Tag Archives: race

Wrath of the Gods: Teaching Intersectionality through Bastion

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

My class awash in the colors of Bastion.

Special thanks to Greg Kasavin, creative director of Supergiant Games for supplying my classroom with educational copies of Bastion. Thanks as well to Damien Prystay who shared his save game data and to Christopher Sawula who graciously reprised his role as my classroom aide.

If you’re a Border House regular, you know that last semester I taught my students about the feminist theory of intersectionality using Halo. Intersectionality is the theory that systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia interact and overlap, compounding each other’s effects in unique ways. If you think about each of these systems separately, you’ll miss forms of oppression that folks experience at particular intersections of identity.

A few examples? Imagine being a gay, lesbian or bisexual person with a disability in the United States and not being able to marry your same-sex partner in order to receive essential health benefits. Imagine being fired for coming out as transgender (which is still legal in thirty-three states) and not having the resources to survive because you are working class. Imagine being an African-American woman shopping for a sharp business suit in order to counteract hiring prejudice and getting followed by security at the department store.

If you’re just thinking about any single system of oppression, you won’t be able to understand any of the above experiences. And you can’t just add systems like racism and sexism together, either. Intersectionality isn’t additive; it’s multiplicative. If you want to practice an intersectional politics, you have to focus on the ways in which all systems of oppression interact with each other.

Video games are uniquely equipped to teach students about oppression because they are likewise composed of interacting systems, systems that can often be challenging and unforgiving. As Ian Bogost notes in a recent blog post, games might be “the best medium for expressing certain things—say, the operation and experience of systems.” But most games don’t allow you to alter the behavior of individual game systems to a truly intersectional level of detail. Continue reading

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.

All Skulls On: Teaching Intersectionality through Halo

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

From left to right: Matt, Carl, Samantha (the author), and Cody at the Halo Station.

“Let me just close the door so the other instructors don’t find out I’m letting you play Halo,” I joked to my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 class. I knew I was taking a risk on this teaching activity. I was worried that it would come across as a shameless, gimmicky attempt to glam up the difficult topic of intersectional oppression.

My friend and fellow WGSS 100 instructor Lauran planted the seed of the idea for this activity when she, citing my proclivity for video games, recommended that I read John Scalzi’s blog post “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.” I liked it. The article was clear, accessible and completely on point. Scalzi’s argument is that being a straight white man is like playing a video game on easy mode: some challenges remain but the player is at an automatic advantage.

As I tried to think about how I would incorporate Scalzi’s article into a lesson on feminist theories of intersectionality, however, I realized that it couldn’t do as much work as I would need it to. Scalzi’s article is a fantastic thought experiment revolving around a brilliant metaphor. While I couldn’t fault it for its simplicity, then, I realized that I would need a more complex metaphor that could capture the way in which systems of oppression interlock and compound each other’s effects.

That’s when Halo came to mind. I wrote an article for First Person Scholar describing how the “skull system” in Halo virtually models the way in which systems of oppression, as Kimberlé Crenshaw observes,  “interact” and “overlap.” In a Halo game, skulls are elective difficulty modifiers that affect particular game systems. For example, activating one skull halves the player’s ammo while activating another removes the on-screen radar. As I wrote on First Person Scholar, “Activating multiple skulls in a Halo game effectively models intersectional forms of oppression. The individual effects of each of these skulls do not simply run in parallel; rather, they intersect, overlap and interlock, just like systems of oppression.” For example, one skull will make enemies throw grenades more frequently while another skull increases the explosion radius of those same grenades.

When we came to our unit on intersectionality, I assigned students to read both Scalzi’s article and my First Person Scholar essay alongside some foundational feminist texts on intersectionality and privilege. And, as they did their reading over the weekend, I was at home devising an elaborate activity with a staggering number of moving parts. Given the complexity of the activity, it’s understandable that I would try to hide the proceedings of my class. It could have gone horribly awry. But did it? Here’s what happened and what we learned from the activity. Continue reading

A small humanoid carries a massive pack that is bigger than he is.

Warcraft goes from Pygmies to Sherpa

The original version of this post appeared at Decoding Dragons.

This is a difficult post. Not because it’s personal for me, but I feel like someone should say something. The casual cultural appropriation that Blizzard continues to practise is tiring, dated, and makes me very uneasy about Mists of Pandaria. I am western european and I am white. I don’t feel comfortable pointing this out, as it is not my culture that Mists of Pandaria is appropriating in a disneyfied orientalist fashion.

