Designing Games That Highlight RaceApril 22, 2008
I’ve decided to take my own advice and try to bring the Race and Games conversation into a more positive place; having attained my goals of “Ranting About Resident Evil 5 Two Weeks Longer Than Everyone Else”, and “Becoming the Number One Google Search Result For ‘Shooting White People’”, I think this blog could use some more creative thinking.
About a year ago I wrote a short post called “Race and Player Characters” that talked a bit about the need for a player to “project” themselves upon the player-character, and how making characters racially ambiguous a la Jade from Beyond Good and Evil was not the way to do anything other than stunt the growth of a video game’s potential to tell a story.
Frankly, I think making a completely nondescript player character is in most cases lazy writing. To be sure, there are places in games for less detail; the Security Officer in Marathon and Master Chief in Halo (both Bungie titles) are both shrouded in mystery, Crono from Chrono Trigger never speaks, and the Vault Dweller in Fallout gets no details beyond what you write yourself. But the anonymity of the first two becomes a major plot point, the Vault Dweller gets his or her personality from your decisions as a role-player, and Crono’s purpose is basically to highlight the rich characters around him. The thought that characters like JC Denton from Deus Ex (great game, horrible character) are what designers ought to strive for to make a game better, however, is just wrong.
When I think about it, it seems like there are plenty of existing game mechanics that could be used to further explore race and racism, precisely because even in the most vaguely defined player characters, there’s always something that sets them apart - after all, that’s why you’re playing as them and not one of the random schmoes you steamroll in your quest to save the world or whatever. From there, it’s not a stretch to see how existing game dynamics could begin to explore race, gender, and other kinds of axes of stratification.
I’ve been playing The World Ends With You a bit lately, and I’m really digging it, except for the fact that the protagonist is painfully emo (this is what character designers are afraid of, I guess. Good thing the rest of the game is awesome). Instead of walking around and talking to every passer-by like a typical RPG, though, Neku can scan the minds of everyone on-screen and see what people are thinking about, generally yielding things like “XYZ is so cool! Why doesn’t he notice me?” or “I wish I could afford the 300 yen instant noodles!” But what if our “Neku” was a young black man walking through a lily-white neighborhood? I’d love to play – or hell, design - something like that.
I could go on like this forever. A dating sim where you’re a young Asian American man in high school, negotiating the model minority myth and coming to terms with the popular media image of Asian men as impotent. Phoenix Wright and the problems with trying to win over a jury of your “peers” when you’re not-white and everyone else is. An FPS that puts you in the place of a Native American warrior resisting colonization and subjugation. I’d play ‘em all. Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments!