Game Design

we can never escape race in video games

Among the topics in how games relate to society and the real world, you hear about sex, gender and violence a whole lot, but hardly ever about race.  This is a discussion I think we need to have, however, because race is a huge component in games and not one that is noticed, addressed or going to go away any time soon, or any time at all.

Why do we not talk about race in video games?  Perhaps it’s because of the taboo of talking about it in real life, but then again games are supposed to be abstractions that give us the tools to discuss and analyse these social issues, as evidenced by discussions that are raised about sex, gender and violence.  The problem is, games usually do not handle race very well.  Race goes so unnoticed that it becomes a non-topic.

The Concept of “Race”

The term “race” has its roots in biology and scientific taxonomy, from as far back as German physician Blumenbach’s classification of the five genetic varieties or “five races” of humans based on skull structure in the 18th century1.  In a scientific context, the concept of race was (and is still) used for a variety of purposes: studies in migration, genetics, and physical anthropology to name a few.  A definition from Merriam-Webster states that race is “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits”.

Where this gets complex is when the term “race” bleeds into our vernacular.  Genetically, all humans exhibit the same phenotype and anatomical structure, with fewer genetic variations between different human populations (e.g. Caucasians vs. Africans) than within one human population (e.g. within Asians)2.  In fact, biological research indicates that humans have the same genetic code, with nothing but relative allelic frequencies distinguishing differences in skin colour or hair type3.

The complexities of “race” appear when cultural adaptation of the word made it into a means of segregation or separation between people based usually on physical traits like skin colour.  The concept is not based on biological difference, but one interwoven with history and culture.  Today, race is a problematic term, so much so that many anthropologists say “cultural heritage” and many biologists say “continental ancestry”, since many people have ancestry in more than one continent, with an article giving the example of Obama’s equal European and African ancestry to highlight the struggle with using the word “race”.

“It is arbitrary which of these an observer chooses to emphasize.  Obama’s opponents overtly and by implication denigrate him because of his African ancestry. But he is equally European.”4 – Stanford University biologist Dr. Marcus Feldman

Thus, as much as race is touted to be a social construct with no evidence showing distinctions in intelligence, strength, aptitudes or other qualities due solely to a person’s perceived “race”, struggles with racism, stereotypes and assumptions persist.

Race in Games

Games take this to another level, by using race as their primary reason for existing (be it the core mechanic or major storyline).  As far back as chess and checkers, games have often been about a conflict where the player has to take a side, and an easy way to distinguish between one side and the other is by colour, which is the premise of segregation and racial conflict.  By the 1800s, war games, or “Kriegsspiel”, in the case of the Prussian army, were used in military training, and soon started to spread to civilians.

Since many games are rooted in conflict and war (as are many stories), it is no surprise that race plays a role, considering that race is a basis for many real world conflicts for power.  War games that debuted in the wake of World War II, such as Diplomacy (1954), and Risk (1957, first called “La Conquête du Monde” or “The Conquest of the World”) have a recurring theme of world domination or taking over territory from other nations.  These board games were precursors to many strategy video games, which often depend on race to create conflict.

A great example of this is StarCraft, a real-time strategy game where the entire story and player actions revolve around a battle of the races between the Protoss, Zerg and Terran, with each race given special abilities and aesthetics.  This illustrates how race can be used to impact the narrative, mechanic and aesthetic aspects of a game.

Player-created race comparisons from StarCraft II showcase how race impacts the narrative, mechanic and aesthetic aspects of the game.
Player-created race comparisons showcase how race impacts the narrative, mechanic and aesthetic aspects of StarCraft II.

However, race is not only in strategy games, but prevalent across many game genres, and players don’t ever seem to bat an eye.  In World of Warcraft, a role-playing game, the story is once again centred around an age-old battle between the races (Night Elves, Humans, Tauren and Orcs being some of them) and players are forced to pick a side.  Even early shooters like Space Invaders (1978) have players shooting at things that appear alien or foreign, or something “other”.  Looking even further back, the text game Super Star Trek (1971) has the single goal of destroying all Klingons and their ships, where Klingons served as a representation of an alien race.

When put down on paper, these connections between racial warfare or segregation and popular games become obvious, yet while the former stirs up disgust with the general public, we rarely think about games in this frame of mind.  Why is this so?  I think it’s because games do such a great job of abstracting racial conflict that somehow being tasked to fly around in a spaceship shooting and killing all invading Klingons, because Klingons are the “other” race, is okay because it fits the world view of the game universe.