Think back to the pygmies

In Cataclysm we saw the introduction of the Pygmy model. A brown-skinned race depicted as savage – supposedly based on heavy metal characters, but in actuality echoing the colonialist stereotype of the peoples of North Africa. The very name taken from real cultures in Africa. During the course of questing through Uldum, players would kill and cage the pygmies, hit them with mallots etc. WoW Insider did a great post-mortem of Cataclysm, and I’m going to quote from them here

The things that disgusted me about Uldum don’t end there, either. Uldum is what, to me, solidified the pygmy race is a racist caricature. I didn’t mind them in the goblin starting area. They were a little weird, but they fit exactly what Blizzard described them as; they’re modeled after classic rock roadies. Their tribe is even called the Oomlot Tribe, which if you haven’t figured it out, is a nod to the umlaut. They fit that in the goblin starting zone. In Uldum, that goes out the window. Blizzard took this thing that was already racially charged and, instead of taking the high road and doing something cool with them, stayed right down there with everybody’s worst expectations and made them a really insensitive thing.

Now considering that the orcs, trolls, goblins and tauren are codified as people of colour (as opposed to the very westernised cultures of the humans and dwarves particularly) Blizzard’s track record on sensitivity to racial issues and cultural appropriation is already bad. I’ve seen posts on various forums from Native Americans lamenting and wincing at the broad strokes used to define the Tauren. Sadly I’ve not seen any Chinese (or asian) reactions to Mists of Pandaria, only ‘my friend is ____’ type comments from westerners.

That said – it is Warcraft and I’m not surprised or rending my clothes over the continued lack of subtlety on the grand scale of things. Pandaria fits in with Thunderbluff. There are many talented artists, animators and writers working at Blizzard and they continue to do grand work within the schemes laid out for them by the needs of the game, the theme and the overarching story. Much of the artwork for Mists is breathtaking, and I do think they’ll tell some interesting stories.

From Pygmies to Sherpa

Well, now. Sherpa. One of the latest updates at WoWhead has included a character model codenamed ‘sherpa’. Take a look at him on wowhead, or just click the image below for a bigger one.



A small humanoid carries a massive pack that is bigger than he is. Image via WoWhead

Well. First of all there are the Sherpa People, of the Kingdom of Nepal. The stereotypes surrounding this group of people in general are relatively benign – they have some renown for physical superiority. The term ‘sherpa’ is also often applied to local mountain/climbing guides of other ethnicities. The image of the western holiday-maker or explorer surrounded by locals carrying their belongings is the image that the above model invokes. As the model uses the pygmy model, this makes me distinctly uncomfortable and I’m not at all of the mind that this was in any way appropriate for Blizzard to include. Please note that I’m not certain if ‘Sherpa’ is simply a code name or the actual model name, we’ll have to wait until later to find out.

They have made an efford to make the model less humanoid via the skin texture and fingers, but I’m really not convinced that it’s enough. They could easily have done something different to fill this NPC niche. It makes me wonder if we’ll see more development of the in-game pygmy race in lore, or if they will forever remain a one-off joke, based on colonialist views of people that are ‘other’ to the western experience. Including non-western cultures in a nuanced, imaginative and sensitive fashion is a good thing, but I don’t think Blizzard have managed that here.

This isn’t about racial slurs

I’m not saying that ‘pygmy’ or ‘sherpa’ are offensive terms in and of themselves. They are perfectly legitimate, correct terms for two peoples. Blizzard hasn’t been offensive by using those terms, but in the way they are applied and the characters depicted. With regards to the Sherpa ‘model’, perhaps this is just temporary name and the NPC will appear with a more appropriate name. I hope so, but the ‘sherpa’ model is not ranked with humanoids which suggests that, like the pygmies, they’ll be seen as sub-human and subservient, echoing those colonialist attitudes that took the Oomlot tribe of the Lost Isles from heavy metal to racially charged by placing the npcs in an environment that invokes the stereotypes. I have no idea if any of the Sherpa people play Warcraft, or even care about stereotypes in a video game, but it’s indicative of a larger problem within world building.

Benign but ignorant

It’s all packaged up as entertainment, but it’s a bit like reducing the British to tea, crumpets, the Queen and Sherlock Holmes. Except it isn’t at all. This is mostly western entertainment, devised for westerners. Occidentalism, that is the negative stereotypes of westerners, doesn’t really have the same power in games developed by westerners for westerners. I really think Blizzard needs to sit down and think about it’s continued use of cultural shorthand in world building and culture creation.  Non-western (and non-white coded) cultures and NPCs don’t have to be the sole province of anthropromorphic races or secondary NPCs, or even enemies. They don’t have to be coded as exotic, or other.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

Mayday: Or, How I Learned To Love Grace Jones

The N64 box for GoldenEye 007, with Pierce Brosnan front and center, pointing a gun at the viewer.

The N64 box for GoldenEye 007, with Pierce Brosnan front and center, pointing a gun at the viewer.

It took me a while to recognize how I would approach Corvus Elrod’s theme for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table. It’s been fairly rare that a game has not managed to pull me out of some fantasy or imaginative trick with its various inconsistencies. Particularly since games don’t often make use of themes and topics I would find particularly intriguing. So, what game has  given me the ability to “talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse”? The 1997 release of GoldenEye 007.

I should specify a bit and also state that I never played the campaign missions of the game. Instead, every weekend was spent with my father, brother, and our neighbor Michelle, as we played a mixture of KMFDM, Marilyn Manson, Tool, and Nine Inch Nails while playing the split-screen portion of the GoldenEye 007′s multiplayer. In the character roster itself, I learned quite a bit about myself.

