The Games We Play: The Whitewashing of Video Games

Brandann Hill-Mann
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Comparison of Isabela -- DA2

One of these things is not like the other…

Many game designers and developers deliver games that meet the minimal requirements to make me happy, but there are certain game delivery elements that always ruin it for me. The lack of diversity in many games is one of these, and I often see it when I walk down the store aisle or rummage through my collection.

Some companies actually attempt to put out games with decent diversity, and succeed to varying degrees. Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, ASII, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood were created by teams made up of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, sensitivity-trained personnel. Sure, it would have been fun to be able to create my own avatar or have some kind of gender selection, but there I go complaining again. Odd to me, though, that Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, the main character of a game set in The Holy Land during the Third Crusade, is as white as his bedsheet armor. I understand that people from that region can vary in shade, and that non-white people don’t look any certain way, but it would be nice if game companies took a slight effort, occasionally, to make PCs darker in order to represent the rest of us. Yes, yes, the Animus. Yes, yes, Desmond. If you are going to try to stretch my imagination, I think that stretching it and introducing something fresh, like actual representations that more non-white people can relate to, might be more compelling.

Yikes! You might think I didn’t like the games! Actually, Assassin’s Creed was the first XBox 360 game that didn’t make me want to throw the control. Right away. Though, it did sit in the freezer for a while.

The same thing happened with Prince of Persia. The game series features a very fair-skinned and light-eyed hero (as did the eponymous movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal). While I understand, once again, that people living in the region where this game is set can range from darker skinned to light skin and have varying eye colors, the trend in video games to churn out light-skinned male hero after light-skinned male hero leaves me desiring a hero with non-white features, especially if we aren’t going to be creating our own avatars.

Dragon Age 2 released its anxiously awaited demo the last week of February, and we will see if it lives up to its “Best RPG of 2009” predecessor, which stands as one of my favorites still, and first game I have beaten before my partner. The demo contained some amazing improvements on Dragon Age: Origins, while not surpassing it in every way or living up to every expectation I had. One being that BioWare has a good reputation for character creation and also NPC diversity (though not perfect). So, why is it that when the promos for the game were released, a character known to be of a non-white ethnicity turned out to be paper white? Isabela is a party member of your PC, and is a Captain Jack Sparrow-esque pirate who was bleached out when EA released the promo stills and trailer for the game [Trigger Warning for violence].

Resident Evil 5 released a Gold Edition of their already controversial game. The original cover for 360 featured Chris Redfield and Sheva Alomar, with Sheva’s race and ethnicity listed at the RE5 wiki as African. When the Gold Edition was released, Capcom changed the cover to feature series darling Jill Valentine and Chris Redfield, respectively, with this iteration’s Jill being very fair and blond. And decked out in a very fetching battle suit. Jill was added as a playable character as downloadable content for the game, and only after achieving a certain point in the campaign with Sheva, who is a playable character throughout the entirety of the game, and actually has to help you rescue Jill (without going into too many spoilers). Wiping Sheva from the cover felt, um, awful. Sure, Jill has long been part of the franchise, but she wasn’t this game’s hero. She wasn’t part of the team meant to come in and win against Albert Wesker once and for all.

When non-white people and people of color aren’t represented in games, I wonder what conclusion is meant to be drawn. An easy message to glean from whitewashing of this type is that major companies don’t believe that non-white folks are interested in playing games. I wonder if another message could be that gaming companies believe that they do not exist, or that they exist only to act as support staff or as enemies to a PC. It certainly doesn’t mean that we stop enjoying the games that are offered to us, but seeing a body on the screen that represents or reflects our own certainly can enhance the enjoyable experience. I know it seems like a “little” thing, but all of these “little” things keep piling up, don’t they?

H/T to popehippo for the tip on Isabela, because I live under a rock. Or, in the RoK and don’t pay attention. And thanks to thessilian for the photo.

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18 Comments Have Been Posted

Completely agreed. The bland

Completely agreed. The bland mundanity of most white heterosexual males in videogames is growing tiresome. Particularly in contrast with the over-stereotyped images of POC we do manage to get from time to time.

A friend and I were just discussing Isabela as well, as she was under the impression that she was POC. Her model in the Origins was also lighter-skinned with some tan features (but that game's character creator really just ranged from skin tones that were white to rather tan), so it's hard to know what to make of her. The advertisement falls into the trope of 'lighter skinned = sexier' however.

Also of interest may be what the demo shows us about idealized Hawke:

I should probably just add

I should probably just add Border House to my RSS by now, because I find the blog incredibly relevant to my interests. Thanks for that link!

