White Hands

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.

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12 Responses to White Hands

  1. Ari says:

    Good write-up. It really bothers me too how un-diverse the protagonists of FPS games are – what could it possibly matter? All you see is a pair of hands, often covered by gloves. And yet, time and time again, the creators are careful to point out that you’re playing a white man behind the camera.

    I remember playing MW2 with a buddy and talking about Ramirez. I’d assumed Ramirez was hispanic from the name, but buddy’d assumed he was white. When I mentioned this, said buddy got surprisingly upset about it. No, no – he was sure Ramirez was white! When his gloves burn off in DC, his skin looks pale! …Noting that hispanic people can also be pale had no effect, he was positively adamant that Ramirez had to be white, because if he wasn’t, the game would have drawn attention to is in some way.

    Er… really? Is a “Warning: This character is not white” label really necessary on the package? We really don’t know Ramirez’s ethnicity any more than we know Jackson’s from CoD4 and it never mattered to me, which is why I was so taken aback by the vehement denial that they could possibly be anything other than white from a very liberal friend.

    I can’t really thing of any men of colour who headline a major FPS franchise except Prophet, and Prophet is literally a black man in a white man’s body. I groaned inwardly when the Master Chief was revealed to be white, too… so much for the faceless everyman who could be anyone’s hero. But then, of course he was. Apparently having a non-white set of hands really does bother some of the players.

    • Matt says:

      Man that is just right depressing.

      I can’t really thing of any men of colour who headline a major FPS franchise
      Though it does bring up a potentially interesting point, that we don’t seem to be seeing many nonwhite men in leading protag roles in FPSes, except where the character’s race is a major issue. (contrast Faith or Chell who are nonwhite women but AFAIK no one ingame makes a huge deal about their race)

      It really does feel like a bunch of white American designers/execs/focus groups were really getting their panties in a knot at the thought of a “foreign-looking” guy running around with a gun and a licence to kill everybody in the room, while that same stereotyping thinking would have them ease their fears slightly when one makes the protag a less threatening female, Otherwise, we see an absurd cartoon clearly multiple steps removed from our reality and therefore failing to correspond with any “real” perceived threat, or the protag has a specific reason to be in this situation while coming from a particular ethnic group, in a way that prevents any reader from treating the guy as an unmarked norm compared to other games.

      Not to say any of this is deliberate – in fact it’s how subconscious it all is that I think it’s so pervasive.

      (the only non-white dudes from relatively recent FPSes I can think of, other than this white-Latino Ramirez: the punk rocker from Killing Floor; TF2 Demoman; protag from Prey; Lo Wang from upcoming Shadow Warrior remake. Of these, 1 is a deliberately stupid stereotype, another is just an optional DLC skin, another is a deliberately stupid stereotype of a traditionally white ethnicity and even then he’s usually eclipsed by the other, white members of the cast, and Prey, the best of them by far, has a plot that’s very rooted in the protag’s specific ethnic identity.)

      • Ari says:

        That’s a good observation. I’d never thought about it that way before – I always assumed there were more women of colour as headliners because of the whole Double Up Your Minorities bit. Just having a female protagonist is progressive, and going to irk a lot of bigoted players to begin with, so you might as well go the whole nine yards and make her an ethnic minority while you’re at it! The troglodytes put off by playing a black woman have already been put off merely by playing as a woman, more likely than not, so you’re good to go.

        I’d never considered that that might be because they would be perceived as less threatening.

        • Matt says:

          I’m pretty sure the Double Up Your Minorities bit is still true too, and still probably the primary cause of this effect.

          Though, to drive home my previous point for all those reading this, imagine a modern FPS with almost the exact same plot as Doom II, except you’re playing a civilian trying to survive. As in Doom II, your primary humanoid enemy is a demon-possessed white military man.

          Imagine the following possible protags:
          1. White woman with AR15
          2. White man with AR15
          3. Middle Eastern woman with AK
          4. Middle Eastern man with AK
          5. Black man with AR15

          Imagine that trailer. 8D

          • Ari says:

            I think, back when Doom II came out, and terrorists were a punchline in 80s and early 90s action films, and video games weren’t as mainstream as they are today you might have been able to get away with it.

            ….Hahah wow no kidding, not now though. Fox News would be all over that, not to mention the player reaction.

        • Deviija says:

          Actually, the cynical side of me does not think that women of color as protagonists are done for any ‘progressive’ reasons. The rare time we have women as protagonists, I am of the belief that making them a person of color is usually done for aesthetic and beautification and the exoticism/fetishism of the ‘Other’ in mainstream society rather than Doubling Up Minority for minority sake.

          I think if it were purely just Doubling Up Minority status, we’d see many more dark-skinned protagonists rather than so many lightly tanned/olive-skinned/light brown ones. Because in the US at least lighter skin = attractive exoticism for women. But not with men. So this may fold into the reasons why POC dude protagonists aren’t really a thing, but POC women are. Could fit into the sexualization/value of attractiveness standard stuff placed upon women.

