Well Said: A Response to “Chili Con Carnage”June 22, 2007
From Latoya Peterson, over at Racialicious:
However, there is no balance. Stereotype after stereotype abound in the virtually crafted console world, with very few characters of color to provide an alternate perspective. Mottes argues that “most games with racist characters do not reflect the mindset of their developers.” I would argue that they do. It reflects the developer’s mindset in dealing with the world and in dealing with minorities. If the developer was not holding on to this mindset that minorities can be categorized with one or two main characteristics, we would have multi-faceted characters of color to play.
All of this is part of a multi-page response to an editorial called “That’s Racist! The Unjust Crusade Against Video Games” over at GameDailyBiz, written by Chris Mottes, the CEO of a company that apparently makes stereotypical games about Latinos. Mottes writes:
There exists a double standard.
The first line of dialogue in the 2006 movie The Departed, spoken by Jack Nicholson’s character, derides black people in a vulgar and insulting manner. Why can Martin Scorsese get away with including racist, morally grey characters in his movies? Why can movies, music, television, theatre, and literature get away with it? These media receive significantly less criticism when they portray racist characters—even racist, morally questionable protagonists. Is it simply because video games are an interactive form of entertainment? If that’s the argument, I think it’s an evasive one.
I think there are a few things going on in this “double standard” dynamic.
First, as much as I disliked “The Departed”, I have to say that even it presents characters far more nuanced and dynamic than most video games I’ve ever played. Video games are still a young medium, and (despite the industry’s best efforts!) people are still figuring out how to tell mature, well-conceived stories with them. Now, I haven’t played, uh, Chili Con Carnage or Total Overdose, but special moves that summon lucha libre fighters or turn your character into a raging bull generally don’t seem to offer a whole lot of nuanced character development. Racism is the spice for Jack Nicholson’s character, not the essence.
The bigger point behind Mottes’s argument here, though, is that he has changed the topic of discussion from racist stereotypes to racist characters. Racism in individual characters generally isn’t what draws flak to the industry at all, it’s playing through a game filled with stereotypical depictions of people of color (see CJ in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). This is a fundamentally different experience than simply playing a game with a racist character a la Jack Nicholson in “The Departed”. Having a racist character as a villain, or a foil, or even a partner (now that would make for an interesting game!) would be an example of offering up nuanced character writing. Using cariacatures of racial stereotypes as full-fledged characters, however, sends a different message to the people of color who play that game. This is where the bolded part of Mottes’s quote comes in:
Is it simply because video games are an interactive form of entertainment? If that’s the argument, I think it’s an evasive one.
Yes, it IS because games are interactive, and no one really cares if you think it’s an evasive argument.
Playing a game is fundamentally different from watching a movie because my agency is directly implicated in the execution of the narrative. A game cannot happen if I do not push the buttons. What’s more, I’m not pushing the buttons as some kind of invisible, external being; I cannot equate the pushing of the Play button on a VCR to using a gamepad to control “Ramiro Cruz” because I am controlling the actions of an avatar, rather than simply a machine. The avatar is how we project ourselves into the game, and the choices he makes are the choices we make.
For people of color, our game-choices are always mediated through white people. We are always playing games as though we are white men – a sick kind of identity tourism wherein we come to associate saving the world with the white man. When we have the opportunity to play as people of color, we are invariably asked to act out the ‘tongue-in-cheek stereotypes’ ourselves, by pushing the buttons that summon luchadores and so on. It’s kind of like paying $50 for the privilege of putting on a minstrel show, and it hurts, Mottes, to think that the only space for player characters that look like us also requires us to comply with what the dominant ideology thinks we do. We become complicit in our own oppression, forced to use our agency either to recreate and reinforce the white male supremacy narrative found in so many video games or act out the very stereotypes that oppress us because we are given no other action verbs to work with.