Memory Insufficient the games history e-zine
tropes vs. Black black men history in games history and Can video games games teach us about race? Black realities in games
Issue ten April 2014
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Memory Insufficient the games history e-zine
About the Editor: Zoya Street is a freelance video game historian, journalist and writer, working in the worlds of design criticism and digital content business strategy. zoyastreet.com | @rupazero
Memory Insufficient is a celebration of history. First and foremost, it is an attempt to promote and encourage historical writing about games; social histories, biographies, historically situated criticism of games and anything else. It is also a place to turn personal memories of games past into eye-opening written accounts. It is a place to honour the work of game developers who have influenced the path of history. It is a place to learn what games are - not as a formal discipline, but as lived realities. Like all historical study, Memory Insufficient is fundamentally about citizenship. Itâ€™s not enough to just remember and admire the games of the past. History is about understanding our place in the world; as developers, as critics and as players. The power of history is to reveal where the agents of change reside, and empower us to be the change we want to see. Memory Insufficient is a celebration of history, not just as fact but as action.
Issue ten April 2014
Black history and games
Contents Can video games teach us about race? Black realities in the games industry Tropes vs. black men in games history
Games critic Sidney Fussell argues that ‘race affects all our stories’. He calls for more video games to look at race as a social and historical phenomenon, and not simply a matter of pigmentation. Professor Kishonna Gray gives a thorough overview of how racism affects the games industry, from representation to online discrimination. Editor Zoya Street draws from TVTropes.com to sketch out a visual history of the portrayal of the ‘scary black man’ in video games over the past 30 years.
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Can video games teach us about race? Sidney “Sangfroid” Fussell is a freelance writer, critic and comedian who frequently writes on political intersections in new media.
sangfroidfussell.wordpress.com | @sangfroid_san Panels at last year’s Game Developers Conference and overall timbre of articles in both independent and industry supported blogs have revealed an exciting and reflective conversation on women and gender in videogames, galvanized by the re-birth of Lara Croft and the release of Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Videogames. The conversation has moved beyond simply arguing for less revealing clothing and “more agency” for fictional women, towards dissecting a paradigm shift for the entire industry, highlighting the role of women as both consumers and producers of videogames. And while anyone at least casually interested in social equity will no doubt find this thrilling, the conversation is overwhelmingly white, with all these calls for industry-wide changes in favor of equal representation completely omitting race. The conversation has been disappointingly monochromatic, but, has at least shown that the industry is “talking back” to both internal and external critics and is, however tepidly, evolving a capacity for self-reflection.
Token Minorities That said, why are we talking about gender in isolation? Why aren’t we talking about race in games? The biggest deterrent to a meaningful conversation on race is that we’re still striving for “diversity.” Unfortunately, developers and players alike have adopted the misguided belief that simply adding black and brown people to games without any context will somehow evade accusations of racism in games. This is best seen in the character-creation mechanic. Personally, I love the ability to alter my character’s appearance, but this isn’t “diversity” in any sense. The promotional material which blankets websites and game stores will always feature the “default” of a white male (itself a serious problem) and in-game, when altering the protagonist to become a person of color, their race comes down only to appearance with no effect on the story.
But as we know, race affects all our stories.
And frankly speaking, it is extremely offensive to reduce race to one’s appearance. If you were to ask me the racial differences between a white person, and myself I wouldn’t reply that I was further to the right on the melanin slider. Faux-intellectuals often dismiss such a definition of race, opting for a literal prima facie perspective by emphasizing that there is no biological evidence for “race” beyond pigmentation. And that’s true - racial differences are social constructs. But this visually discernible difference, while arbitrary as hair or eye color, is imbued with the cultural meanings that create the logics supporting racial divisions. Unfortunately, videogames have historically viewed diversity as a disparity in “representation” with this superficial understanding of race.
