Over the past week or so, it seems like the issue of race in gaming has been picking up steam. I've come across two great posts on the subject, one from Paul Tassi and a sardonic take over at the Play Like a Girl blog.
More pertinently, an illuminating study from the USC Annenberg School of Communication revealed that minorities—and particularly Latinos—are woefully underrepresented among protagonists and other characters in leading video games.
Certainly, we could have assumed as much. We see black characters and Latinos in games from time to time, but they're usually stuck in homogeneous circumstances (often relegated to "ghettoized" supporting characters, "street" roles, sports figures, or the equivalent of cinematic "extras").
Paul Tassi's aforementioned post has to do with specific charges of racism, but he brings up an interesting exception to the concept of games that relegate specific races to the lead roles: RPGs and other customizable games like Mass Effect, which allow the player to create a player of whatever race (and sometimes whatever type of species) he/she desires.
Upon reading this, I thought back immediately to African American, Asian, and Latino-looking characters that I had created in games like Mass Effect, Oblivion, Fallout 3, and various MMORPGs. We often hear about gender-switching in online environments (whether you're talking about online games or common chat rooms), but not so much about race-switching.
Granted, you generally don't become a member of that race in the game because, although we like to think that our created game characters are liberated from preconceptions, they lack the cultural referents that truly makes for what we consider to be, for example, a complex African American human being who originates from the impoverished South... or an Ivy League-educated Latino, perhaps. True, individuals are individuals... but there are cultural experiences that are shared across social strata and races in the real world, and these are simply not present in the imagined spaces of games. For instance, a black character created in Saints Row 2 will have much the same narrative and imagined cultural experiences as a white British character. (Of course, given the sheer amount of lampooning and stereotyping present in the Saints Row games, that may not be the best example.)
That said, I also remembered that while I never consciously wanted to stereotype a particular character based on race, I do think my characters of different races were created that way, not simply because I felt like experimenting with random facial settings, but because I wanted to truly imbue that character with a unique identity that was either unexpected or significant inside the game itself. For example, when I created an evil, old black female necromancer in Oblivion, it wasn't that I had a cultural stereotype in my head of what an older black woman would be like inside a fantasy world, but rather because in my own imagined version of the game world, it was plausible that a series of circumstances could lead to her being a different color, being feminine, being evil... all for different reasons. With regard to race, my character wasn't what we consider "black" so much as she was "one particular black person in my Oblivion world," in which there were just as many noble or morally ambiguous black characters or Asian-style characters. In other words, that access to different races and the ability to roleplay as them was a way of letting myself get even more lost in the game world... and by extension, I was able to identify more and more with that skin color, whether the character was good or bad.
Tassi himself provides the example of creating a "black lesbian" in Mass Effect. Certainly, his character wasn't meant to be representative of real-life black lesbians, and the all the cultural implications that come with that identification or label (and this very well may be problematic for some cultural critics). Rather, the character was most likely a black lesbian by Mass Effect's open and pliable definition.
So I open this up to my readers to share their own experiences with similar character creation systems: