Designing Games That Highlight Race

April 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!

pat m.



  1. Not to deviate on your post, and I’m only bringing this up because you mentioned it. But, doesn’t it seem odd to you that The World Ends With You takes place in Japan, yet all of the lead roles I’ve seen pictures for are not Japanese? Or, look Japanese. From what I’ve read the game takes place in Shibuya and the likes (will be picking this up later myself) so I find it weird that their character designs look nothing like someone who is actually from Japan. Again, I could be wrong considering I know nothing of the story. Maybe this is worked in? Enlighten me please.

  2. blonde hair and features that we generally assign to white people are commonplace in Japanese games and anime, even for characters designed to be ethnically Japanese. that is a long story best saved for another day.

    actually, though, the art direction is fairly closely tied to the real-life streets of Shibuya, street fashion all, and i can tell you that even though Japanese people are born with dark brown/black hair, it rarely stays that way for long. there’s plenty of blondes, red heads, even some silver/platinum-haired looking people there in real life, too.

  3. Ah, gotcha.

  4. Games like Elder Scrolls, that allow you to custom create your avatar, are in a good position to do something like you’re proposing. Like, if you make your avatar darker skinned, he might have to deal with social ramifications. I think that’d be awesome.

  5. How many publishers are going to want to take on these kinds of issues? I mean they’re risk averse in so many ways so I can’t see a big desire for them to put out games which have such a high potential for controversy and yet would be so hard to market. I mean you can’t easily put “characters who show the depths of racial inequity” on a box.

    Furthermore what’s wrong with JC Denton? I thought he was pretty cool and he gave the developers the ability to really make a hybrid player character whose defined by both the player and the developer instead of just one or the other.

  6. hey, Crash won best picture in 2005. some day video games – and the people who play them – will grow up and realize that a deep, involving, thought-provoking game experience is more important than yet another new 3D engine. at least i hope so, because really, i’d feel embarrassed to be a grown man and still play video games if it’s not going to come any further than this. besides, small-time developers are doing fascinating things with games that don’t require much of a budget – see ICED (“I Can End Deportation”) for a good example.

    JC Denton has the personality of cardboard. That’s what’s wrong with JC Denton. Sure, it’s great that Deus Ex is so open-ended, but for the love of God, they could written (and voiced) a character with that same potential and more, well, CHARACTER.

  7. I’m an indie developer working on a role playing adventure game of sorts. I remember the process I went through when designing my main character. Though the main character is silent, I wanted to characterize him through environment, scene, and context. Furthermore, like in all of my fiction writing, the main character is a strong reflection of me. This is why I decided to make the main characters black.

    That’s when I thought about all the main videogame characters that were black. Needless to say, I could hardly think of any. Now with all of the race and videogame talk floating around in the air, my decisions seem slightly more important.

  8. delurking again…this is becoming a habit…

    That would be awesome. I’m not sure putting the reality of the -isms in games where the exploration of oppression is not a part of the game would be a great idea though. I mean imagine if you’re just playing a straight RPG and you end up dealing with the same shit you deal with in real life…in a video game. It might come off as less social commentary and more reinforcing of marginalization.

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