5 Prejudices That Video Games Can't Seem to Get Over
We've mentioned before that movies still inexplicably revolve around prejudices that we thought we had outgrown decades ago, but that can at least be attributed to the age of the medium. Movies came into their own nearly a century ago; those prejudices are likely just strangely persistent moral throwbacks. But video games are different, because they're ours, right? There's no reason to inherit our grandparents' bigotry because we made these things up: We've set the standards, we've made the rules and we know that being racist, sexist, homophobic jerkholes is wrong ... don't we? Then how come this stuff is still happening all up in Mario's grill?
Racism as a Gameplay Mechanic
Sure, there's the occasional obvious racism, like your classic stereotypes -- Barret Wallace in Final Fantasy VII is the only black character, and of course he uses heavy weapons, speaks in broken English and is vaguely homoerotic. City of Heroes has a similar problem, with the only in-story black character being the "Back Alley Brawler." Even the Mass Effect franchise, which is usually considered smarter and more progressive than most other games, has only one possible black romance option -- and if you pursue it, he cheats on you and gets another woman pregnant. Also, he's in charge of weapons on your ship and his father is a criminal. Also, he constantly says "dyno-mite!" like Jimmie Walker and kills aliens by slam-dunking over them. (We only made two of those things up.) One of the oldest villains in video game history is Ganondorf, and not only is he the only non-white character in the first few thousand iterations of the Zelda series, but he's also a member of the "thieving Gerudo race," which, like the Redguard, are obviously based off an existing people: Gypsies.
It's like what Hitler probably thought Gypsies looked like.
In Warcraft II, the "Trolls" are a species of idiotic subhuman warriors, so, naturally, they speak with an obvious Caribbean accent and make blatant references to living in Jamaica. In World of Warcraft, the Pandarens come from an ancient foreign realm in the Far East, bow as a form of courtesy and look like this:
It's not necessarily racist ... maybe the developers just loved Breakfast at Tiffany's.
Yep. You read that description right: The players keep them as pets, like a bunch of fantastical anthropomorphic subservient Katos to the white man's Green Hornet. We're not even going to get into World of Warcraft's race of Pygmies, who actually speak by repeatedly hollering "boogada boogada." You guys know Pygmies are a real people, right? We know they're amusingly short to us white devils, but we didn't see any "You must be at least this tall to be racially offended" sign at the entrance to the arcade.
But hey, like we said, that's all pretty superficial stuff: Some racism in modern video games is so ingrained as to actually be fundamental to the gameplay.
So What's the Deal?
Way back in 1974, Dungeons and Dragons took a cue from Tolkien and set a fantasy standard in gaming that lasts to this day: The race of your character influences gameplay in a meaningful way. Elves are good at bows and magic, dwarfs are heartier and use axes, and humans are for players who are unimaginably boring or painfully indecisive. Now, more "realistic" fantasy games like the Elder Scrolls series allow your characters to choose real-world races -- but still base their in-game stats around race. For example, the Redguard share skin pigmentation and cultural signifiers with the Moors ...
If you play as a Redguard, all the other characters mention how you're +10 to "Articulate" and "Well-Spoken."
... and share their stats with "black people," as in the walking stereotype we're trained to expect from watching cop dramas and episodes of Maury. In Skyrim, Redguards have an Adrenaline Rush perk that augments their athletic abilities, while in Oblivion, Redguards took a massive penalty to intelligence (effectively meaning that in the Elder Scrolls universe, black people were too stupid to use magic -- that world's analogue of technology).
This isn't the stuff of yesteryear; it's all still present in video game design. Despite the fact that African-Americans and Latinos play more video games than any other race, they're still getting treated as second-class citizens in the properties themselves. That's right: Even in an interactive medium completely free from the boundaries of reality, we're still slapping up "no coloreds" signs on all the Fairy Fountains.
And no Jewish people in the Mystical Country Clubs.
Relationship Mini-Games Create Exclusively Unhealthy Relationships
These range from BioWare's plot-spanning and game-changing "Romance" side quests to God of War III's completely ridiculous, sexual-insecurity-overcompensation mini-game. But if anyone has figured out how to make a video game relationship that isn't utterly horrifying, we haven't seen it yet.
Take Infamous 2, which has two relationship options: the sassy black woman (if you're evil) and the bookish Asian woman (if you're heroic). In addition to starting out at the "Haha, like, really?" level of racism right from the jump, the outcome of both options is the same: Cole MacGrath, the hero, gets their powers, doesn't have to share his own and then kills both of the women. Even the ostensibly progressive BioWare drops the ball, with their portrayal of Jack in Mass Effect 2. As this 1Up article points out, the only way to effectively cure her post-traumatic stress disorder is to literally fuck it out of her. If you play as a female Shepard or just decide not to romance her, her character's story doesn't come to any kind of conclusion.
