(This article contains very small spoilers for The Walking Dead and a larger one from Nier.)
The dearth of quality non-white/non-straight characters in video gaming is due primarily to a scarcity of quality characters in general. Quality and diversity are fully intertwined. Unless what you want from your video games is a cast of characters that look and behave like the plastic people from a diversity poster in a human relations office, we should be demanding quality as much as we demand diversity.
Diversity is not derived from the amount of races, genders, or sexualities involved in a piece of media; rather, it is the result of the expression of differing viewpoints within the media. Without any actual depth to these characters, we simply end up with a rainbow-colored status quo.
A large majority of video game characters are incredibly uninteresting. On a hypothetical scale of character quality, most characters are a 1/10. They exist purely to push a plot along or provide motivation for the main character. Truthfully, video game characters are, on average, so bad that any time we are provided a character with any depth, the video game community is collectively shocked.
We are simply blown away every time a male character shoots an enemy with anything other than utter glee or a female makes a comment that seems to reveal that she is not simply a damsel in distress. These departures from the norm generally result in players tripping over each other in a mad scramble to mail handwritten letters to 343 Studios, expressing our gratitude to them for giving Cortana so much personality. The slightest deviation from the typical action hero role sends our heads spinning.
But even these improved characterizations are really not that impressive. We have simply been conditioned to take whatever scraps we can get. In a universe of characters that are 1/10’s, the occasional 3/10 feels like a revelation. There seems to be a few methods for developing a character enough to reach this 3/10 and any gamer can recognize them with ease. Whether deciding to kill his girlfriend, give him a mysterious past, a robotic arm, or an unfamiliar accent, it’s all meant to accomplish the same goal: Injecting a quick and easy dose of personality into otherwise bland characters. But there is one other method, one that is even easier than all of those: make him black.
I sometimes envision a scenario in which video game developers sitting around a table collaborating to create a series of characters for their game, wrestling with how they can make their characters more appealing to players.
Writer 1: So, we’ve got this guy. We need to create something interesting about him to hook the player!
Writer 2: Kill his mom.
Writer 1: Great idea! Dead mothers are fascinating! But it isn’t enough. How can we flesh this guy out?
Writer 2: Make him crazy. Because having your mom die might make you crazy!
Writer 1: Awesome! That’ll do for him. Next character! What should we do with her?
Writer 2: Make her smart!
Writer 1: Yeah, every game needs a scientist type! But what else?
Writer 2: Make her hot!
Writer 1: Genius! That’s just interesting enough! Next character. What’s he going to be?
Writer 2: Make him black!
Writer 1: Got it, moving on.
To video game writers, having a character with an ethnicity other than “nondescript white” is simply a means to an end, a way to reach their quota of 3/10. A black character doesn’t actually have to be fleshed out in the minds of most writers; the simple fact that their skin is anything but white makes them interesting enough to get by. Every black video game character’s bio essentially has an implied paragraph at the very top explaining that they are, indeed, black and that the very fact that he is should seem fascinating to the player.
It appears that writers have a mindset that says, essentially, “He’s black, why does he need to be anything else?” When writers are developing characters that are only slightly interesting, being black is interesting enough. Everything else about the character comes naturally.
What do black people do? Well, if you take your queues from popular culture, they play sports, talk jive, and curse a lot, and that is how a slightly interesting black character is born. Simply being black is both harmless and interesting enough to be a suitable addition to a character in today’s sociological gaming climate. When publishers get over their assumption that people won’t buy a game because it features a gay character, homosexual characters will be treated just the same.
They gave us a transgendered character, but forgot to give us a reason to care. The result is that Poison’s gender identity is more of a gimmick than an example of true diversity.
The character of Marcus Phoenix is not a person. I would not even consider him “white.” The setting of Gears of War simply required a main character and the most obvious choice for species was human, the most obvious choice for gender was male, and the most obvious choice for race was Caucasian. He is only white by default. Making his skin color black, blue, or red accomplishes absolutely nothing unless it is accompanied by fundamental changes to the character. There is a difference between a character that has been simply colored black and one that is actually black.
Take for example one of the few well thought-out black characters, Lee Everett, the main character of The Walking Dead. There was a particular scenario when, confronted with a life or death situation, I wondered what I would do in Lee’s shoes. The answer was obvious: play the race card. Now playing the race card is a distinctly inappropriate maneuver, and I really prefer to live my life without being an asshole to the people around me. However, I prefer not being dead even more, so it seemed like a logical decision if I were in Lee’s shoes.
Had Lee been a white character, the thought would have never crossed my mind. The simple fact that Lee is black, however, opens up a world of possibilities (and closes just as many). There are social interactions that exist between a black character and a white character that do not exist if both characters are of the same race. The problem is that these social interactions are rife with nuance and they must be approached with tact. These are the sorts of stories that can’t be told with the sledgehammer-variety of writing that is featured in most video games, so it is not surprising that writers tend to stay as far away from these possibilities as possible.
Later, a dialogue option that essentially amounts to playing the race card actually does appear, though like many of the game’s dialogue decisions, it has no real impact on the story. Baby steps!
Of all the curve-balls thrown that developers have thrown at gamers, Nier’s Kaine is one of the all-time greatest. An ostensibly female character who is inadequately clothed to the point of being accused of existing purely for fan-service despite her well-fleshed out back story, she is subtly revealed to be intersex after the game ends. Despite belonging to what is surely one of the least represented groups in gaming, by not revealing the character as intersex until the end, the writers do not allow the condition to define the character.
For the length of the game, she is what she presents herself to be, a woman who is strong-willed, confident, loyal and angry. She is not Kaine The Intersexed, but a fully fleshed out character whose genitals are, sensibly, not of great importance in the context of the story.
But what use would there be to define her as intersex if it was purely a sidenote, tacked onto the end of a bio? That would simply reduce her to the level of characters like Poison, whose gender identity is used as a gimmick. Fortunately, Nier takes a much more sophisticated approach by using a series of flashbacks, at first, vaguely hinting at past trauma. The game never explicitly states that she is intersexed, but interviews with the developers have clarified and through in-game dialogue, we learn that her coarse personality is the result of hardship and adversity faced as a child when she was bullied and discriminated against. “I don’t get you, freak. Whatcha acting like a girl for, huh? Everyone knows what you really are!” a bully says to her.
That doesn’t even take into consideration that many players have no interest in the uncomfortable feelings that might be spurred by discussions of race or sexuality and those most concerned with diversity are probably not the mass-consumers that publishers target. In fact, beyond the increasingly rare artistic statement, there is very little incentive for mainstream publishers to investigate the actual potential that lies in diversity; a tacked-on multi-player mode would likely be a more cost-efficient and review score boosting use of their man-hours.
As it turns out, it is those who are playing the games that are standing in the way of actual diversity as much as it is the creators of these hollow characters. The games won’t change until the demands of the average player does.
There is no denying that mainstream gaming is suffering from a deficit of diversification. But is a future of generically colorful characters really any better? Do we really want developers taking the easy way out and creating characters with darker-than-usual skin who exhibit no signs of having lived through the experiences that are unique to the cultures they represent? That would be a step backwards, or at best, to the side, as this sort of pseudo-diversity would provide an all too-convenient excuse for the industry as a whole to avoid deeper exploration of race. Until the gaming industry makes a concerted effort to create compelling characters, diversity is much further away than simply adding black characters to video games.