Contributing blogger Eve Hall
You know what I loved most about Electronic Arts’ incredible first-person free-running escapade Mirror’s Edge? It wasn’t just the gleaming, sterile mise-en-scene which blurred that boundary between utopian surface appeal and totalitarianism, a great story, or adrenaline pumping parkour-style rush that swept you up. It wasn’t even the compelling narrative and critique of a surveillance society which the non-virtual world but rests on the brink of today. It was the protagonist, Faith, an Asian American “runner” who was empowered, exciting, intelligent, wore appropriate clothing and didn’t pander to the stereotypes of either race or gender. As a gamer, I can’t tell you how refreshing this is – even more so than the Hollywood film industry, gaming continues to be a vigorous culprit when it comes to reeling off objectified and “othered” stock types. And while the presence of Hispanic personalities in gaming is without a doubt a wonderful thing, one could easily argue that the continued stereotyping of particular races and classes does more harm than good.
There are a number of reasons I won’t play the popular franchise Grand Theft Auto. I have, however, read extensively about the game, watched some of the footage, and discussed it in detail with friends and I have to admit that it has some good attributes. But other than the violence, which I can also handle to some degree, I can’t in good conscience play a game which condones rape culture and continuously portrays a highly contrived gangster “aesthetic” which paints specific ethnicities in a problematic light (this article refers mostly to African Americans). Gaming, with its incredible potential as a multi-faceted, interactive experience, is where we learn and validate or open our minds up to other possibilities. While some may argue that Grand Theft Auto is a marvelously constructed satire, it nevertheless raises some important questions about race and sex – although its multi-billion dollar profit margins suggest that a large portion of gamers aren’t troubled by this.
Understandably, when it comes to representation, gaming can be limited – one wouldn’t want to read all of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed in subtitles, for example, but it helps to have a convincing accent that is reflective of the main character’s background (a detail which somehow eluded the development of the first installment, while the third one pushed stereotypes to a huge extent). But I, for one, would love to see more variety – not only because I am tired of old and insulting portrayals of characters but because as far as I’m concerned, the more colors to the rainbow, the better. Stories that don’t follow the same old generic structure with the same predictable characters are far more appealing, and here is where one industry – if it can be lumped into one unifying category – comes in handy.
Now, small developers have an excellent medium at their fingertips and the tech savvy designer can craft a sleekly interfaced, highly-functional app or game for a relatively low cost and make quite a profit. From independent games – which are even getting the green light on big distributers like Steam – to a massive catalogue of apps (primarily for Android, iOS and Windows), we are seeing a better selection of content which is conscientious and positive. Apps that are used primarily for functional purposes – such as translation and travel apps – are not only more “authentic” in the sense that they focus on the grass-roots attractions by native people from that area rather than a distant consultant, but they also focus on diversity and character, and this is seeping into the gaming aspect as well. In fact, the travel industry is one excellent example of how clients and travel-related ventures have diversified over the years. Partly due to the increasing popularity of ecotourism – which emphasizes more authentic, down to earth experiences which directly benefits the local economy – people are more interested in getting to know their environment and living it to the full rather than holiday in a pristine, corporate-run bubble. The travel industry now enjoys much more openness not only to Hispanic visitors themselves (though there is still a long way to go) but as far as representation goes, it is a highly profitable field. The gaming industry could benefit immensely from taking a look at this and consider applying it to their own practices.
Some companies have already begun this process – there are some ground-breaking games like Journey, a major winner in 2013 which features no violence whatsoever, developed by Venezuelan designer Kellee Santiago. It focuses on interactivity rather than gun-toting action, is visually beautiful, and picked up the Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Increasingly, even in mainstream games, we are finally seeing some prominent Hispanic characters – Call of Duty is one franchise to do this, featuring a Latino political activist as the main character. Publisher Activision emphasizes the importance of this move, stating that “That kind of visibility is really the first step towards leading to public consciousness and equal treatment. These cultural markers matter.”
For me, it’s definitely about “doing the right thing” and representing various ethnicities, orientations, genders etc. decently. That isn’t to say you can’t have any non-white gangsters, it simply means producing a wider scope of characters to play as or against. And it’s also about making the stories which we somehow involve ourselves in more interesting.
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