I think I’ll get right to the good stuff this time: I am an African-American male in my mid-twenties. Why are so many of my favorite games headlined by either every-man white dudes with brown hair or tough-guy white dudes with no hair? This next console generation needs to give us more variety in character designs – especially when it comes to women, who make up 45% of the gamer population.
I can only think of two games from this generation off the top of my head that are both popular and lead by a minority character. I happen to think it rather ironic that both of these characters are also female, but I’ll get to that issue shortly. Aveline (Assassin’s Creed Liberation) and Faith (Mirror’s Edge) are honestly the only leading minority characters of any franchise that people clamor about that I can think of. This is, of course, not counting Altair of the first Assassin’s Creed who, despite technically being of Middle Eastern descent, is still essentially a stereotypical, grizzled “white” guy. There are other major minority leads from this generation in games like Sleeping Dogs, The Walking Dead, Crackdown, and Heavenly Sword. There are even more major minority characters in secondary and supporting roles in titles like Gears of War, InFamous 2, Final Fantasy XIII, Resident Evil 5, and Mass Effect 2 just to name a few.
Still, this is a problem. Minority representation has slowly been improving in other media such as television and film for years, but comics and video games are lagging behind even this progress. The most positive upside is that video games have made great strides in reigning in dumb stereotypes. While that statement surprises even me, I would argue that several high-profile titles this console generation have either forgone stereotypes in favor of actual characterization or used stereotyping to serve a greater creative vision that advances actual creative integrity – Grand Theft Auto IV, Saints Row, and Sleeping Dogs come to mind here. Regardless, we shouldn’t have to wait for developers to set their game in certain locations or during certain time periods to get compelling characters that reflect the many different shades of skin and cultures that make up humanity. You don’t have to be “black” to write a ‘black” character.
Furthermore, you don’t have to be a woman to write a compelling female character. As much as I love Soul Calibur’s Ivy Valentine, I actually want to play as, and care about, a character like the newly rebooted Lara Croft. It is just as important to recognize the diversity of individuals of each sex as it is to recognize the diversity of individuals of any ethnic or cultural group. Not every female character has to have large breasts and prance around naked. As gamer’s, we want Red Sonja, but we also need FemShep. There is absolutely no reason why we can’t have both. Bioware’s Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises have proven this generation that great stories can be told independent of the player character’s gender without neglecting the important experience of being that gender. Other titles allow players unprecedented control of the visual look of their character, including gender, and this is both healthy and empowering. I mean, girls play hockey too. Female gamers should be allowed to decide whether they want to be the default grizzled man-fantasy or be their own equivalent – male or female. And you know what, male gamers should be allowed the same privilege.
Ultimately, I want to play more games that respect the humanity of the fairer sex. Samus Aran is indeed a very attractive character, but she hasn’t really been used by Nintendo as a marketable sex symbol outside of the confines of her own games, and that’s perfect. She’s a badass bounty hunter that everyone originally thought was a guy. She also wouldn’t be able to be as badass as she is if she didn’t have the athletic body that she has. The same holds true for Lara Croft and most other video game heroines. As fantastic as games can be, it isn’t often that unattractive people take the forefront, but why can’t that be the case every once and awhile. Male of female, why can’t we just get awesome characters? The stories and narrative approach I wrote about last time depend on great characters. Great characters are born from great writing. Ultimately, if we are going to see more equal representations of minorities and women in games, the industry will have to continue to pursue the creative limits of storytelling in this medium. I don’t believe the surface has even come close to being scratched, but we all have to want to get to that point – developers, publishers, and, most importantly, gamers – in order to finally get the games industry the level of creative respect that books, films, music, and theater enjoy.