An actual conversation on race in games isn’t simply about adding X number of Y-colored people. It’s about acknowledging that social acceptability is linked with people’s racial identity, with whiteness being the ideal. Filters and fantasies Oddly enough, it is fantasy games that most closely reflect this reality. The “fantastic racism” in games like Skyrim, Mass Effect and Dragon Age are among the best representations of societal prejudices in the medium. The Dunmers’ seclusion to the “Gray Quarter” in Windhelm, the impoverished City Elves cut off from their culture in Dragon Age or Mordin Solus’ guilt over the genophage are valid (though hyper-fictionalized) representations of racism because they discuss race in connection with history, oppression, privilege and power. A similarly complex understanding of race set in our world has yet to materialize. This isn’t incidental. Consider this: when developers sit down to discuss historical time periods to set their FPS, action, adventure, etc. games in, notice which time periods are featured and which are not. Consider Dishonored’s WWII setting, Dragon Age, Dark Souls, Dragon’s Dogma takes on the Middle Ages of Europe, Skyrim’s Viking locale, L.A. Noire’s 1940’s and multiple shooters’ excursions in the Middle East starring American soldiers. A major stumbling block when talking about race in games, specifically to connecting race to history in games, is that developers choose time periods accepted as only having white heroes — even though of course there are both heroes and villains of all colors throughout American history.
This norm of setting games in time periods where white heroes are the only “realistic” choice is an industry-wide filtering that once again privileges whiteness. Imagine what a videogame, which allows us to inhabit and build empathy towards an infinite amount of settings and characters, could do to teach players about racism, sexism etc. Imagine a Heavy Rain-style videogame starring an Islamic cast striving to survive being on the other side of the Call of Duty setting. What could that story teach us about race, religion, empathy, geography, etc.? Videogames can teach us about race.
Does every videogame need to explicitly detail the mechanics of racism or sexism? No. But it is no coincidence that we’re witnessing the most strident internal criticism of video games since Columbine only a few months before the release of the “next-generation” of hardware. The social media boom has allowed gamers to hold developers accountable for the shortcuts and concessions in their products — consider the maelstrom of bad press summoned by gamers disappointed in the Diablo 3 and SimCity releases. The conciliatory tokens of acknowledgment that worked in the past are no longer acceptable. I believe that through online dialogues gamers can hold developers to the same degree of accountability in their treatments of both race and gender. We’ve come a long way, and have a long way to go. But if the GDC panels and progressive bloggers such as myself are correct in believing that we can push games further and create real emotional connectivity, then videogames have evolved the maturity to discuss complex issues in depth. As we prepare ourselves for the leap into the next generation, we should push not simply for a technical expansion in terms of hardware, but a conceptual expansion in terms of the subject matters, emotions and contexts in games. We are ready for this conversation and, as a lifelong gamer, I can’t wait to see it play out. This article was originally published as a post on the Gamasutra guest blogs.
Resources Feminist Frequency Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Read Online. GDC 2013 Advocacy track talks View videos online.
Character creation screen, Skyrim (2012) Bethesda
Black Realities in the Games Industry Kishonna Gray is assistant professor in the school of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University
kishonnagray.com CJ left the hood to start a new life, or rather, a new life of crime. But the death of his mother in a drive by shooting beckoned him to return to the Grove. While away in Liberty City, CJ began working in the car theft business honing his skills which would soon come in handy. Upon his return to Los Santos after five years of being gone, CJ is confronted by members of the highly corrupt C.R.A.S.H., Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, an anti-gang unit of the Los Santos Police Department. They coerce CJ into informing for them or he would be framed for killing one of their fellow police officers. CJ complies after realizing that his former neighborhood, the Grove Street Family, has lost much of its power and notoriety since he left and this would be a good way to keep the police at bay. CJ works to start rebuilding the gang while slaughtering dozens in the process. He eventually achieves his goal of rebuilding the Grove Street Family, as well as becoming a wealthy business owner in the process. The above excerpt from my upcoming book, Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live provides a brief overview of Carl Johnson, the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). The narrative, full of crime, violence, and death has become a common story telling of the Black experience.
