Fergus Mills searches for the words. It's clear he wants to say this carefully. The 22-year-old from Macon, Ga. is black. His Xbox Live avatar is black. Except that it's not.
Drawing it out of him, Mills says it's because of the avatar's body language. And while Mills doesn't say that's really a white guy on his screen, palette-swapped to look like him, he's pretty clear this representation is not from his neighborhood.
"I can make him look like me, but have you noticed, when he's standing right there, the way he moves? It's ... weird," Mills said. "He puts his hand on his hip. He twirls his head. I've never seen people who act like that."
It's a little thing and the discussion moves on. But it is evocative of just how conscious one becomes of these differences, during a life spent playing as characters who look nothing like you.
And in matters ranging from avatar creation and character representation to the marketing and affordability of games, non-white gamers' experiences speak of a video games community that is, at best, insensitive to their membership in it, sometimes to the point of obliviousness.
Kotaku sought out several non-white gamers, some of whom also write about their experiences, to discuss what being an African-American or Hispanic gamer means. In an American games industry dominated, marketed to and consumed mostly by white males, discussions of race and class can quickly hit a wall, blocked by insistence that the subject is inappropriate for a pursuit that should be colorblind in basis. Ideally, yes, it should. But race matters — it always will — in a different way for video games.
Rafael Sanchez is 23, lives in West Covina, Calif. and has enrolled in graduate school to get a master's degree in computer science. He wants to go to work in game development. If he does, Rafael would be among the 2.5 percent of developers who are Hispanic, according to an International Game Developers Association survey of its membership. A similar percentage of "recognizably Hispanic" characters can be found in video games, according to a study released recently.
Sanchez considers this matter from a game design perspective. "Looking at the casts of fighting games, it really is the only genre where you get a diverse cast," said Sanchez, who writes on the blog Latino Gamer. Many of them begin with a small cast, he said. "As each grows, the initial token, it's a black guy that's thrown in - Eddy Gordo in Tekken, or Zack in Dead or Alive. You usually see the black person first, because they make the most obvious contrast to the white characters on the roster.
Because a "recognizably Hispanic" man is difficult to reduce to visual cues such as black or white skin, "it's harder for [game developers] to think of how to include us," Sanchez says. "And when they do, they can't think of any way to do so other than stereotypes of Mexican wrestlers."
He doesn't say any of this bitterly. "I don't think there's anything malicious behind it; you write what you know," Sanchez explained. "If the game developers and writers are largely white people, I can't really expect them to understand my reality."
The same IGDA survey said its development community is 83 percent white. Blacks comprise 2 percent. Asians make up 7.5 percent, but in a sector with such a strong history across the Pacific, the issue of their representation is notably different from that of black and Latino characters.
Mills, the gamer from Georgia, is resigned to the reality that the characters he plays, reads in comic books and sees on television at best represent him in the values they carry, rather than what they look like. Mills' brother Reginald, nine years older, loved comic books, and parked Fergus in front of the television when the cartoons came on, indoctrinating him to Batman's continuity. Bruce Wayne's upbringing made him "almost like a role model."
"You become so used to it," Mills said. "You turn on the TV, the main character is white. Play a game, the main character is white…You don't think about the underlying meaning of it. It's just what's going on. People really do think of it as the norm; you make a character, he's going to be white."
Why should any of this matter? Dmitri Williams, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, who conducted the study of demographic representation in video games released last month, argues that they represent a market opportunity for publishers.
"If we could get past the issue of racism and think market dynamics, if I'm a young Latino kid, I'll probably be more interested in a game if it has Latino characters," Williams said. "The strong backlash people have is: This is a political correctness issue, and ‘I'm being told how to think and feel,' and ‘I'm being told I'm a racist.' None of that is necessary. You can just look at the numbers and see that some groups should be showing up, in games, in greater numbers."
He points to the cultural impact a generation earlier, when black characters began appearing on television in meaningful roles.
"Any time someone from an under-represented group made that first appearance, it was a big deal for that group," Williams said. "Bill Cosby starring in ‘I Spy' (in 1965), that was a real breakthrough role for African-American actors [on TV]. And it led to whites and African-Americans thinking of themselves in new ways. The simple presence of a group is important."
But if minority gamers represent a market opportunity, game publishers seem slow to pursue it. In fact, another aspect in which non-white gamers feel excluded is in the marketing. If games are pitched or made with their interests or lifestyles in mind, they feel it's usually the next sports title.
"I walk into a GameStop, and they probably think I'm there to buy NBA 2K9 or Madden," Mills said. For the record, his favorite game is Metal Gear Solid 4. He prefers action/adventure games.
Gary Swaby, 23, a Briton of black Caribbean ancestry, living in Luton, England, believes that marketing reinforces, more than anything else, the image of gaming as a predominantly, if not exclusively, white activity. "They're definitely trying to market to the masses, and the white families would be their biggest audience," Swaby said. "Most white people are probably in a better financial space than black families, or those of other cultures, and that would mean they're the market [publishers] are going after. I can't remember seeing a Wii commercial with a black family. Blacks are assumed to be poor. That's definitely an issue that can't be ignored." Swaby said he spends between 400 or 500 pounds ($660-$830) annually on games.
Sanchez, while not endorsing stereotype, does find some truth in his own experience as a Hispanic gamer with not much of a disposable income for games. "I walk into a GameStop, I go straight to the used PS2 rack," he says. With tuition for California State-Los Angeles coming due, the games he's writing about on his site, lately, are older, cheaper games. "If I'm talking to someone with more money, and I mention the last game I reviewed, he'll ask why I'm talking about that instead of some $50 or $60 game. I'm straightforward. These are the games I can afford right now.
"When someone has more money, they are able to be more lighthearted about these things," Sanchez continued. Those of us who can't afford the $50 as easily, we put a lot more thought into our purchases. Before I got my Wii, I had been thinking about it for months. [A friend] was very surprised by how much thought I had put into it."
What could be marketed more to Hispanic gamers? "Well, racing games," said Andreas Almodovar, 28, of Oldsmar, Fla. "We love getting into the car industry, love customizing our cars. I think the gaming industry, like [with] Midnight Club and Need for Speed, have tapped into something. I just wish they would take it a bit further."
The Importance of Being Louis
The Koalition, a site dedicated to the interests of the urban or hip-hop gamer, as they put it, was just cited as the best tech blog by the Black Weblog Awards. Swaby and Mills are contributors. A.B. Frasier, 23, of Newark N.J. is its managing editor, and he says the site was created in part to introduce and expose African-Americans to other types of games, since the community is largely seen as sticking with sports and shooter titles.
But his site's efforts can only go so far. "A lot of kids play games, and I could sit up here and try to introduce these games for the black community, but the truth is it still has to appeal to them. And I think a black character does that," Frasier said. "But it has to be done in a way that everybody can accept."
A good example? Frasier picks Louis from Left 4 Dead. Louis is a black protagonist and a playable character who participates in a way that is not conspicuously or stereotypically "black." He wears a tie. He looks like he stumbled out of the office to start blasting at zombies. Frasier says he even saw Left 4 Dead advertisements on hiphop sites, and says the game has very strong uptake in the black community.
"Valve really did a great job putting a black character in their game," Frasier said. "Not every black guy speaks like Cole Train [in the Gears of War series.]"
Hardwiring a minority character into a game, without stereotype, is a powerful statement, above any game that allows customizable avatars of any ethnicity. As Williams, the researcher, sums it up, "People are probably not going to opt in and say, ‘I've got my squad, but I really need a black guy. I really need a Hispanic guy on it.' They're probably going to create guys who look like themselves."
Game character diversity is not just an issue about the interests of non-whites but about the effect it has on white gamers. Williams brings up the subject of "mainstreaming," something highly debated in communication science. Basically, the theory holds that watching enough images starts to move one's perception toward what they see in the images. Williams, who has studied video games for 10 years and calls himself a hardcore gamer, did a study early in his career that showed that, after playing a game, people said they thought the game world they'd visited was more like their real world. "That's a cultivation effect, and it happens," Williams said. "There's no reason to think it wouldn't happen with race as well."
So the upshot there: The more a white gamer — or a gamer of any ethnicity, frankly — spends time in a homogeneous environment, the cues about race and ethnicity sent by games become even more important. Especially if they're the only or the predominant mass medium being consumed. "Imagine a Latino kid, who lives in an all-Latino neighborhood," Williams said. "If they were only exposed to images of white people through the media, those images will probably have a bigger impact. Contrast that with a Latino who lives in a diverse neighborhood who interacts with white kids all the time. The images from the games won't matter as much."
Walking in Someone's Shoes
Asked what they'd like to see most, all the non-white gamers I talked to have their preferences. Almodovar would love to see Hispanic characters in the Battlefield 2 series and why not? The U.S. military's Hispanic population has grown steadily over the past decade.
Frasier? "Why can't a guy like Hip Hop Gamer be in G4? One 30-minute show, would it really hurt that much?" Such programming would go a long ways to inclusion, he feels. Sanchez, a role-playing game enthusiast, "would love it if there was a Square-produced RPG that had a brown protagonist."
Swaby wants to know "why can't we make a game with a black character, and market it to everybody?" Of course, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas stands as the most notable effort in this regard. The game also is five years old.
But what they don't want more of is pretending that race somehow is not an issue, when it is one in every other mass medium in this multicultural society. The consumption of white-dominated mass media by a diverse consumer base is a legitimate, serious topic.
And if games belong to that equation when the discussion is about their artistic value, or their economic impact or cultural relevance, then they also belong in the discussion of the consumption of white-dominated, high-demand mass media by a broadly diverse consumer base. Holding up one's hand to declare it's not an issue will not make it go away.
"It's because a lot of people haven't been taught it's important," said Frasier, speaking of race and the history of race problems. "A lot of people playing games now are young, and brought up in areas where everybody gets along, so I don't think they see the problem. You have to live the life in the shoes of a person of color to understand where they are coming from."
For certain, he's lived enough lives in the shoes of a white character.