Today, there's no shortage of games featuring a customizable protagonist. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Divinity Original Sin, Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem, among many others, with little effort you can play through the game as a cis woman or in some cases, if the developers are feeling particularly sassy, a person of color. Yay diversity! Right?
Well I mean, better than nothing but:
Now, I'm about to draw a fine line so I don't want there to be any confusion. Under no circumstance am I saying a person couldn't or wouldn't be able to fulfill the roles of any of the protagonists I've mentioned, and beyond, based upon being a person of color or a woman (or both god forbid).
That would be ridiculous. Now what I am saying is that your standard fare, customizable video game protagonist is a white (or extra pallid) person and usually a dude. There I said it. And it doesn't actually take much of a leap to get there if you pay attention to the ways in which these games are first presented. Both in the promotional materials developed to market the game and also the default settings for how the protagonist is first presented in-game.
To start out, let's talk about box art right quick. I'm going to use Mass Effect as an example, because it demonstrates my point very well. Take a gander if you would at the entire series' box art. White bread, white bread and more white bread. Around the release of Mass Effect 3, Bioware got dragged over the persistence of their white cis-man driven ad campaign. In response Bioware decided that they would print a alternative cover on the backside of the insert featuring Woman Shepard. And well, golly, Bioware learned from their past mistake with Mass Effect Andromeda's box art which featured a man with a mask obscuring his face (Secret white bread).
Now, I don't usually care about box art because, typically, I don't even keep the boxes but, promotional materials actually can tell us a lot about the intentions and the assumptions that the developers are making about what will sell their game. In Mass Effect's case you can tell a a couple of things:
A. Bioware meant to associate the Mass Effect series with the Man Shepard.
B. That they believed Man Shepard would sell more games than Woman Shepard.
Because of this heavy skew towards Man Shepard, Woman Shepard became a secondary option. As such the dialogue featured in the game and the physicality of the character became primarily associated with Man Shepard. Woman Shepard simply followed the same motions as he did. As such, Woman Shepard wasn't really her own character. She was just Man Shepard with a bow. In Anita Sarkeesian's series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, she describes this phenomena with the term, "The Ms. Male Character", she also gives the statistic that only 18%-20% of players chose to play as a woman in Mass Effect 3. It seems people truly favored Man Shepard.
Meanwhile these games were lauded as a step in the right direction for diversity in video games, by breaking barriers by "allowing" a woman to participate in a role traditionally associated with a man. Only, it seems like a pretty low percentage of folks took it upon themselves to play as a woman. Bioware, from the beginning, worked in the service of presenting their game as though the intended experience was to play through as Man Shepard. When this work resulted in the majority of players choosing to play as men, they took this as proof that they were right. It's a truly remarkable case of confirmation bias. From here, I could go on about this, but I've talked a while already and I don't feel it necessary to belabor this point. It has been talked about at length already. You can do a Google search and spend the afternoon reading through the storied debate about who is the "one true Shepard". And if you're interested, I suggest you do. It's good stuff.
What I feel needs talking about is the issue of race in character customization. Bioware actually releases statistics about what choices people made in their games. But not even one mentioned the racial breakdown of the Shepards and Hawkes. Moreover as I sifted through the many forum discussions, and articles on the issues of Man Shepard vs Woman Shepard I noticed that, not even the community seemed too terribly concerned about the issue of race. This seems to be a theme in the gaming community. For years people have been so focused on getting white women into the mix, that people of color and especially women of color have fallen to the wayside. It's to the point where much of the time, the ability to change the protagonist's skin color is absent and if it is included, it feels like an afterthought.
Case in point, if you take a look at the default protagonists in these types of games, what kind of faces do you see? Excluding, of course, games where the default faces on the customization screen are randomized.
Delivered straight to you from the Caucasian mountains, some mo' white folks. And really this is the best it gets cause at least you can be a person of color if you want. Though the option to play a Brown or Black person rarely comes with anything resembling typical ethnic features but, that's a story for later. The option to change skin tone is somewhat remarkable on its own, given that it's just, not that common of a feature. There are a plethora of games out there that allow for many types of customization but fail to allow you to be a person of color.
It's an issue which is symptomatic of a more serious sickness within the Gaming Industry, which is, the lack of diversity in the rooms where these decisions are being made. It's hard to believe that if there were enough people involved in these decisions, who had personally felt the adverse effects of poor diversity politics in video games, that the poor handling of diversity would be such a prevalent problem. Because it's not a difficult fix. It just takes the wherewithal to know diversity is an issue which must be reckoned with in a more responsible way.
And until it is, I will not be giving out gold stars for mediocrity. I won't be impressed by "The Ms.Male Character" and especially by the white person in blackface. Especially when in this whole article I haven't even began to approach the issues of trans-exclusion and heteronormativity which the gaming industry is utterly saturated with. (It's coming though.)
Photo Credit: Bioware, Bethesda, Larian Studios, Gamefreak