Regarding Sheva, while it's

Regarding Sheva, while it's true she's supposed to be a black African, it's worth pointing out that she resembles (to quote Zero Punctuation) "a white woman who's been dipped in tea."

On Prince of Persia

I noticed you mentioned Price of Persia in your article. Want to see something interesting? Take a good look at the Prince's face on the cover of this game (one of the best video games ever made, by the way, no hyperbole present), Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which came out in 2003:

Notice anything? Slightly darker skin, slender build, more classic Persian facial features. Compare it to the image you linked, which is from the 2010 game, Forgotten Sands. The Sands of Time Prince even had an English-accented voice actor (which would make sense, because if a Persian prince were to learn English he would likely have learned it from a tutor from the UK) in the game, unlike the voice actor in the subsequent games, who voice is as gravelly, manly American as possible. By the way, in terms of skin color, please note: one might assume that since the game is set in the middle east, the Prince should be dark-skinned, but Persians/Iranians are not Arabs and actually tend to have light-colored skin. Therefore, showing a hero with light skin is not an anachronism , but showing one with classic American facial features obviously is.

After Sands of Time, the 'generic American white dude' character design has been used in every release after SoT, starting with the game 'Warrior Within' that came out in 2004. Warrior Within also saw a departure from the witty, intelligent female sidekick/love interest in SoT to a spade of personality-less, anatomically-impossible bimbos with swords, metal thongs, and horrendous dialog. What happened? I have no idea. I've wondered about it for years.

By the way...

I am pretty sure that I mentioned in the OP that I already know that people from the region where <em>Prince of Persia</em> is set range in skin and eye color, me being aware that non-white people all have variation within their own ethnicity, and that there is really no particular way that any PoC/non-white person should look. But if you would like to keep 'splainin to me about that's fine, just know that I've already acknowledged it. I would just like to see someone do it differently.

Whoa, there. Let's hold up a

Whoa, there. Let's hold up a second. I wasn't insulting you or your article, or implying your ignorance in any way.

What I was doing was supplementing your point with more information about something you touched on, the design of the main character from Prince of Persia. I thought you and your would readers would find it interesting to know that the Prince's character started out as racially appropriate but over the years became whitewashed. Isn't that... interesting? A little? From a social perspective?

Nothing about my comment was meant to be combative in any way. The skin tone thing was just a side note. You did state that there are a variety of skin tones present in the middle east, and that's great. I was just providing a little more specific information: Persian (Iranian) people tend to be light-skinned. The word 'obviously' wasn't directed at you, it was directed at Ubisoft, at whom I roll my eyes whenever I see the new Prince design. The point of my comment wasn't at all to chide you, it was to show a picture of the original Prince design where he actually looked, well, Persian. Just to say, hey, there's more to the story of PoP's portrayal of race than meets the eye, there's a whole complex history there.

By the way, I'm sorry if that comment was submitted multiple times. I didn't realize that comments on Bitch don't show right away (moderator approval?), so I kept submitting it thinking it wasn't going through.

tl;dr The tone of our discussion doesn't have to be antagonistic. We are on the same side. Please treat me with respect and save the Jane Fonda quotes for actual assholes.

OK, here's the thing...

The part about the Prince being gradually whitewashed over time was interesting, yes, and appreciated. Relevant to the discussion, even. Not new information to me, exactly. What was the point, though, of going on to explain something that I had already covered in the OP? Hadn't I already said that I knew that people from the region had varying skin tones? Twice? Why point it out again? You might remember that intent doesn't matter, especially if a person who receives your message perceives it in a way that is hurtful. Your comment read as combative because it wasn't clear that you were chiding Ubisoft and not me, the writer of the OP.

I take exception to people telling me how to behave on my own comments' threads, especially when they can't be bothered to see that the Jane Fonda quote is a tag line in all of my comments. You have to give respect to earn it, and your previous comment read rather 'splainy towards me.

tl;dr: I'll be nice if you don't poke me.

Well, maybe not new

Well, maybe not new information to you, but the anonymous poster provided information to me that I didn't know, and I appreciate that. I don't think the commenter said anything out of line, and I don't think he/she merely reiterated what you said either. He/she clarified and went into further detail on a point you touched on. He/she even apologized for accidentally rubbing you the wrong way. The apology tells me that he/she DOES remember that intent doesn't matter and that you clearly perceived the comment harmfully.

Also, it's really, really unclear where the comment ends and the signature begins. Someone who doesn't frequent Bitch (or reads Bitch through their RSS feed like I do) wouldn't know where that line is. That's the site designer's fault, not either of yours. And it certainly doesn't mean that the commenter is lazy...