First, I never selected any of what I considered to be the blander options. When I was banned from using Oddjob, I naturally selected the avatar that caught my eye next: Mayday. She was not in the base game itself, being restricted to the multiplayer game as a bonus character. Mayday was an acknowledgment of Grace Jones’s depictions of the character in A View to Kill, and was one of three depictions of non-white characters (Oddjob and Baron Samedi being the other two).

Her difference in visual appearance seemed a disadvantage in ways, as I did stand out among the rest of the roster. As someone who was quite shy and quiet in middle school (self-esteem issues surrounding my gender identity and sexuality were such a drag), it helped jump start the process of my own ability and willingness to stand apart from the crowd, realizing both the strengths and weaknesses of that position (as someone who was choosing to step into such a role). Because the game itself did not treat the topic of Mayday’s race or sex, at first it only helped me understand this from a position of appearing different from the crowd.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

An image of Mayday, based off Grace Jones's own depiction. A black woman wearing a grey outfit, her arms bare.

I had set myself up in the game as someone was was instantly visually identifiable as not necessarily belonging, and stood out against the backgrounds we played (in my own mind, at the very least). However, this was the push I needed to start expressing myself in my own life. This would lead to my strengthening my confidence in ways of understanding what I risked by doing so. As someone who was white (albeit with a slightly non-American accent in a xenophobic environment), I had the benefit of passing and blending into a crowd quite easily from sight alone—something Mayday did not do. My own mannerisms often gave me away, and therefore, rather than allowing my expression of gender to out me, I slowly decided to don a mask that would more immediately give myself away, and to squirrel away my insecurities.

Taking confidence from the strength I sensed in Mayday, a projection I pushed on to the avatar from my own knowledge of Grace Jones’s performance in Conan the Destroyer (I had not seen A View to Kill), I started emulating her attitude, as well as putting on makeup, wearing women’s clothing, and generally having more willingness to be confrontational. The only thing my avatar in those multiplayer sessions was capable of was aggression. While I did not express it to my gaming compatriots, I started seeing myself fighting for my own right of expression, and against tokenism. My fight was not for kills, but to win against what I perceived were the odds.

Particularly because, at the same time, I had a friend who was expelled for what I saw as reasons purely relating to her race (she is black). At this time, playing Mayday became playing in the shoes of my best friend, with whom I lost contact after she was expelled (that is,  until the introduction of social networks such as Facebook) . Here is when I started imagining Mayday’s struggles as those against an institution that would judge me unfairly. Because the fight was against people in the same room as myself, controllers in hand, I imagined them as the antagonists who would only see her skin color and make assumptions about such.

Unlike the media frenzy about the level of aggression caused from games, I was not likely to pick up a gun and attempt to solve my problems with the same tools as my avatar. Instead, I took that aggression, and decided I would make myself visually distinct, in terms of what was expected from me. Later this would also translate into pushing against the status quo, and being confrontational in general. Because I had no connection to the source text, and I was in a multiplayer environment where I projected my own issues and knowledge on to Mayday, I did see her as a pillar of strength and resistance against similar struggles to my friend’s and my own. It taught me that I could seek to blend in my entire life, or take a stand, put on my makeup, and use a measure of snarling or charm depending on the perceived antagonist.

This was an entrant in the Blogs of the Round Table of January 2012, whose theme is:

Games, like most media, have the ability to let us explore what it’s like to be someone other than ourselves. While this experience may only encompass a character’s external circumstances–exploring alien worlds, serving with a military elite, casting spells and swinging broadswords–it’s most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion. This official re-launch of the Blogs of the Round Table asks you to talk about a game experience that allowed you to experience being other than you are and how that impacted you–for better or for worse. Conversely, discuss why games haven’t provided this experience for you and why.

Other entries are available here.

The Fantasy Cyborg: Reading Passing Narratives in Dragon Age

Morrigan: A young, white, stern looking witch of the wilds.

Morrigan: A young, white, stern looking witch of the wilds.

(Spoiler warning for the Dragon Age series)

Topics about social minorities in video games typically manifest in the relationship humans have with other sentient characters of their world or universe. Games often present humanity as space-warfaring Americans or in a setting reminiscent of feudal England, making the “Other” someone of a different species or robot of some sort, since contemporary minority rights don’t exist in these situations. Games haven’t produced a sizable amount of characters that make their cross-species (like Half-Elves) or cyborg identity important to the theme or action, effectively cutting out a large portion of already scant analysis on multi-racial and transgender politics in games.

