The definitive element of a videogame is the player’s agency within the game’s world. Instead of “viewers,” games have “players," and the player makes dozens of choices every minute that directly shape the experience: Will Mario sneak around the turtle monster, or will he jump on it until it dies? That sense of control over the protagonist can give the narrative of a videogame much greater impact than that of any conventional form of storytelling.
But with that agency comes an illusion of freedom--which is dangerous. The player is not really “free,” since their actions are limited to the options created by the game designers, and a big part of good game design is to make the player forget that any other options exist. No one wonders why Mario doesn’t punch a turtle, because such options don’t exist in that world. Mario solves problems by jumping on them--that’s his schtick.
And that’s the artistry of game design: bringing the player to accept and solve problems within the rules of a fictitious world. While you can passively enjoy a movie or book without really “buying” its logic, refusing to think within the logic of a videogame means you literally can’t play it: If you try to punch your way through Mario Bros., you’ll just die.
This is a huge power, and game designers need to be careful with the situations they place their players in and the options they present as solutions--but they aren’t. As I wrote in an article for Cracked.com (7/18/12), “Five Prejudices Video Games Can’t Seem to Get Over,” many archetypal videogame problems have been shaped so that available options reward closed-minded thinking, misogyny and racism.
A classic gaming trope is customizing your avatar--the character that serves as the player's stand-in in the game. It started with Dungeons & Dragons, which allowed you to choose the "race" of the game character: the magical and dextrous Elf, the sturdy and surly Dwarf or the happy-middle-ground Human, among others. That and similar decisions made the experience unique, as the player’s new identity changed how they were able to solve the challenges they faced in the game.
But this archetypal game mechanic can be problematic, as when Bethesda Softworks applied it to their Elder Scrolls series, which takes place in a world populated by stand-ins for real-life races and ethnicities.
Elder Scrolls: Skyrim features the option to choose to be one of the “Redguard,” a dark-skinned people whose culture closely resembles the Moors, and receive an “Adrenaline Boost” perk to augment their ability to run and jump beyond that of other races--which reflects obvious stereotypes about African-American athleticism. Earlier games in this same series also gave the Redguard a penalty to intelligence, which meant that playing as a dark-skinned character was mutually exclusive from playing as a smart character, forcing you to “role-play” a racist stereotype. White characters faced no such limitations.
Basically, from the moment you build your character through a gaming experience that can last well over 100 hours, every choice faced will have to be made within the context of a world where the racists are right and prejudices are justified. To put it lightly, that’s an uncomfortable fiction to accept--or at least it should be.
Misogynist attitudes are equally rampant, reflected in the recent trend of including relationship “minigames” within bigger titles: While you’re saving the galaxy from an alien invasion, you can also get laid if you play your cards right. These minigames function the way all games function--by giving you obstacles and rewarding you for overcoming them--so a relationship minigame puts the player in a situation where time and effort are rewarded with sex. In the real world, this is precisely the motivation behind a culture of sexual entitlement and rape.
For instance, take Sucker Punch Production’s Infamous 2, where the hero Cole McGrath is rewarded with one of two women for his actions: If he plays as a hero, he gets an Asian-American woman as his love interest, but if he plays as a villain, he gets an African-American woman. In either case, at the end of the game, the woman he is “rewarded” with turns against him and must be killed, placing a direct conflict between the player’s desire to complete the game and their desire not to murder their love interest.
Or take Jack in Mass Effect 2, developed by the software company Bioware (a company that, it should be mentioned, has created some of the best-developed non-heterosexual and female characters in contemporary gaming). Jack is a female soldier suffering from severe Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The character you play, Shepard (a fully customizable starship captain), can choose to help her overcome her past suffering--but the only option the game gives you to help her involves having heterosexual sex with her.
If you choose to play the game as a woman, or choose to pursue sex with another female character, it is impossible for Jack to recover. The ultimate reward for manipulating Jack into falling in love with you is a profoundly uncomfortable scene where your in-game counterpart has sex with her while she cries.