"Decades of physical and mental torture have left you psychologically shattered? I hear my penis is great for that."
Then there's Fable, where divorcing your wife earns you 600 "evil" points. Murdering her, however, only gets you 16.
So What's the Deal?
Relationships need to serve a purpose in video games, and since writing a quality story arc is, like, really hard, most game relationships end up functioning as just another way to earn in-game perks instead of advancing the plot. Grand Theft Auto's relationship system revolves around the male player tricking women into falling in love with him so he can use their stuff (sleep with a mechanic for free car repairs, or a cop for getting treated nicer by police), and he can "romance" as many as he'd like, consequence-free. While this kind of thing appeals to the "nerdy gamer who can't get a real relationship" stereotype, it's pretty frustrating and more than a little insulting for the millions of gamers who actually have emotionally matured beyond the age of 14.
"Will you be paying in cash, credit or sexual romance?"
Take us, for example: We're operating at least on the level of a 17-year-old. But, y'know: a deep one. Like a French kid or something. Give us some le credit, gaming industry.
Strong Female Characters (Are More Satisfying to Demean)
Some developers seem incapable of making a female video game character who isn't submissive, emotionally vulnerable and entirely dependent on men. Even our icons aren't safe: Take Samus Aran, from the Metroid series. She ranks among the most seminal of video game action heroes, and has been literally rolling deep since the bad old days. In the original Metroid, she spent the entire game in androgynous power armor, so most players never even learned she was a woman until the end. And the reveal of her gender taught us all a valuable lesson: Everybody can shoot missiles at jellyfish equally well. Exploding space invertebrates is not just a man's game.
"What kind of armor is that? You can't tell at all how big her tits are!" -- The modern gamer
Then, in Metroid: Other M, the writers decided to explore Samus' femininity, and things went to shit faster than you can Wiktionary "internalized misogyny." Somewhere along the line, someone suggested transforming one of video game's most legendary badasses into a prissy wimp who constantly frets about impressing men, and astoundingly, nobody thought to slap that guy in the mouth until he died from a barrage of epic, reeling mouthslaps. They ended up making that game instead, and not 10 minutes into the opening, Samus is already feeling "touched" that her former commander, Adam, "would acknowledge that past by calling something delicate, like 'lady.'" Because of how he "touched" her, Samus decides to play the first few major battles without using missiles or bombs -- not because she doesn't have them yet, but simply because Adam hasn't authorized them. It's worth pointing out that Adam didn't tell Samus not to use her bombs (his command was just for his soldiers; Samus is not a soldier, she's a friggin' bounty hunter), but Samus decides to follow the "shoot aliens, but gentle, like a lady" order just to get Adam to like her. Just like any other reasonable bounty hunter would've done.
"Darth? I captured Han without using bombs or missiles and with a helmet that
gives me the tiniest field of vision possible. W ... will you call me 'lady' again?"
So What's the Deal?
Most RPGs have an armor system where upgraded male armor gets tougher and more intimidating, while female armor gets skimpier and more sexualized.
You'll notice female Marines don't tool around in nothing but a flak bikini.
The Sims 3 has a moodlet that makes pregnant women automatically happy throughout the entire pregnancy. Even though that is just insanely wrong, it fits right into the weird, subconscious idea held by most teenage boys that women only exist to please men while simultaneously creating more of them. The race of Asari in Mass Effect, who we're told are one of the oldest and wisest races in the galaxy, are all incredibly attractive pansexual women, the majority of whom work as strippers. The three most prominent Asari are a nurturing mother figure, a devoted lover and a dominatrix sex-vampire. Look at their character quotes -- the one line of dialogue they've said in game that most encapsulates their characters.
Translation: "But enough about me, let's talk about how special you are, dearest man!"
Translation: "I will totally bone you if you ask me to."
Translation: "I will totally bone you even if you don't ask."
There Are No Gay Men, Just Lesbians (And Those Chicks Can Be Converted)
As screwed up as heterosexual relationships are in games, the gay ones are even worse ... that is, when they even bother to exist. For example, in Mass Effect 1 and 2, there were no gay options for the male Shepard because the games were about "Shepard as a defined character," so in the designers' own words, they decided to "constrain the choice set somewhat."
The most sexually diverse setting is secretly owning a matching hat and shoes.
Totally fine, right? Except for the fact that literally everything else about the character -- gender, how he or she looks, whether he or she is a genocidal maniac or an idealistic paragon -- are left entirely up to the player. You can even have sex with aliens from other planets, because that's somehow less weird that homosexuality. Oh, and then there's the fact that if you're a female, you can be gay. Even the "progressive" BioWare makes games like teenagers watch porn: Lesbians are fine and kinda hot, but dudes touching other dudes? Gaaaaaaaaay.