Passing narratives, the experiences of a multi-racial or transgender character in relation to the identity society views them as, in media appear in LeiLani Nishime’s “The Mulatto Cyborg,” citing cyborg characters from films as expressions of anxiety over miscegenation. While the popular imagining of cyborgs are part human, part machine beings, the mages from the Dragon Age series act as a high fantasy response as part human, part spirit characters. Mages can receive equal treatment if their mage status is unknown. However, once revealed, they receive skepticism, whether they are good or evil, a practitioner of blood magic or not. Most of the mages that travel with the Warden and Hawke live passing as human while managing their cyborg identity. Using Nishime’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Mulatto Cyborg” structure, Dragon Age II shows a successful beginning of representing multi-racial and transgender politics. Whereas the multi-racial cyborg negotiates between multiple races, the transgender cyborg balances their transgender identity with a ‘recognized’ one of their society, usually as a woman or man.

The Good Mage

Elsa: A young, blonde woman mage with the mark of the Chantry on her forehead.

Elsa: A young, blonde woman mage with the mark of the Chantry on her forehead.

The Good Cyborg is the tragic figure trying to become more (white, cisgender) human, but still outcast by society. In Dragon Age: Origins, the player encounters Tranquil mages, who celebrate their disconnection from the Fade even though it came at a high cost. Many mages volunteer for the Rite of Tranquility, as a self-loathing mage can be convinced to do in the mage starting section of Origins. The plight of the good mage rests in the essentialism of society; once born outside of the standard, one could never hope to achieve the status of a “true” human. The Tranquil are often put into positions of servitude and practical application that mages are absent from, now seen as acceptable and safe to interact with other humans. The player’s interaction with one such Tranquil shopkeeper broaches the topic of humanity, implying the general assumption of the Tranquil being less than human and mage. As Nishime puts it, the Good Cyborgs are nostalgic for something that never existed for them, and can only occur inside their own minds. It is telling that taking away the mage’s connection with the Fade and spirits takes away what is mage-like about them, and leaves something other than human as a result.

The Bad Mage

A young man mage using Blood Magic to attack armored Templars.

A young man mage using Blood Magic to attack armored Templars.

These mages confirm the suspicions and accusations made against their kind by the Templars and Chantry. How the player encounters them is telling: the main character battles demons and blood mages, many in scenes of destruction and rebellion. Dramatic cut scenes depict the use of blood magic and demonic transformation than any other type of magic, mirroring the unmasking of the Bad Cyborgs in films like The Terminator. They embrace dealings with demons and any grab at power that their magic affords them. Rejecting humanity by attacking it, Bad Mages resonate with the fears our culture has of identities that defy binaries. Dragon Age II’s Meredith plays on this anxiety by highlighting the mages’ ability to hide amongst the populace and strike down the everyday person, very similar rhetoric to opponents of minority rights. This also places value in being purely human, with anything different on the path to taint that purity. Nishime observes the only way towards redemption for Bad Cyborgs and Mages alike: total sacrifice and submission. Meredith acknowledges this sacrifice near the end of the game, but forces it on the mages, seeing the “people” of Kirkwall the real victims, not the mages. Juxtaposed in this manner, mages are second-class humans without all the rights that come along with being human, even if they are well behaved.

The Mixed/Trans Mage

Anders, a blonde man mage, possessed by Justice, making his eyes glow.

Anders, a blonde man mage, possessed by Justice, making his eyes glow.

Instead of looking to pass as completely human or of the Fade, the Mixed/Trans Mage embraces their hybridity and shapes their circumstances to fit their identity. These characters disturb and confuse onlookers by occupying a space that lies outside of the binary of good and bad. The progressive tone of the Dragon Age series arises from the many Mixed/Trans Mages the player can encounter, namely Morrigan, Anders, and Merrill. Mage-skeptical characters, such as Alistair, Fenris, and Aveline, are bewildered each time they attempt to apply the Good/Bad Mage mentality on them only to hear a rebuttal traversing into a gray area. Much like multi-racial and transgender people in reality, these characters manage their lives under the pressure to pass as standard while typecast as the bad cyborg and avoiding the fate of the good one. They often talk to the player as a teacher or from an enlightened viewpoint of someone who sees the social construction of being human and a mage. What is confusing to both Dragon Age’s society and our own is the perceived hubris of the Mixed/Trans Mage; why are these people being so loud? Who are they to disrupt the natural order of things? Why do we have to change for them?

Dragon Age II’s Passing Narratives

Merrill, an elvan dark-haired mage, using Blood Magic.

Merrill, an elvan dark-haired mage, using Blood Magic.

The struggles Anders and Merrill fight to achieve their identity-driven objectives while negotiating respect with their party members and evading Templars successfully speak to passing and identity issues for multi-racial and transgender people. Anders’ struggle with Justice describes how these minorities fair in the current social climate in reality, fearing the persecution of those who don’t understand him while controlling his deserved anger from being destructive. No one has answers for Anders’ problems other than to be a good, patient mage, and eventually society might change to make things better. This frustration builds in a culture for which there is no outlet for his feelings, much like predicament of multi-racial and transgender people finding little comfort in their allies while performing saint-like behavior around the oppressors. Anders’ story shows that society will not change quickly enough for the Mixed/Trans Cyborg, and instead, a cataclysmic change to the oppressive structure must occur. Merrill has even more hybridity to her identity; she is a Dalish who lives in the city, alienated from her clan, humans, and city elves while also marginalized for her blood magic. Her tense dialogue with Anders reveals the need for a pluralistic look on their issues, as Anders is quick to criticize Merrill despite their similar paths. Dragon Age II tells a tragic story of the Mixed/Trans Cyborg that tries to hold onto their roots while developing their borderless identity: instead of eliminating an overarching institution, Merrill can only be free once the bond with family that holds her back is destroyed.

