caring about everyone left behind. The videogame industry has done its best to avoid discussion of racial representation, from the games themselves to the medium’s most ardent fans. I was taken aback when I recently heard a podcast personality suggest that maybe Far Cry 4 would have been better if the character been nothing and no one—a faceless mannequin holding a gun because it ultimately did not matter who they were.

Why is Ajay Ghale the one who needs to have his identity deleted and not Jason Brody, or Marcus Fenix, or Nathan Drake? More importantly, why are there so many white characters for players to recognize immediately and only one Ajay Ghale?

“Some of the lack of diversity comes from the homogeneity of the industry,” says Dr. Adrienne Shaw, professor at Temple University and author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. “A lot of research has shown that it is hard for white people, in particular, to conceive of racial minorities in non-stereotypical ways. Even when people are not being intentionally racist, we live in a culture where norms of representation have made stereotypes more readily salient and it takes a lot of work to think beyond those caricatures.”

There is certainly a chorus of people now singing, or continually singing, a very common refrain: Why does any of this matter? It has become abundantly clear that there is a contingent of gamers that, if not outright scornful of social change, are at least skeptical of its necessity. In her book, Dr. Shaw mentions that even minority gamers often do not see the need to hurry along social progress because society has spent so long telling them that videogames are frivolities undeserving of that kind of attention. So, then, why change at all?

The answer should have come to me a long time ago. It is because I want to experience videogames in the same way that people who take it for granted get to already.

I started playing videogames before I have memories of playing videogames. I called my mother into the room to read what April O’Neil was saying in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles character select screen with an agonizing repetition well known to every mom with a small child. I studied the design of Mega Man X more than I ever studied Algebra. I have paid my dues and can stand toe-to-toe with anyone who claims to be a veteran of this passion. I should not have to be fighting an invisible war to have the same experiences that other players are having. A black child who plays videogames should be able to have characters that look like them and aren’t thugs or comedic buffoons. Talk all you want about political correctness, at the end of the day, it actually affects how a player enjoys the game.

Of course, that is the lesser reason to march forward to diversity, something that always seems forever on the horizon and rarely within grasp. The actual, real reason is because we should. Social progress is an easy thing to improve upon and strive for simply because it has a road map. We know how to improve. We know that the end goal should be that the highs Person A experiences should be achievable for Person B, as well. This isn’t about making sure Persona A loses what they have, but giving other people that chance, too.

What is stopping the industry, then? Why is it so hard for developers and publishers and gamers to get together and agree that some of us are black, some of us aren’t, some of us are gay, some of us aren’t, and that videogames should be representing all facets of their audience? I asked Dr. Kishonna Gray, professor of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University, this exact question.

“For white males,” she answered, “I think it is problematic having to see someone else. Seeing diversity reminds white men that it’s not all about them, that they have to share the pie, and the sense of entitlement sometimes kicks in, sometimes in hostile ways (online harassment, sexism, racism, etc.).”

For her part, Dr. Shaw also suggests that marketability among the majority is the biggest stumbling block.

“Game designers told me that there was a general perception that the mainstream gaming audience is homophobic, therefore developers and publishers were hesitant to include more sexual diversity. Developers and publishers have a sense that there are particular types of characters people who play videogames want to ‘be,’ based on what games have ‘worked’ historically.”

More than anything, this convinces me that I am right to feel the way I do: That players want to identify with the characters they play and a lot of marginalized people simply are not being given that opportunity.

I have spent much of my life being confused about how much my own race matters. Having grown up in the American south, I always felt “other,” different, and was accused of being “too white” by people who wear the same skin I do. Videogames have always kept me at arm’s length in the same way, never really offering me a foundation to stand on as someone who differs from a perceived majority. If videogames are frequently to be held up as fantasy worlds for escapism, to what fantasy was I escaping to? The one where people like me simply do not exist and I get to be someone else? Maybe more disturbing is that this seems to be everyone else’s fantasy to escape to when they play these games, which is certainly concerning.

I still love videogames, but after thirty years, I think I finally love them like an adult. I see the flaws, the problems, and I want to do something about them. I do not think all videogames should be one thing or another, but they should be more than what they are. They should have the same diversity (and especially the criticism at the lack thereof) that other entertainment mediums currently have and are currently struggling with. Until then, we are clinging to a notion of an ever-slimming majority that cannot possibly sustain a billion-dollar industry themselves. We are failing to ask more of creators because we fear their next game might not be able to afford Troy Baker if they risk alienating this audience.

When I spoke to Dr. Gray, we finished the conversation with something that actually made me smile.

“You see some [people] lashing out against women (i.e. GamerGaters), people of color, sexual minorities, etc. But the gaming world no longer resolves around just one demographic—and that’s cool.”

That is cool.

Imran Khan is a freelance games writer living in Atlanta, GA. You can find him on Twitter at @imranzomg.

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