“Are Video Games Racist?”

July 28, 2006

…is a question that comes up during the latest Cheap Ass Gamer “CAGCast” podcast. True to their name, they’re trying to bring their podcast closer to legitimate journalism so they can cop more complementary review copies of games. I suppose I can’t really fault them for that.

 The question comes up in response to a recent press release (7/19/06) from the University of British Columbia, “UBC Study Finds Top-selling Video Games Rife with Racist Asian Stereotypes”. From the PR:

Kung fu warriors and faceless, yellow-skinned victims are two prevalent images of Asian males found in top-selling video games which tend to trade in racist stereotypes that society generally condemns in other media, says a University of British Columbia student researcher.

“These images have gone unchallenged for the past 20 years or more,” says Robert Parungao, who graduated from UBC this spring with a B.A. in Sociology and completed this eight-month analysis for his honours thesis.

“Parents, government and media watchdog groups have protested the widespread violence and sexism in video games, but the blatant racism has gone largely unnoticed.”

For his study, Parungao looked at four titles that span two decades of video game design: Kung Fu, Warcraft 3, Shadow Warrior and Grand Theft Auto 3. He analyzed the storylines and characters, and spent 100 hours playing the games.

While I’m hoping something got lost in the transition from undergrad thesis to press release – playing Shadow Warrior and then drawing the conclusion that there are Asian stereotypes in video games is like writing a thesis on stereotypes in film with Undercover Brother as your case study – I do applaud the effort.

From here, CheapyD and Wombat, CAGCast’s on-air personalities, decide to tackle the Big Issues, though they end up having a rather clumsy discussion with CheapyD bitching about political correctness and the use of stereotypes as a seemingly necessary consequence of “striving for realism” and Wombat, the one who broached the topic in the first place, trying to gently steer the conversation from complaining about politically correct speech to a discussion about the general lack of racial minority protagonists. While this topic yielded a witty gem or two (CheapyD on Halo‘s Master Chief: “I heard it was two Korean guys standing on each others’ shoulders”), the actual discussion on minority representation consisted of two conclusions:

  1. Spawn is the only racial minority protagonist.

  2. We need to see more Chicano/Latinos in Final Fantasy games.

That’s some hard-hitting journalism right there. I appreciate the thought, Wombat; you tried your best. Maybe it’s not all your fault that you’re the – what was it? “The second-tier Robin to Cheapy’s Batman?”

Comments about the average stature of Korean males aside, I have to say that the equation of racial stereotyping as “realistic” and resentment towards politically correct speech as somehow overly neutered and insulated from reality is incredibly frustrating. This horrible backlash from the movement for politically correct speech has led some people to embrace racist dialogue as more authentic and reflecting reality. “Asian American” is too much of a mouthful? Just call ’em “chinks”. That’s keeping it real.

This is a dichotomy that shouldn’t exist. Inoffensive speech has been incorrectly equated as “race-free” and “color-blind”, perhaps as a manifestation of the post-American Civil Rights Movement attitude that maintains that if we stop talking about race, we’ll stop thinking about race, and race will cease to be an issue. But to remove race from the bounds of acceptable discourse was never a goal of the people who aimed to establish words like “African American” or “Asian American”.  Rather, they were brought about as an attempt to eliminate the undue assumptions underlying pre-existing words like “Oriental” or simply “Asian”. Referring to a fourth-generation Japanese American as simply “Asian”, for example, implicitly connotes that their life experience is somehow closer to that of a native Japanese citizen who has never left the country than it is to any other American. And so on. The idea is that we can employ vocabulary to discuss issues of race, class, gender, etc., without employing the same assumptions – or, in some circumstances, derogatory content – of our earlier words.

We are making the same error with video games. Games are struggling to become more realistic, and that entails including real issues like race, which lead us to games that employ stereotypical characters. To refer to an example that Cheapy brought up in the podcast, we consider a game with Muslim terrorists as somehow more realistic than a game with Caucasian Neo-Nazi terrorists.

This line of thinking employs a bizarre version of a naturalistic fallacy. Certainly a game that depicts Muslim terrorists is directly relevant to the current American experience, as our country’s military is engaged in two wars in the Middle East at the moment as a result of the September 11th attacks from Muslim terrorists. But to say that the game would be somehow more real is an example of a racial stereotype perpetuating itself. We are, as Americans, inundated with media that equated people of Middle Eastern descent with Muslims, and Muslims as terrorists. Thus a media that does not play to the “Muslims = Terrorists” racial common sense is somehow less “real”, because that is the only image of Muslims we see in the media. You want a “real” game with Muslim terrorists? Fine. Make me a game with starring a Palestinian American policewoman or an African platoon leader of the U.S. Navy Seals, and then we’ll talk. CheapyD says at the end that “I would rather have a game that’s realistic and offends a few people along the way”; what is realistic about a game that is offensive other than the fact that people get offended in real life?

As a sidenote, it’s worth pointing out that the conversation on race develops a little bit in the CAGCast forum topic, although not from Wombat or CheapyD. “DeathDealer” posts:

about the game racism. thats just the way it is. most black people i know would rather be a gangster thug type rather than a black zelda or something. they try so hard to be a badass in real life, the game lets them live out what they wish they were.
sorry if that offended anyone, its not meant to be a racist comment.

To which “Tybee” responds:

You’re looking at the issue in a very myopic way. Just because slaves couldn’t read and write didn’t mean they didn’t want to. The culture of slavery made it virtually impossible. If someone is raised amongst media that celebrates that thug image, of course that’s what they’re going to adopt as an idealized life. That’s why you’ve got as many white suburban boys pretending to be gangstas as anyone else. It’s what’s dictated by the culture.

I’m not so foolish as to think that a “black zelda” is going to change things, but I also know that the lack of options presented to minorities in video games (You can be an athlete or a gangsta. Take your pick.) mirrors the same limited options presented by mainstream music, movies, and television. And it helps reinforce all the negative stereotypes that we all recognize but do not bother to dispute.

 Looks like there’s still hope for the Internet. 



  1. Thanks for listening to the show, you make alot of valid points. Also thanks for noticing that at least I tried 🙂

  2. Subbed to the feed. Looking forward to seeing more on this subject; it’s about time we discussed it openly.

  3. Wow…I foster hope in the Internet. I don’t know if I’m ready for that kind of responsibility. 😉

  4. well it would seem im supposed to be the bad guy. was what i said really that wrong. its just my opinion, and what ive seen through my experiences.
    anyway, after this awesome mention i will be starting a fan club and giving free autographs to all.
    woo hoo.
    this is stupid.

  5. Understanding that the strapline of your site declares that yours is a blog about RACE and games, I’d still like to know what you think about the depiction of other minorities in games–specifically homosexuals. I’m wondering because the most recent CAGcast provided me the same sort of “compulsion to blog it” that the race discussion gave to you. Thanks!

  6. Further proof that white people just don’t get it until they get burned by the pot. It’s not the sheer ignorance that bothers me; it’s the sheer ignorance coupled with conviction.

    Interestingly enough, there was alot of noise regarding the movie “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle” because the whites were nothing but stereotypes.

    I think the white population is actually aware of the all the wrongs that they perpetuate but choose to ignore it. It’s just an acceptable fact for the white demographic to treat us as nothing more than caricatures.

    At least have the balls to admit it.

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