It should be no surprise to anyone who’s played a lot of video games that the medium’s protagonists are mostly white males. A recent study from the University of California revealed that this “virtual population” doesn’t even match up with reality, and that Hispanic, black and Middle Eastern people are markedly underrepresented. Furthermore, the few minority and ethnic characters that are featured in video games risk falling into stereotypes. Take a look at these 10 minority game characters through the years and see whether gaming’s portrayal of minorities has changed for better or worse.
Barret Wallace (Final Fantasy VII, 1997)
Determined and kind, this hulky gunner may be the first playable black character in the celebrated Japanese RPG series Final Fantasy, but many feel he represented black people disastrously. His visual design unquestionably resembles Mr. T, but his dialogue particularly offends. IGN’s Levi Buchanan describes it as “stilted slang,” while GameCritic’s Dale Weir asks why it consists of cursing and such incorrect grammar that “you’d need an Ebonics handbook.” RPGamer’s Shawn Bruckner conversely refutes him as a racist stereotype, arguing his use of Ebonics makes for a stereotype “too broad to be accurate.” Significantly, Square veered from the Mr. T resemblance when developing Advent Children, radically changing Barret’s facial design and attire for the CGI film.
Manny Calavera (Grim Fandango, 1998)
Manny’s origins are not clear on first glance given his skeletal appearance, but once you hear the Department of Death travel agent speak, it’s obvious he’s Hispanic. Then again, Grim Fandango is essentially Hispanic from top to bottom. It’s the product of developer Tim Schafer’s obsession with Latin American folklore and in particular the “Day of the Dead.” That’s why Manny and others resemble calaca figures that are used to celebrate the Mexican holiday. Sadly, not many got to enjoy Manny’s unique tale with worldwide sales estimated at under half a million.
Jade (Beyond Good & Evil, 2003)
Sometimes photographer, sometimes fighter Jade is often celebrated as gaming’s finest female black character, but is she actually black? At first glance her ethnicity is certainly ambiguous. Wired’s Chris Kohler notes NeoGAF posters’ different interpretations of her origin: black, European, Asian, Hispanic, and more. Kohler suggests this ambiguity is deliberate, making her identifiable with all backgrounds. The debate goes on, but Michael Abbott believes Jade was designed to defy female stereotypes. He argues that whatever her race, it was but one part of her rebellious presentation that includes green lipstick, a non-sexualized voice and disinterest in “striking poses for others.”
Carl ‘CJ’ Johnson (Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, 2004)
The crime-focused GTA series brought further spotlight on itself by casting a black lead in CJ for San Andreas. The Brooklyn Rail’s Stephen Duncombe sums up the media-at-large’s view of CJ by deeming him an “action-packing stereotype… the mythic gangbanger of a thousand and one rap songs that glorify thug life”. In an Edge piece, this notion distresses Darion White: “CJ is a multifaceted character enthralled into an intriguing chronicle that echoes likenesses to American film classics such as Boyz N the Hood and Menace II Society”. Regardless, developer Rockstar has persevered with ethnic protagonists including Eastern European Niko Bellic (GTA IV), Chinese Huang Lee (Chinatown Wars) and Hispanic Luis Lopez (The Ballad of Gay Tony).
Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2, 2004)
Like Jade, Gordon Freeman’s capable, caring companion is usually cited by commentators as a strong ethnic character. Unlike Jade, Alyx’s ethnicity is patent. Alyx is the daughter of Eli, an African-American, and Margaret, an Asian. This closely matches the descent of her voice actress, Merle Dandridge, although her physical likeness comes from actress Jamil Mullen. Another mixed race romance is heavily hinted at: one between Alyx and Caucasian lead Freeman. Fans will hope it blossoms in upcoming Episode 3.
Augustus Cole (Gears of War, 2006)
‘The Cole Train,” a muscle bound ex pro-athlete, is one of Gears of War’s most popular characters. That doesn’t stop Capcom’s Morgan Gray from slamming on him. Gray argues that Cole’s “urban stereotype” and “black slang” have no place in the game’s futuristic world, and that he “reinforces casual racism”. Critics Mitch Krpata and Chris Stubbs agree with Gray’s assertion of stereotyping, although Stubbs notes that Cole is one of the many stereotypes the game offers, later admitting that despite Cole’s stereotype he really likes the character. The Cole Train — slang, profanity et al — will doubtless reappear in the upcoming Gears of War 3.
Faith (Mirror’s Edge, 2008)
Eurasian Faith’s lean physique, unusual ethnicity and striking marking made for an atypical yet appropriate character, but not everyone felt this way. One Kotaku reader supplied the site with an image of Faith, fan-doctored to represent how Asians percieve beauty and to highlight how Western developers fail to realize this in their Asian characters. The altered image included a more rounded face, larger and less slanted eyes, and rather unsubtle breast enlargements. This saddened Mirror’s Edge Producer Tom Farrer who was upset that “someone thinks it would be better if Faith was a 12-year-old with a boob job.”
Sheva Alomar (Resident Evil 5, 2009)
N’Gai Croal famously lambasted Resident Evil 5 as resembling genocide of black people, even though they were zombies in the game: “This imagery has a history,” Croal said. Soon after, Sheva was suspiciously introduced as Chris Redfield’s co-op partner. But what of players’ perceptions of the African outside of the larger controversy? She can be interpreted positively because she’s “strong, smart and skillful”, as put by Greenpixels’ Amanda Oschner. However, leading anthropologist Glenn Bowman suggests Sheva’s light skin color allows for another interpretation: Her positive qualities are only present “because she’s half white.” While Bowman does not see it that way at all, both Ochsner and Eurogamer’s Dan Whitehead feel that Sheva’s light skin, especially in contrast with the African zombies’ darker skin, only compounds the game’s racial controversy.
Yusuf Amir (Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, 2009)
Amir’s appearance in The Ballad of Gay Tony has already made him a favorite among GTA fans. The reckless, hapless, money-loving, unintentionally racist Amir – “Luis! Wassup, my f***ing n****r!” – clearly follows the stereotype of a bling-obsessed, culturally uninformed Arab. But fans will argue that each GTA character is a stereotype and no group is safe from the series’ mocking tone. Either way, the introduction of an Arab as an important, non-oppositional character has been overlooked because of The Ballad of Gay Tony’s focus on homosexuality. Incidentally, Amir is voiced by Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, and fans will recognize Amir’s voice as the one Djalili uses to open shows before resorting to his genuine British accent.
Rochelle & Coach (Left 4 Dead 2, 2009)
In the spirit of ‘2’, Left 4 Dead 2 doubles the original’s number of African-American characters with news producer Rochelle and football teacher Coach, following in office worker Louis’ survivor footsteps. This interestingly reflects the game’s change of location to the American Deep South, considering the area’s notorious black history. Left 4 Dead 2 is now out and millions of players will learn more about Rochelle, Coach and the other survivors during numerous sessions of undead massacre.