This story, among hundreds others, represents a normalization of the violence that pervades many Black lives. Although Grand Theft Auto exists as a satire, the parody reveals much about how we understand and consume race through popular culture. First, this example highlights the ever-present crime in CJâ€™s life. The audience is to assume that this is a normal way of life for Blacks, specifically in inner-city settings; mediated outlets never contextualizing structural discrimination leading to this reality. Second, the normalization confirms for mainstream audiences that crime and Black are synonymous, a com-
mon trend in media. Third, although this game proved that the default gamer could in fact be comfortable with playing a minority character, that character would have to exist within common frames that continue to stereotype the lives of Blacks.
Video Games as rACIAL PROJECTS Race, as a hierarchical structure, has manifested in video games in stereotypical manners that fit within the hegemonic notions of what it means to be a person of color. Specifically, by employing the notion of the ‘racial project’, we can see how many popular video games fit within this theoretical schema where racialized ideas, bodies, and structures are constructed, mediated, and presented through a safe medium. Sociologists Omi and Winant describe a racial project simultaneously as an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines. Using the example from above to illustrate, San Andreas can be examined through the scope of a racial project operating as a hegemonic system. The location is an inner-city setting, a common story told about Black life. The characters within the game are mostly engage in criminal activity. And there is not outlet or even room for mobilization or improving life’s outcomes. In this manner, race becomes a common sense way of comprehending and explaining certain bodies and behavior that operate outside the realm of norm – the White norm.
BLACKS IN VIDEO GAMES As games are developed, they continually aim to fulfill the perceived desires of the young, middle-class male who is supposedly the market’s target. Disturbingly absent from discussions on video game markets are Black and Latino youth who assisted in propelling the video gaming industry into the million-dollar industry by spending time and money in arcades (media theorist Anna Everett’s work examines this). This could be due to the power structure of the gaming industry being a predominately white, and secondarily Asian, male-dominated elite. The hegemonic elite has excluded and alienated minority players who in numerical terms actually constitute a majority.
Within video games, Black masculinity is most often stereotyped as hyper masculine, hyperphysical, and hypersexual. With this hyperextended Black male, his character is mostly devoid of intellect and exists in a childlike, buffoon manner. The Gears of War (2006) non-playable character Augustus “Cole Train” Cole reveals this reality. In the futuristic world of Sera where Gears of War takes place, much attention is paid to the detail of world from the characters, to settings, to storyline. However, in constructing the player of Cole Train, Epic Games reverts to common narratives associated with Blackness and Black masculinity. Cole Train’s character operates as comic relief. This lack of maturity for military personnel reflects a common story often told of Black sidekicks in movies, television, and video games. Analyzing representations of Black men in this manner reveal that
the predominate image depict them as a hybrid of Coon or Black Buffoon, commonly referred to in media analysis as the Uncle Remus. The Pure Coon is a stumbling, stuttering idiot, often defined as unreliable, has limited mastery of English language, and lacks intelligence. The Uncle Remus is considered a hybrid of coon because of his stupidity, naiveté, and loyalty to his White counterparts. This type of character is used merely to elicit laughter evoking from exploited, exaggerated and racialized stereotypes (see David Leonard’s work to better illustrate this). Cole Train’s character, often providing comic relief, reflects this imagery. Throughout the gameplay, he is often heard saying very ‘jive’ like comments that show his lack of seriousness in the midst of warfare. His comments and ad libs commonly reflect what is known as ‘jive’, or rather a highly stereotypical assessment of Black vernacular made popular through media. Jive was a manner of speaking in code for Black Americans so Whites would not understand what they were saying. Jive has evolved into modern day Ebonics, slang, urban vernacular, that in popular media, is demonized, punished, and devalued.