          Just my random thoughts on the topic(s).

          • Matt says:

            That occurred to me, but thinking in particular of Chell and Faith, I get the impression that when they’re made to be sexualized they tend to make them look less like POCs one way or another. (Feeling too lazy to look up some links at the moment, also don’t want this post to get stuck in moderation limbo)

            Then again, the sexualization thing might well seamlessly blend together with the less-threatening thing if we consider the sorts of things that are considered attractive of women in a patriarchy???

            • Deviija says:

              Oh, it absolutely links arms with the less-intimidating thing. To not threaten the dude gamer’s ego or interests. Another of the many reasons why when media/games do market women, they put them in postures and stances that aren’t meant to challenge the viewer. No staring directly out at the viewer, body almost always turned in some fashion rather than straight on, filmed/pictured at slightly under angles rather than straight on, expressions aren’t usually ones of anger or defiance but of being scared, shocked, smiling, neutral, or beauty shots, etc.

  2. Matt says:

    Just a thought, though: the Generic Dark Haired Stubbly Guy that dominates mainstream game design nowadays never really struck me as being particularly marked as white, compared to many predecessors.* His hair colour is shared by the majority of people in the world, his skin tone is usually medium-ish or there’s some bad lighting that makes it hard to tell, and the stubble distracts the viewer from some of the bone structure that might be more suggestive of a particular descent. In some situations he might pass as being of Near East descent, while the ones more based on Vin Diesel will look at least mixed race.

    I’ve often thought that such a design is so prevalent possibly because the developers actually know that they’ve got a large nonwhite audience that wants something they can relate to, but can’t actually make a nonwhite character because of the reasons in my other comment plus the refusal to make any decision that deviates from the unmarked ciswhitemale norm, so what we get is actually a telling compromise.

    *as far as oldschool FPSes go: the original Doomguy and B.J. Blaskowicz both have facial features that are very, very clearly white in comparison to the Generic Stubbly Guy; the guy from Nitemare 3-D even more so, as well as of course Duke Nukem and the Redneck Rampage guys. The Quake protag I always thought was somewhat ambiguous, however, and registered with me as either black or Asian; I’ve always suspected, however, that the design was largely a product of the lack of sufficient polygons to form a sharp nose, and later appearances seem to whitewash the facial features considerably.

    • Ari says:

      The Generic Grizzled 30-Something (Short-)Dark-Haired White Guy is really starting to irk me with the frequency which with he pops up. Some might be a tiny bit racially ambiguous but most are not – they’re pale, blue-eyed, with classically caucasian facial features. Soap MacTavish might have black hair and a tan, but no one is ever going to mistake him for anything but white.

      Leaving alone the why is it always a white guy question – why is it always that white guy? Did someone’s marketing division run a list of attributes past a test audience and find that to be the “ideal” protagonist, so now every protagonist has to have all of those features? Where did all the blonds and red-heads of yesteryear go? Why do female protagonists still get visual diversity (to an extent) even when they’re white, but male protagonists always end up that guy in AAA franchises? Now not only do they never look like the many minority gamers out there, they don’t look like a ton of white gamers either.

      Why is it so oddly specific? You don’t really even see fluctuations in age that much anymore. I was honestly despairing after E3’s game trailers, particularly Microsoft’s. Everyone was That Guy. Hacker? That Guy. Roman Legionnaire? That Guy. Zombie fighter? That Guy. Future soldier with a jetpack? Need not even be said that it’s That Guy. It’s depressing. It’s to the point where if somebody makes a man of colour, or hell just a non-dark-haired, non-grizzled, non-30-something white dude it’ll catch my attention and possibly my dollars.

      • Matt says:

        To rub salt in this wound, it occurs to me that the new Lara Croft could easily pass for That Guy’s little sister.

      • Deviija says:

        Indeed, it is always That Guy. I am quite tired of That Guy being the protagonist for all of gaming. It has become so saturated at this point that whenever I see That Guy pop onto the screen, my interest (and my brain) shuts off. It isn’t merely the fact that it is the same guy, or that it’s always a white man (and that can spark oodles of discussion on privilege and game developer diversity — and the lack thereof), but that That Guy has been associated with so many awful games with rampant sexism/misogyny, homophobia, racism, etc. that my knee-jerk reaction is repulsion. In my mind, That Guy is associated with many negative connotations and games and social things that it has become a mountain for me to get beyond to ever play a game with him in it.

        The severe lack of diversity in games is more than race, gender, and sexuality; it’s a lacking diversity even within the privilege spectrum. It’s That Guy. Period.

        One reason for this recurring character/characterization/appearance is that this is what our (re: mainstream) social community conscious believes is the Average Joe. Or the Average/Everyday Man. Another reason we consistently are seeing games with protagonists in their 30s now is because the average gamer’s age is in their 30s. Regardless of reasons, it’s still a poor go-to for protagonists. There’s a wealth of diversity in the world, and in potential stories, but we’re still waging the same pewpew wars in games, and watching the same grizzled manfrown stoic emotions.

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