Race, Ethnicity, and Gaming Culture

Last time we looked at how women are represented and treated in gaming culture; while that situation poses a challenge, representation of racial and ethnic minorities presents an even bigger one. Looking at surveys taken over the last few years by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), we see Caucasians representing anywhere from 68% to 81% of game developers, with those of Asian descent coming in second with anywhere from 8-18% representation, Latinos are at around 5-7%, and African Americans are all the way down at 1-3%.[1]

Titanfall developer

Obstacles

How did we get such a disparity here? The causes are many, existing both inside and outside of the gaming industry. Gaming can be an expensive hobby, which means that the wealthy are more likely to buy games; they, in turn, are the ones most likely to become game developers themselves once they’ve earned a degree or two. Since racial minority communities tend to be proportionately poorer than predominantly white ones, fewer can afford to buy games in the first place. They also have less educational opportunities or preexisting connections in game development, making it difficult to find jobs when they do acquire the necessary credentials. Derek Manns, a black developer speaking with Newsweek on the issue of racial diversity in gaming, emphasized the importance of knowing people already in the industry, stating that landing a job usually boils down to “Hey, I have a friend who can do this, and he’s a good guy.”

Globalization also plays into this challenge; most countries with enough wealth and political stability to sustain a high-tech field like gaming are the predominantly white nations in Europe and North America. The hardships faced by nations in Africa and Latin America usually leave them unable to realize their potential. This means fewer people starting studios in these nations or moving to the West to find gaming jobs.

While many of the barriers discussed so far center on economic factors, it’s worth noting that cultural obstacles exist, too. The stigma of pursuing a career in an oddball field like gaming is easier to overcome when you hail from a heavily individualistic community, which many white people do. Those from minority communities, on the other hand, have a different experience. Kish Hirani, the chairman of a UK organization that seeks to attract more ethnic minorities to the game industry, highlights the barrier that he sees coming from within his own Indian cultural background:

Generally video games still suffer from the label of not being a “proper job” to a lot of people.  But when you reflect this into ethnic minority communities it is amplified.  Being from an Indian family, picking a career in the video games industry can be complete no-no.  Luckily for me, I was head-strong.  I did what I wanted to do.  But not many people can escape family pressure.

Brazilian flag

The Brazilian gaming market is one of the few bright spots in Latin America

Unseen and Unwelcome

Given that lack of diversity in video game development, it’s no surprise that minority characters in games are much rarer than white characters. Most lead characters, especially, tend to be white. The minorities that do appear often fall into stereotypes, lacking the variety and nuance that you see in their Caucasian counterparts. In fact, the most consistent place to find ethnic minorities in games is in sports titles like FIFA or Maddengames that don’t explore the depth of experiences or emotions that many others do on a regular basis. All of us as human beings are naturally drawn to those who are most like us; just as we’ve noted when looking at how women are portrayed in games, people from ethnic minority communities won’t feel as welcome in gaming culture if they rarely see anyone who looks or acts like them appearing in games.

Racial and ethnic minorities also suffer from abuse onlineanother similarity to the situation facing women. Racial slurs comprise a big part of the toxicity problem that is all too common in multiplayer games, which discourages ethnic minorities from plugging in their microphone or making custom characters with skin color similar to their own. This, in turn, feeds into the cycle of minorities feeling unwelcome in gaming, and thus hesitant to become developers themselves, and so one part of gaming culture bleeds into other aspects. (Check out Maurice Pogue’s Blerdvision 2016 article for some great examples of how often black characters are stereotyped in games, such as Mike Bison/Balrog in Street Fighter, as well the potential for positive examples, too.)

Final Fantasy XV wallpaper

Japanese RPG Final Fantasy XV has been a phenomenal success across the globe

Positive Signs

Having identified these challenges, it’s worth noting some of the positive ways that gaming culture embraces minority communities, and vice versa. White western gamers fell in love with Japanese video games and culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Anime-style RPGs like Final Fantasy, 2D fighting games like Street Fighter, and ninja-themed action games like Shinobi all drew heavily from Japanese culture, and Caucasian audiences ate it up despite their foreign origin. These games inspired the young white males of the era to become game developers themselves, and the game mechanics and art styles pioneered by the Japanese influence their work to this day; Dust: An Elysian Tail and the upcoming Ghost of Tsushima serve as a couple good examples of this, to say nothing of the scads of western-made “mascot platformers” such as Crash Bandicoot that followed in Nintendo’s and SEGA’s footsteps of Mario and Sonic.

Of course, the Japanese enjoy a good economy and stable government; this has made it possible for them to cultivate a thriving game industry with massive, Japanese-owned publishers that can export their products to the rest of the world. Developers in other non-white nations still face daunting economic and political barriers, and as a result, these teams tend to be small and independent. Fortunately, the rise of the indie games market has provided an opportunity for small developers from these countries—and minority indie devs from majority white countries—to showcase their games and culture. Never Alone, a game made by an indigenous-owned developer in Alaska, incorporates aspects of Inupiaq culture into their storytelling, while Mulaka takes a similar approach with the culture of the Tarahumara people of northern Mexico. Cameroonian developer Kiro’o Games incorporates traditional African art and storytelling into their 2D hack-n-slash action game Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan.

Never Alone

Even some majority white companies have pushed for some innovation in diversity. Valve have featured prominent minority characters like Rochelle (L4D2) and Alyx Vance (Half-Life 2) in their games. Telltale’s The Walking Dead games star black and Hispanic lead characters in each season. And several of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games feature minority characters, including Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which also features a special game mode that lets players wander through the game’s recreation of Ancient Egypt at their leisure and learn about the land’s history.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

Mixed Feelings

In some ways, it’s difficult for me to feel very optimistic about overlooked people groups finding their place in gaming. The high cost of gaming is a barrier for many nations, and the cultural obstacles that have discouraged ethnic minorities from participating are unlikely to disappear in the near future. Yet as technology has advanced into the developing world, we’re seeing more ethnicities and cultural backgrounds represented in gaming. Hopefully this trend continues, inspiring new generations of game developers from across the globe to showcase their talent and creativity. And I hope that Christians will see this as an opportunity to learn more about the many people with whom God has called us to share the gospel.

This piece was originally published on Michael’s personal blog, The Heartland Gamer, and has been republished here with his permission and a few minor addendums as requested by the editor.

[1] 2015 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/collection/CB31CE86-F8EE-4AE3-B46A-148490336605/IGDA%20DSS%202015-SummaryReport_Final_Sept15.pdf

2016 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/files__2016_dss/IGDA_DSS_2016_Summary_Report.pdf

2017 Survey: https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.igda.org/resource/resmgr/2017_DSS_/!IGDA_DSS_2017_SummaryReport.pdf

Michael Mendis

Michael Mendis loves to discuss gaming, Christian faith, and how the two interact. In addition to his main hobby of playing video games, he also enjoys watching movies, anime, and baseball.

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