When alternative vernacular is incorporated into popular media, it is highly stereotyped and fetishized. It renders the bearer of the speech ignorant and incapable of serious thought and agency. Jive, and other alternative forms of speech for Blacks were a form of protest, defense mechanisms, and methods of deriving pleasure from something those not familiar with the language would be unable to understand. Popular culture’s adoption of Black vernacular into characters adds to the marketing appeal of ‘commodified ghetto cool.’ As will be discussed in later chapters, this co-opting of culture is a means to reduce and simplify Black characters, making them appear ignorant. This racialization of characters is a common practice not only in video games, but in movies, TV, and news as well. Another problematic example of mediated portrayals of minorities in video games is through the popular franchise Resident Evil 5 (2009). RE5 revolves around an investigation of a terrorist threat in a fictional region in Africa. This game was mired in controversy given that protagonist was charged with killing Black zombie enemies in this village. There have been questions surrounding whether or not the imagery was in fact racist. Critics of the game express concerns that the game operated off the traditional media trope of the dangerous Dark Continent (See the work of Andre Brock). In addition, the companion to the White male protagonist (Chris) is a lightskinned Black female (Sheva) that adds to the controversy. As media academic André Brock explained in a research paper, the relationship between the duo confirms hegemonic control over the gendered and racialized other. Sheva’s character is rendered invisible in the narrative as well as in the actual game play. Reducing the Black female in this manner reduces her importance and agency within a story riddled with problems for its depiction of Blackness as an enemy other. Sheva, as our guide through the Dark Continent, is far removed from African culture and she is unable to interact with Africans in the game. Although this is mostly the fault of the game not allowing for this engagement, it wasn’t thought to include in the game. Capcom did not use Sheva’s backstory to involve her character more deeply into the narrative. As Brock explains, Sheva is the videogame equivalent of Pocahontas — a woman of color forced into guiding Whites through foreign terrain that she is assumed to be familiar. Her limited presence, sexual objectification, and exoticism all reinforce hegemonic notions of the female of color.
BLACKS as VIDEO GAMErS
There is a common misconception that minority gamers are not in fact true gamers. Interestingly, a 2011 Nielsen survey found that Black gamers actually spent the most time of any demographic playing console video games. This mythical assumption is also evident in the limited amount of academic scholarship devoted to the topic (there is hardly any). So what are the actual experiences of Black gamers? The quote below from Rampage Jackson accurately summarizes the Black Experience in video games: I’ve been a video game freak all my life. I play X-Box 360’s Need for Speed: Carbon (2006), Gears of War (2006) and Dead or Alive 4 (2006). They need Tekken to come out on the 360. I got ideas for a racecar game and a motorcycle game. I got so many ideas, I guarantee you, people will love my ideas for games. I played Halo (2002). But when they came up with Halo 2 (2004), it was more like for the online thing. I stopped ’cause my own team would kill me because they’d hear my voice and start calling me “nigger.” “Nigger this, nigger that!” If you was right next to me at the arcade, you wouldn’t say nothing. I don’t ever tell them who I am, but I just forgive them for being ignorant. Much of the information that is available on the experiences of minority gamers stems from the online communities that minority gamers have created. A defining discussion that influenced the direction of my work stemmed from a blog posted by A.B. Frasier, co-founder of the Koalition, a video game website catering to urban and hip-hop communities. He elaborates on the myth specifically relating to Blacks playing within gaming communities: …when you have the video game media not show so much color then of course something like “black people don’t play video games” gets spat out from a idiots mouth. The major media doesn’t have any personalities that shows gaming from an urban perspective, therefore we don’t exist in many people’s eyes…You can call me a nigger, porch monkey or whatever, but I’m still a gamer. Frasier highlights two important issues: 1) the video gaming industry has all but ignored minority gamers in character, video game content, and advertising; and 2) the default gamer has yet to welcome minority gamers often lashing out in inflammatory ways within the virtual gaming space. As I contend, this behavior should be viewed through a lens of linguistic profiling. Similar to racial profiling, linguistic profiling is based upon auditory cues that may include racial identification, but which can also be used to identify other linguistic subgroups within a given speech community. Scholars have long studied linguistic stereotypes finding discrimination based on accents and dialects against speakers of various ethnic backgrounds. What is seen in the American context is that voice discrimination and linguistic profiling is used as an effective means to filter out individuals who may be deemed inferior, leading one to not engage in meaning relationships with this type of other.