Great post though.

A lot of male gamers hated Warrior Within for that very reason

It pretty much tok away the charm of POP: Sands of Time at its desperate attempts to be darker and edgier (no pun intended). The once optimistic prince now acted like an angsty teenager, the female antagonist wore a chain-mail slingshot bikini (yeah, wrap your head around THAT concept), and encounters with the big bad that crashes through walls and chases you around (much like Resident Evil 2 & 3's Mr. X and The Nemesis) ALWAYS play Godsmack's "I Stand Alone". It tried to pander to what male gamers presumably wanted, but it offended a surprising number of them instead. The entire race thing, I didn't notice, but probably because it wasn't nearly as problematic as the other issues.

The thing that always

The thing that always bothered me about the first Assassin's Creed game was that while every other character had a sort of indeterminate Indo-European accent, Altair spoke with a hearty American accent. It was the worst casting EVAR and extremely distracting. I was glad that in ACII, Ezio's character design was a little more in keeping with his nationality (in fact, I think he had darker skin than Altair).

'Nice', they feel the need to

'Nice', they feel the need to "photoshop" animated characters lighter too. Any claims of "it's just the lighting" now?
I wonder if they did this for Jacob too, or if he just didn't feature in the promos at all becuse they only showed female crewmembers in tight bodysuits and maybe an alien. (ME2)

I think it's a shame that they chose to represent Shepard as a white dude, when they could have represented canon Shepard as *anyone* they liked in looks, and the personality is semi-set anyway. And then for DA2 it's a white dude for the marketing, again. It'll probably have the problem of "why don't I look like my family at all" if you customise the character to look much different again too.

I think another message is that the characters look better when they're bleached. They feel the need to make the chars look attractive in the marketing, so they pose them like that when they're women - knives and pouting, so hot! - (and weird looking 'cool walks' or barrel-armed stances for male characters)..... and make them white?

I never got a good look at the Assassin's Creed series hero(es), since it's one of those games I can't play: I don't console game for various reasons, and my coordination/motor skills/muscle tone issues made it a game I couldn't even get through the tutorial of. Even with reassigning all the keybindings in the optimal way. This seems to be most frequent with a certain type of game that they port over from consoles to PC. Aside from the genres I can't play by default (most notably racing games and real First Person Shooters).

I never saw Jacob in any of

I never saw Jacob in any of the promos. I saw, of course, white male dudely Shepard. Then, Thane, who is a light-green alien, and Miranda. I saw one with Runt and Jack in addition. Of course, we don't see many promos for U.S. games here unless we are actively looking for them, but that is a good question. Maybe he was just too dark, huh?

It's Grunt, though Runt would

It's Grunt, though Runt would have been funnier :D.

We don't really see advertising for any games here at all. Not outside of gamer magazines anyway; I mean in larger society.

Ha ha you're right...

I didn't bother to look it up, I was going from memory. At least I got close! LOL!

Yeah, the whitewashing's pretty bad...

How bad? Even with the 20+ years of gaming under my belt, and even if you paid me to prove the contrary, it's impossible to mount a defense.

In terms of genre, sports games obviously are the victor, specifically basketball and football games. Of course, that reflects the slant towards black athletes with those sports, so no big surprise. With hockey and baseball, the examples are much more limited. With extreme sports (of the X-games variety), even more problematic. However, the Tony Hawk series is a slight exception, since including Kareem Campbell and a nice selection of underground/old school hip-hop makes black skaters not feel abandoned (at least not completely). Still, since it's Tony Hawk, you don't need to guess who'll be on the cover.

But elsewhere? It gets worse. RPGs largely depend on each individual game, though it's safe to assume that fantasy based RPGs will be almost exclusively white. Sci-fi based RPGs and/or JRPGs fare better, but again, the cases vary, and even in the most optimistic cases, black characters are usually secondary characters or non-playable characters (NPCs). Final Fantasy 7 was the first time I spotted a black character in an RPG (Barrett), and thankfully, he managed to avoid many stereotypes. Mass Effect at least gives players the option to make a black protagonist, but in the first game, Shepard has no black party members. Only NPC Anderson in the background, and it's even worse in Mass Effect 2 (at least from the 14 hours I've played so far...). At least Mass Effect 2 has Jacob, though I've noticed that few people really talk about him, and I understand why. As a character, he's pretty bland. Not bad or stereotypical by any means, but unmemorable. Meanwhile, the otherworldly aliens get rich backstories that I love to listen to, but the human black guy? Nope.