These situations are not outliers. Every action in a video game relies on a simple series of actions from a player: “see object,” “identify object,” “react.” The more complicated that process, the less fun the game is. As Level Up!: The Guide to Great Game Design (p. 314) explains: “Within your game, you can create groups of enemies based on shape, color, physical attributes.... They need to look different at a glance. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. They’re easy for the viewer to understand. Don’t be afraid to use them.”
This is why early games like Pac-Man featured fruit as powerups and ghosts as enemies: They were familiar images that could be easily communicated by the rudimentary technological resources then available.
But as advancements in graphics and gameplay demand that games communicate complex human interactions as efficiently as they once communicated fruit, this once innocuous approach has raised serious problems. When the problem is “how do I make the player immediately feel ill will towards this character,” prejudices are the easy solution--particularly prejudices that are presumed to be shared by the white, heterosexual male target audience.
Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty: World at War features several levels set in the Pacific Theater of World War II, where the player fights Japanese soldiers. In an interview, the military advisor for that game says he told the developers that the Japanese at that time were on the defensive and hiding in bunkers instead of “running at the Marines” (MTV Multiplayer, 8/19/08), but the game itself depicts them doing exactly that. They even shout “banzai!” to announce their presence, a caricature that serves to remind players who they’re shooting at even more quickly.
The simplest explanation for why they ignored reality is that the level comes early in the game, and the difficulty has to be low to draw the gamer into the world, and screaming people who don’t shoot back are easier to fight than people using strategy and biding their time in bunkers. But the result is that to be good at the level, you have to (hopefully temporarily) train yourself to react to cultural signifiers of Japan with violence.
Stopping all of this from getting noticed is that we have a generation of young gamers that are being brainwashed into an attitude of exceptionalism: People say “it’s a videogame” the way they say “it’s just a joke” or “she/he is from a different time.”
This is why media critic Anita Sarkeesian faced such a vicious reaction (including a homemade videogame that invited players to "punch this bitch in the face"--Feminist Frequency, 7/1/12) when she expanded her critique from film to videogames, even though she was making almost the same points (New York Times, 8/1/12). This is also why professional gamer Aris Bahktanian said that “sexual harassment is part of [gaming] culture” (Giant Bomb, 2/28/12) as an actual defense of threats of sexual assault that occurred at a professional gaming tournament.
Part of the problem is that, unlike any other medium, the “narrative” of a game is informed from two unique directions: the story, which is what characters say and how things are justified, and the gameplay, which is what you actually do when controlling the actions of the player character. The thematic conflict that can occur between these two aspects is what game designer Clint Hocking called ludonarrative dissonance (Click Nothing, 10/7/07), a phenomenon that has created problems for people trying to interpret whether a game is racist because they don’t know what factors to take into account.
A great example is Resident Evil 5, where the gameplay is made mostly of a well-muscled white American shooting wave after wave of sick, deranged Africans, but the story focuses on the white-controlled pharmaceutical company exploiting the poverty-stricken Africans. Some of the loudest voices in the community rejected the accusation of racism because of this nuance (IGN, 2/10/09), but that argument ignores the unique realities of the medium: Though the story portrays the Africans as exploited victims, the only impact that has on the gameplay is providing a justification for you to kill black men, characterized by savagery and disease, over and over again. This is the ostensibly fun part of the game that the story exists to frame.
Though the “gamer” demographic continues to grow more diverse (Mashable, 5/1/12; New American Media, 9/13/11), the industry itself remains dominated by straight, white males (NPR, 3/15/10) and rarely drifts away from the male gaze (Gamasutra, 6/29/12). Like countless “boys’ clubs” of the past, the gaming community is having trouble growing out of the prejudices and bigotry that informed its inception.
At the same time, major developers like BioWare (GayGamer, 3/25/11) have unequivocally defended their inclusion of non-heterosexual characters in their games, and discussing race, gender and sexuality in videogames has steadily become more and more “cool” in the community--see Yahtzee Croshaw, a comedy writer and arguably the most famous game critic in the world, discussing the gender politics of Lollipop Chainsaw (Escapist, 6/27/12).
Gaming is the quintessential art form for a new generation, and developers need to do more to become more conscious of the values they’re promoting.
J.F. Sargent (@JFSargent on Twitter) is a workshop moderator and frequent contributor for the comedy website Cracked.com. He is currently writing a video game for Vehemence Studios.