As a baby I used to scream when black people held me. This was awkward for my parents because we lived in Tanzania and the number of proximate black people with an interest in holding me was high. I can imagine them handing me over to their friends and neighbors who’d thought to come by with felicitations for the newest addition to the family, wondering whether or not I would convulse in a spasm of racism when delivered into the onyx arms of neighborliness.
Before I even knew that humans had invented an idea like “race,” I had the instinct to recoil from the fearsome appearance of another person. For this reason racism is irascible. It’s not a perverted way of thinking but rather the natural reaction of a human in a maximally vulnerable position, shrunken down to a foot and a half, stripped naked, and passed around like a good luck charm. It requires mature cognition to defuse the desire to wail at the new, and cognition is very often connected to pride. And so as we grow older we can humbly brag to one another about how in control of our fearful inner babies we are.
The subject of race is a regular murmur in the ongoing media conversation about videogames. There are calls for more diversity in character design, which, when heeded, have produced results ranging from Prey‘s American Indian hero Tommy Hawk to Mirror’s Edge‘s Faith, whose race (and gender) are entirely subtextual. When the issue can be connected to a specific game, we often make a bizarre distinction between the game itself and the intentions of its creators. A game can be racist, somehow, but not the people making it. In reality, it’s precisely the other way around, no game can be racist without its creator explicitly intending to make it so.
The issue recurred most recently with Deus Ex: Human Revolution, in which there is a character called Letitia. She is homeless, black, and a drug user–not necessarily in that order. In one scene you can find her digging through a trash can in 2027 Detroit. After you say hello she’ll say things like, “Well shee-yit, if it ain’t the Cap’n hisself…People said you’s down for the count.” Upon hearing this line one might want to suppress the childhood wailing impulse, which seems to have found its long-feared vindication in Letitia’s stretchy phonetics and bad grammar. Racism! You have been discovered here, the polygonal mannequin animated by the invisible hand of a cruel white creator.
Racism is a crime of consciousness, recognizing that race contributes to identity in particular ways, and while there is no universally applicable definition of what race is, we know by instinct that attaching undefinable categories to individual identity has the potential to circumvent all our rationalities and transform us into monsters.
However stupid Letitia sounds, and no matter how directly her speech rings the alarum bells of social impropriety, her way of speaking is, before anything else, an aesthetic choice. Or, more accurately, an aesthetic weakness. She doesn’t sound like a “black” person, she sounds like a bad imitation of what, 100 years ago, some people used to think “black” people sounded like. Deus Ex does not seem to have a point of view on what all black people sound like. They all speak in different ways, and Letitia’s is only one variety. But we somehow insist that Letitia’s speech is a function of her race before anything else, because we fear race is the subconscious metric used to measure people’s worth. And once we allow ourselves to begin measuring the worth of others, we cannot help but gravitate toward degradation and violence.
This suspicion has reasonable footing in videogame history, of course. We immediately suspect there is a political and human slur behind a person’s vernacular because, only a few decades before, a huge proportion of the American population thought this way. And even today many still cling to the idea that outward distinguishers are proof of some derogatory difference between the loosed threads of our common genetic fabric. In 2002, a white supremacist group produced Ethnic Cleansing, a game that let players control either a skinhead or Ku Klux Klan member on a quest to wipe out all the “non-Aryan” races in America.
In 1989, Square released a game version of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer for the NES, which also featured the runaway slave character Jim, who was depicted as a coal-black character with lips so big they occupied the entire bottom half of his face. Nintendo also invoked some uncomfortable racial stereotypes with Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, which featured an overweight and sublingual Pacific Islander, an effete Frenchman, and a teleporting Indian with a blinking turban jewel.
In 2009, Jeremiah Slaczka’s Scribblenauts prompted a similar conversation about racist intent when it was discovered the game generated what appeared to be a watermelon when players entered the word “sambo.” Slaczka claimed the word–which to many American players sounded like the dehumanizing slur used against black people in decades past–had been included because it is the Spanish word for a type of gourd (that looks quite like a watermelon). The offending gourd is an ingredient in an Ecuadorian soup called fanesca, which Slaczka had known was being included. He claimed to not even know the word had a racist connotation in American English.
In cases where it seems developers are credibly oblivious to the perceived racism hidden in their work, it’s us who have to explain our reactions. Before anything, we must admit that to simply depict something is not to endorse it. If recreating a social stereotype is racist, then by the same logic we could claim that participating in imaginary violence is reflective of real violent tendencies in game developers. This is a logical fallacy we acknowledge in one area and set aside in another. To dispel it, we’d have to admit the standards to which we hold things in popular culture are dishonest, founded in a superstition that objects have some power to infect us with a moral murk.
Stereotypes serve a dreaming purpose, and they work least well when they clatter around so loudly that they wake us into old rooms that we’d rather not be in. The irony is that whatever imprint of racism is called out by the encounter with Letitia, it is one that exists in our world and not hers. Nowhere else in Deus Ex‘s bichromatic cities will you hear characters connecting manners of speech to one specific race. These jewels of social insight come from our brains and not the robotically enhanced ones that Deus Ex suggests we’ll someday have. We still think we can know the most important parts of a person by skimming their surface, learning which church they pray in, which party they vote for, or how fastidious their use of grammar.
Games like Deus Ex work in ways that are largely independent of whatever personal misgivings a player might have for a character. People in video games are conduits of functionality and only secondarily sympathetic creatures of nuance and vulnerability. One talks with Letitia not to discover social insights into sub-species differentiation but to figure out where to go next and what to do there. The game is built like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces require a scavenger hunt. Objectives are unambiguous: break in to building X, go find person Y, bring object Z somewhere else. The puzzle is in discovering the prompts.
Order is not something the world offers up but is something we project. In its crudest form this leads us to periodically believe in things like racism–to react to a someone’s least personal aspects and derive from them a damning set of conclusions. We can exercise this tendency in games too, assuming that everyone with a black soldier’s uniform is okay to kill because they’re working for the other side. Even if you don’t want to act on that inevitable truth by killing people, you still have to sneak around hiding in shadows out of respect for the game’s insistence that these bad guys would want to kill you. That’s probably an improvement on a world where people think less of you based on the color of skin, but only just barely.
I moved to Madagascar when I was 26 and it was perhaps expected when, while volunteering in a clinic, I’d sometimes be asked to hold newborn babies as their mothers packed up their bags. I’d expected the shock-eyed little creatures would sense kindness and generosity in me. But the children all tended to shriek, clinching in fear at the sight of my haunted skin, a cold peachy white that had none of the warmth and familiarity of the browns and blacks that animated the periphery of their homes. So their bodies stiffened, their arms swiped hopelessly, their heads rolled from side to side in search of some relieving vision, and all they saw was my hovering alien face, white and fearful. And the sobbing shrieks tore loose, even without words or grammar or social cues against which to judge me, the little baby brain knew enough to be afraid. They will have the rest of their lives to learn not to be.
**“Deus Ex Revolution: Letitia the Trash Lady” via YouTube
“Racist Video Games Recruit Teens for Hate Groups” via WLWT.com
“Persuasive Games: Little Black Sambo” via Gamasutra