From Mario and Sonic, to PacMan and Lara Croft there is a diverse selection of characters a player can choose to immerse themselves with, when playing a video game. But where is the colour? Sure Sonic is blue and Pacman is yellow, but the human characters are predominantly white. In the current generation of video games there have been the latest iterations of iconic game protagonists such as Lara Croft and Solid Snake, as well as the creation of new game leads such as Nathan Hale (Resistance 1 & 2), Cole McGrath (Infamous) and Nathan Drake (Uncharted 1 & 2). But they’re all white.
When do you see a black character anywhere but a sports game? Why are Arab characters always duplicated images of a generic terrorist for a player to shoot?
There are 338.4 million Arabs in the world. In the world of both Hollywood and video games there is one Arab, the terrorist. And this is important to acknowledge because games are not alone in this racial stereotyping. Games inherit many of their stereotypes from mainstream cinema.
Harry M. Benshoff declared that early cinema stereotypes “are directly traceable to the nineteenth-century minstrel show”. Videogame stereotypes, produced by a medium still in its infancy, are directly traceable to cinema.
Game and films homogeneity in the stereotyping of race is clearly evident in the evolution of the African American image in both mediums. The Uncle Tom stereotype seen in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903) is often regarded as American cinema’s first black character. The first black videogame character is regularly seen as having been a Black basketball player in Basketball (1979) on the Atari 800 home computer . The social and political context in which videogames have spawned, the seventies being the period of first generation games consoles e.g. Atari Telegames, has prevented the image of African Americans in early games to run parallel to that seen in early cinema. Depictions of characters highly reminiscent to that of early minstrel shows would have been nigh on impossible for any game developer seeking mainstream profit and approval. However, the regular typecasting of Black characters was still a common occurrence; the Uncle Toms had just been replaced by Black Athletes.
In 2003 Ernest Adams had an article published on the topic of race in videogames. He wrote “I think Lara Croft could easily have been black. Would Tomb Raider have sold as well? Maybe I’m being naïve here, but I think it might.” Four years before this article was published, the publishers of the Tomb Raider series (1996-2008) Eidos Interactive, released a game called Urban Chaos (1999). The main character epitomises the image of a black, urbanised Lara Croft. Though commercially unsuccessful and lacking the trend setting legacy the first blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback Baadasssss Song (1971), had attained in cinema, Urban Chaos (1999) was the first blaxploitation game.
The game contained both visual and thematic similarities with pioneering works of the blaxploitation trend such as Gordon Park’s Shaft’s (1971) portrayal of crime and use of a no nonsense black cop, and the use of a strong and independent Black woman akin to Pam Griers role as Foxy Brown (1974). Underlying the exploitative nature of blaxploitation films was the premise that creating cheap films targeted at a core Black audience could produce lucrative results. Urban Chaos seems to similarly reflect the video game industry’s profiteering mentality rather than an attempt at fairer racial representation.
There are three identifiable stages in the development of the African American image in American cinema’s century spanning history. The 1st being the obedient blacks seen in pictures such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903), the 2nd being the polar opposite, seen through the rebellious, out of control blacks of the blaxploitation era. The 3rd stage was the ‘hood films’ of the early 1990’s, film such as Jon Singletons Boys n the hood (1991) and Spike Lees Clockers (1995). This period, is referred to by some as neo-blaxploitation due to its apparent glorification of a stereotypical, Black, urban culture of drugs and crime. This stage’s commercial popularity, particularly with White American youth who were fascinated by this world of Black ghettos, gangsters and the commercial Black street music of hip-hop and rap created a delayed glut of video games such as Def Jam Vendetta (2003), Midnight Club 3: DUB Edition (2005) and Saints Row (2006). These games incorporated and focused on the ‘coolness of blackness’, and signified how the video games industry was attempting to have its own period of neo-blaxploitation nearly ten years after its elder sibling film had had success doing the same.
With videogames constant struggle to match its credible contemporaries they not only attempt to mimic the cinematic qualities of popular American films but they also inherit many of their problematic issues, including representation of race. The popularity of videogames is built upon the interactive and immersive aspects the medium possesses but through the element of play, videogames can act as an extension of the racial stereotypes it copies from popular American cinema.
In 2006, film critic Roger Ebert in a discussion about the importance of video games said that “books and films are better media”. This dismissive comment shows the ignorance there is towards video games. An ignorance that reflects reaction to early cinema. As director Christophe Gans put it in a rebuttal to Eberts belittling comments “I will say to this guy that he only has to read the critiques against cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century. It was seen as a degenerate version of live stage musicals. And this was a time when visionary directors like Griffith were working.” And Gans is right to relate this perception of games to early film critiques because it is the current lack of intelligent game critique, which leads to them and the issues surrounding them to not be taken seriously.
To be considered books and films equal, games must be subjugated to the same penetrating and intellectually supported examinations that their media counterparts have received because as one of the few established researchers in the study of games, Vit Sisler, puts it, “since there is no or limited academic interest and media critique of these games, the stereotypes and clichés are more overt and prevalent”.