Identifying the Mixed/Trans Cyborg/Mage amongst the numerous Good and Bad ones serves as a tool for not only reading multi-racial and transgender topics in games, but also creating successful minority characters overall. Development teams need more encouragement to include these identities and their issues in games; revealing and discussing passing narratives will lend material for more diverse game characters.

Activist Games

A screenshot from Auntie Pixelante's Defend the Land. Women in white dance in a field; the caption implores you to find the impostor who has a penis!

A few items from the past month that I wanted to bring to our readers’ attention:

First, Auntie Pixelante has created a game called Defend the Land, which is a satire of transphobic “women-born-women” policies at music festivals like MichFest. It was created in response to a self-identified feminist posting a list of names and other identifying information of trans women who attended MichFest despite of or in protest of the policy. Auntie writes:

obviously i was fucking pissed off at having to interrupt work on my new game to have to worry about the safety of fellow transwomen at the hands of self-identified “radical feminists.” so i took a four hour break to make this game about defending the land from trans wolves in womyn’s clothing. (it took four hours because i made it in stencyl.) it’s a FIND THE HIDDEN OBJECT game. the hidden object is a penis. (there’s no violence or slurs in the game, if you have a hard time dealing with that stuff. but this is a game about transmisogyny, and we should all have a hard time dealing with that stuff.)

Border House author Denis has some in-depth analysis at GayGamer.net. This is definitely an important game to check out.

Our second item is another game Denis wrote about recently for GayGamer, Molleindustria’s Phone Story, an iPhone game that tells players about the human rights abuses that go into making the device they are holding and further shows through gameplay how the player is complicit in the process. The contrast of the cartoony style and minigames with the disturbing subject matter and horrifying actions the minigames represent makes for effective satire.

The game was only available on the iTunes App Store for a few hours, but Denis was able to grab the game, and a video is included in his post. According to this Gamasutra interview with the developer, the game was carefully designed so as to comply with Apple’s guidelines, but it was pulled anyway. However, the game is now available for Android.

In the Gamasutra interview, Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini explains the team’s goal in creating this game:

“We don’t want people to stop buying smartphones,” he notes, “but maybe we can make a little contribution in terms of shifting the perception of technological lust from cool to not-that-cool. This happened before with fur coats, diamonds, cigarettes and SUVs — I can’t see why it can’t happen with iPads.”

Lastly, Kill Screen has an interview with Dr. Michael Baran, creator of a game called Guess My Race, a 2011 Games For Change finalist. The game asks players to choose a person’s race based on just a photograph. It is inspired by exercises Dr. Baran did with children:

I took pictures of hundreds of people at Election Day—I just took pictures of whoever let me, and laminated them, and used them to make little games for kids, just like cards: Sort these people into groups by who looks the same and who looks different; tell me about this group; what makes this group different from that group? I did these little games that were kind of like cognitive psychology experiments, and tried to be really systematic; be inspired by academics but make the research fun to figure out what kids know about race.

The fact that the game is quite difficult shows how race is socially constructed and that you can’t necessarily tell someone’s race by how they look. The game is available for iOS devices.

Anti-anticitizen One

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

A picture of Eli Vance, an older African American male with gray hair and vandyke. His left leg is a prosthetic, and he wears cargo pants, a Harvard sweatshirt, and a green vest over that.

Note: Spoilers for the Half-Life series.

A while ago I started a series examining the various premises surrounding Half-Life 2. When I sat down and reflected (and wrote in my own blog, which will be where the following links redirect), I found that there was a lot I liked about the game from both a technical and narrative standpoint. For instance, looking into the situation surrounding Alyx and Eli Vance, I found not just characters who weren’t the default white NPCs, but also people whose backgrounds gave more narrative power to the situations in which they found themselves: Eli’s role as leader of a previously enslaved alien race seemed the more powerful given his age, the only near-future of the game, and his racial background based off the US.

This then made the narrative surrounding the 1984-esque questions of individuality and how we obtain security by giving in to the system all the more poignant. The figureheads of the kyriarchy, the powers we see, are put front and center through Dr. Breen and G-Man, though it leads to further questions of what is really going on and how the power structures remain even if you can get rid of the figurehead of the organization—oppression cannot be rid of by deposing of the face of your oppression. Power does not exist as an absolute, and its tendrils reach far and wide to help subjugate those it requires to rise itself up and gain its privileges.

