Pretend people, real feelingsShawn Drotar

Posted on August 5th, 2009 in Gaming, Xbox 360, PC Gaming, Playstation 3, News, Opinion by Shawn Drotar

As games become more realistic, more realistic-looking human characters become the norm. Along with that comes an increased sensitivity regarding what those human characters look like - and act like. In a recent blog for the Houston Chronicle, author Willie Jefferson noted his discomfort with what appears to be unintentional racism in video games.

While expressing concern about using New Orleans as the setting for the forthcoming zombie-survival game Left 4 Dead 2, Jefferson noted, “Set in New Orleans, players will have to fight their way through hordes of zombies - with several of them who appear to be African-Americans. When I saw the first trailer for the game, all I could think about was Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath. Setting the game in a city that was (the) scene of dead, bloated bodies floating by so soon afterward was a bad call, IMHO. The city has had enough to deal with — Valve, you should have spared them, even if it’s just a video game. Another game, Resident Evil 5, puts gamers into the heart of Africa, blasting zombies. I bet you’ll never guess what color they are.”

While Jefferson’s been summarily dismissed by many gamers, his opinion is nonetheless valid and likely shared by many others. Left 4 Dead 2 developer Valve responded to videogame blog Destructoid, with game writer Chet Faliszek stating: “Utter insanity. There are mixed races of zombies, there are all different races of zombies that you shoot, and since we placed it in New Orleans, that makes it racist? I honestly re-read the paragraph about five times … but when two of the characters in your game are African-American, it’s a weird thing to be accused of. We’re like, ‘how does this work’? …As far as Katrina goes, if you go down to New Orleans, Katrina’s still going on. I mean, it’s messed up, it is crazy that the city is still in the state it’s in, and we treat that with the utmost respect. Our (game) is not some subversive commentary on anything. This is a videogame, those are real people’s lives, we are not trying to make a statement with that… It’s a place we love, it’s dear to our hearts. We would not cheapen it. It’s not a brick-for-brick representation of New Orleans; it’s a fictional version, and I love that city.”

For the record, I do believe that Jefferson is overreacting, especially in the case of these two titles. Both games take place in settings where it’s likely that people with different skin tones other than “white” may be prevalent. However, using these settings for dramatic purpose is simply not tantamount to racism.

Nevertheless, Jefferson brings up another interesting example in the recent videogame Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood. In this game, a spaghetti Western, one of the protagonists, a Confederate soldier, does battle with Union officers at various points in the game (though it’s worth noting that this is not a Civil War game). Here’s where things get dicey.

Very few people are uncomfortable with World War II games like Call of Duty, in which you’re battling Nazis. Yet, plowing through legions stereotypical Germans of today would be in poor form. The latest Call of Duty title, World at War, experienced backlash from some gamers who were uncomfortable fighting Japanese nationals, realizing the difference between the Japanese Imperial Army and the Nazi regime was significant. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood takes the same risks. The difference, of course, is that certain military factions throughout history have been considered inherently evil, but all conflicts are fought from a matter of perspective.

Jefferson notes: “…The Confederacy, as far as I am concerned, wanted to keep their cheap slave labor and the like. I can not stand the Confederate flag - I resist the urge to burn every last one that I see. To me, the flag represents hate - and offends me and many others to no end. And to play a game, where I don’t have a choice to be on the losing side - and one I detest - made me wonder how much research (developer) Ubisoft did for this game. It would have been a good thing to give gamers a choice - sure, be a Confederate soldier - or a Union soldier. Not giving gamers the option really soured the entire game for me. And shooting Union soldiers really just made me pause the game and walk away for a few minutes. As a minority, had the South won, I wouldn’t be in this position I am today. They were content to keep things the way they were - no need to free their slave labor, no need to give minorities the right to vote. It wasn’t until the 1960s - and the threat of military force - that the Old South buckled and let blacks vote - a hundred years after the end of the Civil War.”

In this case, Jefferson is understandably uncomfortable with having to embody a Confederate officer and being forced to eliminate the “good guys”. It’s a sentiment that I personally share, but I can understand the value of the protagonist’s background as a dramatic device. Nevertheless, Jefferson’s suggestion has merit to a certain point.

We reach a fork in the road here when it comes to videogaming - are we experiencing an interactive story, or are we to inhabit the character; think as they would think? I can watch a television show like “The Sopranos”, and appreciate the dramatic tension of running a criminal empire, but to be forced to think like a violent criminal can be somewhat distasteful. I’d like to think that attitude is healthy.

There are no easy answers here, as we may not fully understand the questions yet. Gamers and the gaming industry are still making this up as we go along, and as we all experience this new interactive entertainment in our own way, there are few wrong answers as well. Individual experiences are what drive this medium, and as such, a certain delicacy is required. But perhaps even more necessary is a thicker skin - of any color - because in the world of gaming, it appears that far more slights are perceived than intended.

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