Portraying Race Relations in Games

Arguments about racism in any media form suck. One person is offended, and then the offender defends their right to offend while fending off offense from other offenders. That’s not at all what I’m talking about. This is not a piece meant to incite feelings of anger about racists or races, but rather a look at the complex issue of racism as it pertains to video games. To be clearer, it’s also not about online multiplayer experiences where racial slurs are tossed about as casually as frags. This is about the products that developers create, and what can be learned about race and identity from them. Disclaimer over.

I’m certainly not the first to broach the issue from this standpoint, but it’s vastly overshadowed by the more attention-grabbing issues of racially offensive online experiences. For those who have chosen to focus on the creative game material, particular titles are frequently cited as displaying some form of racist content: Grand Theft Auto (pick one), Call of Duty: World at War (and a number of other WWII FPS titles), Red Dead Redemption, Mafia II, The Godfather 2. Each of these games employs racist characters to develop a period, a place, or a social consciousness, even if limited to one group of people. For example, Mafia II is riddled with more racial slurs than Clint Eastwood in an Asian neighborhood, all of which have the potential to be offensive because it’s racism. But it’s done with the artistic eye towards character development, making the player believe that Joe Barbaro is real because of the many layers of detail within his character, including his off-handed, colorful language. Or take a look at World at War; American soldiers referencing Nazis as "Jerries" or "Krauts" is also potentially offensive, but true to the narrative and timeline of the story being told.

Here are some examples of games that have been touted as racist on a different level, for clarity’s sake: Resident Evil 5, Left 4 Dead 2, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. In these games, players kill enemies of varying races that are not their own, which some have found to be offensive. I won’t even bother getting into that argument, but I do want to be precise about the element of racism intentionally built into games that I am addressing. For example, the game that really got me thinking about the whole issue was the recent DLC, Minerva’s Den for BioShock 2. You can check out the review to get the whole scoop, but the basics are that an African-American character in Rapture struggled with the idea of changing his race to avoid the prejudices of the 1940’s/50’s social mindset. And it hit the point home that if done well, confronting racism in a video game can actually be a good thing. It can make you think, and feel, and discover another time when racism was absolutely the norm across America.

Some developers approach what is essentially the same issue, but from a different angle. While it’s not a direct substitution for racism, the conflict between inhabitants of Pulse and Cocoon in Final Fantasy 13 lays bare the inherent problems of discrimination and some of their effects. And of course there’s alien-to-human-to-alien relations in Mass Effect, among many other games, that become strained due to what might be called intolerance. Intentionally or not, developers of these games ask the player to confront issues similar to racism, though the feeling is anesthetized somewhat by unfamiliarity with these fictional races.

And of course the topic firing up debates about race relations right now is Medal of Honor and the ability to play as the Taliban. What should be understood, however, is that this issue is not about race, but about an extremist religious organization. Many have already confounded this fact with ideas about race relations, but it’s simply incorrect and not worth arguing. ‘Nuff said.

But for games that truly confront the issues of racism in meaningful, thoughtful ways, the conversation continues. As well it should, because an issue as deeply personal and globally pervasive as race and racism should be explored by mediums that can treat the matter effectively. The point is that it’s controversial, it’s likely offensive, but it’s a good thing to do. Ignoring an issue with that much reach confuses more than benefits, and racism, in the right context, can deepen characters, environments, stories, and atmosphere. Before dismissing racially charged games as trash, think about why the racism is there. I’m not saying it’s needed or tactful in every situation, but it absolutely is in some, which tends to be forgotten. So gamers, developers, be sensitive, be sensible, be creative, but do not be afraid.


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Author: Dan Crabtree View all posts by
Dan is Managing Editor for GamerNode and a freelance gaming writer. His dog is pretty great. Check him out on Twitter @DanRCrabtree.

One Comment on "Portraying Race Relations in Games"

  1. Live Channels May 22, 2012 at 2:30 am -

    thank you brother its really nice information you share, i really like it and i appreciated

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