However, the part that kept befuddling me is the role of Gordon Freeman. I couldn’t access him as a character, which left me feeling cold much of the time, as someone who enjoys inhabiting roles given him, as I would a character on stage. Often framed as an Everyman, his role is left quite bare in a world that has some rather strong personalities, causing a bit of a clash. I don’t mind extemporaneous acting, but it is a bit odd when you are still following a script, and everyone else is stuck to it. I had a problem, that is, until I started reframing how I looked how I approached Freeman.

As many allies who have certain privileges and have yet to examine them, I was once one of those who was in other spaces and had a disproportionate time spent talking rather than listening. As is often stated to allies in spaces where they may be invited expressly or not, please listen, as what we are sharing is our experience—an experience you do not necessarily have.

Freeman is the silent ally. He is no voice for the resistance. He is a figure. He is a hero. His words are his actions, which by extension are how we interact with the world. We speak against the injustice by progressing the plot, shooting the Combine footsoldiers (which does nothing to help the overall deconstruction of the power structures in place—they are nameless, faceless enemies), and helping Alyx, who helps us progress while giving voice to the story.

Gordon does not have the same experiences as the people he helps. He disappeared for a few decades, and his own background does not necessarily mesh with those whom he helps. While he is a champion whose actions help the resistance, his history and thoughts are not what Valve felt necessary to share with us: he is an ally who can help with action to shape the world, but cannot put voice to the oppression in quite the same way.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Alyx Vance holding the gravity gun. She is a woman in hers 20s, and of mixed heritage, her father black, and her mother Asian. She wears jeans, a Black Mesa shirt, and a brown jacket over it.

Outside of the player/Freeman, the most important player on your side would be Alyx Vance. There has been quite a bit of love for her around these parts, as she is a character who is well-acted, well-drawn, and given a role beyond just superwoman or whimpering sexpot. We called her a character done right. It is on Alyx that much of this hinges.

The world itself is difficult to care about in the same way that I do about the characters. While it is based on our own world, the landscapes are foreign enough that they do not evoke any great sense of attachment. The care and emotions put into the relationships among the Resistance group and then their relationship to Dr. Freeman is what stands out.

To be clear, the politics of the time are largely focused on enslaving humanity as a whole, as well as the Vortigaunts, but as I stated previously, the Vances’ own racial background has that much more effect. The setting of the second game is in 202-, leaving us to believe Eli Vance is somewhere between his 50s and 60s. This means he may not have been alive to see the Civil Rights Movement in the US, but it would certainly had an effect on how he was raised. It is never revealed what manner of scientist Vance is exactly, but he is proven as an inventor, and hinted at as a graduate of Harvard. Not impossible tasks given the time frame, but ones that would color his worldview: he is not someone new to facing daunting odds.

Which is why it is significant that the Vortigaunts stress he was the first to contact them and make peace. The first to champion for their cause. Gordon may be the hero of the game we play, but without Eli, he would be the hero of a vastly different world, and while his oppression by these forces would be present as conflict, the larger oppressions taking place give more context as to what is at stake.

What is also worth noting is that while there exist moments of levity and humor with both Alyx and Eli Vance, they are not so much comedic camp as the other members of Black Mesa East such as Dr. Kleiner. These are characters who have a serious mission, can still remain human, and yet trust Gordon for his previous actions. Yet they are still the leaders of their group. It is Eli who often tells Gordon where to go, or what needs be done. Alyx is often aiding him, and helping him in difficult situations, opening doors for him that he cannot himself.

Which is why the sinister overarching plot of G-Man seems all the more tied to the kyriarchy. In many ways, he is using Gordon to achieve his own aims, whatever they might be. It is not even told for whom G-Man is working. While one could surmise it is against the Combine, there is no certainty of that, as there is none that his loyalties may have shifted. What we know of his purposes is vague, beyond controlling Gordon, and setting up the events that led to the Resonance Cascade. He is the figure we see, but the tendrils that control our life and the world of Half-Life 2 remain unseen, and work at subjugating the human race, as it did the Vortigaunts.

Therefore, the story of Half-Life 2 becomes about resistance against an unseen power. While we play more privileged party in that equation, the human voice and compassion we see, the very essence of what we would likely consider the good in humanity, is embodied in the leader and his daughter: Eli and Alyx. As Gordon Freeman, we the player fight their battle for a world they wish and believe in, and one which we, by the way we enter the story, can easily take for granted as we do not fully understand their experiences or what is at stake until we see and hear their story. We listen, we stay silent, and we help them achieve their goal.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

Gordon Freeman, a man in his late 20s, wearing glasses, and sporting a short haircut with a vandyke.

As can often be the case in terms of allies, it is Gordon who receives the lion’s share of the recognition, however. As a tale of resisting kyriarchy, Half-Life 2 gives us a look into how allies are perceived as more of a threat and given more accolades than those fighting the daily struggle, as they are seen to be setting an example for other privileged people. Which is not to say that I believe this was Valve’s intent necessarily. While Freeman is still not a protagonist who greatly breaks the mold of straight white male protagonist who is bland and boring (something rarely afforded a character who is none of these), he can set an example for ally who learns that he can help while not always having to interject his own opinion.

