There's A Latinx Void At The Heart Of Video Games

A still from Life Is Strange 2
Image: Square Enix

I have been in mourning. Loss has followed me for weeks now, and I have not been able to give it a name.

It’s been almost two weeks since the twin shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. The former, in particular, has troubled me, as its formless tragedy has taken on the shape of reported news: How the suspected shooter had both reportedly written a manifesto and confessed to the police that he was specifically targeting Mexicans, echoing white nationalist rhetoric. How he killed 22 people, including Jordan and Andre Anchondo, who died protecting their infant son. How that son was then used for a brazen photo opportunity with a smiling president.

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I’m Latin-American, alive during a moment in American history where hostility towards people of my ethnic background is being stoked, encouraged, permitted. Where men seek to gun down people like me, and the government rounds us up, indifferent to the point that they regularly apprehend citizens. In the wake of a staggering hate crime against Latinx people, it’s hard not to go numb. Just shut down, you know? I try to keep moving, to not let that numbness take over. Art helps. It may seem foolish to talk about entertainment during a moment of crisis, but one of art’s many functions is to help process real human pain and tragedy, to help individuals sort themselves out as they find a way to move forward.

Latinx art abounds: I found music I could listen to, books I could read, movies I could watch as I put myself back together to face the world and do my part. Here’s what messes me up: I didn’t know where to look for that in video games.

It’s not that there aren’t spaces, people working towards making video games a more distinctly diverse place. There’s the Game Developers of Color Expo, the Indie Game Developers Association’s Latinx In Gaming special interest group; there are podcasts and fan communities for people involved in this medium to find each other. Latinx folks are out there.

Yet the video games that have broken into the wider public consciousness—in the biggest games and the biggest studios—do not seem to care all that much. On its biggest stages, the games industry still hasn’t quite figured out what it means by words like “inclusion” or “diversity.” Executives tout initiatives built around the idea that “video games are for everyone,” but it’s a marketer’s idea of “everyone”: amorphous, anodyne, and cold, akin to visiting EPCOT and calling it a world tour.

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Image: Disney

In the games industry’s endless quest to appeal to everyone, to not turn away a single customer—hateful ones included—it hasn’t really welcomed anyone. Called them by name and made them feel at home. If Disney, an entertainment company that is nothing if not ruthless in pursuing universal hits, can produce Coco, Black Panther, and Bao—each an authentic expression of specific cultures filtered through the lens of fiction—it’s baffling that big-budget games have barely tried.

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Playing a video game often means I have to leave my identity at the door, or give up on the part of me that cares about hearing Spanish on the train, about knowing where to get an empanadilla or recognizing Bad Bunny booming out someone’s window. Instead, I must become something neutral: Guardian, Warden, Champion, Soldier. Of what? Damned if I know.

It’s true that mainstream, big budget video games have improved by leaps and bounds in the kinds of people they depict. Their sci-fi futures are diverse; Anthem, Destiny, and Warframe are full of brown faces, with art styles that heavily reference cultures from around the world. Call of Duty games have quietly depicted some of the most diverse casts in blockbuster games, sometimes allowing players to choose between a male or female protagonist and including characters from all kinds of backgrounds. Play a big release like Days Gone and, although the protagonist is white, you’ll find a world populated by people of color, like Manny the mechanic, nurse Addison Walker, or your former partner Rikki Patil.

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These are good things, but being present is not the same as being seen. This is what people mean when they say diverse games are nice, but diverse studios are better. It’s more important to have games made by people from different backgrounds who are empowered to make decisions that are felt in finished games.

Image: Electronic Arts
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This is usually the part of an essay like this where the writer calls for an industry to “do better,” but I am not convinced that anything better will be done. I’ve written about this before, but to be Latinx in America is to be ignored. You are perpetually a talking point in someone else’s argument: Right-wing hysteria over migrants. Left-wing lust for votes. White opinions about the authenticity of a restaurant. Semi-regular debates over the service industry. Video games are not immune to this deep-seated ignorance.

It can fuck you up. Make you want to check out. Why care about a video game industry that doesn’t care about me? Or support other people like me?

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I feel for the bold independent developers from marginalized communities, the queer, brown, neuroatypical creators laboring in the shadow of video games as a corporate monolith, working to prove that the medium is not limited by its biggest and loudest voices. And then I also feel for the Latinx folks who play games and have to figure out every day how to navigate a world where dipshits might yell at them for speaking Spanish. I feel for the Latinx people who, in the wake of the biggest hate crime to specifically target us, had to watch as the national media erased us from the story, turning it into another in a long list of scuffles the President has had with the public. There aren’t many places to look if you want some semblance of hope. Even fewer if you look to video games.

Like I said, I have been mourning.

Do not misunderstand. I do not need video games to merely adopt the trappings of my world. To go no further than providing a perfunctory reminder of who I am. To add a character my shade of brown to Overwatch, or to infuse soundtracks with Latin trap. What I ask is something simpler: just tell me why I shouldn’t leave.

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