The following is a guest post from Sun Tzu:
Tzu is a mixed race gamer who has been involved in the gaming scene since Doom. He enjoys writing about social justice, feminism, a wide variety of game genres, and writing about himself in the third person. Any personal inquiries or comments can be sent to Tzuofthesun@gmail.com.
As an avid gamer and fan of the FPS genre, I’ve seen a great deal of hands. Hands pumping a shell into a shotgun, hands climbing ledges, and hands stacking crates to reach a window. Sometimes, I’m even treated to the rare incident of hands holding one another in a touching reunion. However, despite the great variety of actions that these hands take, there is comparatively less variance in their color. The vast majority of FPS games and first person perspective games, in my experience, feature white male characters as protagonists. As a gamer of color, I have found the lack of diversity rather irksome and problematic. While I have no aversion to playing white characters, the trend of white characters almost always taking the spotlight in such an intimate control scheme (after all, the first person perspective literally puts you inside the character) is indicative of some problematic norms that dominate the gaming industry. First and foremost, is that this trend is a form of white power.
First person shooters are meant to be power fantasies, or at the very least hero simulators. The character you control has a vast array of weaponry, tank-like durability, and in single-player shooters is destined by design to win. As such, having white characters in this role almost exclusively is a tacit, albeit often unintentional, way of expressing white supremacy. White characters are the powerful heroes that crush the demons invading Phobos or thwart the schemes of a conniving terrorist cell. Furthermore, putting these trends into an up close and personal perspective exacerbates these flaws. Since the game must be designed around camera close-ups on enemies (whether through close combat or a high power scope), a great deal of effort must be put into their appearance, which usually means making them “monstrous” or “other.” In the days of classic ID FPSs, this was relatively harmless: enemies were Nazis, demons, or hostile aliens. However, the taboo on featuring more human enemies in FPSs has somewhat lifted in recent years and some rather disturbing trends have surfaced as a result.
Far Cry 3, for example, features a white male protagonist whose primary goal in the game is to slaughter scores of black and brown pirates to save an island of functionally helpless natives and rescue his all-white friends. In that game, one mission in particular stands out as rather insensitive. The main character, tasked with burning down a field of marijuana to attract the ire of a local drug lord, jubilantly exclaims how much fun he’s having as he slaughters his way through the pirates guarding the plants. This mission features an unusually high volume of enemies, so the gameplay is very intense and the body count is very high. While I understand that this entire scenario was crafted as a huge weed joke (“Dude, I smoked like five fields of weed in Far Cry!”), I couldn’t help but feel offended that the white character was having so much fun killing these people of color – especially considering the fact that most of the story up until then associated violence with desperation and fear (especially with respect to white characters). While not all FPSs feature set ups as groan-inducing as Far Cry 3, it is a good example of how the white character trend can mar an otherwise impressive game.
An ugly smear on a great game is not the only harm that the white washed FPS genre does. The more subtle effect that it promotes is the idea that white is normal or “white is right.” In the world of FPSs, white people are the heroes and you, the FPS player, are encouraged to embrace that idea via inhabiting the body and mind of a series of white heroes and seeing various worlds over and over again through their eyes. I don’t believe that this is some conspiracy hatched by a cabal of geeky KKK members. I do, however, believe that this is the result of the gaming industry being lazy about diversity. Protagonists of color are, unfortunately, a risk. Anyone who has played games like Counter Strike, League of Legends, or any number of other multiplayer games that there are a lot of racist gamers out there. On top of that, characters of color are also subject to scrutiny from socially conscious gamers and stereotype slip ups could similarly besmirch a game’s reputation and sales. Challenges these may be, but insurmountable they are not; and in overcoming them, I believe that the gaming community as a whole can benefit greatly.
Racial diversity amongst FPS protagonists can help sow the idea that diversity is normal and that heroes rise from many backgrounds. One recent game in particular, though not an FPS, impressed me with its diverse cast of characters. XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a turn based strategy game, features randomly generated soldiers from many different countries around the world. Since your core squad begins as a random mix of peoples and replacements move in and out of it to account for injuries and death, the race of people who you command changes regularly. Furthermore, because of the tense gameplay and level up system for your soldiers you, the commander, come to cherish your troops a great deal and – at least in my case characterize – them based on their accomplishments. With that in mind, I would say that XCOM represents the most racially progressive game of 2012; it presents people of all ethnicities as badass heroes fighting against the odds to save the Earth.
A coalition storyline such as that in XCOM could easily be fitted into an FPS and create a similar environment where diversity is simply the norm. Beyond that, the intimacy of the first person perspective can be used, in shooter or otherwise, to craft sympathetic stories about oppressed people. There is a great, unexplored expanse in these unmade characters that is worth discovering-one in which we can carve the hero’s journey with many different hands and in doing so join our own.