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Racial Caricatures in Video Games

I engage in a range of media criticism and today I want to talk about video games.  Recently I’ve fallen into playing a lot of Hero Academy, a turn based mobile game where you pit your heroes against another player’s team. It appeals to my sense of strategy, enjoyment of number crunching, and ability to plan many moves forward. However, I can’t help but groan at the racial stereotypes embedded in it.

The default team – The Council – is based on D&D characters and are all white/European with the exception of an inexplicable ninja, a few of the other teams are built around racial stereotypes. The orc team – The Tribe – is shock full of indigenous tropes. Most frustrating is the ‘shaman,’ who’s entire face is a wooden mask that changes expression as if it is the characters actual face. He’s accompanied by the warrior, the witch, and the chieftain. Being indigenous myself, I sighed in disappointment, but it’s not much that worse than what I call “background level racism,” so I tried to deal with it and move on.

But then I discovered the “Shaolin” team. Each character is extremely light skinned despite obviously being made to be Asian. I’ll spare you the details except for the teams healer: “The Toaist.” He carries a magic wand and can heal and resurrect allies. When upgraded he gets a hat with a ying yang symbol on it – which I know it can’t be, but looks suspiciously like a Chinese takeout container on his head. And when making a charged up attack words appear on the screen announcing “ToaPIST!” Get it? Because he’s pissed off. I don’t know a lot about Taoism, but even I know that it’s a terrible idea to have this guy running around the battle field, harnessing the power of rage, and waving a magic wand around to bring people back from the dead.

I know that European religious practices have had their place in these reductive games, but the standard role of a cleric or a priest doesn’t quite compare. It’s the specificity, as well as just how wrong they get it that is so painful in this case. The “cleric” is purposefully kept generic and could be of any of the made up D&D religions. It’s not meant to represent the religious/spiritual practice of an actual people in the real world. Imagine if they instead included a character named, “The Protestant,” who wore a large hat, similar to the Pope’s and attacked people by swinging incense balls. He would wave his hand and sparkles would shoot from his fingertips as he brings people back to life. And whenever he made a charged up attack it said “Protest-AIN’T TAKIN’ YOUR SHIT!” or maybe “Prostes-TURN THE OTHER CHEEK SO I CAN KICK IT!”

I know some folks won’t get why this is worth complaining about. I can’t tell you how often I’m tempted just to ignore it and try to enjoy my game. But this shit is pervasive. I got this game from Humble Bundle where previously I found myself playing through “Swords and Soldiers,” where you play as “Aztecs, Vikings, and Chinese,” with all the same tired tropes and stereotypes. This isn’t just offensive, this is lazy, boring, and totally unoriginal. People rely on these tropes and reductive stereotypes because they can’t be bothered to think of something more compelling. Instead of having real characters with compelling stories, they choose to rely upon images and caricatures they expect people to already be familiar with.

However,  those caricatures resonate with people because of the power that has been placed into them. Even when they include reductive silly images of white people it’s never on equal ground. “Smuggle Truck,” another game I was introduced to through Humble Bundle, has you playing as a truck driver smuggling immigrants across the US border – callously tossing your passengers out of the pickup truck bed along the bumpy ride, and trying to catch newborn “anchor babies” thrown into the air along the way. It may seem silly and over the top, but these images hold weight and the power to affect people’s lives in a way that a BBQ obsessed Viking does not. I’m tired of this.

I’ve seen it one too many times. I challenge developers and anyone creating media to hold themselves to a higher standard. Come up with unique ideas and characters. If you must rely on caricatures, limit yourself to the more neutral and generic. And get some feedback from people with a critical race analysis. Most games have some pretty extensive play testing to make sure there aren’t any bugs before they are released. Can you imagine if there was just a process for finding and rooting out racism, sexism, and other oppressive power systems? If game makers invested even one tenth of their playtesting process to this, things would be very different, that’s for sure. raceandgames