Exploring and Hiding from the Topic of Race

In one of relatively few studies on race in games, Nathaniel Poor talks about the common tropes associated with elves, in particular, types of elves like high elves, wood elves and dark elves, and even half-elves that are most commonly half-human.  He claims that although using these stereotypes in games are ways we can safely explore and acknowledge real-world racial problems, they are also a way for us to avoid these same racial problems, since racism rarely occurs in games between humans of different races and humans are generally depicted as white5.  These observations point to the notion that games and game designers are not doing nearly enough to get players to think about race in the real world.

BioWare designer Manveer Heir addressed this same topic of races being associated with good or bad qualities in games in an interview.  He also comments that the solution is not to make or market games specifically for a minority (just like how “games for women” tend to flop), but to address these problems within the game in a way that players discover them.

“You can think of fantasy games where if you were the dark elves, you know, the Drow, were always looked upon… They were the black people of the fantasy world, right? And if you played the dark elves, you were treated like garbage by many of the townspeople. So, my only question is… why can’t we do that when we’re actually talking about real people?”6 – BioWare game designer Manveer Heir

I don’t think this is going to change, but we should at least start paying attention to race in video games because it an issue (like sex, gender and violence) so tied to our society.  What, then, can we do to make players notice and think about race?  Because games are built from our experiences in real life, they are a rather accurate representation of the social constructs of the world we live in.  As we struggle with race in today’s society, we struggle with them in video games.  There is therefore a need to go one step further, to build a more ideal world in the game universe than we have in real life.  After all, games strive to provide a better world, to represent utopia, and this is an area where it falls short.  Many changes are happening for representations of sex, gender and violence in video games that want to affect these paradigms, so why not for race?

Culture, Diversity and Inclusivity

I think part of the answer is that we don’t really understand culture.  The call for more diverse teams to create more diverse games is valid, but advocacy for reaching a quota of minorities or women on game development teams is not enough; we must seek to understand why and how we can become more culturally aware in our games.

I heard Rami Ismail speak about inclusivity in games at both Games for Change7 and Game Developers Conference8 in 2015, and his thoughts about how diversity extends beyond getting a group of “different” people brought up some interesting points.  As developers in the western world, we need to go beyond the western idea of “diversity” in tech fields and become more aware of how we are including or excluding other cultures in our games.

Ismail spoke about the portrayal of languages in games, and how when Arabic was used, the characters were in fact nonsense.  No one had even bothered to translate a word into Arabic for the game, and artists had made something Arabic-like that was never checked.  Additionally, he called for game development software to be translated into more languages to allow people around the world the same luxury of making games in their native language, something we take for granted.  Games, after all, should be universal and are created everywhere, with the Global Game Jam in 2015 having one of its best turnouts in Cairo, Egypt.

"Let’s look at what Muslims, people from the Arab world, and people from the Middle East look like in games. That sign on the left? Not Arabic." says Rami Ismail in his blog post on inclusivity in game development.
“Let’s look at what Muslims, people from the Arab world, and people from the Middle East look like in games. That sign on the left? Not Arabic.” says Rami Ismail in a blog post9.

“Part of improving, and diversifying the games industry is gaining an understanding of the challenges that exist in emergent territories, and understanding the challenges that exist simply because of the West’s primary position in the games industry.  We need to understand that, while our progress regarding visible diversity issues is extremely important, diversity cannot be limited to those things that are already visible as problems in our industry. – Rami Ismail9

Ismail’s point on the strong western influence in games is illustrated in games about colonialism.  Take the well-known strategy game Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991), where the player plays as a ruler attempting to “build an empire to stand the test of time.”  Within the game, the player’s towns are attacked by “barbarians”, a group with an unspecified heritage, but it’s not a stretch to link them with aboriginal peoples.  As you invade and take over territory, threats no longer arrive from those areas.  In this case, the game designers have separated the game’s units into “us” and “them”, making the barbarian tribes a resource and one of the game’s mechanics to exploit them.

Things have changed as the series has progressed, but at a slow pace.  It wasn’t until Civilization IV: Colonization (2008), when a playable indigenous group was introduced, as one group simply called “the natives”, and not until Civilization V (2010) when this group was divided into two, the Shoshone and the Iroquois.  Civilization V is also the first Civilization game where the leaders speak in their native language in the game.

Even so, the mere inclusion of other cultures in our games is not enough.  The popular Age of Empires series is a real-time strategy game where players gather resources, build armies and engage in warfare.  Its inclusion of under-represented nationalities like Chinese, Indian and Japanese, as well indigenous peoples such as the Iroquois, Lakota (Sioux), Aztec and Navajo, while promising, does not serve racial inclusion by including game mechanics and aesthetics that make no cultural sense.  In Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties (2007), the scope of “Asian” is reduced to three major countries, and the western explorer characters are replaced with monks.  While this game provides many historical facts about the evolution of these nations, it still represents the idea of “Asian” from a western view, not only reducing them to three civilisations (it’s an expansion, after all), in contrast with twelve in the original game, and ignores any idea of Asian explorers by replacing them with an inaccurate stereotype of monks.

