I was on Twitter the other day when I came across a really amazing document put together by @castpixel (and others) which sought to take a look at racial representation within the realm of pixel sprites in gaming. I noticed a couple things right off the bat, firstly, there are actually quite a few people of color depicted in pixel sprites across quite a few different types of roles and that was actually surprising. I admit when I think about representation in the AAA industry, I often think about the current standards which are rendered, normally, in 3-D. Secondly, many of these characters are unplayable and third of all, there are some deep issues with the types of portrayals here, as they rely on stereotypes. Let's get into it.
I've tried to think about dark skinned characters in games more than a couple of times since I've started this blog and I don't remember many of these characters and it's not because I haven't encountered them or even that my memory is that bad. I've done research, looked at lists of characters of color in video games where some of these characters listed don't appear. Even for the dark skinned characters in iconic series like, Punch-Out, Marvel vs Capcom, and Pokemon the place of these dark-skinned characters is marginal. I don't believe more than three of these playable characters listed are the default characters mainly, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Shantae. The other playable characters are one in an otherwise white roster. If you didn't want to play as that character you could avoid them entirely. it's often one dark skinned character on an entire 10+ character roster. That ability to ignore the person of color on a character roster is a privilege for white players, there's never an option to only play people of color unless you limit yourself to play one or two characters. Gamers of color are forced to pick white characters. Moreover, this list exemplifies a huge issue in representation in video games, period.
Something that castpixel notes and also I noticed was that, very few of these characters of color are women. As per usual with these types of things, women of color are erased. Because of course, women can't also be people of color, right? This underlines a greater issue with the ongoing diversity initiative in the gaming community, there's a tendency to separate identities as though people don't exist as multi faceted people. It's not adequate. As a young Black Girl I wasn't usually given the option to play as a Black Girl most times. I had to choose between being Black and being a Woman. That's persisted even to now. It's as though I don't exist. And when Women of color are considered they're often exoticism, like Elena from Street Fighter, Black Rose from Project X Zone, Storm and others. Or they are completely deprived of sexuality appearing in adherence to the mammy stereotype. But the overarching theme with these women of color is that even in a way that exceeds the exotification of men of color, women are exotified to an an absolutely grotesque degree. Their involvement with the occult or hearkening to indigenous cultures is constant, even when it doesn't fit the exotic is shoe horned into the game.
I could really go on forever here, about the islamaphobia, hyper physicality, and the sheer amount of these sprites which are sports related but, really I think the post speaks for itself. And I am going to leave on a different note. For all of the issues in representation exemplified in this era of gaming, people of color were actually being portrayed. In the translation into into this modern era of gaming, starting in the 2000's, how is it possible that the amount of people of color appearing in video games could reduce so drastically? And even now, games reliant on pixel sprites are more diverse than 3-D rendered games. Well, here's one theory and it comes from listening again and again to the way developers think.
I just wrote about how Persona 5 director, Katsura Hashino said that a female option "wasn't worth" putting in. He was confident that his game would succeed without that option and there were other "more valuable" things he could add. Turn the clock back a few years ago to 2014 when Assassin's Creed director, Alex Amancio said in an Polygon Interview: "It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work." He was also confident that his game would succeed without allowing players to be a woman. I think it's fair to say that developers have a lot on their plates but, the repeated demonstrable fact is that, they do not think of diversity as a must. Therefore, when the intensive work of creating a different choice of protagonist comes in, repetitively the decision in these large franchises has been to not. When it comes to sprites, it's a lot easier. But I don't mean to excuse their reasoning. Though diversity hasn't been made a must in the past, moving forward, it must be.