People of Color as Unicorns: Yet Another Look at the Game Industry's Race Issue

Even in a climate within the gaming industry which is becoming more and more accustomed to including people of color, when it comes to player characters, game developers seem to be resistant to including people of color within the narrative of their game worlds. This includes when players are allowed to play as a person of color but then, no NPCs of color appear in-game, as well as when games exclude racial customization for the player character and no NPCs of color appear in-game. With both of these phenomena come harmful messages about how people of color fit into the world and the medium of video games.

The Only PoC in all the Land

When games allow a player to play as a person of color, unless otherwise specified, there's no reason why they should be the only person of color to appear in the video game. It's a creative and ethical failure to create a video game with no people of color, to begin with, but beyond that under this specific set of criteria, it also becomes poor world building.

 It's Maru, the only romancible PoC in Stardew      Credit: Concerned Ape

It's Maru, the only romancible PoC in Stardew      Credit: Concerned Ape

For example, as soon as the creators of Yonder The Cloud Catcher Chronicles gave players the ability to play as a person of color, they established that people of color exist in that world. While I did not play the game to completion, I can say, for the first 5 hours with the game, I did not see a single person of color other than myself. So, somehow I existed but, no other people of color did in, at least, in the first few zones. This is highly improbable and there was no explanation that I could find in-game or in my research online. The suggestion then is, that they simply didn't think about it, which leads to unfortunate blind spots in the video game's lore.

 This is my pixel man Credit: Xseed

This is my pixel man Credit: Xseed

Another example of this comes up in, well, every farming simulator, with customizable skin color, that I can think of. So here's the rub, in Stardew Valley my player character, a Black man, married  Maru, a woman of color, and our baby is white with blonde hair. Not impossible, highly improbable. In Harvest Moon (now Story of Seasons) with the advent of skin color customizations, I was wondering how they would handle the player character's child in regards to skin color but, predictably, no matter what, your child takes after your spouse. So my character with dark skin married Raegar, the moody, white chef, and our kid is lily white. Again, not entirely impossible but, highly improbable and it demonstrates a lack of care when it comes to continuity. Also, I think it's worth mentioning that most of these farm simulator games are extremely white and it was only quite recently that characters of color were in included in these games with any sort of regularity.

Aside from this act, of presenting people of color as relatively rare occurrences, being a prime example of lazy creative work these games also carry with them an insidious little message. It normalizes spaces where there are very few people of color, which can lead to a warped perception of the amount of people of color living in our actual world. Games like these add one more data point to the perception that people of color are exceptional occurrences, we're rarer than unicorns in video games.

The Complete Erasure of People of Color

The second example is the more common of the two phenomena I brought up. This is the creation of entire settings where people of color don't exist. There are almost more games that do this than my brain can wrap around. But I want to start with one game which many critics consider to be the best RPG of all time, The Witcher III, and this is true for all three games by the way. The Witcher is a fantasy world with all of the things you might expect to come from that. There are dragons, griffins, zombies, dwarves, gnomes, elves, halflings, vampires, you name it, and of course, there are no people of color. 

 Credit: CD Projekt

Credit: CD Projekt

You see, even in a game like the Witcher, with several humanoid species, there is absolutely no variation of skin color. They are all categorically white. The reason why I listed the lack of people of color when I listed things you would expect from a fantasy setting, is the fact, that this is a regular occurrence within the genre, especially in video games.  When anyone is pressed at all about the issue the response is usually that there are no people of color because it wouldn't be realistic. This argument was certainly applied to the Witcher multiple times by multiple people.  And it brings up the question, what does that mean in a game which features any number of fantasy creatures? The suggestion is that people of color are less realistic than dragons, dwarves, and zombies.

I don't think I need to pontificate much about why this is a harmful message but, I will for the sake of saying this. To the people, who make these proclamations, the thought of a person of color being an actor in a fantasy world seems impossible, only, because they already have a limited perception of people of color in games. These perceptions come from a storied history of the video game industry's deep issues with race. And they won't recede back into the tar pit, from which they came, without the proactive work of developers in creating more diverse games.

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