Linguistic discrimination is more subtle and difficult to detect, especially in physical spaces. The anonymous spaces of the internet compel users to disclose personal information about themselves knowing that the party on the other end will never find out their true identity. For example, if I were engaged in a conversation with someone and disclosed my occupation, the people on the other end have no true way of confirming this information. Additionally, I could create a false identity altogether with no way
of really knowing my true self and true identity (catfish if you will!). Physical identifiers are a bit different. In virtual, voice communities, some information that we might not normally disclose, such as our race or gender, can be automatically relayed in virtual settings. People can hear that I am a woman. They can hear that I am Black (or at least do not speak Standard American English).
The video game industry deploys Whiteness as normal by representing racialized bodies, specifically Black ones, in stereotypical manners. This devaluing of certain populations only confirms their marginalized status within gaming, technology, and society in general. As Omi and Winant suggest in discussing race as an ideological project, it is not a physical or biological reality. Rather, race is created under conditions of power whereby historically, one group dominates others politically, economically, and socially. A racial project is then how race is used under conditions of power brokerage, whereby hegemony operates the allocation and compliance with the distribution of power. Through this theoretical framework, race forms through groups’ use of race as a political platform, and the use of power for groups to be dominant and or subordinate other groups. Video games as racial projects tell a story about certain groups from a hegemonic standpoint. The meaning attached to the characters of Augustus Cole, CJ from San Andreas, Sheva, and others, narrates a particular story of certain bodies within a larger social structure. Narrating race in this manner generates certain ontological effects at the individual, institutional, and societal level. It tells a story, a singular story about Black inner city life, about women as heroes, and about masculinity in the military.
These singular narratives skew the realities of diverse bodies. They are dangerous, because they are so powerful, and it is difficult to recognize their power. Resources Kishonna Gray (forthcoming) Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live Michael Omi & Howard Winant (1994) Racial Formation in the United States Preview Online Anna Everett & Craig Watkins (2008) ‘The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games’ in Katie Salen (ed.) The Ecology of Games Read Online
David Leonard (2006) Screens fade to black: Contemporary African American cinema Preview Online André Brock (2011) ‘When Keeping it Real Goes Wrong: Resident Evil 5, Racial Representation, and Gamers’ Read Online Quinton ‘Rampage’ Johnson Interview in Dub Magazine Read Online
Screenshot from GTA San Andreas, Rockstar Games
A visual essay inspired by Feminist Frequency and TVTropes
Tropes vs. black men in games history Zoya Street is a freelance video game historian, journalist and
writer, working in design criticism and digital commerce.
zoyastreet.com | @rupazero For more than thirty years, black men have been portrayed in video games as hyper violent tanks who don’t feel pain or compassion in quite the same way that other people do. TVTropes.com calls this the ‘scary black man’ trope: often the only person of colour represented in an ensemble, the scary black man might be a member of a proud warrior race or a noble savage, and often has a fondness for knives and/ or skulls. Shigeru Miyamoto might have the dubious honour of creating video games’ first scary black man, in the Punch Out!!! series’s hulk-like Mr. Sandman. The images below show a small selection of TVTropes’s long list of ‘scary black men’ in video games: looming, menacing figures with giant hands and grimacing faces.
Mr Sandman Punch Out!!! (1984) Shigeru Miyamoto
Birdie Street Fighter (1987, retconned black in Street Fighter Alpha 3 in 1998)
Barrett Final Fantasy VII (1997) Tetsuya Nomura
Ganondorf Legend of Zelda (1986)
Potemkin Guilty Gear (1998)
Zasalamel Soul Calibur III (2005)
Does this stuff matter in video games? Yes. The thing to remember is that beneath all the comforting platitudes about a character's color not mattering lies a sticky web of stereotypes and cheap myths that can still insult and anger people playing a game. Even if I wanted to like Sam B from Dead Island, for example, I'm still running up against the fact that he's a hot-tempered thug rapper. Stop leaning on this stereotype. Stop creating loud black soldiers who only know how to yell. Stop putting spear-carrying primitives in games. - Evan Narcisse, Kotaku By 2001, the scary black man trope was so clearly observable that a study by Children Now! found that African American characters in games were 25% more likely than white characters to be physically aggressive, and more than twice as likely to appear completely unaffected by violence inflicted on them. TVTropes points out that a common subversion of the scary black man is to show him as a gentle giant, though such characters are still often cast as sidekicks and still presented as looming tanks who are relatively impervious to harm.
Demoman Team Fortress 2 (2006)
Garcian Smith Killer7 (2005)
Kold Kin Kade Tomb Raider Anniversary (2007, known as â€˜the bald manâ€™ in previous games)
Gabriel Tosh Starcraft 2 (2010)
Mad Jack Heavy Rain (2010)
‘Thug’ Hotline Miami (2013)
Stereotypical portrayals have a real effect on people’s views, at least in the short term: a 2012 study found that white people were more likely to display prejudiced attitudes against black men after seeing images from games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Writing in Kotaku in 2012, Evan Narcisse argued that the prevalence of stereotypes overdetermines one’s attempts to present oneself in a straightforward, genuine way: “Blackness can be a sort of performance, a lifetime role informed by the ideas of how people see you and how you want to be seen.” The portrayal of black men in video games had made little progress since the 1980s. Starcraft 2 (2010) had introduced Gabriel Tosh, described by TVTropes as ‘a big, scary [man who] wields a mean knife, practices voodoo’, and in the same year Heavy Rain’s Mad Jack was shown to be so scary, he kept a skull in his bathtub.
Resources Children Now Fair Play? Violence, gender and race in video games ➢Read Online ‘Scary Black Man’ TVTropes.com ➢Read Online Evan Narcisse ‘Come on, let’s see some black characters I’m not embarrassed by’ Kotaku.com ➢Read Online Karen E. Dill and Melinda C.R. Burgess (2012) ‘Influence of Black Masculinity Game Exemplars on Social Judgments’ Simulation & Gaming ➢Read Online (limited access)
Asian history and games The next issue of Memory Insufficient will revisit Asian Histories in videogames, the theme of Issue 2 in May 2013. May is Asian & Pacific American history month in the US, and South Asian Heritage month in Canada.
‘Asia’ is a difficult term to pin down. It has its roots in European texts exoticising lands to the East of a blurry, shifting cultural boundary. This issue is interested in interrogating that definition, and how videogames have reflected notions of ‘Asia’ through the years. That means you can write a historical article about a game in an Asian country, a critical analysis of an Asian culture in a game about history, personal stories of playing videogames in an Asian context, and any other permutation imaginable. Memory Insufficient prefers the particular over the general; please do write about any person, place or thing that might conceivably be identified as Asian, but please don’t try to look at ‘Asia’ in its entirety. Any kind of history will be accepted: social, biographic, documentary, personal, descriptive or polemical. Submissions are unlikely to be rejected for being ‘not history,’ because nobody has the authority to decide what that means. Likewise, nobody has the authority to decide what a game is. Both digital and non-digital games are acceptable subjects of discussion. This issue will be produced with the help of guest editor Krish Raghav, a Singapore-based journalist. Deadline for submissions: 15th April Send to email@example.com FlickrCC image by Chad Miller
Memory Insufficient volume one issue ten