More telling, in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs (2006), all so-called “native” civilisations are provided with a Fire Pit, at which dances occur.  These dances provide bonuses like increasing population, increasing siege damage, or even spawning different types of units.  Additionally, the explorers in this game have the power “Nature Friendship”, which reflect a colonial view of aboriginal peoples.  These game mechanics not only fail to accurately portray the traditions of these cultures, but in fact play into the west’s stereotypes of aboriginal peoples.  Such design choices can make designers, and by extension their game and players, appear ignorant and lazy.

The use of the fire pit in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs displays not what a dance would have been used for (faster units, better attack, etc.) in a historical context.
The use of the fire pit in Age of Empires III: The WarChiefs displays what a dance would probably not have been used for (faster units, better attack, etc.) in a historical context.

By giving accurate portrayals of other languages and cultures and allowing more games to come from places outside of the western world, we can put more truthful and diverse games into the marketplace.  Additionally, by allowing our players to take on the roles of what the western culture sees as “other”, we can encourage new perspectives and inclusivity.  Our portrayal of races can only become more honest when we understand different cultures and seek to include them accurately.

Making the Game World a Better One

In short, game designers need to do a better job of being more aware of how we use race in games, so that players start thinking more about culture and origin than the skin colour or physical appearance of characters.  While this is a broad statement (and there are many things I could say about it that would last longer than a blog post), here are three examples on how the game world can be a better place in terms of race:

  1. Character selection and customisation

    • At the start of role-playing games, the player is often faced with a character selection or customisation menu.  Common choices are class, gender, race and appearance, with appearance being limited by the other three options.  All these choices, except maybe appearance, are key to how the player behaves, what skills they have and how they are treated by the game world and its non-player characters.  In our society, race is so linked to physical appearance, and this is emulated perfectly in video games (whoever heard of a dwarf that was tall or an orc that wasn’t ugly?).
    • Recommendation: Remove the link between race and appearance to have players think less about what it means to look a certain way, and more about the character’s background and culture.
    • Example: Character selectors in most modern games look like this one in World of Warcraft.  The player chooses their side, Alliance (“good” or “light”) or Horde (“bad” or “dark”), and their race, which is limited by their side.  This already starts serving racial stereotypes within the game.

      A character selection and customisation screen from World of Warcraft, similar to many role-playing games.
    • In contrast, players of the first Elder Scrolls: Arena first choose their class, name and gender on separate screens before being presented with a map asking, “From where dost thou hail?”  Players choose their homeland without being presented with a picture of what their character will look like.  This allows them to build their character’s “culture” instead of “race” by grounding it in the specific geographical origin rather than a physical appearance.

      This screenshot from the 1994 Elder Scrolls: Arena showcases a different character selection screen, where you choose your location of origin before seeing your physical appearance.
      This screenshot from the 1994 Elder Scrolls: Arena showcases a different character selection screen, where you choose your location of origin before seeing your physical appearance.
  2. Default character

    • Many games have a default character appearance.  Even where there is character customisation, a default character usually appears when the player arrives at the customisation screen.  In many cases, this is what developers consider an “ideal” representation of the character, that is tailored to the target gaming audience (usually a white male).  Although players then have agency to customise the character, the first impression is that they are making changes to something that was predetermined “right” for the game by its developers.
    • Recommendation: In games with character customisation, no default character needs to be chosen, or if one must be, the default character can be generated at random each time, across gender and appearance.
    • Example: In Fallout 4, the default character is Nate (male) or Nora (female), both what you would consider to be generic white people.  Even more telling, it is Nate who appears pre-selected and closer to the mirror, highlighting the common trope of “white male” who plays and makes video games.  These characters reveal a lot about what gaming culture was, but in the diverse world of developers and audience, surely it is not an accurate representation of many gamers today.  Worse, players who open the game may view this as the correct character and/or not bother to change the appearance.

      Fallout 4's character is highly customisable, but players are presented with a default white male character front and centre screen.
      Fallout 4’s player character is highly customisable, but players are first presented with a default white male character front and centre screen.
    • To counter the pre-selection of ideal characters, Star Wars: The Old Republic has both a male and female appearing on the initial screen after you have chosen the Light or Dark Side.  Additionally, the race of these characters and their appearances are randomised from the available options each time you view the screen.  This not only serves to let the player know that there are many options for customisation, but tells them that there is no ideal race or appearance with which to play the game, and whatever the player chooses is right.

