It’s been almost a month since the El Paso shooting, and of course, nothing has changed. Nothing changed when elementary school children in Connecticut were massacred in their classrooms in 2012. Nothing changed after Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, Santa Fe. Nothing will change in 2019, especially during an era in which the current administration has relentlessly attacked Latinx people with no shame.
Following this latest tragedy—following every tragedy—many politicians blamed videogames for mass shootings. It’s a tired attempt at deflecting from the societal stigma against mental health issues, easy access to guns in a culture that glorifies them, and misogyny that make up the core factors behind mass shootings. Increasingly, it’s also an attempt to downplay the rise in white supremacy plaguing America.
Many then flocked to defend videogames, but the truth is games didn’t need to be defended. Videogames aren’t to blame directly for gun violence, but they’re also part of the problem. Videogames have historically ignored, alienated and demonized marginalized people—especially brown and black people. They have rarely fought back against the stereotypes, prejudices and bigotry that emboldened the El Paso shooter to make the 10-hour drive to commit a massacre in a city with a population that is 81.4% Hispanic/Latinx. In fact, they have worked to cement them, and for that, they don’t need an industry with a workforce that is 68% white to jump to their defense.
According to a 2005 study titled Violence, Sex, Race, and Age in Popular Video Games: A Content Analysis, “The Media Education Foundation (Huntemann, 2000) reported that 8 of the 10 top-selling games feature White characters.” 14 years later, although the industry has become more diverse and aimed to tell more inclusive stories in the last few years, this hasn’t changed much. Latinx people are largely invisible both on-screen and off-screen in videogames—perhaps more than in any other entertainment industry.
But we aren’t just invisible. The majority of the visible characters we get in videogames are stereotypes—drug dealers, luchadores, criminals, gang members.
Take last year’s The Quiet Man. In the first two minutes, the camera pans over members of a gang called “The Savages,” made up entirely of Latinos. In flashbacks, you learn that the white protagonist’s mother was killed by a Latino gang member when he was a kid. You spend the entirety of the game beating up brown and black men. There are no other Latinx characters; this is what The Quiet Man says Latinx people are.
Spanish for Everyone is meant to be educational, but it only succeeds at being grossly racist. The game opens with the white child you play as getting his DS stolen by his friend, Miguel. Miguel escapes because his father, who is implied to be a criminal, drives him to Mexico before you can get your DS back. Your promiscuous Latina aunt shortly pulls up in a car, offering to drive you so that you can get your DS back. When you express worry that you don’t know Spanish, she says, “they don’t call me Gina Vasquez for nothing! I can teach you many things, and Spanish is definitely one of them!” A developer confirmed in a forum post that her name is meant to be a play on the word “vagina,” and the combination of this with her big lips, hoop earrings, and alluring gaze—directed at a child, no less—makes her one of the worst caricatures of a Latina that I’ve seen. The same developer stated that, since the budget for the game was low, the team decided to have fun with making it silly and over the top. But who is having fun, and whom that fun is at the expense of, couldn’t be more transparent.
It’s just as clear in LocoCycle, a game in which you control a sentient motorcycle that is constantly dragging a character named Pablo throughout the entire game. He’s screaming for help, but the motorcycle can’t understand him because he speaks Spanish. It isn’t crude to just Latinx people, either. In Polygon’s review, Danielle Riendeau mentions that, in the game’s opening cutscene, she was, “greeted by offensively stereotypical caricatures of a North Korean ‘Supreme Leader’; an ‘African King’ who wears a plastic crown and speaks a made-up language; and a seemingly drunk Russian military leader.”
This doesn’t happen in just smaller games. It also happens in beloved, massively popular games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which garnered criticism and even protests from the Haitian community for its dehumanization of Haitians, emphasized through the inclusion of lines like “Kill the Haitians” and “I hate these Haitians! We’ll take these Haitians down! I’m going to kill me a Haitian.” This is in addition to the game constantly encouraging you to kill Haitians, “Cholos” (Mexicans) and Cubans, as well as the incredibly stereotypical dialogue and accents of the Hispanic characters. Rockstar Games responded to the criticism by removing references to Cubans and Haitians, but it was just a flimsy bandaid over the wound. The feud between the Haitian and Cuban gangs wasn’t originally framed around people who are rivals; it was framed—by a team surely composed of almost entirely white male developers—around their racial identities.
Cyberpunk 2077 might be the most widely anticipated game of the moment, but it’s a feeling many can’t share because its depiction of Latinx people has only gotten less reassuring over time. After viewing the 2018 E3 demo behind closed doors, I wrote about how deeply disappointing it was to see the extremely stereotypical characterization of Jackie, the game’s current single visible Latino character. Instead of a realistic human being, he comes across similarly to Mass Effect 3’s James Vega—an amalgamation of tropes rather than a character with compelling writing. How his character is handled remains to be seen, but after seeing Jackie get shot and seemingly killed in the trailer shown at the 2019 Microsoft E3 conference, I’m not hopeful.
Aside from notable exceptions like Life is Strange 2, videogames don’t give me much reason to be hopeful. They’re largely intent on either making Latinx people caricatures or not acknowledging us at all. And seeing marginalized people as caricatures instead of the complex human beings that we are builds the foundation for not acknowledging our nuances; for seeing our existence as inherently political rather than something that simply is. For developing an ease for hearing and making racist comments and jokes; for becoming immune to seeing our bodies brutalized in a virtual world or in reality; for looking the other way when we’re locked in cages; for finding justifications even when we’re dying in those cages; for the bigotry that makes someone want to kill.
Videogames are ultimately eager to reflect and perpetuate the problems that lead to mass shootings. They don’t need to be wholeheartedly defended. And until this industry hires more people of color, allows them to lead in positions of power, and sees us as people whose stories have value, they don’t deserve it, either.
Natalie Flores is a freelance writer who loves to talk about games, K-pop and too many other things.