The main characters of Bastion greeting each other in a circle. The oldest and youngest males have tanned skin and white hair, while the young girl and adult man have paler skin with dark hair.

Diversity Watch: Bastion

As a sort of closing thoughts on my time with Bastion, I’m curious as to how I can further my agenda of promoting diversity in games, or seeing how games are an artifact of a culture’s stance on diversity. This isn’t meant to scold Bastion by not fulfilling their quota of minorities, but letting it speak for itself.

The main characters of Bastion greeting each other in a circle. The oldest and youngest males have tanned skin and white hair, while the young girl and adult man have paler skin with dark hair.

The main characters of Bastion greeting each other in a circle. The oldest and youngest males have tanned skin and white hair, while the young girl and adult man have paler skin with dark hair.

Race and Ethnicity

For all the fear that the industry has about touching the topic of race and ethnicity, Bastion pushes the topic out there and lets the player interpret it. What is disheartening is how easily players can overlook this tension and participate in the usual brand xenophobia (and anti-environmentalism at that) that is produced from video games. Bastion makes use of race to draw on the player’s cultural understanding of them against us, of a nation against savages. The Ura draw on the qualities of the Far East (they even live in the East) to act as markers when juxtaposed against the kid and Rucks’ racial features; they have paler skin with dark hair, superstitious about a pantheon of gods, move around the map sharp and quickly (reminiscent of ninjas), and Zulf’s personal item is a hookah. This wouldn’t be so noticeable if Rucks and the kid weren’t depicted as very western (bulky males, caucasian facial features, imperialistic culture, science-orientated), however it goes a step further and marks them as very American. I was personally shocked when I first heard Rucks’ voice and then confused when I saw him; the voice actor was particular in using a tone and diction that is reminiscent of African-American (I use this term to identify a specific group of people, not to be PC) local color stories. So when I saw that Rucks was depicted as caucasian, my rationalization was assuming the team was looking for an aesthetic that was patently American. Following this line of thinking, I’m sure someone can come up with an interesting interpretation of seeing the US against its eastern anxieties (most of the Middle East, China, North Korea) in Bastion. However, that’s not my goal here; it’s possible that those with a differing ethnicity than the canon American one would be able to identify with the wrong done to Zulf, but it would be a difficult claim as you kill more and more Ura to get to your goal. Rucks’ excuse for killing all these people is flimsy and ethnocentric, as I could imagine a different reaction if Caeldonian lives were the ones at stake (or maybe they are, and that’s why it’s easy to kill Ura).

There’s also the tucked away issue about Zia’s liminal status when it comes to her ethnicity; she was raised in Caeldonia, but her race is of the Ura. There are mixed messages with the plot point of Zia running off to meet Zulf, and the implications of him claiming her as an Ura. It is unclear if Zia ever felt a sense of belonging, though this might be implied by the very subtle hints of the kid’s affection towards her.

Gender and Sexuality

The game assumes heteronormativity and doesn’t make any grand statements about gender. Bastion follows many traditions in this genre; the main character is a young male who identifies as a (conventionally Western) man and uses many typical props that suggest masculinity. There are some neat twists on the weapons in the game, but they are the same from every other: every type of gun you can think of and a bunch of melee weapons that require strength rather than anything else. One of the upgrades for the Bastion is a distillery which indicates that the kid is drinking throughout his adventures; I have nothing against drinking, but it is a common trope of masculinity to be a hard drinker, and this cannot go unnoticed if the main character is continually called ‘the kid.’ I find it problematic in an abstract way when boys in video games are assumed to have weapon and combat competency, or at least how prevalent this type of character is in video games. Rucks reinforces these expectations by the actions he points out the kid doing; I remember feeling a little put off when there was a quote of the kid having a sort of affection for one of his guns (I think there’s multiple references like these for the musket). There is little room for any other expression or identification of any other type of masculinity other than the gamer hegemonic one.

Zia’s representation as the sole woman (I’ll assume female as well) seem more to be in service of contrasting the kid’s masculinity. The (typical) emphasis on her beauty is slyly done by hearing her song and voice before you meet her. The sequence attributes the usual qualities to Zia before we even meet her; delicate sounding, beauty in an ethereal sense, a rare sight, something to chase. Rucks’ narration during this sequence is ambiguous during the first play-through as the player doesn’t know who he’s telling the story to (I assumed he was tell me the story), and it prompts the unaware listener to admire Zia as an aesthetic. Also, seeing that her personal item is a cooking pot… It doesn’t seem like Bastion is trying to leave behind any molds.

Something interesting is at work, though, when comparing the two aesthetics invoked, as they seem rather gendered. Zia’s song seems to be the audio translation of the visual representation of the game; I look at Bastion and see something beautiful and delicate. But Rucks’ narration, the only other voice of the game, gives the aesthetic more grittiness, enough so it isn’t alienating to the type of character the kid embodies. My personal observations of the themes at work in this game sprout from details like this, and I’m sure an interpretation waits to be read there.

