Why Race in Video Games Matters

I’ve always grown up with some degree of confusion not just about my culture, but about my race.  My parents immigrated to a small town in Tennessee before I was born and it was there I formed all my foundational thoughts about the world.  For a long period of time, I actually had no idea there was anything beyond white people or black people – I always assumed that I was somehow some sort of middle group between the two and would identify my race to those who asked with examples from my Crayola box.  As time went on, my education improved, but I was no less out-of-place as I continued on through life.  I was called Saudi by the skinhead who beat me with a pipe in the 10th grade hall restroom, I was called Iraqi by chavish teenagers brandishing knives on an English train, I was called a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) by people that were born the same color I am.  Oddly, the one time my race never really seemed to matter to anyone was when I went to a HBCU, because there I was simply treated as any other student.

If all this weren’t enough to confuse whatever racial identity I once held onto, video games made it no easier.  I have consumed video games as voraciously as any hardcore gamer can claim to in the given years I’ve been alive and have no intention of ever stopping, but I’d be lying if I said it did nothing to shape the way I think about race.  I grew up believing, for lack of a better phrase, that white makes right.  That there’s a default skin color – the one you see on TV and in movies and in video games – and everything else is, well, not default.  When someone’s not white, they are notable for not being white.  Not being white is what defines them.  I was “other” and I quietly cursed the misfortune that brought this difference upon me at birth.  You move on, you deal with it, you make the room the world has allowed you to make and, for me, that room was never going to be in a medium of entertainment I loved.

I think no game better represented this distance between those who create and I, who consumes, than Far Cry 3.  Let me begin at this: I liked Far Cry 3 overall.  If you ask me as a player what problems I had with the game, the sub-par final area would probably top the list.  The actual act of playing the game had surprising moments and, despite all the issues I had, it was enough for me to finish it with some degree of satisfaction.  If you have never played Far Cry 3, however, you may not understand why the story of Jason Brody is so problematic.  The third Far Cry tells the story of a group of young American tourists with all the ethnic diversity of a New Hampshire primary being taken hostage in a fictional island with a native population, some of which are involved in a drug cartel.   Jason, to further ends of revenge and heroism, ends up accepting the native powers that enable him to become a near-superhuman warrior.  He is, to pull a phrase from history, the Great White Hope, which was a name given to boxer James Jeffries as he attempted to take back the heavyweight title from black champion Jack Johnson and then later used by some bloggers to describe John McCain in his presidential campaign against then-Senator Barack Obama.  It’s not a name you should use ignorant of the past, nor should you exemplify its spirit in your writing and assume you’re immune to criticism.

I should point out here, Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem has come out since the game’s release insisting it is merely satire.  I personally suspect that it’s similar to the way Tommy Wiseau claims The Room is simply a satirical dark comedy or the times I have said something dumb in front of my girlfriend and played it off as a joke, but I suppose it is up to players to decide for themselves.

You, as Jason, ran around helping people.  The white quest-givers would tell you to find treasure or go on CIA missions of intrigue; the native quest-givers would ask you to kill animals or find their daughters.  Natives derisively called Jason “Snow White,” a pejorative in intention, but underlines a larger point: Jason is the white hero who is doing what the natives do better than they could do it and you, the player, are Jason.  And all of this, who you are, what you do, how you’re treated, it left me feeling like video games and I now had a big disagreement.  Who they think I am can no longer just be hand-waved.  To put it another way, I had a hard time understanding why I had to be “default” if that meant being Jason Brody.

But ultimately, I am a minority, in several ways.   Characters like Jason Brody are not meant to agree with me, they are meant to play out a power fantasy for the majority of players.  Going to a country, being worshipped as a God for exceptional talents you mostly have no control over but are inherent to your being, it is every bit the same kind of fantasy for some that Twilight offers to teenage girls.   And that’s fine, in a way.  People who want those games should have them.  Far Cry 3 was merely the drop that caused the ocean to overflow and I was no longer willing or able to accept the lack of any baby steps toward something greater.

Far Cry 4, it turns out, is a baby step.

Or I guess I should say, it’s a baby step for me.  While it’s merely a cultural approximation, neither exactly where my ethnicity lies nor a completely accurate picture of that area in the first place, it is the closest thing a video game has come to making me feel less alien.  Accents sound like things I have heard, people who look like me are not simple savages who need saviors to be anything other than helpless, it moves representation slightly forward for video games and video games slightly forward for me. 

There is a point in the game where the main character, Ajay, answers a radio distress call.  Ajay has been born and raised in America and this is his first time making the journey to his parents’ erstwhile home.  When he identifies himself over the radio, the man on the other end recognizes him and repeats his name back with an accent and a few more syllables.  Most people in the world will not understand why this is such an impactful moment, but as someone who has given up attempting to correct others on how pronounce my name, I immediately knew who Ajay was right that moment.  He was me.

To be completely fair, I have not finished Far Cry 4 and I hear it does eventually fall into the land of uncomfortable collar-tugging that might make me turn on it.  But what it has accomplished so far, as marginal as it may seem, floors me.  Which in its own way is a fairly sad commentary about how little progress we have made so far, but that may just be a cynical way of looking at it.

I fully recognize how personal and ultimately selfish such a thing can be.  At the same time, I cannot understate how much it actually matters.  And if it matters to me to finally get some form of self-identification into a video a game, to be acknowledged on that superficial level, then it probably matters for a lot of people.  We have the awesome power to create worlds and experiences for ourselves and for each other as writers and designers and artists and we waste it on a numbers game.  We tell ourselves that they have to target the majority, because the majority won’t buy a game with a female assassin or a black lead because they can’t identify with them.  I think we should give the majority more credit.  Regardless of what focus groups say, if you make a well-crafted, interesting game that stars a character that isn’t Jason Brody, people will still respond to it.  You can strike out, you can touch the hearts of people that feel underrepresented and make the game that they never thought anyone could make.  The dream of a creator is to reach even one person and produce a work that they will never forget.  Video games can do that, too, if we try.

Race matters because we can finally have a conversation about what’s default and what’s not.  It matters because everyone deserves the chance to identify with a character, to enjoy a piece of interactive entertainment specifically because they enjoy interacting with it.  It matters because it should not have taken twenty nine years for the thing I love to recognize I exist.  Race matters because there are still people who have yet to understand that they are not “other” and it is hard to blame them for still thinking they are.