Fighting games? Not much to really discuss, besides the occasional token minority character, who'll usually never be on the cover over the white/Japanese characters. But hey, fighting game fans don't really think much of it besides "well at least they're in the cast" and "Are they worth playing?". This might be the only genre where the whitewashed covers bothers me the least for that reason.

Action games and first person shooters, on the other hand, get no such pass. On the former end, you don't really see many minority characters to begin with, let alone get a cover spot. The only exceptions, sadly, were the games full of inner city gangsta imagery. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is easy to blame for this, since it's the most popular of the sub-genre, but at least with that, the developers attempted to make a decent story without resorting to petty stereotypes. It wasn't by any means perfect, but compared to everyone else, who simply copied San Andreas's most superficial elements, the GTA developers attempted to re-create a "Boys In Da Hood" feel. Too bad that's the only imagery that gave black characters covers more than any other sub-genre.

And don't get me started on first person shooters. Minority characters are more often than not present only in the background, either doing reconnaissance/hacking work or being a fellow soldier. Sometimes, they're not so bad (Sergeant Johnson of "Halo"). Alas, a lot of times, they're insulting caricatures. As stated in an earlier article, Cole from Gears of War made me groan in both titles. He's loud, proud, takes no BS, and is built like an NFL linebacker. The only way to make him worse is to show him actually gobbling down chicken and watermelon on screen. To be fair, Gears of War stereotypes all males, so it's not just Cole. He just comes across worse than the others because of how obvious it is.

Lastly, Starcraft. God, I don't want to call out Blizzard's real time strategy masterpiece, but man, it's too tough to ignore how the devs designed the Terrans. All of the soldiers are white. ALL of them. None of them are any other color. So where are the blacks? They're in cramped SCVs, mining minerals and vespene gas to build the army. Oh, and the humans you fight in the Terran campaign? The Confederacy. Oh yeah, the irony doesn't end there. Pretty much everything about the Terrans scream redneck culture, country accents and all. Let's just say as a black gamer born and raised in Nashville, that doesn't make me feel all good and fuzzy inside (even taking account black Muslim expy "Lieutenant Samir Duran" for Brood War, and Jamaican-like "Gabriel Tosh" for Starcraft 2 Wings of Liberty).

In rare moments, there are possible subversions, but they're hidden amongst the white covers that represent the majority of games. Call of Duty 4 has players controlling a squad led by a black sergeant, but the fact that the team eventually gets blown to bits by a nuke makes the inclusion a little bittersweet. But hey, at least Infinity Ward chose to do so, unlike most other FPS games. As for Halo, you could ALMOST excuse Master Chief's vacant personality and deeper voice as an avatar for ANY male gamer playing the game (though unfortunately, just male gamers). Too bad the Halo novels disavow any wishful thinking that Chief could be ANYBODY. He's just another white space marine, like everyone else.

Blame can come from all angles, including the lack of black programmers in the medium (as opposed to 70% white males, and I'm probably under exaggerating here). However, if the new generation of gaming programmers want to avoid alienating an increasingly receptive fanbase, including black characters beyond San Andreas would be nice.

P.S. As much as I defended RE5 throughout these topics (sometimes too fiercely and foolhardily, I admit), the entire cover shift is kind of...odd. It makes no sense. Even if Capcom wanted to differentiate the cover for the updated Gold edition, couldn't they placed Jill Valentine in the background, out or respect for Chris and Sheva? And what's with Jill's outfit, anyway? How'd she find the time slaying zombies at Raccoon City to steal a leather suit from Joanna Dark's wardrobe? They should've let her keep her old S.T.A.R.S. outfit.

I am TOTALLY going to have to

I am TOTALLY going to have to disagree with you about Barrett from FF7. He was CHOCK FULL of stereotypes that usually comes with black male characters :

1. Angry black man who swears a LOT
2. Gun toting black guy.
3. Black guy with white wife trope.
4. Apparently, black people only have afros...
5. Always the sassy wise friend, but never the main character.

FF 13 did a little bit better than that with Sazh, but still had 2, 4 and 5 going on. The best character I can think of that minimized those stereotypes was Kiros from FF 8, seeing he had only number 5 as his main flaw.

And I'd also like to add to your post that if you thought finding black MALE characters was bad, finding black FEMALE characters is nearly IMPOSSIBLE. What they did to Sheva in RE5 was nothing less than an insult to her character. And for the most part, you can't find black female protagonists. The only ones I can think of is Rochelle from L4D2 and Storm from Marvel vs Capcom.

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