Don't say Cracked never did anything for you, creepiest parts of the Internet.
So What's the Deal?
To be fair, sexuality is a really tough topic for anyone to touch, but especially for an industry as young and susceptible to criticism as gaming. Then you have the fact that even the possibility of homosexuality in a video game auto-triggers Fuckhead mode on the Internet. Putting any gay characters in a game makes that title more risky and more susceptible to controversy, much less honest, relatable, realistic ones. Publishers just aren't ready to accept that risk, so until the industry learns to grow up a bit, it's just going to suck to be a gay gamer (no pun intended).
Listen, we know we're picking on BioWare a lot for sex issues, but in a way, their constant, staggering screw-ups are actually commendable. Because they're the only ones even daring to dance around the bush (also no pun intended) in this regard. If any other game franchise is even touching this stuff, it's only with blatant stereotypes, like Gay Tony in GTA IV, or closeted characters still ashamed of their sexuality, like Player 2 from Contra (that guy had some serious issues. You could see it in the pixel that made up his face).
"Don't look at his ass. Don't look at his ass. Don't look at his ass."
The Fundamentals of Game Design Make Racism Easier
Probably the biggest race controversy in recent video game history was about Resident Evil 5, which revolved around a well-muscled white American shooting hordes of mindless diseased Africans. That's actually the least inflammatory way we know how to describe that game.
The scary thing is that he started doing this before learning they were monsters.
It wasn't anything new, though: Look at the most popular video games out there, like Uncharted and the God of War franchise. Both feature rugged, strong-jawed white men slaughtering hordes and hordes of not-white people. Sure, there are white enemies mixed into all of these games, too -- but they're almost always visibly monstrous, differentiated from the player by snake heads or tentacle arms. You can bet if there's just an ordinary-looking guy you have to shoot, stab or knife-whip into oblivion, his skin is going to be a bit more Burnt Sienna than Driven Snow.
How many of you have older relatives who think this is basically any inner city?
So What's the Deal?
It's entirely possible that no one involved with the creation of any of these games is the least bit racist. Turns out that the basic rules of video game design make being a racist jerkhole fundamentally easier than being ... not that. Check out this quote from Level Up!: The Guide to Great Video Game Design:
Within your game, you can create groups of enemies based on shape, color, physical attributes ... they need to look different at a glance. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason: They're easy for the viewer to understand. Don't be afraid to use them.
Now, he's not talking about racial stereotypes necessarily -- he could be referring to stereotypical enemies like skeletons or minotaurs -- but this mode of thinking explains why racial stereotypes still show up so much. Back in the 8-bit days, designers were desperate to make items even remotely recognizable with their limited resources. All power-ups were flashing fruit, and enemies were turtles or birds or whatever animal was easiest to communicate with six or eight pixels. Anything too complicated just became a confusing blob, and players wouldn't know whether to collect it or jump on its head until it died. On a basic level, this is how all games have to work: Whether you're playing Super Mario World or Battlefield 3, your thought process is still "see thing/react quickly/get reward," and complicating that process too much makes the game less fun.
Nowadays, with photorealistic graphics, designers have the opposite problem: There are billions of pixels on the screen, but they still need to make the enemies consistent and easily, instantly identifiable. Race just happens to be the laziest way to accomplish that. To see a great example of how this design philosophy leads to accidental racism in modern gaming, just check out this video by the people over at Extra Credits. They explain how the designers of Call of Juarez inadvertently created a system where the game rewards you specifically for killing black people, just because they didn't think their level design through enough. Or, for a significantly more hilarious example of accidental bigotry, you can just read Seanbaby's article about Red Dead Redemption's hate-erection for all womankind.
"Damn it, this is not what women's suffrage means!"
We're not saying that this stuff exists because of some hidden malice or secret industry-wide conspiracy to keep minorities in America down. The much sadder truth is that all this bullshit comes from simple, old-fashioned laziness. There's no good reason video games can't be infinitely smarter, more responsible and better than this -- it's just going to take time, thought, hard work and a bit of empathy.
And shit, who has time for that? Game developers have got to get another Callfield: Dutybattle out the door by Q3 or the EA monster will devour their children.
J.F. Sargent blogs and tweets (about social justice issues, but also fun things) and is the managing editor of the political website PCulpa.com.
For more screwed things about video games, check out The 8 Creepiest Glitches Hidden in Popular Video Games and 12 Great Video Games With Ridiculous Premises.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out The Most Unintentionally Sexist Attempt to Empower Women.
And stop by LinkSTORM to learn why Samus doled us more punishment in our youth than our mothers did.
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