Closing Thoughts

More could be said about age and and ableism, but they seem to just exist in the game and don’t really complicate the matter. Rucks has an interesting role as an elder, but turns out to be a threat of a harmful culture rather than an agent on his own. There is also no indication of transgender, intersexed, or asexual people, though given this allegory to America overall, it would be interesting where such characters would fit in.

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

The Politics of Game Hair

N.B. Many thanks to Latoya Peterson for allowing me to ask her a few questions, and my friend Janathan for reading and giving me feedback. I do not claim to have these experiences, but it is something I rarely see addressed.

The choices for game hair often are often disappointing. The physics for realistic hair are not quite there, meaning longer hair is rarely seen. However, as a white male with the accompanying privileges that can afford me in terms of being represented in games, it took me a while to realize just how bad the hair options are. It first started around 2000, when I began making my little Sims and basing them on real life friends—it was then that I realized, try that I might, I could not model my black friends effectively, because many of them liked to wear their hair naturally

Ever since that time I have kept an eye on the characters I am able to design in my games. From the original Sims to White Knight Chronicles to both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series (and many more besides—MMOs for instance), I have noticed that if I want to create a black character model, I am typically given at maximum four options, if that, when choosing hair options that are not treated in some fashion: cornrows, locks, mini-fros, or going the shaved route. Even more curious is that sometimes this is even further divided between selecting to play as a man or a woman; when playing Dragon Age 2, I noticed that my male Hawke had more options than my female Hawke, oddly enough (or, as is the case with Mass Effect 2’s editor, I found myself unable to emulate Jacob’s features very well). For Ronia Shepard, for instance, I found the options to shear off all her hair, or go with the pulled back ponytail look featured below (which still isn’t perfect, but alas).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

Ronia Shepard, from Mass Effect 2, pointing to punctuate a point. She is a black woman with short hair, pulled back into a small ponytail (the bald look didn't quite work for her).

When presenting this topic to some people, there are typically two responses. Either, as I mentioned above, all hair options are horrible, so this should be seen as either a boon (this is said with a laugh, so as to make sure I understand it as a joke) or we should work on improving hair overall. The second is rarer, but also comes from a place of privilege, asking if black people really want these options? After all, the assumption goes, how many black people play these particular games anyway? And given that the assumed number is so infinitesimally small, wouldn’t that just be a waste of resources?

Of course, games are not alone in this lack of representation. In almost any media, when we do see a black man or woman who is supposed to be taken by us as attractive, there are certain standards regarding lightness of skin, acceptable facial features, and how their hair is presented to us—Eurocentric standards. The ideal is to have flattened, straightened hair for women, and short, closely cropped hair for men. This does not mean I want to excuse games, but want to point out how games are performing the same-old, which is a shame when we have games that propose that we get to create and make ourselves, to immerse ourselves in their worlds, or to inhabit some fantasy character.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

Sim Janathan is holding on to a telescope while being tractor-beamed by a UFO. He is wearing a blue suit, and has a short 'fro.

In my first example, with The Sims, the problem was further highlighted by the fact that the game had a thriving mod community. Hair options abounded, as many were not satisfied with the original stock of hair options. Try as I might, I found myself frustrated on two fronts: rarely was black hair considered, and, back in the days of the first Sims, clothing was split into three skin color categories (white, a yellow/light brown, and a light-toned black), and quite often, white was the only option for particular sets of clothing within the modding community. With the release of Sims 2, we did not seen a return to the clothing divided by skin color, though natural hair options have still been somewhat lacking in the default selection as the series progresses.

Which only highlights the related problem of the lack of diversity in the industry, and further, those voices being heard in directing a project, or coming up with its assets. It is still common that even basic skin color never goes darker than light-brown, and that the skin tones are abysmal in certain lighting conditions. It starts to seem as if it is an afterthought. Since many white people I know are still relatively ignorant in terms of natural hair,  or how the media quietly silences all but the ‘acceptable’ black beauty, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see how this occurs. Plainly: ignorance.

Games seemingly brag more and more often about their character creators, and how they have better options, allow more customization, and give the player the chance to really play themselves, or whomsoever they may choose. Myself? Yeah, I can play my pasty white-skinned self to my heart’s content, but I do not play games to always play myself, and I am one of those people aware of the self-loathing encouraged by media (both subtly and overtly) and the battles people can have about the politics of their hair in public (note: aware, not experienced). I want to play from different perspectives, even if the game does not wholly acknowledge my choices of created character.

There is a question of the social responsibility of games, and if we are to believe they have the same social responsibility as any media, we need more diversity in a number of ways, including self-representation for minorities (and theoretically for those who don’t want to play themselves all the time—much as with same-sex romance, it is folly to believe that only those who are queer would play such). The media’s black beauty standards should ideally have no role in games, though they are present. If we are to continue to open up character creators, however, we need to also allow a larger range of options, where natural hair does not get boiled down to what white society considers ‘acceptable’ and ‘politically safe.’