Games and Racism: Are we doing enough to fight it?

Black main characters are becoming more common in games, but are they doing much to combat racism?

Black main characters are becoming more common in games, but are they doing much to combat racism?

Lately, I’ve been studying up on the topic of racism, specifically, what it is and what can be done to prevent or at least reduce it. SCSU offers a number of CARE workshops and programs for faculty and students addressing the topic, and the city of Saint Cloud offers the Create CommUNITY “Conversation on Race,” which I plan to attend on Tuesday. What has struck me about all these events is a particular definition of racism–specifically, that “racism” isn’t just a negative attitude or prejudice against a race. Instead, it’s presented as a formula: Racism = Prejudice + Power. Some of the more provocative statements I’ve heard coming from the speakers at these workshops is that black people can’t be racist, since they don’t have the institutional power to discriminate against an entire group. Another claim that makes some people bristle is that “everyone is racially prejudiced,” that it just comes naturally to us and can’t be avoided. Even if you are a white person who is passionate about being anti-racist, you are racist despite yourself, since the system will discriminate in your favor no matter what you try to do. See Diane Sawyer’s True Colors on YouTube for a vivid look at what this kind of racism is all about.

I’m sure many of us would disagree, at least partially, with these claims and definitions, but there’s no denying that black people (and other “persons of color”) do face significant institutional discrimination, even if it’s not as blatant as it used to be in the 60s. The point of these workshops is to show that modern racism tends to be systemic rather than individualistic. Thus, even if we don’t actively set out to be racist, just by being white in a system that favors being white, we’re contributing to a racist society.

For instance, if a black person enters your shop, you might watch him more closely for signs of shoplifting than you would a white–not because you want to be racist, but simply because you’ve unconsciously accepted your cultural belief that black people are more likely to steal than a white person. The common argument against this is, “Well, the stats show it to be true!” But then we have to question whether black people are really doing more stealing, or simply being caught more often because of the prejudice against them. I also think there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy there, too–keep telling or insinuating to someone that he’s a thief, and he might eventually decide to act the part.

We could debate these issues all day. But what I’m wondering is to what extent videogames could help us fight racism. For instance, would playing a black person in an MMO help white people gain a better understanding of this deeply buried racism? I’m hesitant to think so, since a white player could always turn off the game and “return to normal.” Obviously, that’s not an option for actual black people.

However, I still think a game could be built that would at least make white players more aware of some common forms of racism suffered by minorities that aren’t apparent to us. For example, if you were playing a black character and went into the blacksmith’s shop, the blacksmith would take forever to serve you (and serve whites first even if they entered the shop after you), jack up prices, have you watched carefully by apprentices, and claim to be out of everything even when the shelves were fully stocked. Maybe the game could also incorporate a charm or friends spell that would temporarily alter a black avatar’s body, making him or her white. The sudden contrast might well bring it home to the player that there are forces at work that they’re ordinarily quite obvlious to.

If there’s one core principle of “gamer ethics,” it’s fairness. After all, a game is no fun if other players (or the AI) is cheating. I think if white gamers could come to understand that systemic racism is a form of cheating–essentially giving white people an unfair advantage over people of color–well, I think we could expect to see a very strong reaction.

I’m well aware that many prominent game developers have used their medium to encourage players to reflect on race. BioShock: Infinite is clearly in this camp, though some critics are more impressed than others with its effectiveness. I was also impressed with the black main character in The Walking Dead game, though that series only skirts the edges of what it might really mean to be a black man in this situation. To my mind, a game has only accurately represented a black man if the character couldn’t be replaced by a white man without irreparably damaging the script.

Gamers Against Bigotry is a noble effort, but the site has suffered lots of hacking attempts.

Gamers Against Bigotry is a noble effort, but the site has suffered lots of hacking attempts.

There are also gaming initiatives such as Gamers Against Bigotry who encourage gamers to pledge to create a more welcoming community for all gamers. Sadly, there are also plenty of negative examples, such as the attacks on this very initiative. In my experience, most gamers I know tend to have knee-jerk reactions to anti-racism efforts by designers or other gamers, claiming that it’s just “political correctness” or that games should stick to a strict colorblind view. Even when dealing with a game that’s clearly sexist or racist, the response is, “Well, it’s just a game–it’s just entertainment,” and so on. Meanwhile, the only people who really seem to want anti-racism content in games are the ones who need it the least (much like the good citizens who attend workshops and anti-racism community events).

It seems to me that most gamers enjoy gaming mostly as an escape–precisely from the stress of dealing with uncomfortable social and political issues. Obviously, being forced or encouraged to reflect on racism (and their own role in its perpetuation, whether active or passive) makes them feel sad, angry, or guilty. Few want to play a game that makes them feel like that! Yet I think that games–with their inherently interactive and role-playing dimensions–could be far more effective at combating the deeper forms of racism than any other medium.  The question is, how could this be done in a way that wouldn’t turn away the folks who aren’t already onboard?

The folks I have in mind are those who would never admit to being racist–in fact, they’d be very outspoken against this label. However, they’d also say that they don’t think racism is a relevant issue anymore, or that videogames should avoid this territory (for whatever reason). I do think that a game that was too “preachy” or hamfisted in its approach would probably have a negative result, but perhaps something more subtle and intelligent in its approach would have a greater impact.

3 thoughts on “Games and Racism: Are we doing enough to fight it?

  1. Atawulf

    I don’t think “people of color” face significant institutional discrimination. I know Whites are facing institutional discrimination in form of affirmative-action for non-Whites.

    But then we have to question whether black people are really doing more stealing, or simply being caught more often because of the prejudice against them.

    Why do we have to question that? Are you implying someone will let White criminal go because he is White? I can’t even fathom that.

    Therefore I don’t think this liberal agenda belongs to computer games.

  2. John


    I wager most of your audience consists of WASPs, or those brainwashed with WASP-like ideology, so many of the comments you’ll get will contain the same level of ignorance as the one by Atawulf. Granted, Atawulf would probably vehemently deny that he is racist (he probably has just one token black friend), just as would the folks you mention in your last paragraph. These people would insist that *they* are the victims, because “their” America is changing, because they now have to make room for all the wretched unmentionables in their utopian white institutions. They will assume (since assuming is all they can do) that marginalized people have not earned the right to be on their level (which, as it turns out, is a pretty low level), that if one of the lesser folks “makes it”, there were probably a dozen whites who were much more qualified but passed over.

    Imagine the psychological toll this takes on someone like myself, someone who did “make it”. Constantly wondering if my classmates and coworkers think like Atawulf, that I am not qualified, that I do not deserve to be where I am today. People like Atawulf are precisely why I am constantly on guard, why I have a kind of “double consciousness” in any dimension I enter, and it makes me sick to my stomach, because this is supposed to be my country, my home. Not only am I not welcomed here, but I was never even meant to survive, given this country’s history.

    The only reason I’m posting this comment is so that this conversation does not turn into an echo chamber of commiserating WASPs, which is very likely, given that this is the internet and people can be anonymous.

    Great show by the way.



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