      Star Wars: The Old Republic showcases male and female characters with randomised features as the player is selecting a class.
      Star Wars: The Old Republic showcases both female and male characters with randomised features and species as the player is selecting a class.
  3. Terminology

    • It is surprising how frequently terms involving race are thrown around in video games.  While you would never use these in real life, things like “racial attributes” or “racial traits” are common in skill trees and character biographies.  Additionally, in interactions with non-player characters, common racial slurs for that world are thrown around in conversation, such as “half-breed”.  These terms reinforce the idea of separate factions having special qualities or being perceived as “other” for no other reason than race.
    • Recommendation: Try to use terminology identifying qualities as “racial”, or derogatory comments to other races, only when making a point, and look for opportunities where another term can be more appropriately used.
    • Example: In Guild Wars 2, there are sets of skills explicitly called “racial skills” that are determined by which race you choose for your character.  Within the game, the Asura use the term “bookah”, the name of a frightening creature they use to scare their children, as a derogatory name to refer to those they regard as inferior, such as humans and anyone else who isn’t Asura.

      A fully built skill tree for a thief class character of the Norn race, with racial skills such as "Call Owl" and "Become the Wolf" specific to that class.
      A fully built skill tree for a thief class character of the Norn race, with racial skills such as “Call Owl” and “Become the Wolf” specific to that race.
    • While there are other problems with race-specific skills and attributes in game mechanics and character selection, Star Wars: The Old Republic takes a first step by not even calling their characters out by the term “race”, and referring to them separately (as appropriate by the biological term) as different “species”.  What’s more, this species selection does not affect your ability to gain skills or force you on a story/gameplay path, and the species-specific skills are primarily social.  This does not solve all the problems of put-downs in the game, but at least they are directed to different species, and can be taken by players in the sense that a cat would hate a dog and vice versa.

      Star Wars: The Old Republic uses the term "species" rather than "race", and though there are skills associated with each species, they are primarily cultural, having to do with social interactions rather than completion of game objectives using a certain mechanic.
      Star Wars: The Old Republic uses the term “species” rather than “race”, and though there are skills associated with each species, they are primarily cultural (aesthetic rather than mechanic in the game), having to do with social interactions rather than completion of game objectives using a certain mechanic.

I’m not saying any of this is going to disappear overnight, or that using race as the central conflict for a video game is bad.  In fact, I think race in games can be a powerful tool to make players (and developers) think, if only they paid attention to it.  As an accurate abstraction – but an abstraction nonetheless – of real life and of our times, we can never really escape race in video games, but we can stand up and start taking notice of it, and like in real life, that’s going to be what makes the difference.


References Cited

  1. Raj Bhopal, Bruce and John Usher. “The beautiful skull and Blumenbach’s errors: the birth of the scientific concept of race.” The BMJ (British Medical Journal) 335 (2007): 1308. Web. 3 March 2016.
  2. Hadjiargyrou, Michael. “Race is a Social Concept, Not a Scientific One (Op-Ed).” Expert Voices. livescience, 29 August 2014. Web. 3 March 2016.
  3. Wade, Nicholas. “What Science Says About Race and Genetics.” Opinion: The Weekend Read. Time, 9 May 2014. Web. 3 March 2016.
  4. Freeman, David. “The Science Of Race, Revisited.” Huffpost Science. The Huffington Post, 6 July 2015. Web. 3 March 2016.
  5. Poor, Nathaniel. “Digital Elves as a Racial Other in Video Games: Acknowledgment and Avoidance.” Games and Culture 7.5 (2012): 375-396. Web. 3 March 2016.
  6. Sheffield, Brandon. “Moving Forward On Race In Games: Manveer Heir Speaks.” Gamasutra Features. Gamasutra, 5 August 2011. Web. 3 March 2016.
  7. Games for Change. “Rami Ismail:” YouTube. YouTube, 13 May 2015. Web. 3 March 2016.
  8. Game Developers Conference. “We Suck at Inclusivity: How Language Creates the Largest Invisible Minority for Games
    by Rami Ismail
    .” GDC Vault. GDC Vault, 2015. Web. 3 March 2016.
  9. Ismail, Rami. “It sure would be a shame if something happened to your dreams of becoming a game dev..” Rami Ismail. Rami Ismail, 20 January 2016. Web. 3 March 2016.

Additional References

  1. Corneliussen, Hilde G. and Jill Walker Rettburg, eds. Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008. Print.
  2. Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Third Edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007. Print.
  3. Historical race concepts.” Wikipedia. Wikipedia, 20 January 2016. Web. 3 March 2016.