July 21st, 2013


This is not the racism you're looking for.

This is a subject I've been meaning to talk about for a while. Lately I've been reading reports on gaming sites about people claiming that certain games are racist, or promote racist stereotypes. The three biggest examples I can name off the top of my head are Resident Evil 5 being set in Africa, Far Cry 3 being set on an island filled with black people, and Borderlands 2, because it has a thirteen year-old girl who speaks in black lingo.

The only instance where I think the people shouting "racism" have a leg to stand on is Resident Evil 5, though only some of their arguments have merit. The game merely being set in Africa is not, in and of itself, racist, nor is killing black zombies. Killing black zombies who are wearing grass skirts and throwing spears at you, however ... yeah, it's hard not to see some racism there.

With Far Cry 3, the complaints of racism stem from the island's black population being helpless to win their own war, and needing the white protagonist to help them out. So, you mean ... just like every single mission-based video game ever? In any game that has a mission structure, or relies on quests, the populace is collectively helpless and requires the direct intervention of the player to get anything done. One could argue that story-based video games in general are based on this standard. It's extremely common for these games to have countries, military organization, villages, etc, that cannot handle the threat they're facing, and only the protagonist is able to get things done. Every quest giver you meet in an RPG falls under this as well.

That is a necessity for such games, because if everyone could solve their own problems, then there would be nothing for the player to do. So now, because it's black people doing the asking, it's suddenly racist? I don't buy that.

The other argument raised against Far Cry 3 is the character Citra. It's said that her portrayal is racist, with a side helping of sexist, because she has sex with the protagonist and also betrays him. The problem with this mindset is that it assumes that a black person can never be the bad guy in your story, or be in any way shady, or else it's racist. That's just silly. If you truly accept that black people are as diverse as everyone else, then it should go without saying that some are going to be good and some are going to be bad, just like everyone else.

That a character in a story is bad or shady and happens to be black is not racism. It only becomes racist if it's implied that such a character is bad BECAUSE he or she is black.

Which brings us to Borderlands 2. With the previous two examples I could kind of see where the people were coming from, but in this case I find the arguments raised to be entirely without merit. The game has a character named Tiny Tina, a 13-year old demolitions expert who helps the protagonist on his journey. Tiny Tina is ... interesting, to say the least. She is borderline insane, at least bisexual if not lesbian, and is more gifted with demolitions than anyone her age has any right to be. Your first encounter with Tiny Tina involves her skipping merrily around a bandit she'd captured, singing a twisted, made-up nursery rhyme, and then setting off explosives she'd set on the guy while singing "Pop goes the bandit!"

One quest you can do for Tiny Tina involves her torturing and executing a man. If people found anything about Tiny Tina disturbing, I'd assume it would be the fact that a girl her age is not only a cold-blooded killer, but derives a twisted satisfaction from torture and murder. That would be an argument I could actually get behind. Apparently, however, torturing people and blowing them up is just fine, so long as you don't say "badonkadonk" while doing it. If there's one thing about people in general that never ceases to amaze me, it's their backwards priorities.

It is argued that Tiny Tina's use of black lingo is racist, never mind that she never says anything disparaging of black people, and the kind of language she uses has long ago transcended racial barriers and become more or less common among people of all types. If Tiny Tina is racist because she says "bitch ass," then every white rapper and every non-black person who has ever used black slang is in trouble. The idea that certain slang must remain exclusive to black people and can never be used by anyone else is itself a form of racism, because it assigns value and credibility based solely on the color of someone's skin.

What also takes away from their arguments of racism is the fact that Tiny Tina's use of black lingo is not her defining characteristic, nor does she speak that way exclusively. She also speaks in a faux british accent, eats crumpets, and holds tea parties. I suppose she's racist towards British people as well. She also expresses sexual desire towards women, so I guess she's a homophobic character on top of all that.

Another hole in their argument is that it ignores the entire rest of the game and the context found therein. Pandora is full of crazy people, and Tiny Tina is the living embodiment of what such an environment can do to a little girl. Everyone in the game is deranged in some way. Everyone, that is, except for Roland, a main character who actually is black. Roland is perhaps the most normal person in the entire series, comes off as something of a father figure to those who follow his command, and almost single-handedly united Pandora to face a larger threat. Even Marcus, a guy who would gleefully shoot you in the foot for asking for a refund, expresses admiration for Roland. He was also one of the playable protagonists of the first Borderlands game, so it's been demonstrated that he is a battle-worn veteran who is fully capable of holding his own.

Roland is one of the few examples in video games of a black character done right. He is intelligent, competent, and an admirable man. Note that I said "admirable man," not "admirable BLACK man." Roland is such an effective black character because his race does not define him. He's not "the black character." He's an experienced soldier who happens to be black. This puts him above walking cliches like Barret from Final Fantasy VII or Cole from Gears of War.

I find the arguments of racism against Borderlands 2 to be particularly mind-boggling, because Borderlands 2 is perhaps one of the most inclusive games I have ever witnessed. The characters are composed of a mixture of races, and none of them are defined by their race. If you listen to the audio logs, there's even gay people. Though only heard briefly in recorded conversations, their portrayal in those conversations is worlds better than either the total absence or prancing stereotypes we typically see in other games. Tiny Tina herself is attracted to women and is completely at ease with her sexuality. If anything, I think Gearbox should be commended for their work.

What I find most insulting is the people constantly shouting racism for nonsensical reasons. Racism does exist, and we should condemn it when it surfaces, but these people are jumping at shadows. They do not even seem to understand what racism actually is. They look only at superficial things (a white person said "badonkadonk!" Racism!) and are blind to the deeper context which separates true racism from a silly little girl saying "badonkadonk."

There is plenty of reason for people to criticize video games for its portrayal of black people, but this is not it. In their zeal, they're condemning one of the few games that actually got it right. This is particularly sad because this level of paranoia is creating an environment where it's safer to never include black characters at all, for fear of being accused of racism. I don't want that.

For the most part, these are examples of one seeing racism only where one is looking for racism. I think that says more about the people flinging the accusations than it does about the ones being accused.